Simon Zinger brings an American can-do attitude and a passion for commerce to his GC role at Aegis Media – and a horde of acquisitions on the horizon will truly test his mettle.
When global marketing company Aegis Media’s in-house legal team was restructured in November 2009, general counsel Simon Zinger was moved from New York to its commercial hub in London.
It is easy to see why Aegis was keen to bring Zinger closer to what he describes as “the heart of the action”.
While it is not uncommon for lawyers to boast of their commercial awareness, Zinger displays an almost evangelical zeal for the subject.
His repeated references to ”thinking outside the box” and the need for “forward planning” makes him sound more like a salesman than a lawyer, but he believes in using “legal advice to push commercial objectives”.
Zinger took up his current position in 2003 following two years as assistant general counsel at Vivendi in Paris. Since then his role has evolved into one that involves much closer interaction with the firm’s commercial decision-makers.
“I like to interact with issues rather than being in an ivory tower – that’s how you add your value. It’s a combination of legal and business acumen,” he says. “That’s what I’ve tried to achieve, and having achieved that it makes the role much more positive.”
One example of this commercial approach is Zinger’s development of a regulatory network on the company’s intranet to keep colleagues updated on new developments, which has proved popular for those working with clients in the alcohol and tobacco industries.
Zinger is keen to instil the same commercial ethic in his 12-strong team, which is spread across London, France, Germany, Russia and Asia.
“I tell people who work for me it’s great that they’re good lawyers, but what they need to develop is commercial, outside-the-box thinking,” he says. “They need to ask questions and follow them up, not simply say, ’legally this is the answer’, then send an email. It’s about thinking deeply, anticipating what kind of response your legal opinion might cause and being one step ahead.”
For a company of Aegis Media’s size (the company employs 9,000 staff and is part of the London Stock Exchange-listed Aegis Group) the legal team is relatively small, with a legal spend of between £1m and £3m, depending on the extent of M&A activity.
For litigation, employment and more complex M&A matters, Zinger uses outside counsel. He says cost is a major factor in deciding which firms to work with, particularly given the slump in advertising. He will often use firms based outside major commercial centres such as London and New York to keep fees down.
It is this philosophy that led to Aegis Media’s close relationship with DLA Piper’s Leeds office.
“We don’t go to DLA because it’s one of the largest law firms in the world, but for the quality of the partners and their understanding of our business,” explains Zinger. “In
the US we’ve only just started working with them, but our approach is, ’why use the New York office when there’s someone in Philadelphia of the same calibre?’”
While the firm regularly uses heavyweights such as Slaughter and May and DLA Piper, for day-to-day matters it sends a large proportion of its work to smaller boutique firms, particularly in Asia.
“I’d rather work with a big fish in a small pond than a big fish in an ocean,” asserts Zinger. “Often at those firms you’ll be forgotten or passed on to a team of associates who don’t think about your best interests.”
Aegis Media announced recently that Jerry Buhlmann, Aegis Global’s newly appointed chief executive, will have access to around £170m for acquisitions when he takes
up his role on 1 May, with the majority expected to take place in the US and China.
M&A work might have been thin on the ground last year, but Zinger can expect a busy 2010, when his commercial acumen will truly be put to the test.
Name: Simon Zinger
Company: Aegis Media
Industry: Media and advertising
Position: General counsel
Number of employees:9,000
Legal spend: £1m-£3m (depending on M&A activity)
Main external law firms:DLA Piper, Slaughter and May
Simon Zinger’s CV
1990-93: BA (Hons), McGill University
1994-96: Law, University of San Francisco School of Law
1995-97: Trainee and associate, Squire Sanders & Dempsey
1997-99: Associate, Baker & McKenzie
1999-2003: Assistant general counsel, Vivendi
2003-present: General counsel, Aegis Media