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Kevin Roberts Speech: Risk, Risk Anything!

Risk, Risk Anything!

Kevin Roberts address to the Graeme Bringans Education Trust Dinner, Auckland,
November 12, 1999. See also...

It’s an honour to be here with you all to remember Graeme and to support the Graeme Bringans Education Trust. It’s a fantastic organisation helping a great group of young New Zealanders beat the odds. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting tribute to Graeme’s life.

Like all of you, I’m passionate about the future of New Zealand. Isn’t that why we are all here tonight? Because we want to be part of something that invests in the future and helps make New Zealand a better place.

If you are like me, your capacity for optimism and positivity will have been tested in the past few weeks.

I’ve just been in Europe with the All Blacks. Bristol, Huddersfield, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. A roller coaster tale of five cities. It was the best of times and, as we all painfully know, it was the very worst of times.

We lost. The country has been in a state of shock.

What the past couple of weeks have proven to me is that the things that make us feel good, are also the things that can make us feel bad. That if we invest emotionally in something, we run the risk of being disappointed.
Does that mean we should retreat to safe options? Never. I still believe the dream.

Black is still my colour. The silver fern is still the symbol that quickens my pulse.

It’s only through taking risks, through daring to believe in a dream, that we open the possibility for magnificent success. As the Marquis de Sade used to say, sometimes a little agony is a necessary part of ecstasy.

I can see enough optimistic risk-taking faces in this audience, who, at various times, have won and lost on a truly magnificent scale to prove that I’m not saying anything new. Graeme Bringans’ life was proof of that. Risk takers are the builders. The creators of a better world.

So let’s keep investing everything in the possibility of amazing success. Keep investing everything in our young people and all the possibility they embody through organisations like the Graeme Bringans Trust.
Let’s make sure our young people never forget Katherine Mansfield’s words:

"Risk, risk anything! Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth."

And let’s not forget how to laugh. No matter what you say about my world, advertising, one thing is certain. It’s a lot funnier than the property business. I’ve yet to see someone bent over laughing out loud in front of a new building on Albert street.

I’ve brought along some old ads from the past thirty years to prove my point.

Tonight I want to talk about New Zealand. I want to share with you some ideas that explain why I’m so intense about this country.
It’s a remarkable time right now. The election, the rugby, APEC, the America’s Cup, the millennium looming. It’s a moment in our history etched with possibility and uncertainty. To top it off, I just turned fifty last month. It’s turning out to be a deeply reflective few weeks.

It’s a time to ask some fundamental questions. To reaffirm our view of ourselves, where we’ve come from and where we are going. What it means to be a New Zealander. Is New Zealand going in the right direction? or any discernible direction? And what should we be doing about it.

Sometimes it seems that there are too few answers out there. Especially for young people. Too much wasted opportunity. Organisations like the Graeme Bringans Trust, and the Turn Your Life Around Trust that I’m involved with in West Auckland, can offer direction. But let’s face it, it’s clear we need bigger answers than our organisations can offer in isolation.

We need holistic answers that give a more complete context to young lives. Big dreams that provide direction and help build a strong and confident sense of possibility and achievement.

For individuals, dreams are the scripts of unordinary lives. Again I look around this audience and I see any number of unordinary faces that prove my point.
When a dream is shared by an entire nation, it becomes a call to collective action that can take a nation to greatness. It’s an enduring self-belief system that motivates people through times of uncertainty, puts disappointments into context, and keeps a nation’s energy focused in the same direction.

It’s my very strong belief that a national dream does exist in New Zealand. We just haven’t articulated properly yet.

I’ve been part of something that’s trying to redress the balance. For the past year I’ve been part of a growing community of people who are telling our version of the New Zealand story through our website, We call our story The New Zealand Edge.

Our starting point is our conviction that the social well-being of this country depends on the wealth of our nation. Our national prosperity is totally dependent on our ability to compete at the high value end of the global economy.

