What's Love Got to Do With It?

Douglas talks to Kevin Roberts of Saatchi and Saatchi, one of the world’s most famous advertising agencies, about turning brands into lovemarks, radical optimism and entrepreneurship on the edge.

Kevin Roberts may be one of the last aficionados of the fax machine. The executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies with a staff of more than 6,000, says he sends out about 300 faxes a day, which his secretaries scan and send to the right people. It’s not that he’s a Luddite: he has an iPad and a smartphone. But there’s something about writing by hand on a fax, he says, that’s definitive. And Roberts is nothing if not definitive, whether he’s talking about leadership, entrepreneurship or replacing brands with lovemarks, a concept he coined in his book LoveMarks: The Future Beyond Brands.

Douglas caught up with Roberts when he was in Victoria to receive an honorary professorship in Leadership and Innovation from the University of Victoria, the first-ever honorary professorship granted by UVic.

You said leading people today is achieved by inspiring, not by managing. How do we make that part of business culture?

The answer is what Zuckerburg [CEO of Facebook] said last week: “I will not hire a direct report who I would not work for.” So people need to ask, “Wow, does this person have the capability, the leadership skills, that I would work for them, not just today, but in five years, six years?” Does this person have innate greatness in them? … The Peter Principle was a big book when I was growing up. It basically said we promote people to their level of incompetence. We’ve got to stop that nonsense. We’ve got to hire the people who we think have greatness inside them and we need to do that with everyone we hire, because you can’t pile up enough good people to make one great one.

You’ve spoken about the need for radical optimism. Why do entrepreneurs need it?

Colin Powell [former U.S. secretary of state] talked about it. He said perpetual optimism is a force multiplier and he’s dead right. I’m sick of cynics and contrarians, of politicians and negativity. How did that ever drive anything — this constant questioning? The abominable no-man. Crap! What the world needs more than anything else is growth … we’re going to have to create jobs and businesses and that’s going to be done by entrepreneurs. Government’s not going to do it. Big corporations are not going to do it. They’re going to decline, decline, decline, downsize, downsize, downsize. So we’ve got to have entrepreneurs. And if you’re an entrepreneur you’re going to fail I don’t-know-how-many times. So you better be optimistic …. Radical optimism is the only thing that will drive growth in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

You dared a decade ago to write a radically optimistic book that introduced the word love into the discourse on brands. What’s love got to do with brands?

Lovemarks create loyalty for a reason. Actually, lovemarks create loyalty beyond reason. They do everything that brands do from a respect and quality point of view. But then they add three things: mystery, sensuality and intimacy — and they become irresistible and irreplaceable.

My iPhone for instance?

It’s a lovemark. Samsung could give you better value, better technology, better functionality, but you don’t care — you love it. I feel the same way about my iPad.

You talk about failing fast, fixing fast. But some companies find failure paralyzing. Is it a Canadian thing? Does the U.S. do this better?

America is a world power because it’s number one for innovation, entrepreneurship. It’s got more patents than anybody. It’s faster and it just washes off failure. In America, you get second, third, fourth and fifth chances to succeed. People there don’t dwell on failure, whereas Canadians seem to be embarrassed by it. You want to hide it. You’d rather not do it than fail.

We’re on an island on the edge of this continent. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs here?

I’ve always believed … in edge theory, a biological theory, which says the development of any species will come from the edge of that species. It does not come through the middle because the middle is too crowded. What are you seeing that comes out of France or Germany in terms of innovation now? It’s too hard to get through there. Instead, we see the real innovation coming from China, Brazil, the coasts of America, not the middle of America. So here we sit, me from New Zealand and you in Victoria. I think we’re in prime real estate because we’re on the edge! So let’s stop trying to be like anyone else. We’re not going to manufacture, serve or scale our way to glory. The only thing we can do is have a great idea and execute it at speed. We should have velocity. We should be the first to the future. We should get to the future first because we’ve got nothing in the way. We’re on the edge.

Given what you’re saying, it’s interesting that ‘entrepreneurial ecosystem’ is the current business buzz-phrase.

That ecosystem is very important because you can’t do it alone. No one in business here can. We’ve got to all help each other. There’s a film, Lessons From Geese, that shows none of us are as good as all of us. When Canadian geese get tired when they’re flying they all begin to honk.  This motivates all the other geese to keep going. So that’s what the entrepreneurial ecosystem is — everybody honking together.