This week, after ten years at the top, a force to be reckoned with has announced she is about to retire. Unlike Tony Blair, whose own announcement is expected imminently, she has wisely contrived to quit while she’s ahead.
As a matter of fact, if a comparison is to be made between any of our political leaders and Christine Walker, it is undoubtedly Margaret Thatcher who provides the best ready reckoner, on a number of points that go well beyond political alignment.
Character, as many people remark, is at something of a premium in the industry these days. Walker is one of the few people who seems to have it, in both senses of the word. Extraordinary willpower, indefatigable negotiating skills, extreme candour (not least with the trade press, when its reportage doesn’t meet her standards), and sheer guts have all helped to mould a fearsome industry operator. But, like Thatcher, we shouldn’t forget the ability to sheath the scythes on the chariot wheels and exploit to the full her femininity in a world largely run by men. As she once put it herself: “If you’re female, you can get away with blue bloody murder.”
Except that: not many do, even in today’s more emancipated climate. Whereas Walker, at 53, can look back on a string of industry achievements.
Originally a ‘backroom’ girl in the Benton & Bowles media department, her talent and energy were fostered by the legendary Ray Morgan who, in a fit of pique after B&B’s failure to consult him over the Masius merger, set himself up as a powerful media independent in 1985. Walker went along as a partner, only to find three years later that her company had been sold to Saatchi & Saatchi as the chief component of the first media dependant, Zenith Media. Within three further years, Walker had climbed from broadcast buying director to chief executive of what was, and remained throughout her five-year stewardship, the largest UK media buying and planning shop.
But it was the next stage that provided the real test of character. Setting up Walker Media – a media specialist neither exactly an independent nor wholly dependent upon breakaway agency M&C Saatchi – necessarily brought Christine Walker’s entrepreneurial qualities to the fore. The departure from Saatchi was messy: there were binding legal covenants on new business. And also awkward, in terms of her personal repositioning as a specialist rather than a network chief. Then there was the tricky relationship – since Walker was primarily UK focused – with M&C’s international media partner, Optimedia.
If M&C gave Walker Media a bit of a leg-up, there’s no doubt that Walker amply repaid the debt, starting with such signature media clients as Mirror Group and Dixons. A few statistics eloquently tell the tale. In 2004, when M&C floated on Aim, Walker Media accounted for £18m of a £67m capitalisation. At the time M&C upped its initial 46% stake in Walker Media to 75%, which allowed Walker to net £3m and, two years later, a further £3m; her partner, Phil Georgiadis, taking £1.5m. According to securities house Numis, the remaining 25% stake, now in the process of being sold to M&C, is valued at £16m, suggesting a £64m portion of the current £90m M&C capitalisation. Such is the importance to M&C of the person leaving their business. And if she manages to garner a further £9m, good luck to her: she deserves it.
Stuart Smith, Editor