Christine Walker's reputation in the cut-throat world of media buying precedes her. When ITV began looking for a new chief executive to replace the now departed Richard Eyre, it was her name that was first whispered in connection with the task of pacifying advertisers while uniting the disparate interests of the TV giants. 'They should be so lucky' was the general response. 'She's too canny to go anywhere near that hell-hole.'
So to find the 'canny' and slightly scary Walker sitting around a table in a smoke-filled room with two twenty-something net nerds who won't stop talking is eyebrow-raising. The doyenne of media buying, who raised Zenith to near monopolistic heights before quitting to start up her own company with Phil Georgiadis in 1998, is loved by clients for her no-nonsense approach to deal-making. The thought of the redoubtable Walker talking click-throughs with netizens is enough to send most ITV bigwigs into a head-spin.
But the vogue is for old media embracing the new, and if Time Warner can do it, then Walker Media can too. Never far from the top of the media rankings, the company's client roster includes such giants as Dixons and British Airways, and in two years it has become the UK's fastest growing media start-up ever. The next phase of development is online - hence the twenty-somethings, one half of interactive agency Profero.
Between them, Walker and Georgiadis have worked with 40 of the country's 50 biggest-spending brands and their company corners a significant slug of the pounds 10 billion total annual advertising spend. But as the statistics read, online advertising takes about pounds 50 million of that total. In two years' time it should be nearer pounds 480 million and Walker is willing to bet that the uncertain future is in diversity, which is why the company has formed this suitably nebulous 'loose alliance' with Profero.
Launched by two sets of entrepreneurial brothers, Daryl and Wayne Arnold and Jamie and Daniel Estrin, Profero is two months younger than Walker Media. Its clients include major broadcasters, retailers and communications companies anxious to move beyond banner ads on web sites into a more sophisticated area of net advertising. 'In the old days,' says 27-year-old Daryl Arnold, 'you built it and they would come. Now it's increasingly hard to get your head above the crowd. But we can attract traffic and build brand values.'
The terms 'old world' and 'new world' are bandied about the room, though Georgiadis admits that two years ago he had no grand vision of being in this business now. 'Our world had paid lip service to that world but was trying to keep it in its box.'
Looking at his rivals now, he can see a similar attitude of 'oh God, it's too complicated. We'll stick to old media.' But Walker Media and Profero now work together for clients, using TV advertising to drive users to a site and Profero's skills to lead them to explore other areas. Georgiadis claims it's the new-media evangelists embracing the brand-building evangelists.
Advertising on the net has been fairly unsophisticated so far. And, says Georgiadis, there is a 'potential scandal' in the way advertisers have been sold the notion that, on the net, if penetration keeps growing, enough people will eventually hit on the ubiquitous banner ads to meet the costs. But click-through rates have dropped dramatically and so, although the cost per thousand hits has been reduced, the effectiveness of the ads has slumped even further. 'What we've worked out is that our role is changing from taking existing media and manipulating numbers to seeing that, on the internet, you need a new set of skills.' If that sounds vague, 'we're building the science,' he promises, in his enthusiasm reaching over to my notebook to draw me a graph to prove it.
How does Profero put its clients' money where all this mouth is? Well, where were you during Channel 5's coverage of the Miss World contest last year? If, as one of the unlucky ones not invited to gaze at the marvellous collection of evening gowns and decolletage at Earl's Court, you were perhaps sitting at home surfing the net - maybe lingering over a web site targeting young men - you probably saw a message exhorting you to stop being so dull and put the television on. There for your delectation, it would have told you, were 80-odd of the world's most beautiful women. Get off the net, you nerd, it said ... That was Profero's work.
Another trick is evidenced by its work for the 365 Corporation, which, before the days of pounds 5 million turnover, was squatting in Profero's office space. The team pulled stunts such as logging on to AOL talk boards and innocently asking if anyone could recommend a good football site. Anyone who replied - and some who didn't - were e-mailed back with 'Oh, thanks for that, but I've found this great one. Have you tried football365.com?' This bastardised word of mouth, working so effectively for the Hollywood movie studios, is an old trick now, they say, laughing.
