Advertising and marketing dynamo Kevin Roberts has a message for anyone looking to rebrand in what he’s termed ‘The Age of the Idea’ – brands are dead.
In 2004, the former Saatchi & Saatchi CEO wrote the book Lovemarks, in which he declared that brands were “running out of juice” and should be replaced by the titular lovemarks, which create “loyalty that goes beyond reason”.
Fads and brands can only go so far in inspiring respect and creating emotional connections with customers, he wrote. “[Lovemarks] build on respect, but they also make those crucial emotional connections,” he says.
”This is the ground where the future will be won and lost. This reflects the power shift to customers. Our future lies with emotional connections built on respect, sure, but suffused with love.”
Now, Roberts believes that the future has come to pass. “Building brands is not the game,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “Creating a movement is.”
And it’s creativity and innovation that are the two crucial tools companies must understand if they want to succeed today. “Two completely different territories, requiring different types of people, different processes and different approaches,” he says. “They need to be nurtured and celebrated.”
Roberts says change comes in three buckets: incremental, transformational and disruptive. “Innovators tend to dip into the incremental Kaizen bucket, while creatives tend to spend their time in the transformational/disruptive buckets.”
While creativity is about unleashing the mind to conceive new ideas, innovation is about introducing change and doing the work to make an idea viable. Both are critical for striking a successful balance.
“Creativity looks at the infinite and attacks the unknown. Innovation is a finite proposition; it’s about what we know and doing something new with what exists,” he says. “Creativity is inspiration, intuition and improvisation thrown at the impossible; innovation is about adding the -er words and adding value and reach to an idea.”
Of the two, creativity seems to be the most delicate, threatened constantly by negativity thanks to its intimate relationship with the impossible. “Einstein’s definition of creativity has always struck me as being brutally simple and to the point: ‘Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought’,” Roberts says.
“And the enemy today? The Abominable No-Man, who is only able to see what has already been done and says no to everything that cannot be measured or proven. Aided and abetted by cynics and contrarians, the Abominable No-Man kills ideas at birth.”
This villain is unaware that good isn’t good enough. “As Jim Collins said, ‘Good remains the enemy of great’,” Roberts says.
No stranger to the mind of the customer, Roberts’s career in marketing has scaled astronomical heights. From selling Gillette and Procter & Gamble in Europe and the Middle East to duking it out with Coke as Pepsi Canada’s CEO during the Cola Wars, and then to his 20-year run as head of industry titan Saatchi & Saatchi, Roberts has run the gamut.
This year, he’s imparting that career’s worth of insight into creativity and innovation at the World Business Forum. Starting with the Sydney event in October, Roberts will share the stage with some of the greatest minds in business, including Canadian filmmaker James Cameron, leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith, social psychologist Amy Cuddy, Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi.
For Roberts, the World Business Forum is a chance to make magic. “You’re connecting, collaborating and creating with the best of the best,” he says.
And that’s just as well, given that The Age of the Idea has thrown out the rulebook of traditional marketing. If a company wishes to not simply catch up but exceed the pace of the industry, Roberts says it must develop a culture of ideas.
“An ideas culture embraces today’s Age of Now, with its consumer mobility, independence and horizontal sharing,” he says. “People need to know that being creative is supported and will be valued regardless.”
Creativity, he says, is nourished by curiosity and, by extension, curious leaders. “You need to be open and willing to change, even if you don’t. You need to show your ‘curious’ face, not a tough-guy scowl. You must ask open-ended questions; you probably already know an answer, but do you know the best one?”
Back-and-forth communication is key to becoming a curious leader, Roberts adds, and all too often he’s seen the opposite happen on the way up the corporate ladder. “It’s the most common trait I’ve seen, an increasing tendency to stop observing, to stop listening and to stop learning,” he says. “As Warren Buffet said, ‘As soon as you think you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong room’.”
Instead, the curious leader must do more than just listen; they must engage. “Listen and repeat what you hear – it shows you’re interested and not showboating – and listen for facts, they’re usually more helpful than opinions,” he says. “Ask probing, tough questions – go for the gold mine, not the nugget. And always show gratitude.”
There’s also positivity, which Roberts says is a force multiplier. “Confidence breeds momentum, momentum breeds growth, growth breeds success.”
What that success looks like is as infinite as the possibilities open to the creative mind, but to Roberts it’s a matter of emotional satisfaction.
“Vince Lombardi said it all when he said, ‘I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted in the field of battle – victorious’,” he relays.
Kevin Roberts will appear at the World Business Forum in Sydney on 11–12 October, followed by Bogota, Madrid and Mexico City in November.