The Opportunity Economy

Friday, 21 August 2009 - Auckland, New Zealand

YMCA Inspirational

Presentation Summary

As the featured speaker at the YMCA CBD Connect fundraising event, Kevin Roberts provided an inspirational message to youth and those who empower them to be “the leaders of tomorrow”. Under the theme of the opportunity economy, Kevin shares ideas for building a bright future.

I want to thank Brian Barnett for inviting me here. At Saatchi & Saatchi we’d call Brian an inspirational player.

With people like him, it’s no surprise the YMCA is what it is – ranked #1 most respected non-profit brand in the world. Few other organizations are in such a position to inspire and empower the leaders of tomorrow.

We’re relying on the leaders of tomorrow. You’ve seen the headlines, we really screwed up. Judging from tonight, the future will be bright with creativity.

Working with young people is important and rewarding. Here in Auckland I work with youth at TYLA – Turn Your Life Around –which runs programs for at-risk youth. TYLA has been a big part of my life for the past decade or more. There’s a lot in common between TYLA and YMCA – Raise Up N Represent sums it up.

I’ve been asked to speak about the “opportunity economy”. That’s a great phase – positive, optimistic and yet challenging at the same time. I use a similar term to describe the economic shifts underway. We’ve gone from the “attention economy”, where it was all about “selling by yelling” and all about me, to what I call the “participation economy”.

I believe the collective impulse, fueled by the Internet and a desire for community, is now towards sharing, to creative collaboration, to doing things together. The work of YMCA in getting young people to work together physically and creatively, to play in teams and experience the joy of physical fitness, is something that every young person should have the opportunity to enjoy.

These are challenging times, change is taking place at an astounding rate, and the shape of the world tomorrow will be radically different than today and yesterday.

We have to start from common understandings, and the first place I start in New Zealand is at the edge. The need for change is usually driven by screw ups at the center; actual change comes from the edge. I’m so over New Zealand thinking of itself as small, distant, isolated, irrelevant and insignificant. Man, we’re the edge of the world! This is a place of great power. It’s the most creative place on earth. It’s premium territory, not liability. And your ideas will make a difference.

The old way of thinking was that you have to leave the country to make any difference in the world. Not any more. There is a fantastic story just out of Dunedin about three young guys who have developed a personal budgeting program called PocketSmith. They already have 6000 customers from 70 countries and deals that will give them massive reach into the US consumer base.

The road to success is built on ideas. Ideas are the flames of imagination. Your idea can light up the world. No matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, whether you’re brainy, sporty, nerdy, crazy, some or all of the above.

I should know, I grew up poor. But I viewed every day as an opportunity for upside, for focusing on strengths and opportunities, and for seeking and creating and experiencing joy.

Like here tonight, life is about joy. Adults forgot that. We thought it was just about big houses. What you create out of joy – your music, dance, and videos – these are the ideas that open up possibilities for a better life.

The future is open, ageless, local & global, and most of all it’s about ideas. So here are five ideas I believe in:


It all starts with a dream…

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not say “I have a business plan”. Nor did JK Rowling, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Lily Allen or the kids of Slumdog Millionaire….

A dream is never reasonable. John F Kennedy challenged Americans in the 1960s with a seemingly impossible dream: “To put an American on the Moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”

This dream set off a whole lot of planning, investment, hardcore science, endless experimentation. And they got to the Moon, and back again. But without the dream all that practical stuff in the world doesn’t add up to enough.

Dreams are all about passion. Follow what you have a passion for!! Don’t get sucked into following the herd, your peers, the norm or other people’s expectations – or worst of all, your parents!

The Inspirational Dream is at the heart of all great endeavors.

Walt Disney said: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” If you love something, you’ll bring so much of yourself to it that it will create your future.


The YMCA understands the impact of having mentors. Mentors are the source of inspiration, optimism, and vision. We carry the legacy of those teachers all of our lives. It’s why I’m a mentor at TYLA.

I’ve learned from some extraordinary people. My first job was with fashion legend Mary Quant. She taught me that if you go on doing what has always been done, you stay in the same place. Mary Quant invented the mini-skirt. Skirts shorter than your attention span. Women loved this. Men loved it even more!!

