Media Headliner: Isobar's Morris continues on acquisition spree

In 2003, Nigel Morris was charged with a digital quest for the Isobar network. It is starting to pay-off, Alasdair Reid says.

Nigel Morris is nothing if not consistent. We're just a few minutes into our interview, timed to coincide with a new phase in Isobar's evolution (major new appointments, a renewed determination to sell the Isobar properties as a coherent network), when we have the temerity to advance the view that Morris' Isobar acquisition history seems somewhat random and opportunistic.

Hang on, he says. Didn't we put this exact same point to him the last time we interviewed him a couple of years ago? He's right, you know. We did. Further research reveals that the article appeared three years ago, almost to the day. You can sense Morris itching to refer us, like a cornered cabinet minister, to his previous answer.

But he's too nice for that, so he patiently acquaints us, once more, with the plan. How he was first given the brief in 2003 (by Aegis' then chief executive Doug Flynn) to future-proof the group by grabbing a more significant chunk of digital territory. How this led him to draw up a grid, with countries along one axis and required expertise along the other.

The story, since then, has largely been about ensuring that each box is ticked to everyone's satisfaction. And if a pattern has been difficult to discern, that's because it has been important to ensure that the very best agency possible is acquired in each category. Some gaps have taken longer than others to fill. Some, indeed, remain.

"It's not just about putting a flag on the map," Morris explains, "If we're determined to get someone and it proves difficult we won't just give up and buy someone else."

And, of course, it all sort of adds up. It's just that, for the uneducated observer, that's still not really the sense you get of Isobar.

Take the past few months. On 7 January, it acquired White Sheep (full-service digital agency, plus design) in Finland. On 9 April, Checkit (search engine marketing and optimisation) in The Netherlands. 7 May, Age (on- and offline media planning and buying, sports marketing, offline creative services) in Brazil. 13 May, (search) in Germany. Lastly, for now at least, on 4 June, it acquired AdWatch (full-service digital advertising, plus site build) in Russia.

It's mind-boggling when you reflect that this has been going on in fits and starts since 2003. Isobar now has 89 offices in 37 markets around the world. For Morris, it has involved a gruelling schedule. Even now, he confesses to be suffering from a touch of "plane flu".

But it's not just the sheer diversity that makes the casual and uninformed observer pause for thought when invited to think of Isobar as a coherent network. At the simplest level, the main conceptual hurdle to overcome is the fact that, though they are all now wholly Aegis-owned, few of the acquisitions have been rebranded. Glue (Isobar's most prominent UK property, bought in 2005) is still Glue. And to confuse matters even more, the main multi-market brand isn't the Isobar brand, it's iProspect.

So, as Isobar signals new ambitions, is that philosophy about to change? No, Morris reveals, but what is changing is the way that Isobar is positioned with regard to clients and to the wider world. This has been on the agenda since Morris succeeded in signing David Pullan (ex-MTV, Emap and five) to a roving role back in August last year. Then, in March, Pullan was handed the role of director of global client management and he began looking to build a team to sell the network to international clients.

Thus, the rash of appointments earlier this month. The former Naked UK managing partner Niku Banaie joined as vice-president of strategy; Ian James joined from Bacardi to become vice-president of client services; and there were a number of internal transfers and promotions, Jamie Edwards becoming (another) vice-president of client services, Fiona Lloyd, taking up the role of vice-president of programme management and Samuel Tait, stepping into the role of new business director.

In recent weeks, however, rival agencies have been quick (perhaps, on reflection, too quick) to belittle all of this. They argue that few multinational clients are seeking to appoint digital only agencies on a network basis.The trend, they argue, is the opposite. Surely, advertisers want to integrate off- and online thinking, whether it's on the creative or media side.

Morris easily swats that one away, pointing out that Isobar can and does offer a 360-degree service in conjunction with its Carat sister agency network, but that some of the really difficult, interesting and rewarding projects can only really be tackled by specialists. That will increasingly become the case as the market evolves.

It's a compelling theory. All Morris needs to do now to convince the sceptics is to win some pieces of half-decent multinational business from blue chip advertisers. Don't put it past him. He's not just consistent, he's rather persistent too.

"Keeping the different brands is fundamental to the Isobar vision because driving value within the organisation is about diversity," he maintains. "For a start, every market is different, requiring different skill-sets. When we acquire an agency, we are absolutely clear about what we expect. It has to think 'we' before 'I' and be capable of collaborative innovation.

"Clients want teams of really talented people working on their business. They want creativity, innovation and agility. They want their agencies to genuinely work together."

Age: 50
Lives: London
Family: Wife, Jane, and two boys, Leon (eight) and Jago (six)
Interests: Outside work, all sports, running, music, reading, wine
Most treasured possession: My boys
Favourite gadget: Currently, Macbook Air
Favourite website:
Last book you read: A Fine Line