De Nardis' First Year at Aegis: Headaches, Profit

Q&A: How CEO of Media Arm Has Thrived Despite Scandal and Bolloré Demands

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Mainardo de Nardis, one of Europe's best-known media executives, last year stepped into the newly created role of CEO of Aegis Media, the world's fourth-largest media specialist and the biggest outside the U.S. Aegis had kept the job open after Mr. de Nardis' previous boss, Martin Sorrell -- annoyed by his departure as global CEO at WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia -- took him to court to enforce most of a one-year noncompete agreement.
Mainardo de Nardis
Mainardo de Nardis

Now the Italian, who has lived in London for 15 years, has spent a year at Aegis dealing with everything from Havas Chairman Vincent Bolloré demanding seats on the Aegis Group board to reassuring German clients after Aegis' top executive in the country was accused of embezzlement. Aegis recently announced healthier-than-expected half-year profit, thanks partly to more than $1.5 billion in new business from marketers such as 20th Century Fox and Johnson & Johnson.

Advertising Age: What has been your focus during your first 12 months at Aegis?

Mainardo de Nardis: Firstly, to have the best-in-class specialist disciplines. It doesn't matter if it's mobile, search, web design, buying, planning or whatever, you have to have a point of difference. Secondly, integration. This has two different levels. One is the obvious integration between disciplines that our clients are asking for, and the second is regional integration, which didn't really exist before I arrived. Aegis had three big blocks -- Americas, Europe and Asia -- and I can't really say that they were delivering at their maximum level because each of them had a different management, different strategy, different approach. The first thing I did in my first week is to create a global board to put these three together. I don't want to sound arrogant, but we are a better global player today than we were a year ago.

Ad Age: What are the key issues you face?

Mainardo de Nardis: The balance between integration and specialization. Integration is very easy -- you just change the structure, put everything together in one [profit-and-loss statement] and you're all done. The problem is that when you integrate you tend to lose quality. Specialists need to work with specialists; if you take them out of their community to create an integrated approach, they lose quality and become generalists. Nobody is really getting it right, and it's not easy. It means radically different organizations down to new evaluation methods, new incentive systems, new office architecture where you can have people working as specialists and part of integrated clients teams simultaneously without having double the space because nobody can afford it. So you need to redesign and rethink how an agency works and all the processes to accomplish this. If you speak to Coke or Procter, they get it perfectly, and they want to look at it not over the next 12 months but over the next five years, because they know that too much integration on day one means lack of specialization on day two.

Ad Age: What has surprised you about Aegis?

Mr. de Nardis: Three weeks into the job I was surprised, if that is the right word, what happened in Germany with Aleksander Ruzicka [former Aegis Media Germany chief executive and chief of central Europe and the Baltics, who has been accused of embezzlement and awaits further proceedings]. Of course, he was a name in the industry in Europe. I knew him and had tried to employ him in the past. It's unpleasant. It was a surprise for everybody. Inevitably it was very unsettling in the first few weeks. A month later I can't say it was forgotten, but there was a new management team in place, and we went on as before.

Ad Age: What's going on with Vincent Bolloré?

Mr. de Nardis: He is just one of our shareholders. I've met him a few times, and he's a very polite French gentleman; it's very easy to have an informal chat with him. I know much better his people running Havas because I've worked with them in the past. I have no idea what will happen because he's never told anybody. For me personally and for Aegis Media, it doesn't really matter. We get on with our business.

Ad Age: What did you do on your year's gardening leave?

Mr. de Nardis: It was great. I wasted two of the 10 months on stupid things in court and other things with Martin; it was probably him having a bit of fun. Martin is convinced he gave me a hard time with the gardening leave, but in fact he gave me a great opportunity to have a break. Like I love sailing. [And] I went for six weeks to Africa.

Ad Age: Are you a BlackBerry addict?

Mr. de Nardis: You can't not be. I don't think of it as an [addiction]; I just think of it as a normal part of the day. I check it before I go in to the theater and when I come out, but not during. I love being in contact with people -- it doesn't matter if it's computer, telephone, BlackBerry or anything. Our work is 24/7, so it's up to us to find a good balance between private life and business life, which is not necessarily work during the day and have time off during the night. You need to re-create your life around your business.
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