And I know we can make the great leap forwards. This country excites my imagination like nowhere else on earth. It keeps me up at night in places like New York and London thinking, what if we got it right? What if New Zealanders became a nation of directed, energetic minds, totally focused on outrageously ambitious global economic goals? I mean, it’s totally possible.

We have to change our mindset. New Zealanders are too inwardly focused. If we want this country to be prosperous – and there seems to be broad political agreement on this single point - the only way to do it is to turn our introspection into a rampant, outward looking philosophy that says – "we will take on the world in the most lucrative, high end, global industries and create wealth for this nation together."
That’s the end point for the journey. How we get there is all about harnessing the power of The New Zealand Edge.

It’s not a new story by any means. It’s the story of New Zealand’s amazing record of over-achievement on the global stage.

Just think about it. We are the size of the UK, with the population of Melbourne, and other than the dubious blessing of grass, few natural resources and no economies of scale. On top of this we have the tastes and expectations of New Yorkers! And yet we consistently lead the world in an amazing number of areas.

Our scientists are world leaders across an incredible range of fields. In agriculture, New Zealand is the global benchmark for excellence. Creatively, our artists and filmmakers rock the world.

In sport, New Zealanders perform to world class standards in an amazing range of disciplines. The number of our athletes and teams that then take the next step up and become world-beaters is equally incredible.

All of this is the product of The New Zealand Edge. It’s the product of our place on the edge of the world.
The edge is a precarious place. It’s a delicate balance that can go either way. New Zealand’s history of outlandish success, punctuated with moments of emotional despair is testament to that.

We are as far away from the conventional centres of our global culture as you can be. We’ve always known this. But we’ve too often over-emphasised the negative about being on the edge. We’ve seen our distance from the centre as a disadvantage. As a limitation to our economic viability and our cultural validity.

The New Zealand Edge says that geography has created an edge to the Kiwi psyche that is our most defining, and potentially our most empowering, national character trait.

Our distance from our markets has always meant we’ve had to think smarter to be competitive. Our industry has had to be better just to make it into global markets. Add to that the freedom from conformity that comes of distance from the centre, and you find the root of kiwi ingenuity. The edge has made us innovative.

We’re too small to be culturally autonomous, so we soak up inspiration from the best of everywhere else – the US, Europe, the Pacific, increasingly from Asia. The edge makes us inclusive and adaptive.

The power of the edge is New Zealand’s greatest asset. Creative people have always known its power, and they have always sought it. Innovation always comes from the fringes in the arts, from the edges of conformity in business and in social attitudes.
In a world where prosperity depends more than ever on the ability to innovate, we must view our place on the edge not as a tyranny of distance, but as our greatest competitive advantage.

Our heritage of edge dwellers taking on the world in the most unlikely areas proves it.

Just take a look at New Zealand’s amazing history of unlikely innovators and world-beaters. At we’ve been collecting these stories of astounding kiwi achievement against the odds. At last count we had a list of over 1000.

We’ve started publishing their stories. This week the first five went live on the site. They are five Kiwi scientists who have used The New Zealand Edge to change the world.

They are our atom man, Ernest Rutherford. Maurice Wilkins, Nobel prize winner in 1962 for his part in the discovery of DNA. Cosmologist and astronomer Beatrice Tinsley, and Allan Wilson, the revolutionary evolutionist who hypothesised that all humans are descended from one African mother 200,000 years ago called Eve.

Our last scientist in this instalment is the sensational and totally edgy John Money, the world's leading sexologist. The leading specialist in sexual orientation, sex changes, assigning sexes to hermaphrodite children and the nature of sexual deviance. Hero to those who deviate from the sexual norm, villain to the moral majority. Born in Morrinsville.
Right now he lives in Baltimore where he has spent the last 30 years at John Hopkins University.

