Kevin Roberts on Lovemarks, rugby and creating community

Kevin Roberts: is he God or just a good talker? Vincent Heeringa talks to the world’s most irrepressible optimist and New Zealand’s biggest booster about love and rugby, blue as the new green, snail porridge and the new simplicity. Plus the Eagle vs Shark quiz

Magazine layout

North & South magazine once facetiously asked if Kevin Roberts was God. Others just thought he talked too much, and plenty regard his Lovemarks books as too eeerk for words. But after 850,000 book sales and 11 years as Saatchi & Saatchi global CEO, Roberts is still winning business, singing the praises of New Zealand, and seeing love and rugby everywhere. Vincent Heeringa talks to the world’s most irrepressible optimist, starting with why he’s right and Vincent is 850,000 times wrong

First, let’s talk about Lovemarks.

Good idea. I forgive you for everything you said about Lovemarks, Vincent.

Thanks. There’s just this nagging thing: I still don’t agree with you. I’m not convinced Microsoft or ExxonMobil or Big Tobacco are doing so badly without the love affect.

Even journos get it wrong occasionally. To say that 850,000 readers are wrong and you are right seems hard for me to believe. But hey, good luck with Idealog.

Cheeky! Okay, why are you in Boulder, Colorado?

I’m the chairman of USA Rugby and it’s our Super League final tomorrow. We’re very optimistic! We’re going professional, we’ve got Scott Johnson the former Wallaby as our coach and we’re getting tremendous support from the IRB. We’ve signed on new sponsors including Sony and Guinness, and we’ve just done a new deal with Canterbury of New Zealand.

Rugby’s profile is below soccer in New Zealand, but we have 100,000 players and just won the women’s sevens. Our men’s sevens side is performing well, beating France, Scotland, Wales and South Africa. Our target is the 2011 World Cup: we want to qualify and get into the quarters, so we have to knock off somebody of the order of Scotland, Japan, Fiji or Samoa.

We want to get football players who don’t make the NFL. Big Jonah Lomu types.

A niche in the US is still big, in this case literally.

Exactly. You’ve got a thousand of those guys who don’t make the cut and all of them can do 40 metres in 4.2 seconds and bench press like Carl Hayman. Obviously they don’t have rugby intuition, but they have athleticism. We’ve signed a memorandum of understanding with New Zealand rugby giving us access to their coaching, refereeing and development stuff in return for helping them commercially in the US. That deal gives us the best development system in the world, and hopefully we’ll give New Zealand a new commercial opportunity.

Is this the death of our rugby—sending players to France, coaches to Wales and our ideas to the US?

No, that’s the future. For ten years we’ve managed to survive the professional era but the dynamics have changed again and the English and French have so much TV money that our players are going there. How else does a small nation like New Zealand, with incredible playing talent and development systems, fit into what is becoming the biggest sporting business in the world after soccer and cricket?

It’s a lot like we’d like the rest of the economy to be, right? Small bits of IP and talent produced here and sold to the rest of the world. You’ve called it selling the New Zealand edge. It’s such a cool idea, but is it a reality?

Absolutely! The most important point of my life was in 1999, when I came to New Zealand and it gave me, for the very first time, a sense of strong homecoming and shared values: egalitarian people from backgrounds like me, and a desire to be the best in the world. And I’ve seen that grow.

I’m also noticing a shift of the axis from England and the Commonwealth to the US, Japan, China and now Dubai. Kiwis are not taking the soft OE option. David Trubridge was just here. Graham Henry actually came over to learn from the Yankees [baseball team], and people are setting up independent businesses. Bendon’s doing extremely well in the US.

The second place Kiwis are going is Dubai, because that’s where the money is and they’re adventurous and edgy. If you want growth in your brand, get to Dubai. It’s where Shanghai was five years ago. They own Citigroup, they just about own JPMorgan. They’re buying anything that moves—these guys even tried to buy us. They want a partnership and they’re doing it with imagination, edge and brilliance.

I read the NBR this weekend: Nevil [Gibson] was in Liverpool. What the fuck for? I flew around Dubai with Sol Kerzner, who is building an amazing Atlantis on the end of the Palm Jumeirah. We got to his plane, there’s a Kiwi pilot waiting for me there. He’s started a little charter flight business, premium pricing, he’s got other pilots already, all Kiwis. Fantastic quality, fantastic attitude—just tremendous. That’s the New Zealand edge. And then we’re seeing magazines like yours. I mean, what’s coming out of Australia or the UK that’s like Idealog? There’s nothing.

Helicopters, book launches, board meetings in Paris. You have a great time, but what do you actually do in your job? Or maybe that is your job?

The first thing I do is to see that Saatchi & Saatchi brand becomes a lovemark, creates loyalty beyond reason for clients, media and decision makers. How many advertising agencies are there in New Zealand? Dozens? Hundreds? And the product that comes out is pretty much the bloody same. So how do you differentiate? My first job is to make sure that we are competitively emotionally differentiated. Hence Lovemarks.

The second thing is to make sure we get to the future first, because the world has changed. Brands used to be in command, they’re not now; retailers were in control, they’re not now. The consumer is boss and the customer has turned into an audience. We’ve moved from an information economy to the attraction economy. So how do you engage, attract?

