In the first of the Master’s One-on-One events under the ‘Optimism Offers Opportunity’ theme, Marketors Middle Warden John Farrell, KEA and NZ Trade and Enterprise hosted an engaging evening with Kevin Roberts, CNZM, ex CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi in the penthouse of New Zealand House.

Interview by John Farrell

You and I have shared a boardroom, we’ve shared a few clients, but I’ve never quite worked out, are you a New Zealander or are you a Brit?

I was born in Lancaster so I’m a Lancastrian. I want to grammar school in Lancaster and had a fantastic time but was kicked out when I was 16. When my parents asked why I had been thrown out, I told them it was the because the headmaster was from the south and had a personality problem – I had one and he didn’t!

When I came down south, Mary Quant was my first introduction to swinging London. I lived on the Kings Road and was a brand manager at the age of 17 without knowing what a brand was or what a manager was. Nobody else did at that time.

There were jobs aplenty in those happy days, unlike today where getting a job and getting started must be the single most difficult thing for any kid and for any family. The biggest problem that I think society faces is job creation. One of the things I love about marketing is that we create demand, we create choices and we create jobs.

In 1989 I followed my sister to New Zealand to run Lion Breweries for Doug Myers. I was lucky enough to work there for eight years. We decided to get out of retail and focus on beer. We picked up Castlemaine, Toohey’s, Swan and many others. We sponsored the All Blacks and the All-Americas Cup. I was very honoured when I was asked if I would become a New Zealand citizen and I couldn’t wait to say yes. In my heart I’m a New Zealander with a Lancastrian background.

I wanted to ask you about your time at Pepsi Cola in Canada. There’s this legendary story that you machine gunned the competitor’s vending machine with live ammunition…

It was 1989 and Brian Mulroney was the Prime Minister of Canada at the time. They were just talking about launching NAFTA and at the time it was a similar furore to what we’re experiencing now with Brexit. I was president and CEO of Pepsi Canada and our view was that NAFTA was going to be great. We had 47 bottlers and they were all independents. We were the franchiser so we were supplying the concentrate at huge margins. We paid for the marketing while they built the infrastructure and they ran their local communities.

Our competitor with the well known red and white branding were slightly bigger than us in Canada. They had all corporate plants which we thought made them very vulnerable. So we took this view that we could support the underdogs – the local Canadians, and NAFTA was going to be good for us because we the Canadians were the entrepreneurs, the fighters, the mavericks and the vagabonds. On top of 18 million in people in Canada, we now had 300 million Americans to go and sell to.

I was asked to deliver a big black tie speech in Toronto and Mulroney was going to be the guest speaker. All the TV cameras were there and we invited all of our bottlers and all of Toronto’s glitterati were there. After the Prime Minister’s speech, while the cameras were still rolling, I got up and delivered a fire and brimstone speech about how we in Canada were going to take on the big guys in America and how we were going to build the Canadian economy.

As I neared the end of crescendo, to make it dramatic, this great big red and white Coca Cola vending machine appeared like magic on the stage. I picked up a sub-machinegun and said to everybody in the place and watching television, this is what we’re going to do the big Americans when we have the NAFTA agreement. As I fired the rubber bullets into the machine, three thousand people went diving for cover, except for Mulroney who looked like a big hero. We had warned him this would be happening because I didn’t want to take a bullet from his security detail.

After that our sales force went out into the whole of Canada and the retailers took Coca Cola off the shelves and stocked Pepsi instead, putting us at number one for two years.

You’ve worked with lots of famous brands throughout an illustrious career. Pepsi, P&G, Mary Quant, Publicis, Saatchi. I know it’s like picking your favourite child, but of all of the businesses and big marketing organisations you’ve been involved with, who do you think was the best at building brands?

When I worked with Mary Quant, she was like a colossus. My three bosses were all women. They were all creative people. Mary was incredibly intuitive. We had no data, did no research, no testing, no pre/post, no ad testing, no product testing, nothing. I worked on the cosmetics side and our average product lifecycle in the cosmetics business was six months. You had to be fast, you had to have instinct, intuition and some degree of rationality. Instinct and intuition were at the heart of that marketing era.

We created ‘makeup to make love in’. It was waterproof mascara and lipstick but the idea behind it was a Saatchi & Saatchi idea because Morris and Charles actually put £25k into Mary as a brand when launched. The business took off but I had no idea what I was doing yet we were ahead of everything because Mary set all the trends.

P&G were the best brand builders because they did it all. They mixed art and science for that period. They didn’t fire agencies, they just moved people in and out. Building brands isn’t the game anymore. Building brands is table stakes now. Being a brand builder is no longer enough. Being a marketer is much more important now. The role of marketing is no longer to get the distribution or get the pricing and product packaging – you’ve still got to do all that but the role of marketing now is to create a movement, not to build a brand.

If you really believe that Kevin, why do you think all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are not marketeers by background?

I think that it shows a lack of trust in creativity from boards. A lot of boards around the world are hopeless and not fit for purpose. They’ve got the wrong people on them for the wrong reasons thinking about the wrong things. They’re edgy and nervous if the marketing person is in there talking about innovation and talking about creativity. We live in the age of the idea. Ideas are the currency of our time now and the problem with ideas is that they’re very difficult to substantiate because an idea is only an idea once and hasn’t been done before, so we don’t know how it’s going to pan out.

