Media Headliner: Hardman Buhlmann secures Aegis global crown

Aegis Media's new chief executive will try to replicate EMEA-region growth levels in emerging markets, Ian Darby writes.

Shockwaves have been reverberating around Aegis Media following the ousting of Mainardo de Nardis, its chief executive, a fortnight ago. Step forward Jerry Buhlmann, the chief executive of Aegis Media EMEA, who was immediately promoted to replace de Nardis, having run a region responsible for bringing in 70 per cent of its revenues.

While the supporters of de Nardis, who presided over organic revenue growth of 10.3 per cent in 2007, claim that he was frustrated with Aegis' status as a company "up for sale", overly driven by its share price and short-term gains, other observers take the view that de Nardis was not able to impose himself in the role, and that Buhlmann is the man to help the business progress. They also suggest that de Nardis' friendship with the Rodes family, shareholders at Havas, was an irritant. One source claims: "By the time Mainardo arrived, too much of the strategy had already been set. He wasn't able to make any real impact or difference to the business."

Buhlmann is renowned as a tough operator who has risen up the Aegis ladder on the back of a strong relationship with its previous chief executive, Doug Flynn. He moved from Carat International to the Aegis EMEA role in 2003, taking on what many observers assumed was the impossible task of replacing the French "twins" Bruno Kemoun and Eryck Rebbouh, who had defected to launch their own agency, KR Media. Defying expectations, Aegis Media has grown its EMEA revenues by 50 per cent in the past three years.

There have been blips along the way: KR Media biting chunks out of Carat's business in France and then an awkward incident of alleged fraud by employees of Aegis Media Germany. However, Aegis' chief executive, Robert Lerwill, says: "Jerry managed all that exceptionally well. In addition, he's a good client man. Across the whole spectrum - acquisitions, clients and the complicated business issues we faced in France and Germany - he has proved to be a well-balanced, broad-based manager."

Lerwill says of the change in leadership: "Mainardo came in as the first chief executive of Aegis Media, and contributed a lot in creating that role and in terms of bringing a global perspective. In good businesses, making change is often harder than natural evolution. But to me, this isn't a disturbing event.We've had the foresight to look to the future, and Jerry will do an outstanding job and has the unanimous support of his colleagues."

Campaign met with Buhlmann just two days into the job and two days ahead of his public unveiling as the boss of Aegis Media at its worldwide conference in Beijing. Buhlmann talks of bringing a sense of collaboration to the operation: "I'll be making sure people focus on the right issues, and lead by example. I enjoy giving talented people the room to grow and evolve. You have to give talented people that, so it's about encouraging them and showing that I have confidence in them."

There is, however, some doubt that Buhlmann can pull this off. One source says: "Jerry is a great survivor and highly complex. Among some of the people who have worked for him, he's not well liked. Credit to him, he's a tough competitor, but I can't see him as a network-inclusive person."

Nigel Sharrocks, the chief executive of Aegis Media UK, refutes this and says Buhlmann is good at managing his team: "You'd be amazed how much the management is united behind Jerry. He lets me get on with things and it's the same with other Aegis Media heads in markets. Mainardo came into a situation where there was already a strong team behind Jerry, so this is really a vote of confidence in that."

Jed Glanvill, the chief executive of MindShare UK, worked for Buhlmann for eight years at BBJ (the agency Buhlmann sold to Aegis in 1999). He says: "He is a very tough operator and is passionate about the business and pushing media up the client agenda. He is misunderstood because some people see him as ruthless, but, while he doesn't suffer fools, he's incredibly loyal to the people he likes."

As for his strategy, Buhlmann will be pursuing more of the same ("the business doesn't need fixing: it needs to accelerate"). He adds: "In terms of strategy, it will continue as it is at the moment, but going faster. Clearly, there will be a strong focus on delivering digital, expanding geographically and expanding new business."

Buhlmann won't say if he plans to replace himself in the EMEA role and dismisses suggestions that Aegis Media is over-reliant on the EMEA region - this despite its relative weakness in the US, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. Recent major wins (such as Johnson & Johnson and General Motors) may have been in the EMEA region, but Buhlmann asserts that these growth levels can be replicated in emerging markets.

He argues that Aegis Media is far from driven by thoughts of a sale to Havas or anybody else. The fact that it derives 26 per cent of revenues from digital and the strong culture it has created in local markets are particular sources of pride for him.

But what will he get out of the job? "I really enjoy the variety, meeting smart people in different cultures. The energy, enthusiasm and passion you find in a lot of the emerging world are inspiring. It's good for me to tune into this, and I'm relishing the challenge."

Age: 48
Lives: Chobham, Surrey
Family: Wife - Lisa, one daughter, two sons, two stepdaughters
Most treasured possession: Keys to wine cellar
Last book you read: The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda
Interests outside work: Shooting, skiing, fine wine, family
Favourite journey: Going home after long business trip