Former Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts helps some of Cumbria’s best-known brands become ‘Lovemarks’. We met him at his home in Grasmere to find out more.

Sitting in Kevin Roberts’ plush front room, surrounded by pictures and memorabilia of famous figures from fashion, sport and music and with panoramic views over Grasmere, Helm Crag and the fells beyond, it is hard not to feel inspired.

Indeed, for Kevin - former chief executive of global ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi - this is the very essence of what his Cumbrian home, Beckwood, is all about.

"This whole house is designed to inspire people creatively," he says.

"It is a tribute to me growing up here and to the influences that I had in my life that have contributed to the life I have since led. The idea is you come here, you're inspired by success and you're inspired by people who made it.”

The house itself, which Kevin designed, is an elegant confection of slate and glazing and involved the use of many local materials and craftspeople during the three years it took to build.

It even includes its own pub, K and T’s Lancastrian Pub, with the ‘T’ referring to his wife Trudy.

Inside the house, the walls are adorned with pictures of Kevin’s heroes from the sixties - Mary Quant, The Who, Bob Dylan, George Best and many more - as well as with ubiquitous mugs, key rings and other paraphernalia made by Herdy, the Lake District gift brand he has helped grow.

And then there is Kevin himself, sitting in a leather armchair and explaining how - at 72 - he still has a “burning platform of desire” to keep doing what he has done since the beginning of his career in the sixties.

"My dream is to inspire everyone I meet to be the best they can," he says.

“There are probably seven or eight ways you could write this article, but I want to help you write the best article you can. Nothing is off the record here. It’s all open.”

And, of course, he is correct.

Hefty features could be written about many aspects of his life and he has published a number of books doing just that.

His time at Saatchi & Saatchi is a book in itself and another could be made from his sporting associations (he has worked closely with everyone from former England cricket captain Alistair Cook and his team, to the All Blacks and has friends including Wallabie David Campese and New Zealand legend Sean Fitzpatrick). Or maybe we could focus on his early days, working alongside fashion icon and designer Mary Quant in London after a chance meeting kickstarted his global career.

This global career has given him an accent which is a fascinating mash-up with strong Kiwi and US twangs.

However, occasionally he drops into his original Lancaster vowels, harking back to his upbringing in a council house in the city, born to a father who was a security guard at Royal Albert Hospital and a mother who worked in a shop.

Kevin refers to numerous lucky breaks in his life, but says some of the earliest were going to two good schools: Bowerham School and then Lancaster Royal Grammar School.

In particular, he says his English teacher Peter Sampson helped instill in him a love of literature, language and “dreams”.

“He just told me story after story,” says Kevin.

As well as internal escapism, Kevin also literally ran away from home when he could, riding his bike north to be in the Lake District and forging a life-long connection with Cumbria.

"I like the determination and the uncompromising nature of people here," he says.

"There's a true grit around Cumbria that appeals to me. So it has always been my idea to come back here after living all over the world.”

Despite doing well in his studies, Kevin was kicked out of school at age 17 when his girlfriend Barbara - who would soon become his first wife - became pregnant with their daughter, Nikki.

The headmaster was determined they should not have the baby, but Kevin disagreed.

He was forced to leave the school and take up a job at fabric and cloth maker Storeys of Lancaster.

However, it was a fateful meeting during a rugby playing trip down to London that would change the course of his life.

It was in a bar somewhere in the city that Kevin met Mary, who was trying to expand her brand into Europe.

Kevin’s ability to speak the French and Spanish he learned at school plus, one suspects, his innate perspicacity, appealed to Mary and he was soon set up as her international marketing manager.

“I knew nothing about marketing, I didn’t know what management meant and the whole thing just exploded,” he says.

"We opened up country after country after country because of Mary's name.”

During his time there, Mary Quant quintupled in size, with Kevin taking a lead role in developing straplines such as ‘makeup to make love in’ - used to promote the first waterproof mascara - or working on campaigns for the first makeup for men.

“I learned 1000 per cent through trial and error,” he remembers.

“That’s where I learned to try fast and fail fast. That was the culture in the 60s, that was what you're expected to do. Culture was moving fast. Everybody was positive, everybody was upbeat.

“We were going to create a better world and we're going to do that not through commerce or

through riches, but through creativity and through ideas.”

After a few years, Kevin’s success at Mary Quant caught the eye of another big name.

At that time Gillette was enthusiastically trying to break into the female market and headhunted Kevin to head up its marketing in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, tripling his salary.

The new job involved almost constant travel and long hours and coincided with the end of his marriage to Barbara, although they remained extremely close friends until her death.

However, he says he was being overcome by a sense of “imposter syndrome” with, as he saw it, a growing number of people moving into marketing from a better educational background.

So, he set his sights on working for global corporation Procter & Gamble where he could “get a degree without getting a degree”.

Accordingly, he sussed out the pub near P&G’s Newcastle headquarters where he was most likely to run into their staff and, after some schmoozing, was given a contact for its office in Geneva which headed up the company’s non-core countries operation.

He got in touch and was interviewed and given a job based in Geneva as a brand assistant before moving to Morocco as marketing manager for the country.

Kevin threw himself into the work balanced, he says, by a chip on each shoulder - one from his working class upbringing another from his lack of education.

"I wanted to do something to provide me with a playing field and platform where that didn't matter," he says.

