Christine Walker is joining M&C Saatchi. Prepare, say sources, to see the sparks fly.
It seemed inevitable that Walker would go back into media after quitting Zenith in January. Back in May, Marketing Week predicted she would start up a media operation for the Saatchi brothers (MW May 29).
M&C partner David Kershaw says the agency would not have set up a media business with anyone else. Or as one media buyer puts it: “It needs Christine as much as she needs it.”
In fact, so much does M&C need Walker that it has set up an ownership structure so far unique among the outfits in its “village” of partner agencies: M&C and Walker will each have a 50 per cent share in the new “Walker Media”.
In the case of all other village agencies with which M&C is in partnership, either the five partners at M&C – Maurice and Charles Saatchi themselves, Bill Muirhead, David Kershaw and Jeremy Sinclair – have an equal stake, leaving the sixth share to the head of the company, or the agency is fully-owned by M&C.
One source says: “Ownership is obviously a huge issue. Walker will have a short-term agenda. She’ll want to build it up and then sell. She will want to have the golden veto on who to sell to. Fifty-50 ownership is very unusual.”
Kershaw refuses to give details of the contract with Walker, but says: “All these issues are dealt with. All eventualities have been covered – we’ve had long enough to thrash them all out.”
Thrash seems an appropriate word. It is widely reported that when Kershaw was managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi and Walker was chief executive at Zenith the two Cordiant giants did not see eye-to-eye.
Kershaw, however, plays down any potential clash of personalities: “We always got on well together – otherwise we would hardly be working with each other again.”
He also turns on its head the suggestion that both M&C and Walker like to have complete control of their businesses: “The culture of her and us is very similar. We both go out and get business aggressively and we are both very passionate about what we do.”
Rival media agencies are questioning just how successful Walker Media can be. Zenith’s culture of buying – fast and cheap – was shaped by Walker, but it was shaped by a Walker with a negotiating position based on billings of 500m behind her.
Walker Media launches seemingly with no clients and a chief executive who, however good, has been out of the loop for nearly a year. Even if the new agency picks up the New Millennium Experience business, which it is widely expected to do so, it will only give it billings of 16m.
Small agencies by nature have to offer clients something other than muscle. They need to be more planning-led, more creative, more strategic. Can Walker be any of these?
In her favour is the fact that she is famously well-connected. Although her legal position over whether she can approach Zenith clients is still being clarified, eventually her deep-rooted relations with key players at Kraft, The Mirror Group, BSkyB, Kingfisher and others will surely pay off.
Zenith is taking Walker to court next month to reaffirm details of her contract which prevent her from approaching former colleagues and clients. In particular, it seems neurotically concerned about Walker’s relationship with BSkyB, despite the fact that Zenith has not handled the media buying business for over a year.
However, such non-competition clauses are notoriously hard to act upon: how do you prove that a client has been poached and has not decided to shift agencies of its own accord?
The one casualty in all this is Optimedia. Kershaw has been trying to placate M&C’s preferred media buyer at the same time as negotiating the deal with Walker, and he will not have forgotten the debt owed to the media agency for the work done together on the British Airways account.
Optimedia managing director Simon Mathews now claims to have no problems with his agency’s future relationship with M&C. He says: “We feel perfectly happy about the start-up. In fact there is an element of predictability about it. Walker and the Saatchis have worked cheek-by-jowl for years.”
He also points to the assurances he has had from Kershaw, that if Walker Media is working on business which could conflict with a potential new M&C client, Optimedia will step back into the preferred media buying role. Besides, he says, Walker Media is UK-only and Optimedia is part of an international network.
But however hard Mathews protests (and an M&C insider confirms that Optimedia’s buying relationship with British Airways is protected by a contractual agreement), his agency is losing an important source of new business.
Several other media agencies will also want to know who Walker is taking out to lunch. For example, MediaVest, which buys for M&C clients the Dixons Stores Group and Pedigree Petfoods. These will be obvious targets for her.
Likewise CDP Media, which buys for Gallaher, Motive, which buys for PPP Healthcare, New PHD, which buys for Sainsbury’s Bank and Media Solutions, which buys Sekonda’s media.
Walker as chief executive of Walker Media is bound to attract as much media and industry attention as Walker chief executive at Zenith.
What is certain is that she will have to perform, and who she takes on as her principal lieutenant for when the doors open in the New Year will be key. But whether she can, or would want to, do another Zenith is more doubtful.