Kevin Roberts, executive chairman of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, has resigned after suggesting women don't want top jobs in the industry. (Anthony Devlin/PA via AP)

In an interview published last week, veteran Saatchi & Saatchi advertising executive Kevin Roberts said he doesn't spend "any time" on gender issues and the "f---ing debate is all over" when it comes to gender diversity in his industry.

He very quickly learned it wasn't.

Those comments and others, which Roberts made in an interview with Business Insider published Friday, sparked a furious uproar on social media and within an industry that's facing recent scandals about sexist behavior. By Wednesday morning, Roberts, the chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and "head coach" at the agency's parent company, Publicis Groupe, announced he would resign, moving up a planned retirement from May of next year to Sept. 1.

In an emailed statement about his resignation, Roberts said that "I have inadvertently embarrassed Saatchi & Saatchi and Publicis Groupe" and that "I have expressed my regret and apology to the companies for the furor my remarks and language stimulated, and I extend this to colleagues, staff and clients."

Roberts, who recently wrote a book called "64 Shots: Leadership in a Crazy World," and is known as something of a guru in the industry after his 2004 book "Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands," said in the statement that " 'Fail Fast, Fix Fast, Learn Fast' is a leadership maxim I advocate. When discussing with Business Insider evolving career priorities and new ways of work/life integration, I failed exceptionally fast."

As part of the remarks, Roberts said diversity is worse in other industries, such as financial services. He also made comments that seemed to generalize the goals that young women set for their careers.

He put it this way: "We have a bunch of talented, creative females, but they reach a certain point in their careers ... 10 years of experience, when we are ready to make them a creative director of a big piece of business. And I think we fail in two out of three of those choices because the executive involved said: 'I don't want to manage a piece of business and people, I want to keep doing the work.' "

The remarks prompted Publicis Groupe to place Roberts on leave Saturday. "It is for the gravity of these statements that Kevin Roberts has been asked to take a leave of absence from Publicis Groupe effective immediately," Publicis chairman Maurice Lévy said in a statement. "Promoting gender equality starts at the top, and the Groupe will not tolerate anyone speaking for our organization who does not value the importance of inclusion." The parent company issued a news release Wednesday acknowledging Roberts's resignation. A spokeswoman declined to comment further.

The incident shows how critical the issue of diversity has become in an industry known for its "Mad Men" past, especially as it faces new scandals, such as a recent discrimination lawsuit filed by a female executive against former J. Walter Thompson CEO Gustavo Martinez. (Martinez has denied the allegations.) In March, Publicis's Lévy had to clarify comments he himself made at a conference in Miami about the Martinez suit, which some interpreted as suggesting gender issues do not remain a widespread problem in the industry.

In remarks published Friday, Roberts said the industry is out of touch with what young women — and men, the article notes — set for their careers, saying "their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it's this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy." They are saying " 'we are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men judge yourself by.' I don't think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem. I'm just not worried about it because they are very happy, they're very successful and doing great work."

He may have been trying to honor some young women for choosing a different path, and chastise the industry for not understanding them, but Roberts's comments drew sharp criticism on social media. Coca-Cola marketing veteran and DDB North America CEO Wendy Clark, for instance, tweeted that "25 yrs ago I was an ad agency receptionist. Today I'm the CEO. I'm much happier in the c-suite, thanks all the same."

Other industry executives weighed in with statements, condemning the implication that women don't want top jobs or that the issue is not a concern. One female agency head, BMB CEO Juliet Haygarth, told the advertising publication Campaign: "To make wholesale generalizations about women and what 'they' want from their career development is daft."

 

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