Widening Circles Or: What I Learned from Peter Drucker and What He Can Teach Us Today
by Kevin Roberts

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I’ve been stealing from Peter Drucker for nearly 40 years. It’s been a largely subconscious endeavor because Drucker’s early thinking and articulations had become so embedded in my operating framework that they became detached from the original source. It wasn’t until recently when I came across a veritable trove of tweetable Druckerisms neatly assembled by J.D. Meier –– that I realized how much I had been cribbing, cadging, and quoting from the man Business Week said “invented management.”


I began my career in the late 1960s at Mary Quant, the iconic London fashion house largely responsible for gifting the world with the miniskirt and hot pants. It was there that I first encountered Drucker’s book, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done (1967). Working in the fashion industry during the height of London’s Mod scene was a good way to quickly learn the difference between doing an OK job and brilliant execution. With product life cycles about six months long, our mantra was simple: “Dream it, do it, kill it.” This was a thrilling, heady time. But it wasn’t until I devoured The Effective Executive that I recognized I was living through a crucible of Drucker theory. Learning as I went, I was daily witness to the “social technology” of management as a way of understanding business and the world.


“I live my life in widening circles, that reach out across the world,” begins a memorable poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. Widening my own career circles, following my run in London fashion I became a senior marketing executive for Gillette and Procter & Gamble in Europe and the Middle East, then CEO of Pepsi-Cola in the Middle East and Canada and, eventually, in 1997, was named worldwide CEO of legendary advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. The constant through all this—as I moved from fashion to packaged goods to food & beverage to advertising—was a steady diet of Drucker.


What did I learn from the man former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch called “the greatest management thinker of the last century”? The necessity of institutional and personal purpose. The idea of business management as a liberal art. Decentralization, time management, and the importance of treating workers as assets. The primacy of language and words and storytelling.


Rilke’s poem reminds us that quests don’t run in straight lines: widening circles must also send you back. I have recently returned to Drucker, re-immersed myself in his theory, and re-experienced anew my revelation at his ability to codify the business of management into theory and practice. As great a necessity as human emotion, Drucker’s teachings resonate today as vibrantly as when I first encountered them as a young man in the 1960s. Sadly, though we all owe him plenty, Drucker remains largely unfamiliar to a new generation of managers and business leaders.


Moore’s Law famously tells us that computer processing power approximately doubles every year. While it’s urban legend that people utilize just “ten percent of the brain,” the story of human development has still been comparatively slow. What does this disconnect between our technology and ourselves mean to managers and what might Drucker have to teach us still? More than a few noteworthy technologists, scientists, and innovators have raised alarms about technology outpacing its inventors. SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk called artificial intelligence “our biggest existential threat,” and recently made a $10 million donation to the Future of Life Institute to help find ways to keep AI friendly. “The future is scary and very bad for people,” Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak recently said. “If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they’ll think faster than us and they’ll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently.”


Drucker—prescient enough to have coined the term “knowledge worker” way back in the 1950s—was, I think, primarily a humanist and possessed a deeper understanding. “The major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions,” Drucker said in the 1960s. Even before the arrival of the digital age, Drucker was there to remind us that we claim our humanity by being human. By championing insight over inputs. Story over data.


In Brand Loyalty Reloaded, a “red paper” published in September that explores how to navigate the emotional territory of brands, I suggest that “Big Data needs Big Love.” A study by Gartner reported that by 2017, CMOs will spend more on IT than CIOs. Well, good luck to all those new “Chief Metric Officers,” because data will never replace an understanding of the fundamentals of human nature. True, we are living in an era of data mining, modeling, measuring, and monitoring that would have made George Orwell blush. But while many have presented Big Data as a dream scenario for brands to more precisely identify and target their audiences—a perfect marketing moment—numbers and technology alone won’t do the trick. That’s because algorithms will never be able to read and respond to people the way people do. It’s because Big Data can read the lines, but not between them. Big Data can turn up at the perfect moment but not ignite it. Big Data cannot dream up stories, inspire us, and teach us about love.


I owe Peter Drucker an enormous debt. His theories have helped explain to me how the world works and guided me throughout my career. Drucker’s teachings are as valid today—whether you’re reading this on a phone, pad, or watch—as they were when he punched them out on a manual typewriter generations ago. The digital age has brought us astonishing tools, but the fundamentals of being human—to love, to create, to be valued, to know and to be known—are intrinsic and timeless. Technology can widen the circle. But the circle is us.

About the author:


Kevin Roberts is Executive Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi – one of the world’s leading creative organizations with over 6,500 people and 130 offices in 70 countries – and part of Publicis Groupe, the world’s third largest communications group.


  1. Good to know there are still people in the U.S. They believe in leading by being human.

    Jacek Pekacki
    JP Consulting
    Warsaw, Poland

  2. So true, Mr. Roberts! Thank you a lot. In times when digitalisation is getting more dominant such essays are vital to reclaim that humans are social creatures with strong basic instincts and needs. No machine can nurture those important feelings for our individual or general health, nor they help us define healthy economies and societies.

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