Media Headliner: Francis intends to have fun making Aegis sexy

Aegis Media's next chief executive tells Ian Darby about acquisition plans and building a dream team after his Saatchis move.

Simon Francis is no respecter of the barriers that have grown up between creative and media. Three years ago he left OMD, where he was the EMEA managing director, to "modernise" the creative network Saatchi & Saatchi. Now he's leaving Saatchis to grow the creative resource at a media network.

Later this year Francis will join Aegis Media as its chief executive in the EMEA region (a date has yet to be confirmed but probably in March). It's a post that has been vacant since 2008 when the previous incumbent, Jerry Buhlmann, was promoted to global chief executive of Aegis Media. Buhlmann has moved to fill the role following his own promotion last March to chief executive of Aegis plc.

Francis will take responsibility for around 60 per cent of Aegis Media's revenues and joins a global management team that includes Nigel Sharrocks, who remains as Aegis Media UK chairman, but is also take a global role overseeing Aegis Media's main three brands: Carat, Vizeum and Posterscope.

The appointment of Francis follows a period during which Buhlmann and his team have proved the doubters wrong by preserving Aegis' strength in Europe, not least through some canny investment in digital that has seen the company build non-traditional revenues to 36 per cent of its total globally.

Francis has a broad task but a key element will be to help digital shop Isobar develop its creative agency credentials. He says: "What I want is Isobar to become a fully rounded, fully fledged creative agency across Europe. Not a digital agency, a creative agency."

He will work closely on this with Isobar's chief executive, Mark Cranmer, as it looks to build creative resource beyond existing agencies such as Glue Isobar in London. Aegis already has 2,000 staff globally working in "creative origination" as Buhlmann calls it, so Francis has a platform on which to build.

Francis believes that there is also a job to be done in transforming Aegis' profile: "Aegis is nimble, innovative and independent enough to be able to master its own destiny. It's different in some of the large holding companies. The thing it doesn't have is the sex appeal it should - the planning product is great, as is the work on clients such as Adidas, Reebok and Coke. I love creativity and innovation and I really want to encourage that."

Starting his ad career at Leo Burnett, Francis has a rounded CV that includes time as a strategy director at Mindshare, the OMD role and then the Saatchis role. He says he doesn't see himself as a media man but somebody who strives to deliver a "genuine fusion of discipline and skills".

While he didn't leave Saatchis under a cloud - he says the Aegis job was just too big and challenging to turn down - there are signs that he grew frustrated with the slow progress he was making in changing the business.

He arrived at Saatchis three years ago with "a mission to update and create a modern network".

Francis says there was a perception at the time of it "not being digital or media enough".

So did he achieve things at Saatchis? Up to a point. It now operates in fewer silos, has won awards in every category at Cannes, and has doubled non-traditional revenues to 40 per cent of the total, while Francis also pulled off the new-business coup of securing the network's prized Toyota account across Europe.

One Saatchis source says: "He did a good job of cleaning up the housekeeping but his aspirations of doing more were never going to work. But he's thoroughly capable and any legacy he'll leave is one of high energy enthusiasm."

Francis says of his time there: "You could say the first phase was complete but I grew a little frustrated with some of the politics and the speed of change - I couldn't buy some of the stuff I wanted to."

Critics of Francis suggest that he remained a dyed-in-the-wool media man who never really understood the end creative product, but you don't get this sense from his own statements. His main frustrations lie with the attitudes of those at media agencies rather than the creative community.

He says media agency attitudes surprised him during his time at Saatchis: "I was shocked to see the complacency and arrogance of some of the media agencies. A lot just don't want to engage with the ad agencies. I really value the power of strategic planning but this still doesn't live in all of the media agencies."

He accuses some of being "almost lazy" in their push into creativity but says he is looking forward to working closely with the more creatively focused media owners. However, he doesn't see the position as a fight to the death between ad and media agencies. "Everyone can win," he says. "The primary thing is having strategic logic and insight, a powerful and simple idea and faultless execution across touchpoints. Whoever executes this deserves to win."

Francis says the Aegis post is different to his previous jobs in that "I'm not coming in being expected to perform triage". Carat remains the largest media network in Europe with billings of $10.2 billion, putting it $1.3 billion ahead of nearest rival MediaCom, according to Recma figures. Aegis Media (second behind WPP in Europe with total billings of $13.25 billion) is strong in the UK, Central and Eastern Europe and remains a powerhouse in France. However, Francis knows that he has a job to do in Germany, where Aegis has struggled to build market share.

He adds that his strategy will be flexible but confirms that he will look at creative acquisitions: "I will look at whatever is the right thing in each market - either acquiring for scale, skill or geographical need. Isobar and the digital area represents an opportunity - a lot of the great independent creative agencies don't want to be bought by one of the existing holding company groups."

Buhlmann is confident that Francis can succeed. He says: "Simon comes in as a great operator who will complement the senior team. We need an outstanding leader with brand expertise. Simon has experience of media and advertising and comes with a great reputation and a grasp of integration and communications centric models."

In the meantime, Francis has some gardening leave ahead of him which he will put to good use by going fly-fishing in Venezuela and on a skiing trip with his family. And then he'll turn his attentions to Aegis.

Francis says he wants to surround himself with some interesting people and likens his quest for talent to that of assembling "The Dirty Dozen": scrappers and wildmen that wouldn't look out of place at "the Battle of the Bulge". Some would say that Aegis already possesses its fair share of bruisers but Francis is talking more about talent that can move beyond the increasingly mechanised and commoditised approach that has seeped into media to make Aegis creative and sexy. That's a big challenge but Francis is determined to have fun in attempting to pull it off.

Age: 43
Lives: West Sussex
Family: Laura, Tabitha, Poppy, the dogs, hamster and fish
Most treasured possession: A fully functioning liver
Last book read: Technically speaking, Dolphin In The Deep read to Poppy;
The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane read by me, to me
Interests outside work: Fly-fishing, cycling, trying to get bargains in
antique dealers and auction rooms
Alternative career: PE teacher
Motto: Dream big, dare to fail (Norman Vaughan)


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