Will New Shake-ups Stir Aegis?

Buhlmann Takes Over as Global CEO, but Says It's Still 'Business as Usual'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When Aegis group executives arrive in Beijing this week for the company's global management conference, they'll see quite a different executive team than they would have a month ago.
Mainardo De Nardis
Mainardo De Nardis

Mainardo de Nardis, global CEO of Aegis Media, was forced out late last week and replaced by Jerry Buhlmann, CEO of Aegis Media Europe, Middle East and Africa, in a shake-up that comes just weeks after Aegis Media Americas CEO David Verklin announced he was leaving.

Aegis' split with Mr. de Nardis was prompted by a long-term disagreement with Aegis Group CEO Robert Lerwill over strategy, executives familiar with the matter said. One executive described the relationship as a "power struggle" and another said there was concern on the part of Aegis about Mr. de Nardis' close relationship with executives at rival holding company Havas, which is bidding for Aegis.

Mr. Lerwill declined to give a specific reason for the management change last week. "Mainardo's done nothing wrong," he said. "No big event has caused this; it's an evolution. The board of Aegis and I have decided it's appropriate for Jerry to take over the reins."

When reached on his cellphone on the afternoon of May 9, Mr. de Nardis declined to comment.

More internal than external?
While losing two of its top managers in the span of a month certainly doesn't look good for Aegis, at least one analyst, Justin Diddams at banking group ABN AMRO, said he doesn't see the most recent change as a financial blow to the company.

"This is a bigger deal internally than externally, in our opinion," Mr. Diddams said in a statement. "We know Jerry. He comes across very well and has been running what equates to 70% of the media side of Aegis anyway."

Europe accounts for 70% of Aegis Group's business and 80% of its profits, according to Mr. Lerwill.

But this can't be the outcome Aegis executives had hoped for when Mr. de Nardis came onboard two years ago, after they waited nearly 10 months for him to start due to a non-compete agreement with former boss, WPP's CEO Martin Sorrell.

One of the best-known media executives in Europe, Mr. de Nardis has a reputation for global-network building, likely one of the key reasons Aegis brought him on for the newly created role of global CEO. Before coming to Aegis, Mr. de Nardis was global CEO of Mediaedge:cia. During his time at Aegis, Mr. de Nardis oversaw global growth of the network -- Aegis reported 10.3% organic-growth in 2007 -- and the reorganization of Carat in the U.S. around digital.

U.S. biz struggling
With $1.3 billion in revenue for media operations and accounts including Johnson & Johnson, Adidas and Reebok, Aegis Group's media operations rank fourth in the world, falling behind WPP Group, Omnicom Group and Publicis Groupe, according to Ad Age data. Though the global-growth figures for Aegis have been strong, its U.S. operations have struggled in recent months, with major account losses such as Hyundai Motor Americas.

During his tenure, Mr. de Nardis had to deal with efforts by French financier Vincent Bollore, the chairman of Havas and Aegis' largest individual shareholder, to gain seats of Aegis' management board, a first step in what some say is his ultimate plan: to merge Aegis with Havas' media operations. A merger with Havas' media operations would put combined media revenue for the companies at $1.9 billion. Mr. Bollore is set to make another attempt for seats at a May 23 meeting, but Havas executives are said to not have much confidence in that bid being successful. The latest management exodus is viewed by some, however, as a weakening of Aegis' position.

Despite the management shuffle, Mr. Buhlmann said it will be "business as usual" at Aegis.

"We believe in integration. ... We will continue to build and accelerate in digital ... and extend our geographical range in high-growth markets in Asia, Russia and Latin America."

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Contributing: Laurel Wentz