Your unconscious bias is showing, Kevin Roberts

Your unconscious bias is showing, Kevin Roberts

Saatchi & Saatchi's Kevin Roberts exposed an unconscious bias with his controversial comments about gender diversity, but the debate is far from over, says the founder of Creative Equals.

Kevin Roberts, Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman and head coach at the advertising agency’s parent company Publicis Groupe, just exposed his gender bias in a very public way in an interview with Business Insider on Friday.

He thinks the gender diversity debate is "over". The issue isn’t really there, he said. Now he’s on leave.

Maurice Lévy, chief executive of Publicis Groupe, said the company does not tolerate anyone who does not value the importance of inclusion. He added: "The Publicis Groupe works very hard to champion diversity and will continue to insist that each agency’s leadership be champions of both diversity and inclusion."

Lévy is right: creating a level playing field starts at the top of senior management. Diversity starts at the top, demonstrated by having women present on the senior leadership team.

That includes having senior females in creative leadership roles.

But what Roberts articulated is what some think.

Is this an issue here in London? The statistics say it all. Recruitment consultancy Propel’s recent "Digital insights and salary" survey shows the gender pay gap in the digital creative sector is approximately 18%, widening as the roles become more senior.

On the creative floor, just 24.6% of creative departments are staffed by women, and 12-14% are in creative directorship roles (yet 85% of all purchasing decisions are made by women). When it comes to female creative partners or chairs on company boards you can count the female chief creative officers on one hand.

In the interview Roberts went on to say: "[Women] are going, ‘Actually guys, you don’t understand: I’m way happier than you.’ Their ambition is not a vertical ambition; it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy.’"

We’ve talked to hundreds of female creatives over the last year with a "vertical ambition". According to a data crunch of the Cannes Lions' awards archive by Razorfish and Contagious magazine, "Cracking the Code of Creativity", the amount of women in senior roles entering awards has fallen over the last decade from 9.9% to 9.8%. So unless we tackle this unconscious bias, make sure there’s a well-supported talent pipeline, and create frameworks for women to stay and thrive (particularly around maternity) – this story continues. 

The fact is diverse teams, as demonstrated by The Great British Diversity Experiment, produce richer, deeper creative work. That’s why agencies need to look at how they communicate and are relevant to the most informed talents in the market today. There is no doubt with gender balanced teams we create better working cultures and be more relevant to our target audiences. Equal representation makes clear business and creative sense.

When Creative Equals works with agencies, we start at the top, working with those senior management positions to create real, lasting change. We help all managers recognise their bias, embed diversity into the HR policy, review their working culture – and actively bring diversity into leadership roles.

However, there’s one thing we agree with Roberts on: there’s been enough debate. It’s time for real, actionable change.

Together, let’s roll up our sleeves, invest in female talent and create real pathways to leadership roles. We believe with our industry wide charters – and a robust plan of how to do it – we’ll create change at speed and scale. 

And when women make up 50% of creative director roles, then, Kevin Roberts, the debate will be over.    

Ali Hanan is the founder of Creative Equals, a movement to encourage greater gender diversity in the creative industry. To join, contact

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