The ebulliant and outspoken Christine Walker has announced her retirement a decade after founding Walker Media with Phil Georgiadis.
The head of the eponymous media agency intends to leave the industry following an announcement to the Stock Exchange, as exclusively revealed on www.marketingweek.co.uk.
Advertising and media executives are almost as one in hailing her charisma and success, while lamenting the loss of one of adland’s “true” characters.
The former chief executive of Zenith, now ZenithOptimedia, launched Walker Media with M&C Saatchi in 1997, with Dixons as its founding client.
Thinkbox chief executive Tess Alps, a friend of Walker, says: “It was no mean feat to launch a media independent when she did. At the time people said it lacked the scale and resource – but she has made it a real success.”
So successful that M&C upped its initial 46% stake in Walker Media to 75% when it floated on Aim. Securities house Numis reckons that M&C will buy out the 25% minority interest – estimated at £16m – through options over the next two years. It could make Walker a further £9m to add to the two tranches of £3m already made.
Yet while some talk of Walker as a pioneer – a class apart from her generation – others believe success resides squarely in her relentless networking and a hard work ethic rather than as a media revolutionary. She has always remained unashamed about winning business through personal contacts.
“Was it ground breaking?” questions Graham Duff, the Universal McCann EMEA chief who worked with Walker at Zenith. “I don’t think it was at all.”
He points to her skill as a “consummate networker”, adding that “she is very, very good when working with clients.”
With a steady shop and impressive roster of clients, Walker believes now is the time to leave , although questions remain over how it will evolve without her.
However Duff queries whether there is anything in the way of succession planning beyond Georgiadis.
“One could argue that there has almost been an over-emphasis on the strengths of Christine and Phil,” he says.
One weakness has been the agency’s slow rate of progress in building digital credentials, although last year it launched Walker-i and has been working to establish it ever since.
Yet Barclays group marketing director Jim Hytner, who last year placed his £70m media at Walker Media, is confident that nothing changes from a client point of view. “Phil won the account and services the account,” he says. “It is a true challenger agency.”
Hytner has never made any bones about the fact that he has always admired Walker’s heir-apparent, Georgiadis, when he moved his business out of Starcom.
Although few doubt Georgiadis’ ability to take the reins – Walker had increasingly taken a back seat – Colin Mills, co-founder of the7stars and a former Carat managing director, believes now is the time for the agency to prove itself without her. “The agency must step up now,” he says.
He continues: “She has probably taken the view that if she was thinking of retirement, then now is a good time with the company at its zenith.”
Yet Walker, the chain-smoking doyenne of the media world, has always been the public face of the agency, and she will be missed.
“She’s been a true connoisseur of her chosen subject,” says Hytner. “Some- times she talks gobbledegook. But you nod away anyway because she’s Christine Walker.”
Says Mills: “She is well known, well connected and very highly regarded. She is by far and away the most successful person doing what we are trying to do.
“I have got nothing but absolute admiration. She has probably achieved more than anyone else – squared!
“It is hard to be the sort of person who can run someone else’s company and run your own. I don’t think there’s any parallel, certainly not in media planning and buying.”
Attention now turns to what Walker, still just 53, plans next. She has a holiday home in the south of France, thanks in no small part to the “fuck loads of money” she always likes to talk about, although, according to sources, it is tied up in assets.
Some suggest that Walker, an avid and passionate political animal, could devote more time to her politics, while others believe any exit will be short-lived.
Many claim that she will find it impossible to stay away from the media industry that she adores.
Few would bet against it.