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Stef Calcraft: 'I'm a brand and consumer business guy'

Mother co-founder Stef Calcraft wasn't an obvious choice to head the UK arm of media behemoth Dentsu Aegis Network. But he hopes time spent client-side will provide strong foundations for his mandate for change.

Stef Calcraft: 'I'm a brand and consumer business guy'

Stef Calcraft is standing next to a noisy construction site in the shadow of Facebook’s London office on the Euston Road, explaining how Dentsu Aegis Network’s new offices will be a modern, progressive place to work.

But it could take a while for Calcraft, who started in a newly created role as executive chairman of the UK and Ireland in January, to deliver his vision – at least when it comes to the media-buying group’s new home, which is a few hundred metres from its existing offices.

The building won’t be completed until 2022 and there could be unexpected developments. Just a day after Calcraft talked to Campaign, Jerry Buhlmann, global chief executive of Dentsu Aegis Network, unexpectedly quit after nine years.

There was surprise at Calcraft’s appointment a year ago because the Mother co-founder brought no experience of media agencies, bar a nonexecutive role on the board of pioneering but now defunct Naked Communications.

However, he believes he brings a more important quality to the job of running the 4,000-strong UK and Ireland operation, which includes Carat, Fetch, iProspect, Merkle and Vizeum, because he has been a client. "I’m not a media guy. I’m not an ad guy either. I’m a brand and consumer business guy," Calcraft says.

He describes himself as "a country boy" who grew up in Sussex, before starting his career at Unilever where Dave Lewis, now chief executive of Tesco, was a contemporary and remains a friend.

Calcraft loved Unilever’s "amazing ethos" and "history of excellence" and "I learnt so much". He recalls his days as a Persil brand manager as he explains how Dentsu Aegis Network can win in the digital economy – by being a business partner, not just an agency partner, for brands that need to grow and transform.

"I’m most well known for Mother," he says, referring to his 20 years at the independent creative shop, which he left in 2015, after selling his stake for £6m. "But how I look at the world now is how I looked at the world when I was at Unilever. Deep down, I’m a progressive client. I’m most interested in business and how creativity in the round can affect things positively."

"And the tools and the capabilities that we have now are unimaginable versus what we had at Unilever. No-one could have predicted what now exists – it’s amazing," he continues, extolling the virtues of M1, Dentsu Aegis Network’s "peoplebased marketing" data platform, which claims to have details on 51 million British adults.

"Typically, you will have heard a lot of people in agencies bemoaning the fact that they don’t have as much access to the C-suite as they used to. When you’re talking about organising around data and then using that to drive better outcomes and to create the best possible experience – that is a CEO level and CMO level conversation. For me, this is the most exciting time to be working in marketing and consumer businesses ever."

Calcraft, the son of two academics, has a degree in biological sciences and a Masters in international relations ("I’m left and right brain"). He is debonair, with a penchant for loafers and blazers, and retains the youthful air of a new-business executive.

Lowdown
Age 55
Lives South-west London
Family Married to Tara with three children, Harry (10), Honor (eight), Elodie (five)
Favourite media Netflix. Currently into Ozark
Interests my wonderful family and friends, theatre, escaping to West Sussex most weekends
One thing you don't know about me I grew up in deepest, darkest West Sussex, a million light years away from now
The future of media is… with creative people

Robert Saville, chairman and co-founder of Mother, says: "His greatest strength is his positivity. He is a very principled man with strong beliefs and belief in his team. At the point he comes up against a brick wall, the wall better be worried. He won’t take no for an answer."

Dentsu Aegis Network, which is overseen by Giulio Malegori in Europe, sought new blood after losing key UK accounts, including Asda, BMW and 21st Century Fox. The group hailed Calcraft’s arrival as a "transformational appointment" and gave him a mandate for change.

"What I have found is extraordinary capabilities that were not organised as well as they might have been here," Calcraft says, explaining how different agencies were not connected enough. "On occasion, they were hunting by themselves."

He believes Dentsu Aegis Network’s existing strategy, focused on "data-driven innovation and growth", can be "profoundly valuable" for clients, if it is more joined up. "Good data makes everything better," he says.

One of his early moves has been to put search experts from iProspect and trading people from Amplifi back on the same floor as flagship media agency Carat and to get them working together. Calcraft, who has a buzzphrase for everything, talks about "the United States of DAN", stressing the importance of agency brands.

He has made personnel changes, promoting Jo Sutherland to chief executive of Carat and hiring another senior woman, Pippa Glucklich, to head Amplifi. He has also recruited from Liberty Global, Sky and BT – "client organisations," he notes – to fill finance, HR and data roles.

Importantly, Dentsu Aegis Network has won UK clients, including the Co-operative Group’s £50m account – a collaboration between the London and North teams – and Heineken’s £40m business. Other local wins have included Pandora and World Wildlife Fund, plus the defence of Mondelez, while the group retained Microsoft and picked up Intel globally.

Calcraft credits M1 for helping to win much of the business and says: "We’re moving ahead now because we’re marshalling ourselves properly."

There have been setbacks. Losing the UK government’s £150m buying account looked a foregone conclusion after the client admitted it was too price-focused previously, but the AA is also departing and GoCompare is reviewing.

Calcraft admits the operation is "not yet" match-fit. He wants more leaders who can be "as compelling as possible with clients" and promises to improve training to "equip" staff. "I have a one-liner: ‘You don’t work for DAN, DAN works for you,’" he says.

One Dentsu Aegis Network insider thinks that Calcraft should be "more radical" and "more decisive". Other industry figures say his big challenge is "operationalising the business" because it has made a lot of acquisitions and wonder if the network should appoint a UK chief executive or chief operating officer. Both roles were dropped when Tracy De Groose and Mark Creighton left in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Dentsu Aegis Network could be truly radical if it were more transparent on media trading but Calcraft brushes off a question about whether it should endorse ISBA’s tougher framework for clients to use in their contracts – something none of the big six agency groups has done. "What’s healthy is being honest and clear [with clients] about your commercial relationship," he says.

At the point Stef comes up aaginst a brick wall, the wall better be worried. He won't take no for an answer
– Robert Saville, chairman and co-founder, Mother

Those who know Calcraft say he contemplated life outside adland when he left Mother and chaired food company London Union, owner of Street Feast, but he has returned with gusto. "He’s been relentless in his drive to create energy, new leadership and a sense of momentum," James Murphy, co-founder of Adam & Eve/DDB, says.

Calcraft, "the brand and consumer business guy", does sound like an outsider but he says "I feel very at home", describing Dentsu Aegis Network as "inherently entrepreneurial" and "focused on the future". He enthuses about how "some of the biggest advertisers didn’t exist 10 years ago" and how he expects more staff will be "embedded" inside clients’ offices. "I see co-location as essential," he says in a tacit acknowledgement about the need for change as consultants enter marketing services and some clients consider in-housing.

Acquisitions are also on his agenda. He is "hunting some big ones" and is "very interested in progressive creative agencies". The group already owns Mcgarrybowen, which has "reinvented itself" in the US but hasn’t fulfilled its potential yet, he says.

Calcraft believes that Dentsu Aegis Network is about "so much more" than media. "I love media. I always have. I’ve got some very good friends and relationships with many of the media agencies around the UK and globally," he says. "But what’s interesting is the combination of that with data and the combination of that with creativity. At Dentsu Aegis Network, we can do that."

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