Edward de Bono once told me, there’s no point in being brilliant at the wrong thing. They shouldn’t be asking marketers about ROI. The real ROI marketers have to get to grips with is on what will be the return on involvement. How involved will our audience be with our proposition? How do we measure and substantiate that ROI? That’s what boards need to think about.

You’ve spent a lot of your career being passionate about leadership and what it takes to be a great leader. How do you think being a great leader today has changed from being a greater leader 10 years ago?

Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things. The type of management we came up with P&G and Pepsi in those days was really command and control. It was hierarchical, it was vertical, it was structured. It was leaders and followers. That model has gone and thank goodness. Leaders today must inspire everyone they touch to be the best they can be in pursuit of a company purpose. To inspire people to the best they can be, you’ve got to give them three things. Give them responsibilities. Let them learn every day. Give them recognition every day. Give them these things and they’ll be happy, and when they’re happy, they’ll be productive.

Let’s talk about lovemarks which you invented and have written about extensively.

We love brands. Obviously, we don’t love them as much as we love our dogs or our families or our rugby teams but each one of us has at least one brand we love. The difference between a lovemark and a brand is that brands create loyalty for a reason, lovemarks create loyalty beyond reason. Beyond price, beyond benefit, beyond benefit, beyond attribute, beyond source, beyond anything, but you will love them.

Brands are fundamentally built on respect. Toyota was a great example of this. Quality. Durability. Reliability. When they heard about lovemarks they asked me to turn Toyota from the most respected car in the world to being the most loved. That’s how the Prius was born, from that one line brief from their CEO. It was hybrid and had nothing to do with design or quality but it built an emotional connection. Commodities are low in love, low in respect. Fads are high in love and low in respect. Brands are all vulnerable to price, innovation, crowdsourcing, so the money is in high love and high respect.

Getting companies like P&G to buy into lovemarks was one of the great successes of your career. What would you put down as the biggest failure of your career?

The fastest way to learn and grow is through failure. At school you’re taught that you can’t fail because you’ve got to do well in your subjects and pass exams.  One of the greatest things I’ve learnt is to fail fast, learn fast and fix fast. What you have to do is get over yourself, get over your bosses who are risk averse and then get over the board who are terribly risk averse. I’ll be talking about my biggest failures and how I fixed them in Auckland this June as part of a series of TED talks.

You had a colourful exit from Publicis Groupe and I’m sure you can recall some of the trade press that surrounded that exit. Do you regret any of the things you said back then?

I don’t really do regret. I wish it had been reported differently and I wish I had said it differently. Former President of Israel Shimon Peres once said to me ‘a career without controversy can hardly be called a career’. In the Business Insider interview I was express that I thought it was nonsense that people were still hammering on that women were not getting the jobs they wanted in business. That’s not true in advertising. We’ve got women throughout our industry who are doing great. I told Business Insider the average of people at Saatchi & Saatchi is 26. I explained that millennials no longer want to be constrained by this all white male command and control system of bureaucracy. They define themselves by connectivity, creativity and collaboration. That’s what females and males want and companies that haven’t understood that and keep promoting people vertically will no longer exist ten years from now. Business Insider took my point out of context.  

Peak Performance. I’ve read the book; I’ve seen the movie and I’ve been a subject in the programme. Are you still involved in Peak Performance?

It’s still about 80% of what I do. I wrote a book called 64 Shots: Leadership in a Crazy World exploring 64 ideas on how to lead I this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Strategy is no longer king. You need a framework and purpose and you need executional excellence through leaders at every level. There are three types of change if you’re a Marketor: disruptive, transformational and incremental. Leaders have got to excel in all three areas and be able to use the right one at the right time for the right problem. Too many change programmes start without a presenting a picture of the future. It’s not change that people are afraid of, its that uncertainty.

Going back to when we worked together on Peak Performance, the thing that really sticks in my mind is the uncomfortable conversations around purpose. Getting a room full of people to align around what the purpose of a brand or an organisation really is was one of the most difficult things I’ve seen attempted…

Purpose has become very sexy. Everybody’s got a purpose. The brand has a purpose. The country has a purpose. Yet when you read them, they all have one thing in common – they’re not purposeful. Martin Luther King didn’t stand up and say he had a vision or a mission. He had a dream. Dreams are about reaching for the stars, not counting them. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. During the last Rugby World Cup the England coach was showing me around the changing room and he showed me the team’s dream. Their dream was to win the world cup in their country, for their country. The All Blacks then came up with their dream which was to be admired as the best rugby team that ever played the rugby game. Which dream inspires you the most? England’s was a terrific objective but it was a mission, not a dream. The All Blacks have since changed their dream, but they’ve only removed the word rugby. The dream is to be the best team that ever played any game.

Drawing from your extensive experience, what advice can you give to startups?

With startups you’ve got to do three things. It starts with a dream. First you have beliefs, then a character and a focus. You’ve got to start with a purpose on a page, then start marketing from day one. Don’t leave marketing, brand and all this to year two. People worry too much about raising money and the product to market fit before they get to marketing and brand and then its too late. Step three is to raise five times that amount you think you’re going to need.