New Zealand has many heroes, ordinary people to learn from who have done extraordinary things. Past people like rocket scientist William Pickering, atom man Ernest Rutherford, and suffragist Kate Sheppard. Present inspirations like Peter Jackson, Valerie Vili and the boys from Flight of the Conchords. We tell these stories at

No one who has achieved greatness did so by following the pack. Richard Branson told me one thing: follow what you have a passion for. Go wherever your ideas take you. That’s how you turn your dreams into reality. It’s not some academic theory.

It’s what happened to me. I grew up in a working class town in the North of England, living in a council house with no money, no options, surrounded by petty violence and poverty.

I escaped because I had a dream to be a millionaire. Of course I was laughed at but I had a thick skin and some wise counselors who saw the potential in me. I was back in my old hometown of Lancaster where they conferred on me an Honorary Doctorate of Laws. Not bad for someone who was kicked out of school when I was 16.


As the writer Ray Bradbury said: “jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down….”

When I took over as CEO at Saatchi & Saatchi I was 47, I’d never worked in advertising before and we were facing bankruptcy. As I see it, you’re either out there risking it all, or you don’t exist.

Failure is the ultimate reality check. Go in over your head. Don’t be afraid to lose – once – because you only discover your limits when you crash up against them.

When the Wright Brothers flew for the first time it was only after 70 attempts. They understood that someone who never makes a mistake, never makes a discovery. 70 opportunities to learn and improve.

Experience failure, bounce back harder and smarter. If you obsess about your mistakes, you’ll keep making them. Learn from other people’s mistakes as well. Like the mess we’re all in today.

Caution is a killer. Fear strangles ideas. So take the risk.


I wrote a business book with colleagues called Peak Performance. I teach it at Cambridge, and it’s been taught in global companies like Procter & Gamble.

It’s about being the best you can be. That’s been my guide since I was a kid. Plus, being average can get really boring.

To be the best you can be takes a higher road than leadership. It takes Inspiration, which unlocks your potential, and the potential of everyone you touch. Inspiration is viral.

How can you be the best you can be? Ask yourself three big questions:

  1. What’s my five year dream?
  2. When am I at my best?
  3. What will I never do?

As Edward de Bono said, there’s no point being brilliant at the wrong thing.

Today world-class is not enough. We must move from world-class to world-changing. To get there we all need four things – seek them out: Responsibility, Learning, Recognition, Joy.

Doing great things is about inspiration. That’s how I see business. Management guru Peter Drucker said: “The role of business is to create a customer.” He’s dead wrong. The role of business is to make the world a better place. It builds self-esteem, and it lifted me out of poverty.

The greatest thing you can do is to be an inspiration to others. Your parents, favorite teachers, your best friends all lift you in this way. That’s the example set by the YMCA. That none of us is as good as all of us.


Everyone knows the lead husky has the best view. But to get out front you have to learn to trust your instincts and follow your heart.

The head is fine for calculations, and even better at coming up with explanations for why you did something. After you’ve done it!

Trouble is most of the decisions we make aren’t rational at all. They are emotional. Once you figure this out the world changes shape.

Neurologist Donald Calne says: reason leads to conclusion; emotion leads to action. He’s right.

Your heart is the compass that points to your happiness. Make the small decisions with your head; the big ones with your heart.

When my head has bullied my heart, I’ve made mistakes. Be clear about what you value in life. In your heart, you know – or you will know – what will make you happy.

I see a lot of bright futures out there. You have every opportunity to do what you want. Remember to do these things:

  • Dream big
  • Learn from everyone, but follow no one
  • Fail Fast, Learn Fast, Fix Fast
  • Become an Inspirational Player
  • Think with your heart.
  • Make a Difference

Take responsibility for your own happiness.

How to Win in the Age of Now


Spanning creativity, leadership and execution, Kevin Roberts’ presentation to the Entrepreneurs’ Organization Wellington Chapter is an inspirational primer in: Wanting to Win, Ways to Win Now and Ways to Keep Winning – the secrets of Peak Performance so that winning becomes a habit.

Up, Up and Away – Rotary Newmarket


Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, talks to the Newmarket Rotary Club about Winning in the Age of Now, and how to turn a brand into an irresistible Lovemark for the next generation.

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Set Fire To The Rain


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Magic Time


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