The World: Morris says Isobar is confounding its doubters

Aegis' digital umbrella brand is finding its feet faster than many expected. Its worldwide president talks to Alasdair Reid.

When Aegis rolled out Isobar as the new worldwide umbrella brand for its digital agencies, there were, it has to be said, some sceptics, not least at Campaign. It didn't help, in some people's eyes, that Isobar's launch was followed in the UK by a rebranding of Carat Interactive - the group's strongest and most enduring digital brand - as Diffiniti.

There were those who thought they could detect smoke, mirrors and just a touch of hype. Diffiniti, one waggish commentator said, clearly encapsulated the agency's positioning: "Definitive, interactive and a little bit iffy."

But, one year on (it was born on 5 July 2004), perceptions have moved on. Isobar's strategic philosophy is a lot clearer, it is a strong growth performer for its parent company - and the speed at which it has worked to plug gaps and enhance its network has surprised many observers. It has, for instance, made 13 acquisitions in the past year and some, such as its purchase of the leading Swedish digital creative hotshop, Farfar, have been inspired.

The goal set in July 2004 was for Isobar to offer a digital full-service capability (including online creative, online media, site build, search optimisation and transactional expertise) in the world's top 40 markets, as ranked by digital media consumption, by July 2006.

As of mid-July of this year, the network was operating in 29 markets and could boast a full-service portfolio in only 14 of those. However Nigel Morris, the worldwide president of Isobar, says the project is on track to meet its target. At the current rate of growth, he could well end up being proved right, what with acquisitions and start-ups coming along at a rate of more than one a month. Last week, for instance, the project entered market number 30, Japan, with the launch of Diffiniti Digital in Tokyo. Its boss is Keith Pinney, who has been parachuted in from One Digital in Australia to start the company from scratch.

"The strategy is straightforward," Morris explains."If there is a market where we need to augment our expertise, we will look for a company to buy. If we can't find it, we will look to do an organic start-up or transfer people in."

Isobar's rivals have always assumed that a group with a purely media buying heritage would never really manage to get its head around the creative mindset and would struggle to manage the talent it acquired when it bought new agencies.

The Aegis group, after all, has its origins at the no-nonsense end of the media buying market. Those who seek to portray it as a fundamentally dull organisation can always point to the prosaic nature of its ambitions on the research side - the companies housed in its Synovate division.

Add to that some internal troubles at group level, with senior resignations and defections triggered by simmering disagreements about corporate strategy.

But Isobar, seemingly, has flown high above such turbulence. True, it started from a substantial base - 25 operations in 19 countries. These were companies that had been set up piecemeal or acquired on an opportunistic basis by local management (usually national Carat offices - Carat Interactive was present in 20 markets when Isobar launched) around the world since the mid-90s. And, because they were robust operations in the classic Aegis mould, they came through the recession relatively unscathed.

Isobar's worldwide billings when it launched were already $500 million.

When Morris got the go-ahead to launch the umbrella structure last year, the Aegis board assumed he would seek to rebrand each and every office as Isobar. He counselled strongly against that approach. He explains: "Every single company we'd acquired had been built on a vision and had developed a distinctive culture. The last thing we wanted to do was make it all vanilla. Clients love to work with small groups of inspired people, underpinned by a bigger group."

Some clients do, it's true - especially in new areas such as digital.

Isobar is currently a matrix structure, with individual digital company bosses reporting to their local Aegis boss as well as to Morris. But some advertisers quite like vanilla too and, as this sector matures and becomes mainstream, they may well demand more network consistency. At least, that is the view of some of Isobar's rivals, who are tending more towards a homo-genous approach.

Morris says that he tends not to lose sleep over what his rivals think - and, in any case, he's far too busy flying around the world buying or starting companies. Isobar, he reckons, is already among the top- five digital advertising networks in the world.

And if Morris meets his expansion targets over the next year, then the network might find itself even better-placed.

He concludes: "The thing that makes Isobar a no-brainer for us is that, in many markets, digital will account for 50 per cent of all media consumption by 2007.

"Some agencies still think that new media is just another means of running linear advertising. It isn't. It's a lot more than that. That's one of the reasons that Isobar is so exciting - what we're trying to do is create a different kind of agency network appropriate for digital."


Positioning: "A global network aligning all of Aegis' digital and one-to-one assets under a single umbrella"

Billings: $600 million. Isobar revenues for 2004 were £52 million and are expected to be £100 million for 2005

Staff: 1,050+ (rising by the week: a year ago, the number was 350)

Acquisitions in the last year: WWINS in Taipei and Shanghai; One Digital in Sydney; AgencyW in Korea; iProspect in Massachusetts; De-construct in London; Farfar in Stockholm; Molecular, also in Massachusetts; Hypermedia in Warsaw, and Digithais in Bangkok.