Publicis Groupe was quick to try to clean up the mess made by Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts, who said that women employees lack “vertical ambition” in an interview last week. He also suggested that the debate of gender diversity in the advertising world is “over.”
The communications giant—which owns Saatchi, a communications and advertising firm—released a statement on Saturday stating that, given the gravity of Roberts’ remarks, it had asked him to take an immediate leave of absence. The supervisory board will “further evaluate his standing.” The company also said that Publicis Groupe Chairman and CEO Maurice Lévy sent a statement to all Publicis Groupe employees that reiterated the company’s “no-tolerance policy towards behavior or commentary counter to the spirit of Publicis Groupe.”
In an interview with Business Insider on Friday, Roberts downplayed the issue of gender diversity in advertising. “The [expletive] debate is all over,” he said. “This is a diverse world, we are in a world where we need, like we’ve never needed before, integration, collaboration, connectivity, and creativity … this will be reflected in the way the Groupe is.”
Roberts told BI that Publicis has about a 50-50 split among male and female employees. Saatchi’s staff, meanwhile, is about 65% women since it wants its workforce to reflect the people who buy the types of products it advertises.
He did admit that Saatchi has trouble promoting women to senior-level roles, which he said is largely due to women not wanting to manage people and a piece of the business.
“So we are trying to impose our antiquated shit on them, and they are going: ‘Actually guys, you’re missing the point, 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. So they say: ‘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. I can’t talk about sexual discrimination because we’ve never had that problem, thank goodness.”
Roberts’ statements reflect advertising’s struggle to shake its reputation as a boys’ club, one all too reminiscent of the fictionalized Mad Men workplace. BI notes that all six major advertising agencies are run by men CEOs, and a 2014 survey by diversity advocacy group The 3% Conference found that women constitute 46.4% of the advertising industry but only 11.5% of more senior, creative director roles.
A recent lawsuit against Gustavo Martinez, former CEO of ad agency J. Walter Thomspon, brought even more attention to the problem. The company’s chief communications officer Erin Johnson sued him for discrimination and accused him of making sexist, anti-Semitic, and racial slurs against company employees. Martinez denied the accusations, but resigned amid the scandal. Later, a video surfaced on him making a rape joke at a company meeting.
That lawsuit indirectly ensnarled Publicis after CEO Lévy suggested that the conduct it alleged was an isolated incident. “I don’t believe what happened at JWT is an example of what’s happening in our industry,” he said. “It’s a one-time mistake, a huge mistake, a huge fault. But it’s not a fair representation of the industry.” Those comments, unsurprisingly, were met with outrage.