When Simon Francis left Leo Burnett for MindShare in 1998, his peers thought his flirtation with the creative side of the industry was over. At the time, Francis said: "I enjoyed working on the creative side, but I didn't find it rewarding - it's not as creative being a suit in an ad agency as a good, strong media person."
Something has clearly happened in the past few years to change his mind. Francis has recently donned his ad agency suit again, waved goodbye to his role as the managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at the media network OMD, and taken on a figurehead role as the chief executive of EMEA at Saatchi & Saatchi.
"I'm not a total stranger to creative agencies," Francis proclaims, but despite an early stint at Leo Burnett in account handling and media planning, Francis' career milestones have always been in media: He began his career at Zenith in the early 90s. His subsequent stint at Burnett was brief, and after four years at MindShare and five at OMD, it looked as though Francis was staying in media.
But it is a testament to his ambitious nature that, despite his strong media allegiances, he has jumped at the Saatchis, opportunity, although no doubt the new role will inspire him to spread his media message to the creative world.
"This is a new age for advertising, and it's just as much about where and how you use the commercial messaging. Every creative agency I speak to has lost its media 'mojo' and a lot of clients I speak to recognise that fact, too," he explains.
Francis believes he will be able to remedy this by encouraging creative agencies to treat media owners in a "better and smarter way".
But with Saatchis grappling with an entirely new structure, Francis may have other, more immediate, concerns. Just last month, Publicis Groupe announced it was bringing together Saatchis and Fallon under a mini structure, called the SSF Group. The alliance is headed by Saatchis' worldwide chief executive, Kevin Roberts, who is taking the role of global chief executive, with Fallon's president, Pat Fallon, residing as chairman emeritus.
In the UK, Robert Senior, one of the founding partners of Fallon, has been appointed as the SSF Group's chief executive and Jim O'Mahoney, Francis' predecessor, becomes the chief executive of Saatchis' operations in China, Russia, India and Brazil.
Originally, O'Mahoney was handed the EMEA remit following Richard Hytner's transition to become Saatchis' head of reinvention and global deputy chairman. However, insiders say it soon became evident that O'Mahoney was left juggling too many markets and as a result, Roberts drafted in Francis to take on the European role.
With the senior management in place, Roberts is clear about what he wants from Francis: "His role is to grow our EMEA business faster than the market." This, according to Francis, involves ensuring that all 2,156 staff in EMEA produce "transformational business ideas" and reinforcing the Saatchis "nothing is impossible" mantra across the 51 markets in his remit.
More practically, Francis will have to ensure CHI & Partners makes no further inroads on Saatchis' Toyota business. While the acccount may be lost in the UK, Saatchis' European hold on the account is, for now, still strong.
If there's one thing on which everyone agrees, it's that Francis will make an inspiring figurehead. "He's very evangelical and he'll be able to enthuse the local agencies with a new way of thinking by looking beyond the traditional advertising methods and drawing on his media background," Colin Gottlieb, the chief executive of OMD Europe, says.
Roberts has handed Francis responsibility for P&L and moulding the offices within Francis' remit. Arguably, though, these are areas in which Francis has very little experience and are the exact responsibilities that his previous employer was not prepared to hand over.
In light of Francis' ambition, some are concerned Saatchis' has overpromised on control. A former colleague warns: "Saatchis needs to ensure he is fully engaged and that it delivers on any promises it has made to him on command and control. If it doesn't, it will end in tears."
In fact, his power has already been diluted. With Senior holding responsibility for Saatchis' UK business (from where a large proportion of the European clients run their accounts), and O'Mahoney still holding a firm grip on the growth market in Russia, it could be argued that Francis has simply been dished out the leftovers.
O'Mahoney disagrees, arguing that his Eurocentric focus is an asset: "It is the first time we've had someone specifically in that role, and he will be able to devote his focus entirely to the mature markets of Western Europe, the emerging markets of Eastern Europe and the huge potential of Africa."
Senior adds: "I think he's got plenty on his plate, and there's plenty to be getting on with. There is a lot of growth opportunity in a number of those markets. Could his remit be bigger? Yes, it could, but it will only make it harder, and it won't be done as well."
With 70 offices under his command, Francis is still going to have his hands full. As well as running key local clients in France, Germany and Italy, including Society General, Alitalia and Banka Intesa, Francis and Senior will be working very closely on pan-European accounts such as Sony Ericsson and Visa that are run out of the UK.
This relationship will need to remain harmonious given the size and calibre of these blue-chip clients. Senior explains: "Simon has a vested interest in Saatchis in London being as creatively powerful as possible. Given that that's my remit, we will work very closely together to make sure it happens."
As well as maintaining this delicate balance of power, the role encompasses other key challenges for the former media man. "Saatchis' hasn't yet sorted out fantastic interactive work across the board, and it's not yet doing great branded content work everywhere or doing fantastic media thinking, and all the other things that the modern age demands," Francis admits.
"We need to get 'fit for purpose' in Germany and Spain. Accelerate our businesses in Italy, France, Switzerland and the Middle East and open up Africa," Roberts adds.
Despite fears that Francis may have been promised the earth and landed in the middle of a hurricane, he remains positive: "To be charged with making people believe that 'impossible is nothing' is so up my street, and to get people to believe and act on it is about as much fun as a man can handle."
SIMON FRANCIS' CV
1990-1994: Media manager, Zenith Media
1994-1996: Group media director, Leo Burnett Media
1996-1998: Director of integration, board account director, Leo Burnett
1998-2002: Director of futures, MindShare
2002-2007: Managing director, EMEA, OMD
2007: Chief executive EMEA, Saatchi & Saatchi