Recently John offered his amazing art collection to any heartland New Zealand gallery that could show it permanently. It’s as edgy as his medical work - 114 Rita Anguses and Theo Schoons, along with indigenous art from African, Aboriginal and pre-Colombian societies. In true edge tradition, it’s gone to Gore. They are currently raising money for a new wing on the Gore Art Gallery to house it. I’m not sure if it’s true that they are thinking of calling it the Gore-genheim, but anyone wanting to donate can see their local MP, who also happens to be the current treasurer.

These stories are in detail on right now. Here are some teasers from our next instalment – the inventors:

Colin Murdoch of Timaru, inventor of the tranquilliser gun and the disposable syringe. Until Colin came along, the only way to inject patients was with a glass syringes. Last year, over half a billion disposable syringes were used in the US alone. The consequences of not having them for the spread of diseases like Hepatitis and AIDS would be a disaster.
The consequences of not having tranquilliser guns for people trying to control enraged elephants would be just as dire, and a whole lot messier.

Colin’s ideas come to him in dreams. He dreams them, then he lies in bed and imagines the designs in more detail, then rushes to the kitchen table to draw them up. That’s taking the cliché of the laid back Kiwi into seriously industrious new territory. Colin’s still with us, bless him.

Here’s another - RJ Dickie, the nineteenth century Wellington post office clerk who invented the stamp vending machine, ubiquitous for most of this century at post offices all around the world.

Here’s a story of a hero of the edge that is incredible. The late Ernest Godward, inventor, of Invercargill. He made his fortune with a global patent for a ladies spiral hairclip at the end of last century. He then moved on to invent a burglarproof window, a rubber hair-curler, mechanical hedgeclipper, a non-slip eggbeater, and the forerunner of the carburettor, known as the Godward Economiser. He ended up living in New York as one of the world’s leading authorities on internal combustion engines.
He was a championship cyclist, runner, swimmer, rower, boxer, motor racer and balloonist, and an accomplished speaker, singer, and oil painter. He dropped dead in 1936 as he had lived – over-achieving - in the middle of the Pacific on his way home to see his family at the age of 77, having just won a shipboard skipping competition.

Tex Morton of Nelson, country music sensation, the biggest selling recording artist in Australasia and one of the most popular touring acts in the US through the 1930s.

If you think pop music shows are elaborate these days consider Tex Morton’s one man show: sharp shooting, hypnotism, whip cracking, magic tricks and singing. He was one of the highest paid entertainers of his time, but he was never in it for the money. He was famous for throwing fistfuls of notes out of hotel windows after he made a quarter of a million dollars in six weeks on a one-man hypnotism show tour of Canada in the 1950s. In Sydney he’s a legend in the Albury Hotel, where he once laid down a full suitcase of money and invited the patrons to take what they needed.

Godfrey Bowen, shearing legend of Te Puke. One of a handful of foreigners ever to receive the Soviet Union’s highest honours - the Hero of Labour of the Soviet Union and the Star of Lenin. The only person ever to receive them for shearing not spying. The only shearer ever to appear on the Johnny Carson show in front of an estimated audience of 70 million viewers.
And now a people taking their edge to the world right now.

We love axe people at the New Zealand Edge, for obvious reasons. Last time I spoke about the New Zealand Edge in August, I talked about Jason Wynyard, the best axeman in the world. Who regularly wins by 5 seconds events that last only 20 seconds.

Today I want to mention Sheree Taylor, world women’s axe throwing champion, chicken farmer from Taranaki. The woman North & South described as our "chopping broad". Holder of four world titles and three world records in sawing and underhand woodchopping. She and her axe-throwing husband Alastair have 780 trophies and ribbons between them, including the Canadian Jack and Jill sawing title. That’s the don’t-mess-with-us version of mixed doubles!

