Executive: Nigel Morris

Nigel MorrisIn overhauling Aegis, Morris’ own brand of disintegration is re-energizing Carat, and generating a 40 percent growth rate

To thank him for speaking at our 2010 Outfront Conference, we threw a small, private dinner for Al Gore and some of our industry’s top executives. I can’t tell you exactly what we discussed, or who said what, because it was off the record, but I can tell you that the conversation went well beyond advertising and media, and included some of the greatest issues we face — not just as business people, but as people on this planet. During the meal, Gore sat next to Nigel Morris, and when he wasn’t speaking to the table at large, spent most of his time talking with Morris. I was at the other end, and couldn’t hear what they were saying, but from where I sat, it looked like they were figuring important things out, and I can tell you that Gore spent as much time listening as he did speaking.

I will probably never know what Morris said that held the attention of the man who, some would argue, was the legit leader of the free world, but I did learn later that they were friends, and worked together on some important things in the past. Which could have meant almost anything related to media or global affairs, since both men are active in both worlds: Gore as chairman of Current Media and a member of some big digital media company boards (Google, Apple); and Morris as head of one of the world’s biggest media and marketing services organization, and also actively engaged in global affairs as the lead on the sustainable consumption project of the World Economic Forum.

The encounter I observed took place during the spring of 2010, when Morris was also figuring out some other important things, most notably how to transform Aegis Media Americas, and especially its sagging flagship brand, Carat. The British native, who had previously transformed Aegis’ global digital media organization, effectively creating Isobar, and building it into the centerpiece of a portfolio of coveted digital media and marketing services assets, transplanted himself to Aegis Americas New York City headquarters at a critical time. While Aegis shops, including Carat, were winning business worldwide, they were languishing in the U.S., by far the world’s biggest advertising and media marketplace. Moreover, the culture of the organizations had never fully gelled from an attempt to merge Aegis’ digital operations in the U.S. with Carat, and was desperately in need of an overhaul.

After assessing the situation, Morris completely redesigned Aegis Americas, reorganizing most of its top management team. He didn’t necessarily do that by replacing people, so much as by putting the right people in the right places. Among those management moves, he took long-time executive vice president-managing director Doug Ray and put him in charge of Carat, and moved president Martin Cass into more of an operational role working on special projects and directly with clients. The management shifts worked, and both the people and the organizations thrived, making 2011 one of Aegis Americas’ best years ever. After growing 25 percent in 2010, the group is projected to grow 40 percent for 2011, following one of the worst economic recessions in decades.

Morris accomplished this not just by moving people around — though he did a fair amount of that — but also by altering Aegis Americas underlying approach to market. While most of Madison Avenue is hell-bent on so-called “integration” — merging traditional and digital media and marketing organizations into one seamless whole — Morris opted to zag instead, effectively disintegrating merged organizations that weren’t working culturally or operationally. So, Aegis Americas, one of — if not the first — media services organization to integrate its digital and traditional media operations in the U.S., busted them up again, putting the best of breeds back together with their own herds and creating a management and incentive system that enabled them to each do what they do best for greater common goods: their clients, and the shareholders of Aegis Group.

When Morris began the process, Aegis Americas had 11 separate P&Ls among its operating units. Today, it has only one, and an incentive system that induces each individual organization — and individuals within them — to ensure it generates more P than L.

The funny thing is that Aegis has all the ingredients — great teams, great expertise, and great clients. It just had them spread out in a diffused way that seemed logical from an “integration” perspective, but which produced decidedly disintegrated results.

Take search-engine marketing. When Morris began the reorganization, generalist media services shop Carat had 40 people dedicated to search, even though it had a sister agency, iProspect, doing the same thing on a dedicated basis.

“How did we think we [Carat] was going to be better search-engine specialists versus iProspect?” Morris recalls, adding that the situation wasn’t just bad for overhead and redundancy. It was bad for the individuals involved.

“One of the biggest issues we had was, if you get people who are brilliant at search, where do they go in the organization? But if you take those people and you put them into iProspect, suddenly they have a whole career in front of them.”

It was such tweaks from Morris that set Aegis Americas back on path, creating a culture and an organization where specialists thrive within the specialty environments they came into the business for — and which attracted clients to those organizations in the first place. The integration, he says, comes at the top of the organization, by creating compensation and incentive models that allow Aegis vertical teams to work together on behalf of a greater good — their mutual client rosters.

Strategically, the integration also happens at the top-level, with the senior-most client service teams of the Aegis organization working in concert to develop “channel-neutral” strategies based on a client’s goals, which get executed vertically within individual operations and groups.

“When you start talking search, social and mobile, people simply don’t understand the difference between strategy and execution,” Morris says. “All of our agencies have to be good at search, mobile and social strategy. They have to understand how it works in their strategic mix, but it doesn’t mean that they have to be good at going out and buying keywords. What we do is keep them plugged in to the specialists so that they are really knowledgeable about what can benefit their clients.”
Morris says it took Aegis about six months to reorganize itself this way, but if the organization’s new business track record — especially Carat’s — is any indication, it has arrived at a winning formula, and one, ironically, that might seem counterintuitive to the rest of the industry, which is still pushing for seamless integration within agencies, not across them.

“Making that happen was a lot of hard work,” Morris, admits, conceding that it’s still a work in progress, with much work to be done in other parts of the organization.

Vizeum, an alternative full-service media network to Carat, for example, is still trying to invent itself, including how exactly it is positioned alternatively
from Carat, and earlier this year, Morris reorganized its team, recruiting former marketer (Diageo, Discover Card, Morgan Stanley) Catherine Davis to become president.

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