Media Headliner: Cranmer makes his return to the media coalface

Mark Cranmer has ended his four-year exile by taking the reins of Aegis Media's digital network Isobar.

It was only a matter of time. When Mark Cranmer announced in 2005 that he was leaving Starcom MediaVest, where he'd been the EMEA chief executive, the consensus was that he'd soon be back. The media business was surely in his blood.

And the assumption persisted even when, in 2006, he chose to join WPP's market research company Research International as its chief executive.

It was undented even in February 2008, when, having moved on from Research International, he reappeared not as a major force but as a more shadowy presence, working for Aegis as a consultant. Ah yes, some said, but this, surely, was merely as precursor to him being found a more senior role.

All of which only goes to prove that, if you stick to your guns, you're bound to be right eventually.

Last week, it was announced that Cranmer is succeeding Nigel Morris as the chief executive of Isobar - Morris is being parachuted in to re-energise Aegis Media North America, whose Carat US operation has been troubled of late.

Cranmer is understandably raring to go - and he starts this week. More than anything, though, you can't help feeling he's immensely grateful for this opportunity to get back into the media game, not just at a suitably senior level but at its cutting edge. He says he's learned a lot, not least about himself, since leaving Starcom.

He's learned what some of us thought we already knew - that research isn't really his thing. Nor is consultancy. "I've learned that I need to be on the field of play," he says, pursuing a football analogy. "I need a shirt on my back and the knowledge that I'll be playing every game."

Hang on, though. Didn't he leave the Starcom job because he was (among other things) thoroughly sick and tired of the incessant travelling involved? And isn't the Isobar job - certainly as embodied by Morris - even worse in that respect? Cranmer can surely look forward once more to some liberal doses of plane flu.

Or perhaps not. Sources close to Cranmer have always maintained that the travel issue was a red herring - not even close to the top of his list of reasons for deciding he couldn't work for Publicis Groupe anymore. He actually travels rather well.

And, in any case, the nature of the Isobar job has changed. Morris spent much of his time on a plane because he was jetting around the world buying up companies. Between 2003 and 2008, he built Isobar into a network embracing more than 100 companies in 38 markets. Jewels in the crown include glue and iProspect.

Tellingly, though, the most recent deal went through in October last year. And though Jerry Buhlmann, Aegis Media's chief executive, maintained last week that there will be a continuing commitment to filling whatever gaps there are in the Isobar portfolio, the market at large will assume that the empire building phase is over for now.

Cranmer says he can't yet talk about the nuts and bolts of the job - and insists, with disarming modesty, that he's very relieved that Morris, who retains his role in the senior Aegis strategic team, will only be a phone call away.

Morris, incidentally, will have his work cut out in the States. He was handed the job following the departure "by mutual agreement" of the previous North America boss, Sarah Fay. Her position became awkward following a series of account losses (notably Hyundai/Kia and Pfizer's over-the-counter business) at Carat in the US.

Not all her fault, admittedly, but even insiders admit that the agency has become accident-prone - leaked details of redundancy proposals last year were highly embarrassing - and, though Carat US is reckoned (again, according to Aegis sources) to be fundamentally sound as a business, it desperately needs to win a pitch or two.

Aegis is feeling under pressure at a group level too. Last week, it revealed that revenues were down 11.6 per cent over the first quarter, much worse than the markets were expecting - and the share price wobbled accordingly.

So, in some senses, it's an awkward time to be taking up the reins of a global agency network, even a digital one. Understandably, though, Cranmer prefers to focus on the notion that this is a wonderful opportunity for him to bring his big-picture communications business skills to bear.

He points out, for instance, that Isobar houses creative as well as more analytics-driven companies. Cranmer built his reputation at the leading full-service agencies of recent times - Lowe Howard-Spink in the 80s and Bartle Bogle Hegarty in the 90s. He'll certainly be able to make sense of the diverse Isobar family of companies.

But is the digital world ready for Cranmer's sometimes robust management style? There's no doubting his enduring love for the communications business - but, for colleagues, it can sometimes seem to be an uncompromisingly tough love.

Cranmer's friend David Pattison, who made a similar career move in 2007 (he became i-level's chief executive but has since stepped back to become a non-executive chairman), argues that Cranmer is exactly the sort of character that the digital world needs - and that this is a great time for him to join Isobar.

He concludes: "The digital space realises it needs to learn skills from the wider marketplace. It has to grow up and get more strategic - and Mark is a strategic grown-up."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 51
Lives: South-West London
Family: One wife, four kids
Interests outside work: Family, sport, rock music
Most treasured possession: A shoebox full of ticket stubs
Favourite gadget: Mobile phone
Favourite websites: Spotify, Wolfgang's Vault
Last book you read: The Battle For Spain by Antony Beevor

Topics