Media Headliner: Is this the man who will put Aegis up for sale?

The surprise replacement for Doug Flynn has a reputation for being a 'sound finance guy'. Alasdair Reid reports.

Robert Lerwill, the newly anointed successor to Doug Flynn as the chief executive at Aegis, is not the most enthusiastic or forthcoming of interviewees. He's quite happy to share some initial thoughts about the nature of the task facing him. It's a bullet-point summary, re-emphasising the "steady as she goes" message that the company has been spinning in the City. Because, of course, Lerwill is already a non-executive director of the company.

"I know the senior management and have supported (their) strategy, so it should be a fairly easy transition - which is an advantage for clients and shareholders," he states.

But when we push him for a more in-depth chat, he begins to fight shy.

In the end, he goes completely to ground - and even his public relations team can't get hold of him. "Perhaps he's decided it's better to wait until he's got his feet under the table," they suggest, helpfully.

We have, it has to be said, come across more enthusiastic newly appointed leaders of public limited companies. Which is perhaps odd, given that the Aegis board wasn't exactly hesitant or reluctant when it decided to give him the job.

However, there was astonishment in some City quarters when Lerwill was appointed. The resignation of Flynn, the Aegis chief executive since 1999, was made public in a newspaper on Sunday 6 February; within hours, Lerwill's succession had been confirmed to the Stock Exchange.

As the financial community digested these whirlwind events over Sunday lunch, the questions were as obvious as they were insistent. Wouldn't it have been wiser, they wondered, for Aegis to think through what sort of chief executive it needed - and then go through a more considered process to find the right person?

Plumping for a non-executive director (he hasn't been active in management since leaving Cable & Wireless, where he was a regional director, in 2003) is often problematical, many say. Non-executive directors, after all, are placed on boards to offer wise counsel and to exercise a restraining influence. The chief executive job spec is somewhat different.

It's true that Flynn came into the top Aegis job via this route. To do it once, some observers say, is chancing your arm; to do it twice is riding your luck. In any case, Flynn was tough, abrasive and uncompromising.

In contrast, Lerwill is thoroughly managerial - as one would expect from a graduate of the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program.

Lerwill, 53, is seen in the world of chartered accountancy as a man of great charisma and leadership qualities - but that's a recommendation that isn't always compelling in the broader business arena.

According to those who've worked with him, he aspires to statesman-like gravitas - reminiscent of a comforatble Tory backbencher from the more well-mannered wing of the party. He's clearly a sound chap - not prone to dangerous enthusiasms.

There are those, however, who ponder his track record. Between 1986 and 1996, he was the finance director at WPP - but some argue that he was marginalised (to the extent that he was given leave to go to Harvard) before he left. And he had no direct involvement in the creation of MindShare, which was launched after he departed. His spell at Cable & Wireless, where he was the finance director before becoming a regional director, coincided with troubled times for the telecoms giant.

At Aegis, he approved Flynn's strategy - especially as regards diversification into research and growth in the US; and he is apparently committed to continuing it now. One viewpoint in the City is that when a company's future is in question, a fresh pair of eyes can make all the difference.

And, despite some enthusiasm in the City (analysts at Investec recently tipped its shares as a good buy), uncertainty will continue to dog Aegis: it is the last unaligned player of any significance in the media buying business and Omnicom has been allegedly stalking it for as long as anyone can remember. In that respect, it was more than a little careless when it lost its two most valuable European assets, Eryck Rebbouh and Bruno Kemoun, the joint chief executives of Aegis Media Europe, who departed in 2003 after a row with Flynn. The pair have set up KR Media, which has backing from WPP and half an eye on Aegis clients, so there's still a big job to be done in bolting that particular door.

But Lerwill's first big task will be getting to know his senior management team. So far, according to insiders, he has taken little interest in the company beyond board meetings: he has a macro understanding of the business but no appreciation of the local nuts and bolts. However, he did start well by chairing a meeting of Aegis' media executives last week.

The City awaits developments with interest. As one strand of opinion has it, if you put in a strong, charismatic person who can get the best out of a highly talented management team as well as going out there and acting as an aggressive ambassador for the brand, that's one strategy.

On the other hand, they reckon, if you appoint a sound finance guy, no more and no less, you shouldn't complain when everyone suspects that your agenda is about getting the business in perfect shape for a sale.


1973: Arthur Andersen, article clerk to senior manager

1986: WPP, group finance director

1996: Cable & Wireless, group finance director

2000: Cable & Wireless, chief executive (regional division)

2005: Aegis, chief executive