Jerry Buhlmann, former global chief executive of Dentsu Aegis Network, is returning to the agency sector as non-executive chairman of UK-based digital marketing agency Croud.
Buhlmann was one of the most senior figures in global advertising in the past decade and his decision to join Croud, rather than a more established business, is a surprise move and a vote of confidence in the relatively young agency, which was founded in 2011.
"He is A-league when it comes to our industry and brings a wealth of experience to our business," Luke Smith, co-founder and chief executive of Croud, said.
Buhlmann is taking a small, undisclosed stake – two months after Smith and his co-founder, Ben Knight, sold a minority shareholding for £30m to private-equity business LDC to fuel their expansion plans.
Smith described Buhlmann’s appointment as "a huge validation" of both "the business the Croud team has built" and the "decision to remain independent and partner with LDC".
LDC introduced Buhlmann to Croud, which said his role will be "to support the management and board of Croud and accelerate the agency’s global growth".
Smith, who has said a stock market flotation is one long-term possibility, claims Croud’s revenue grew 40% last year.
Disruption in the agency sector
Croud is one of a new breed of UK performance marketing specialists, which also include Jellyfish and Brainlabs, that have emerged at a time of major disruption in the agency sector.
The company has 200 staff in London, Shrewsbury, New York and Sydney, plus a flexible, global "crowdsourced" network of more than 2,300 freelancers, known as Croudies. It has developed a tech platform, Serpico, for clients to run in-house campaigns.
Croud’s technology "automates what slows other agencies down and delivers clients dramatically more impactful and efficient results", according to the company.
Buhlmann said: "Croud is an exceptional business with a high-performance culture delivering innovation and value to its clients."
Its "new technology, new client-focused services and business models", he added, can "drive value for all their stakeholders".
Buhlmann continued: "Both Luke and Ben are dedicated and visionary leaders, and I’m looking forward to supporting them to continue Croud’s outstanding growth and success."
He described the Croudie model as "very rigorous, scalable, highly cost-effective and pretty unique", adding: "We all know the gig economy has a future. It’s all about how you execute it."
The former Dentsu Aegis Network boss added that when he was deciding whether to join Croud, he was impressed that it has some of the highest customer satisfaction scores he had seen in the advertising sector.
Smith said: "With Jerry’s support and guidance, we can continue on our mission to become the world’s finest technology and communications group over the next decade.
"We’re privileged that Jerry has chosen to be part of our next phase and we’re looking forward to having his wisdom and drive to continue our run of global growth."
Experience of start-ups and the stock market
Buhlmann, who is 60, brings experience of being an agency entrepreneur and of leading a company on the stock market.
He first made his name as co-founder of BBJ Media in 1989 during a previous period of disruption in the agency sector as a wave of independent media shops started up.
Buhlmann went on to sell his agency to Aegis Media in 1999 and stayed with the company.
He became chief executive of Aegis Group in 2010 when it was a FTSE-250 company, before selling it for £3.2bn to Dentsu in 2012 and went on to lead Dentsu Aegis Network.
By the time Buhlmann left after 29 years at the end of 2018, the agency group employed more than 40,000 people.
He spent the next 12 months as an advisor to Dentsu but he no longer has any ties. His old employer owns several agencies, including iProspect and Merkle, that operate in a similar field to Croud.
In addition to his new position, Buhlmann is also senior independent director of Inchcape, a FTSE-250 international car distributor and dealer.
Alex de Groote, analyst at boutique investment bank Trillium Partners, who covered Aegis Group when it was on the stock market, said: "LDC will view Buhlmann’s appointment as a badge of credibility for Croud, both in the industry and amongst private-equity investors and agency groups.
"Private equity as an investor is often wary of advertising, even if tech-enabled – and Buhlmann’s status will help to de-risk that."