He is described by industry observers and former colleagues as aggressive, supremely confident, ruthless and restless. The former chief operating officer of Saatchi client Lion Nathan in New Zealand, and current proprietor of Gaults restaurant in Auckland, will "pull a few stunts, light a few fires and everyone will be running around not knowing what they should do" when he arrives at Saatchi, said one former executive of Saatchi in Auckland.
The executive bases that on a 10-year client/agency relationship with Mr. Roberts, 47, who earned the nickname "Rambo" after shooting a Coca-Cola vending machine with a shotgun while at Pepsi-Cola Co. (AA, May 5).
Mr. Roberts has been named to succeed Edward Wax as worldwide CEO effective May 21. Mr. Wax will remain chairman through 1997.
While an executive at Lion Nathan, his portfolio of antics included dressing like a commando and toting a lion cub on stage during conferences, executives report.
"He has this chaos theory-make change for the sake of change," said one former Saatchi executive in Sydney who worked with Mr. Roberts.
Not surprisingly, opinion is divided on whether Mr. Roberts is a good leader. Some executives said his ability to inject enthusiasm and fire in his staff was infectious and worked; others said it was an empty performance.
One Lion Nathan executive maintains he succeeded as a leader because "there are many, many people around Lion Nathan who were absolutely captivated by Kevin's enthusiasm. . . . He always had the ability to fire people up."
He continued: "Kev-in was great at building Lion Nathan . . . getting [it] out of New Zealand and having the foresight to go into China was inspirational."
LION NATHAN IN FLUX
Mr. Roberts resigned from Lion Nathan last November after seven years with the company. At the time, the company's management was in flux-nine executives had left the company in 18 months.
Lion's results were disappointing for fiscal 1996, ended Aug. 31, when its net profit fell 25.7% to $106.6 million.
At least one executive maintains Mr. Roberts failed to develop a long-term brand strategy for Lion, neglected core brands and new-product opportunities; and was slow to respond to competitive activity.
Mr. Roberts was not available for comment.
At Saatchi & Saatchi, there are mixed feelings about the hiring of an outsider.
Worldwide Creative Director Bob Isherwood described Mr. Roberts as "very dynamic, a very sharp thinker. .*.*. I have tremendous faith in Kevin and his ability to stimulate creative, his management and leadership expertise."
Peter Cullinane, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Australia, who introduced Mr. Roberts to Mr. Wax, said, "Kevin has a very clear idea of what role he has to play to have our network go where we want it to go. He has a clear understanding of the need to be a brand champion at the center and a coach and all-round enthusiast."
Some agency insiders were shocked to learn of his appointment mostly because of the short-lived tenure of former President John Fitzgerald, who was recruited from McCann-Erickson Worldwide last year. Once identified as heir-apparent to Mr. Wax, he was forced out last August because of reported clashes with Saatchi & Saatchi culture and personnel.
"They're stepping into the same hole again," said one Saatchi & Saatchi executive who asked not to be identified.
Prior to Mr. Roberts' appointment, industry speculation was that three regional directors- CEO-North America and New York Chairman Jennifer Laing, CEO-Asia Patrick Pitcher and London Chairman Alan Bishop-were all in the running for Mr. Wax's position.
"We met [Mr. Roberts] several weeks ago," said Ms. Laing, adding that the top executives of London-based parent Cordiant had been talking to Mr. Roberts for months.
She said that moving up one of three regional managers "wasn't an option."
'BRAND NEW JOBS'
"We're all in brand new jobs, it would be disabling and inappropriate to [pull] any of us out," she said. "It would be inappropriate to interrupt three key assignments."
"I certainly wasn't expecting the job in the short-term, otherwise I wouldn't have started" in London, said Mr. Bishop. "I was conscious [that] if I decided to come back [from New York] and run London, I couldn't do that for just a few weeks."
Ms. Burbury is an Advertising Age International correspondent based in Sydney.