Media Headliner: Will Aegis Media chief weather the initial storm?

After almost a year on gardening leave, Mainardo de Nardis faced a turbulent start in his new job, Darren Davidson writes.

Mainardo de Nardis, Aegis Media's recently installed chief executive, has been in the role for 100 days now and speaks with unabashed enthusiasm about running the group's media operations. Surprising, perhaps, given that he's arrived in the middle of a criminal investigation involving Aegis staff in Germany and as Vincent Bollore continues in his attempts to gain board representation at Aegis.

De Nardis joined Aegis after almost a year on enforced gardening leave after WPP initially held him to 12 months' notice in his role as worldwide executive chairman of Mediaedge:cia. In the end, the two settled and de Nardis joined Aegis in September. He admits the experience made him "suffer", but refuses to dwell on the past and remains philosophical about WPP and Sir Martin Sorrell.

"When one has been treated unfairly, you don't forget but you move on, and I've certainly moved on," de Nardis says. He claims he hardly spoke to Aegis' chief executive, Robert Lerwill, while he served out his gardening leave, but singles him out for special praise.

"Lerwill has been a gentleman. He hasn't put on any pressure. He had to wait a long time between the moment he employed me and the moment I arrived. We didn't speak much during the period but I knew there was a place waiting and he was preparing the ground for me."

The last thing de Nardis needs in his professional life right now is controversy, yet only two months after joining Aegis, a scandal reared its ugly head.

In Germany, the justice department has issued warrants for the arrest of six people in connection with an embezzlement investigation. Three of them, including Alexsander Ruzicka, the former head of Aegis Germany, are former Aegis executives who were suspended by the company in September and later removed from their jobs.

The investigation is ongoing, but it has proven to be an uncomfortable distraction for the media buying group. Aegis appears to be the victim in all this, yet de Nardis denies that Aegis should have picked up on the alleged fraud sooner than it did: "I don't think any company in any business can have security and protection for any possible scenario. If it is proven that it is an important significant criminal case, there is little we can do about it."

Then, last week, the Aegis board saw off Bollore for the second time in five months. Yet the Havas chairman and Aegis' largest shareholder has vowed to make a nuisance of himself until he gets his wish of two seats on the board. De Nardis dismisses the notion that Bollore's determination is unsettling Aegis' staff, investors and clients. He says: "I'm sure that it is a distraction for Lerwill, his team and the board because it is one more element they have to work around. For me, it is not my job to look in that direction, it is my job to look in the other direction, at our people, our clients and our work. We know we have to deliver value to our shareholders, but whether that shareholder is called 'A', 'B', 'C' or 'D' doesn't really make any difference to us as Aegis managers."

As for Lerwill, it's clear he feels a weight has been lifted off his shoulders with the arrival of de Nardis. Lerwill, who has a finance background but no experience of running a media network, decided to employ a global media chief two months after taking on the running of the group, but it's taken almost two years to achieve this.

"I can easily see the material benefits of having him, he understands the business in every sense. He also has huge energy levels and brings with him that passion continental Europeans have. He recently gave a very good presentation to the Aegis board," Lerwill says.

In the presentation, de Nardis outlined his vision for Aegis Media, which was based on three main points. He believes Aegis should move towards being more of a communications agency; become more client centric; and use digital creativity to provide integrated solutions for clients.

De Nardis, who lives up to his reputation for being urbane, sophisticated and immaculately attired in a made-to-measure suit, says: "My focus is to integrate everything we have - geography and disciplines - to make sure we have a more cohesive offer for our clients. I will make Aegis a more international company, capable of managing the large sophisticated global clients of which we have many and which we want many more."

Aegis is hoping its next global win, on the back of Adidas/Reebok, will be Fox Entertainment's $1 billion media business, for which Aegis' Vizeum is pitching against ZenithOptimedia.

De Nardis reveals he has been working closely with Vizeum's chief strategy officer, Malcolm Hunter, on the pitch for the past two months. However, there have been signs of a worrying trend as two of Aegis' biggest global clients, Philips and Pfizer, have respectively called a review and switched to a competitor.

He argues that if you must examine each case individually, Philips is a long-standing client that was duty bound to call a pitch after more than ten years with the agency, and the Pfizer loss was unavoidable following its acquisition by Johnson & Johnson. Yet, set against this, in the first six months of the year, Aegis landed a record $1.3 billion worth of new business. De Nardis' initial challenge is to avoid being put on the back foot with further account losses and continue the growth by landing Fox.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 46
Lives: Chelsea, London, for the past 14 years. Now almost a 100 per cent
Italian quarter, judging by the accents
Family: Partner Nicola, and two sons, Alberico, 14, and Gherardo, 12
Last book read: Montalbano, a fantastic series of detective stories set
in Sicily
Favourite film: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
What do you like most about having a global role? People, building on
points in common, understanding cultures (not the travelling!)
Motto: The glass is always half full

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