It’s about creating community.

Exactly. Creating community and giving them something that they never dreamed possible.

The third task is to attract, nurture and inspire talent because all we have at Saatchi is talent. We don’t own anything—we don’t own cars, we don’t own buildings, we don’t own labs, we don’t own manufacturing plants, we don’t own products. We’re in the ideas business and the only thing we have is talent.

The reason I write books, frankly, is really to attract new people and new thinking. The average age of our staff worldwide is 27 and I have 15 to 20 percent turnover every year. I have a new company every five years.

Last year you wrote Sisomo, meaning sight, sound and motion. Sisomo has an active website, but you delivered the message in the most trad of formats—a book. What gives?

That just illustrates the point—the future of print is fantastic, because we live in the world of ‘and and’. The first thing I do when I come to Boulder is get down to a beautiful, old, family-owned, independent bookstore because there are treasures and an intimacy and I can sit in these big leather chairs. And magazines—I’m a magazine junkie. I love what [Wallpaper founder] Tyler Brûlé’s done with Monocle. And Monocle is, again, like Idealog. It’s right out there. It’s something completely different.

I love what David Carey and his team have done with Condé Nast Portfolio in the US. They’ve said there’s no point in BusinessWeek and Newsweek and all this crap, and I agree. You don’t get news in a weekly magazine, but there’s room for smart monthly commentary.

Your parent company Publicis bought environmental marketing agency Act Now Productions and rebranded it as Saatchi & Saatchi S—which I guess means sustainability, but you trumpet it as the ‘Birth of Blue’. What’s with the blue? We’ve only just turned green, haven’t we?

The greenwash shit that’s going on in America and Europe is getting right up my nose and is going to set us back because people are thinking in terms of fear—Al Gore-like, doomsday compliance. I want to move from green to true blue: blue oceans, blue sky. I want to move from limits to possibilities. It’s you and I that can change the world, not the US government and not BP, so our agency is dedicated to motivating a billion people to change. Though funnily enough our first big client is Wal-Mart.

The next element of Lovemarks is viewing sustainability as a business builder, not as governance compliance. So moving from green to blue. I’d like to move New Zealand there.

So blue is just a language shift? That sounds like an old trick.

Yeah, you know me. First of all I believe that the revolution starts with vocabulary. I think that green has become overused, just as sustainability has, just as integration has, just as holistic has. So it’s language, but secondly it is about social and cultural sustainability. The third part is about personal change, not about corporate or a government-driven change.

We’ve been impressed with the relaunch of Steinlager as Steinlager Pure. Do you share the love?

Wish I’d thought of it. I thought it was terrific, absolutely terrific.

Could it come back to being the big brand it once was?

It was a fantastic brand and we really gave it a go. [Former Lion Breweries chief] Doug Myers backed us to the hilt and we gave it a full crack—and came up short. It’s a big regret of mine because a lot of very talented people worked on that brand. It was a wonderful thing. And we failed, but I don’t think anybody can say we did not give it a fucking go.

But I think it will never be a big brand overseas. I hope it will be a local premium icon. The positioning is smart, the bottle’s beautiful and I think the taste of the beer is terrific.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve experienced lately?

Um, here are two. First, there’s what’s happening in food. The top two restaurants in the world are El Bulli, north of Barcelona, and The Fat Duck outside Bray. I think the next best will be discovered next year: it’s L’Enclume, in Cartmel in the north of Lancashire. These restaurants serve unbelievable scientifically-driven, health-driven combinations. They have 30–40 dishes that are tiny. El Bulli only opens April to September. It serves 8,000 meals and it has 400,000 reservation requests. They only take reservations one day per year!

They serve things like snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream. I was in The Fat Duck—I took Sean and Bronnie Fitzpatrick and Stephen Jones, the Sunday Times writer who delights in knocking Kiwis—and they put on the table just two cubes of jelly. One orange, and one raspberry. You go “What’s this?” And you pick up the orange one and what does it taste like? Raspberry. You pick up the raspberry one and what does it taste like? Orange. It says: suspend all beliefs, suspend all preconditions, this is going to be crazy. Then they bring an iPod, your personalised iPod …

This is sounding a lot like The Matrix.

You’re right. They bring an iPod and a blindfold. You close your eyes and listen to the sand and sea, and they serve a dish that’s full of sand with some oysters on it. As you eat this thing, I’m not kidding, you feel like you’re eating the sea. It’s absolutely the reverse of that traditional shit; it’s food as theatre. I think that’s the hottest thing going on, and it’s going on in Barcelona and Lancashire.

The second thing: an hour ago, I had a bike ride down Boulder Creek on a Trek Cruiser—the first automatic bicycle. It has no brakes and no gears. It has a little box where it changes gear automatically, as you’re pedalling, and the brakes are the old-fashioned kind where you just pedal backwards to break. It is completely stripped down, basic, pure. That’s another big, opposite, hot trend: simplicity.

Kind of equal and opposite isn’t it?

There you go. Very Idealog territory I think.

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).