The hottest Kiwi in pop music right now is Pam Sheyne from Waitakere, former backing vocalist for Celine Dion, The Pet Shop Boys and Paul Young. Pam wrote the song 'Genie in a Bottle' sung by teen pop sensation Christine Aguilera, which spent five weeks at number one in the US, and is current number one in Britain.
And finally, a knowledge economy hero of the edge - Denis Dutton, Professor of Art and Philosophy at Canterbury University, founder of the New Zealand Sceptics Society. Denis is editor and proprietor of Arts and Letters Daily, a website of intellectual news, reviews and gossip. He has only two employees, and he’s never met either. One is along time resident of a trailerpark in California’s Mojave Desert.

Denis is proof of the potential for the New Zealand Edge to profit on the Net. Currently he has 250,000 global monthly readers and in January was named top site in the world by the Observer - beating the four million other contenders, including into second place. Denis set up the website for $340 last year, he’s negotiating to sell it for over $1 million to the highest bidder - including Microsoft.

These stories, and others just as inspiring, will be posted at during the next several months.

What excites me most about The New Zealand Edge is that it’s out of control. The response to our website has been fantastic. Our community of like-minded individuals has grown around the world. As people feed in their ideas, the whole story of what it means to have The New Zealand Edge is evolving.
The potential for the New Zealand Edge to unite the half million Kiwis who live overseas is exciting. The reaction we’ve been getting from the Network of Overseas New Zealanders has been fantastic. The New Zealand Edge is becoming a script to help explain part of themselves.

Until now when people overseas have asked us how we differ from Australians we’ve struggled to find an answer. I’ve always said the difference has something to do with the fact that they got the first choice of all the Pacific to settle and they chose the only desert island.

Now people are picking up the NZEdge ideas and using them to express what it is that excites them and makes them most proud about New Zealand. Along the way they are adding their own twist to the idea, telling their own stories of how the edge energises them, creating new edge heroes.

I hear a lot about the brain drain. I’ve got two things to say to that. The first was actually said by Margaret Mead in the 1930s. She said: "It is New Zealand's role to send out its bright young men and women to help run the rest of the world. And they go, not hating the country of their birth, but loving it. From this loving base they make their mark on the world."
I couldn’t agree with that more. And when these super–achieving young Kiwi’s come home - and make no mistake, most of them do - they are wiser and richer than they would have been if they’d stayed here all their lives. That sounds like a brain gain to me.

Now imagine the brain gain we could get if we could focus the minds and energy of those super achievers while they are living overseas, on promoting New Zealand?

Every time a Kiwi uses the metaphor of the edge to describe themselves and their country, they are adding to the story. Every time a Kiwi takes on the world and excels, they are telling the story. Together, these people are building a national dream the way it should be built. As a celebration of the extraordinary ordinary, the juxtaposition that is so quintessentially New Zealand.

To all the people who say we are directionless and passionless, NZEdge is proof that there is a vision - a strong single line to the New Zealand story that all New Zealanders tell about themselves.
I’m realising that what we’ve been missing isn’t a strong leader. It’s a campfire to sit around and tell our stories. That’s what is – a digital campfire.

The idea has resonated so profoundly because The New Zealand Edge has always been a part of the Kiwi psyche. Until now though, we have dulled it with the self-effacing introspection of a nation coming of age.

The reaction to the is telling me that New Zealand is ready to throw off the shackles of self-restraint. Which is great news. Because we must do it with urgency. This moment of history is a rare window. The industrial age is dissolving around us. Suddenly wealth is generated by the mind. By creativity and innovation.

How often have we heard that the answer to New Zealand’s problems lies in building a knowledge economy? I agree. But most people are concentrating on the wrong end of the word. It’s not about what you know, it’s about how sharp is your edge.

If we concentrate on the edge, it blows my mind to think what we could achieve. We’ve got the energy here. The Rugby World Cup has proved beyond dispute that we are a deeply passionate people.

Imagine if everyone with a passionate, well thought out opinion on the All Blacks, had a similarly considered, passionate view on growing our national wealth? Imagine if there was a dream of harnessing The New Zealand Edge and beating the world in business that galvanised the country like the All Blacks do?

We could achieve amazing things.

Kia Kaha!

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