When Zenith Media’s staff were gathered together by its chairman,
John Perriss, on Monday morning, speculation about the departure of the
chief executive, Christine Walker, had been rife for so long that it was
perhaps the last thing they expected to hear confirmed.
’I was shell-shocked,’ one senior manager admits. ’We’ve all heard the
rumours, but when it’s no longer idle speculation but hard fact, it is a
real body blow.’
In fact, the news that rocked the industry this week had been made last
autumn, when Walker decided that the time was right to move on from the
company she had helped found eight years ago and with which she has
Walker, 43, handed in her notice to Zenith’s parent, Cordiant, in
Apart from a few key Cordiant directors and Graham Duff, the joint
managing director of Zenith who emerged this week as Walker’s successor,
no-one knew. Even Andy Tilley, now the sole managing director, was not
informed until late last week.
Walker’s daughter, Jacqueline, was also kept in the dark. ’As I saw my
daughter rush out of the house to school this morning, I thought I
really must tell Jacqueline I’ve handed my notice in and that things are
going to get hectic,’ Walker said, the day after the official statement
Walker has been so closely associated with her other baby - Zenith -
that the idea of her turning her back on the company would have been
unthinkable 18 months ago.
However, the departure of Maurice Saatchi from Saatchi and Saatchi at
the end of 1994 sparked one of the toughest years in Zenith’s
’It was a particularly stressful year for me personally and
professionally,’ Walker, whose husband died in 1995 after a long
illness, says. ’There was a lot of hysteria and we managed not to get
involved in the emotions or politics of it all.’
1995 was a watershed year for Zenith, not least because Walker was now
dealing on a group level with the likes of Jennifer Laing, then chairman
of Saatchis, and Adam Crozier, Saatchis’ joint chief executive, who,
according to observers, were no substitute in Walker’s eyes for the buzz
of working closely with the Saatchi brothers.
It has also been suggested that Walker became increasingly exasperated
with her Cordiant paymasters, who were, in the words of one senior
executive, ’always scratching around for ways to make savings’.
Constantly inundated by offers, Walker nevertheless remained loyal to
her employer and demurred from actively pursuing invitations while on
the Zenith payroll. ’I needed to break my emotional attachment to Zenith
in order to view things from a fresh perspective,’ she says, adding that
the decision to go was borne out of a need to reappraise her life.
If that sounds like the dawn of a realisation that this self-confessed
workaholic needs a more balanced existence and wants to put the ad world
behind her, then think again.
In fact, Walker has never sounded more bullish: ’I’m incredibly excited
and I’ve got utter confidence in the success of my next venture.’
That will be good news for many Zenith clients who lined up this week to
endorse Walker’s drive and determination, even though some observers
took the opportunity to question her management style and her ability to
build a loyal and supportive team. There is no doubt that Walker is why
some clients use Zenith and some were indicating this week that they
would like to work with her in the future.
Walker herself is more circumspect about her close client relationships:
’Whatever I do I’m contractually bound and it doesn’t take a rocket
scientist to work out that I have to be very careful.’
Where Walker will next exert her single-minded determination is
Favourite, for some time, has been the role of engineer for a WPP media
operation. Even before Walker tendered her notice she was singled out as
the best person to pull the Ogilvy and Mather and J. Walter Thompson
media operations under one banner. So has Walker been wooed by WPP’s
chief executive, Martin Sorrell? ’I’m aware of the speculation, but
you’re making an assumption that there’s a job there,’ is all she’s
prepared to say on the issue.
Other possibilities raised include a group role at Carat, a rescue job
at CIA, a media start-up for M&C Saatchi - or, who knows, maybe
Christine Walker Media.
Not surprisingly, Walker, who has yet to finalise a leaving date, knows
in her mind just what she wants. ’I know the sort of challenge I would
like and the sort of organisation I want to work for - an organisation
with a strong vision, highly focused. And it doesn’t bother me if it
involves pain and problems.
’At Zenith I’ve been well paid, I know what I’m doing and it’s a great
company. But it’s almost too comfortable.
’I’m in the mood to be pioneering. I want to prove I can do it
The story so far
1988 Zenith launches, with
claimed billings of pounds 700
1991 Chairman Ray Morgan
chief executive, Andy Tilley
joins to boost planning
1993 Graham Duff joins as head
1994 Managing director, Steve
King, leaves for Zenith US
1995 Zenith loses pounds 65 million of
UK business, as BA and
Dixons follow Maurice
Saatchi out of Cordiant
1995 Duff and Tilley share the
managing director’s role
1995 Zenith successfully defends
a full-scale review of its pounds 70
million Kingfisher business
1996 Zenith branches out with
Zenith Direct and launches
its first joint venture, Zebra
Media, with Leagas
1997 Zenith announces Christine