This interview with One Young World founder Kate Robertson was first published in Director magazine in March 2015, during her tenure at advertising firm Havas.
The co-global president of advertising giant Havas Worldwide is on a mission to tackle Europe’s youth unemployment crisis. She tells us why she is urging businesses to hire more young workers
Kate Robertson is one of those individuals who holds a room the moment she enters it – and all eyes and ears are on her as she walks into her office for our photo shoot at the London HQ of global advertising firm Havas Worldwide. The co-global president has not long stepped off a flight from New York and, like most executives, her time is precious. South Africa-born Robertson, however, quickly puts me at ease: “Darling, I’m all yours,” she says as we settle down to chat about her work tackling the growing problem of youth unemployment in the UK and across the rest of Europe.
Robertson’s passion for the subject is immediately apparent as she exclaims fervently: “This meshing of business and societal needs is so damn serious… If youth unemployment increases there is going to be a real problem. Who is going to pay the taxes? Who will pay state pensions? Already the numbers are completely out of whack.”
The seriousness of the issue, she recalls, struck home two years ago. “I was at Davos [the World Economic Forum] and Antony Jenkins, group chief executive of Barclays, had a business breakfast to discuss youth unemployment. His panel included José María Alvarez-Pallete López, chief operating officer of Telefónica O2, and they got very wound up on the subject , laying out how critical it was, especially in continental Europe – how it was a scourge and the fact that once the damage is done it takes hundreds of years to turn it around.”
Robertson, who is also founder of not-for-profit global youth forum One Young World, believes Britain’s problems come down to attitudes. “As a society we are very focused on the likes of you and me, who have been to university. We have not taught our youngsters that apprenticeships are an absolutely fantastic thing to do. How have we sleepwalked our way into the notion that the only valid thing to do when you finish school is go to university?”
She is quick to point out that her approach is not about stopping the recruitment of graduates. “We still have to take those young people on too, otherwise we replace one problem with another. But it is critical for senior business people to treat apprentices exactly the same as they treat graduates. It’s vital that young apprentices don’t feel less valued. We can’t go round saying students need to be learning Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, and drive them down that route, because if nobody actually cares about apprenticeships, that will never benefit our economy.”
So what has Havas done to help? “With the help of Rajeeb Dey, chief executive of Enternships [which connects students and graduates to internships and jobs in UK start-ups and small firms], we have set up an employment scheme to hire young digital folk. Anyone can apply as long as they are of working age.”
She admits that some of Havas Worldwide’s older, more traditional chief execs were sceptical. “I said they could pick who they wanted, I would pay the youngster for six months, and if they were fantastic we could give them a proper work contract, take them off the scheme, and employ someone else to keep the supply going. Since April 2013 we’ve created 46 jobs. It’s not massive but it isn’t nothing either.”
In January, Robertson co-hosted a dinner at the Mansion House with Alan Yarrow, London’s lord mayor, to discuss youth unemployment with other business leaders. “There was an interesting spread of CEOs who attended; Ronan Dunne [chief executive of Telefónica O2] gave the keynote speech and we had people including David Abraham, head of Channel 4; David Wild, chief executive of Domino’s Pizza; Tim O’Toole, of transport group FirstGroup; and Deloitte’s David Sproul – the level of interest was astonishing.
There were 47 chief executives of FTSE-100 firms and they all brought one youngster from their organisation with them. It was fantastic to see how proud they are of these kids.”
She tells us how impressed she was with a 21-year-old Domino’s Pizza apprentice she met at the event. “He started straight out of school at 17 and he’s now running four outlets, including the most successful one in the UK. Then there’s my own child, an Oxford graduate who’s 23 – if she was running four Domino’s outlets I would be so pleased with her.”
Robertson is keen to stress that tackling the issue is not the preserve of big business either. “Yes, Havas might employ 980 people in the UK but it’s really tough in a sector like ours because our cost is people, which means that when our revenue growth is not where we want it to be we cut the headcount. We’re not in the same position as companies like Tesco, which can employ 20,000 young people. I look at what Raj [Dey] is doing with Enternships and it shows that it’s not difficult for a small company to employ a youngster – any business turning a reasonable profit can do something.”
The benefits? “We need these young people because companies have to address the digital space. The expertise these kids can bring is a massive benefit. Although it’s also cost-effective, it’s not just about creating low-paid employment. Businesses need to realise that by employing young people they can revitalise and energise their companies. It makes sound business sense. And, as a responsibility to society, it’s beyond critical.”
When asked about gender balance, Robertson acknowledges there is a growing problem with disenfranchised young men. “Having fought all our lives for jobs for women, and appearing to have made a tiny bit of progress, we are now faced with the problem of these young males – it’s extremely serious. In deprived areas, the lost, left-out bunch are often young, white males. I can see the same problem in France – and if someone doesn’t do something soon these young people will never work.”
Robertson’s main concern, she explains, is that heads of business don’t realise the scale of youth unemployment or that they need to take responsibility. “I urge people to think about their young workforce. Have you got one and if not, why not? How are you going to ensure the future success of your business? If you have children of your own, you should be thinking about the society that your kids are going to live in. If everyone could do a bit more it will only bring good things – businesses will benefit and that will make a difference to society.”
Kate Robertson is speaking at IoD Open House on Wednesday 14 March 2018, 10am.
1979 Graduates from University of Cape Town
1986 Moves to Britain from South Africa
1986 Joined JWT Europe as European account director on Kellogg’s and then as European director on Unilever
1998 Founded Scholz & Friends London, the UK arm of the German advertising group
2003 Becomes executive vice-president Europe of Euro RSCG (now Havas Worldwide)
2013 Promoted to role of co-global president, Havas Worldwide