Stephen Allan, the former global chief executive of WPP’s MediaCom, has joined Brainlabs as executive chairman and become a “significant” shareholder in a sign of founder Daniel Gilbert’s “ambitious” expansion plans for the independent digital media agency.
Allan’s full-time role at Brainlabs marks a return to the agency space for one of the most experienced bosses in global media. He stepped down from WPP 18 months ago after 38 years at MediaCom, Britain’s biggest media agency and one of the largest in the world.
Gilbert, an ex-Googler, who founded Brainlabs in 2012, said that Allan’s decision to join was an “endorsement” of his long-term plan to take on the agency giants globally and become the “number one” player over time.
“It’s not just my ambition, it’s destiny,” Gilbert, the chief executive, told Campaign, adding: “Steve’s not joining for second place [when it comes to competing with other agencies].”
Livingbridge, a private equity firm, bought a minority stake in Brainlabs in 2019. Since then, Brainlabs has tripled in size, partly through acquisition, from about 200 to 650 people.
Most of Brainlabs’ revenue is split roughly equally between its UK home market and the US, with APAC being its fastest-growing region. Gilbert’s medium-term plan is for a 30-30-30-10 split between the US, Europe, APAC and Latin America.
Brainlabs' main offices are in London, New York and Singapore at present.
“Steve’s know-how around global clients will be critical to the next phase of our growth,” Gilbert said. “Steve will help us identify and attract more world-class talent – as well as acquisitions – in new markets we are entering in APAC, Europe & LATAM.”
Brainlabs’ clients include American Express, Formula One and Which?
Allan said: “I am incredibly excited and proud to be joining Brainlabs as executive chairman. They are a leading digital agency who have proven themselves to be a formidable competitor. They have world-class people and capabilities which merit a world stage."
He brings stock market experience from his early days at MediaCom, when it was a listed company known as The Media Business, before going on to build it into a global network as part of Grey Group and then WPP.
“In many ways this opportunity feels like I’m going back to my roots by once again becoming a (co-)owner of the business, by working in a faster decision-making, less complex structure, and in an agency that is leading a new generation of industry disrupters just like we did when media independents first emerged,” Allan said.
“I’m looking forward to taking all I’ve learned over the past 38 years and helping develop our proposition to be even more enticing for global clients and to open Brainlabs all over the world.
“Our industry is shaping up to see a huge disruption over the next 10 years and Brainlabs is perfectly poised to capitalise on the upcoming changes.”
Allan also recently became an investor in UK outdoor media owner, i media, previously known as Admedia, but said he was keen to return to agencies: “It’s the business I know best and still love and where I feel I can add value.”
Gilbert, who is 36, described Allan, 58, as “the GOAT” (greatest of all time) in terms of media agency leaders. The pair have known each other since 2015.
“He is kind, caring, humble and hungry... and a born winner,” Gilbert said. “One day, we are going to be number one in the world and to do that we need to have the best in the world leading us.”
Jim Brigden, who founded The Searchworks, was previously chairman of Brainlabs but switched to become a director after the Livingbridge deal. David Rigby, the current chairman, will continue in a non-executive role.
Gilbert has made a string of senior appointments, including Matt Adams, formerly UK chief executive of Havas Media Group, and Jo Lyall, formerly UK managing director of Mindshare, in recent years.
Focus on being a media agency
Gilbert has previously positioned Brainlabs as a digital marketing agency as data-driven performance marketing took off, but he said “it’s shifting” and he now describes his company as a “digital media agency” – another sign that he wants to take on mainstream players.
“Within a couple of years, we’ll drop the ‘digital’. We’re still digital [for now] – it still means something different but one day it won’t,” he added.
Digital was just a fraction of total adspend when Gilbert started Brainlabs but is now dominant in markets such as the UK and US. “If digital becomes 70% of your budget, your digital media agency becomes the lead agency and the traditional agency becomes more executional,” he said.
Gilbert declined to reveal the scale of Allan’s shareholding and said he was open-minded about whether to seek fresh investment or float on the stock market in future.
“When I look at our publicly traded competitors, I don’t envy how they are subject to the follies of the market,” he explained, noting that private-equity backing has suited Brainlabs.
He ruled out a flotation “for now” but “that’s not never”.