"That seemed to be marketing because marketing seemed to be pretty much all about the people you were selling to, not you.

"Personally I was driven by an ambition to leave a lot of stuff behind. I knew that I was never going to inherit it, I had to go out and earn it. I had a burning platform of desire and still have it to this day.”

From P&G he took on roles at PepsiCo- ultimately as its CEO for Canada - and then as director and chief operating officer of brewery Lion Nathan, based in Auckland, New Zealand.

It was in 1997 that he joined the then struggling Saatchi & Saatchi as chief executive, suggested for the job by John Pepper, the chairman of its biggest client P&G.

His mission was to turn around a company that was £2bn in debt, was rapidly

losing business and was set to run out of money in six months.

"We started with a purpose, which was to be revered as a hothouse for world changing creative ideas," he says

At the same time, he also expounded the idea of “nothing is impossible” and developed eight beliefs for the company’s 10,000 staff across the world to follow, including in the “unreasonable power of creativity”.

"I said to everyone 'If you stay with me for the next two years, I will double the share price and I'm going to give you all the chance now to buy shares at a 10 per cent discount and we'll lend you the money for two years’,” he says.

When the share price duly increased from £1.50 to £4 over the next two years "secretaries made enough to pay off their mortgage, people made enough money to send their kids through college”.

The company rallied, winning major clients across the world, and with Kevin developing the concept of Lovemarks - the idea that brands need to inspire a deep emotional connection and respect among their target audience.

Lovemarks is also the name of Kevin’s book on the subject, which is the bestselling book on marketing of all time.

“You’ve got to try and create a movement where it becomes much bigger than a brand,” he says.

"To create a movement, you've got to appeal to people's emotions. You've got to have them want to join you. Brand managers like to control the brand and we aren't going to put up with that anymore. I hate it when a brand manager comes into my office and talks to me about 'my brand'. It's not their brand, it belongs to the people.

“We want to be part of the story, to share the story and have a voice in it.”

Alongside his work at Saatchi & Saatchi Kevin also started his one-man business Red Rose Consulting, concentrating on working with smaller businesses.

He says the consultancy helped keep him grounded and in touch with the struggles of smaller businesses as well as laying the ground for something to focus on when he left Saatchi & Saatchi.

His exit from the company came about in 2016, when he resigned after being placed on leave by French owner Publicis Groupe following an interview where he appeared to imply women lacked ambition to take on leadership roles.

However, today he says he is ultimately relieved he was able to leave and concentrate on Red Rose Consulting.

"It was miscommunicated, mishandled and mismanaged. None of it by me,” he says.

"I moved straight into this and I couldn't have been happier. I'm sad for the company. But from a personal perspective it was a blessing.”

Red Rose Consulting has worked with a wide range of companies in many countries, including Booths supermarkets and Kendal-based Lake District gift brand Herdy.

He first met Herdy founders Spencer and Diane Hannah at an event organised by Cumbria Life and has worked with them ever since, taking equity in the company and communicating with them weekly.

"I felt they had an amazing idea and a lovable personality with Herdy that could be a terrific spotlight for the Lakes," he says.

"They were kind enough to let me join the family.

"We've pretty much since then quadrupled the business but we're still only at the beginning. Herdy can become, in this world we live in, the epitome of roam free.

"We have a lot of passion, a clear idea of who we are, where we dream of going and how to get there.”

His relationship with Booths began when chairman and chief executive Edwin Booth asked him to come and talk to his team about how to turn the business into a Lovemark.

For the last five years he has been working with the business on its purpose and branding, as well as coaching senior leaders on their personal development

"Now Booths is going to have to figure out how to win in a recession, how to win in a downturn," he says.

“In a recession you’ve got to reforecast and reforecast fast and get your head out of your arse.

"You've got to look at the world as it is, not as it used to be or not as you'd like it to be.

"I love working with family companies. I like them best.

“I like leaders. Managers get things done, leaders make things happen. Managers get things right, leaders do the right thing. We need good managers, but they don't make the difference.”

The mantra of “fail fast, learn fast, fix fast” is one of Kevin’s big themes and an attitude he tries to instill into the businesses he works with.

"It isn't the failing that's important, it's the learning and fixing that counts,” he says.

"Einstein said a genius is a man who makes the same mistake once. How many times do you see people make the same mistake, time, time and time again?”

He says the approach he adopted in his early days at Saatchi & Saatchi can be applied to all businesses, no matter how big or small.

"It starts with a purpose on the page," he says.

"What is your inspirational dream? Who are you? What are the things you believe in?

"This really is how you create a movement. What does movement stand for?

“This just takes a day. The hard part then of course is living the purpose.”

However, in a world where there are constant fires to fight - whether it is Brexit, Covid or rising prices - most firms are too engaged in being busy to stand back and take this wider view.

"Most businesses get wrapped up in the how; they no longer look at the important, they just do the urgent," he says.

"You've got to look at things the way people have not looked at them before. That means it can be a lonely special place at times. The edge is what I call it. All species evolve from the edge, nothing evolves from the middle.”

And, although he says he is always excited to work with more Cumbrian firms, he is candid about the type of people he wants to help.

“If you want help with the day-to-day, I’m not that guy,” he says.

"I'd like to do things for more companies in Cumbria, but they've got to be up for it and worth it.

“Give me people with blue flames coming out of their arse, they’re the people I want to work with.”