Disparaging as they are about click-through rates and the dubious effectiveness of banner advertising, Profero has built its own tracking software to report response levels to its clients. One of them, Channel 5 marketing director Jim Hytner (who claims to have brought Profero and Walker together in the first place), remains sceptical about the value of internet advertising - though he is a fan of the alliance. Typically, his ad spend has not increased but his new-media demands have. Untypically, he needs influence among opinion-formers and the trade to build his brand.
'One of the things I find really funny,' he says, 'is when there's a room full of big media businessmen with their millions in the bank listening to these kids telling us all what we have to do to keep the millions. They're rough, but get them talking about how you would promote Channel 5 around the web and they have this incredibly sophisticated outlook that embraces media and creative. The old days of media agency and creative agency for the web are gone.'
He was not surprised by Walker Media's move, remarking only that more of its rivals haven't acted similarly. 'Walker don't think of media placement as space to fill, they actually think of it as creating a sub-brand. I can see exactly why this was right for them.' As for Profero, he says, they may be wearing all the advantages of youth, enthusiasm and a million-ideas-a-minute on their rolled-up sleeves but they had no exposure to media, ad agencies and the kind of long-term client relationships that Walker specialises in.
One of its founding partners, Jamie Estrin, used to work for Hytner when he was at BSkyB. Recalls Hytner: 'He earned about pounds 15k a year, making the tea. He came in, in his cocky way, and said: 'I'm setting up an internet agency.' I said: 'That's lovely, Jamie, mine's two sugars.' Then when I came into Channel 5, I called him up and said: 'Come in and show us what you do.' Of course, the guy is a genius, and I wish I'd got a share.'
For Hytner, there's a real attraction in pairing enthusiasm with experience. 'It's a wonderful joyride talking to them and I think they recognise they've got youthful enthusiasm and a real skill set that the old farts don't have,' he says. 'But to link in with the old farts and just smooth the edges would be even more profitable.'
Another Walker Media/Profero client says: 'We would not have paid (Profero) enough. I suspect their deals will improve when Walker gets hold of them and their structure becomes more efficient'. Another suspects Walker Media will buy Profero out.
Walker denies this. 'In the old world, there was an obsession with single-company control. In the new world, we're about creating value partnerships. Buying out is the old way of thinking.' But even she has been surprised. 'We've gone from the media world where we pitched for a brief and spent two or three weeks mulling it over to a situation where these guys are real-time tracking what would have taken us three weeks to turn around. A lot of ad agencies are still caught in that. Now we have a 48-hour turnaround.'
Loose partnerships and new-world thinking it might be, but the culture clash exists nonetheless. Most dispassionate marketing directors are an old-fashioned breed who demand quantifiable bang for their bucks and become easily exhausted by fast talk of brave new ideas - half of which is over their head. If Walker and Profero can keep it together, they may find a way round that quandary. In the meantime, the potential for a dramatic falling out is huge. Walker smiles wryly. 'Every day we're slightly outside our comfort zone.' She seems happy though.
Janine Gibson is the new media editor at the Guardian
HOW TO FORM AN ALLIANCE
- Think carefully about what you are trying to achieve. Might you be better growing your own in-house skills?
- Be introduced by like-minded people. Profero and Walker Media met through their dealings with Channel 5, a sign not only of similar client interests but similar approaches.
- Be wary of over-formal structures. 'Get lawyers involved and four months later you can't remember why you ever sat down to do this,' says Walker. 'Those who feel everything has to be wholly owned will not maximise the opportunity.'
- Do not automatically attempt a buyout. Advises Walker: 'If you feel you have to control, the relationship won't work.'
- Think carefully about what's in it for both sides. Seasoned observers say an uneven power base will lead to trouble.
- Construct a watertight confidentiality and working agreement; it should specify who takes the lead client role.
- You must be able to relax enough to appreciate the good ideas on either side. There's no room for an 'if it wasn't invented here, it's no good' attitude, says Walker.