Close-Up: Newsmaker - Too many BlackBerrys and too few personalities

Christine Walker offers a unique perspective on how the media landscape has evolved over a career spanning four decades.

When Campaign asked me to assess the past 30 years of the media services industry, I never envisaged that it would be an emotional experience. But it has been, as I contemplate the universe from my kitchen table rather than from my office at the hub of a media company.

From joining Benton & Bowles in 1976 to leaving Walker Media in 2007, the fundamentals haven't really changed. Media planning and buying remains good and bad, with the bad often only visible to the trained eye. The body is the same, the clothes are different.

Back then, in what we might refer to as the hippy era of media, most planning and buying was handled by full-service advertising agencies, which almost universally earned 15 per cent commission. Advertisers used multiple agencies and the default solution was nearly always TV. Media consultants didn't exist and clients compared the pricing their agencies achieved on ITV. Amazingly, ITV also sold Channel 4 for a decade after it launched in 1982.

The differential in prices paid was enormous and star TV buyers were much in demand. Inevitably, this led to advertisers centralising their media buying into one of their full-service agencies or into the fast-emerging media independents such as TMD and CIA. If you were a highly competitive TV buyer, the world was your oyster.

Then came the "punk" era, spearheaded by the formation of Zenith in October 1988. My three partners and I sold Ray Morgan & Partners to Saatchi & Saatchi plc to be the management team of this new, but at the time, much reviled creation. The fact we launched as Zenith Media Buying Services tells you everything you need to know about this era - buying was king. Margaret Thatcher's 80s mantra of "competition and choice" finally came to TV with the launch of Sky in 1989. The punk era lasted quite a long time as all the major advertising holding companies successively, and belatedly, got in on the act.

It wasn't until the new millennium that the media industry began dressing in new clothes again - this time as "new romantics". Media people and their clients had become obsessed with communication planning, and hard-edged buying was to be avoided at all costs.

The order of the day was hot- desking and new techniques such as experiential marketing. This new wave of agencies became the darlings of the industry press, and media awards seemed to go relentlessly to media stunts rather than commercially sound media planning and buying.

This new romantic era may now be waning, as advertisers realise that creating further layers of complexity on an already complex media scene is neither productive nor cost effective.

My final comment on new clothes is literal rather than metaphorical. When I started as a graduate TV buyer in 1976, media planning and buying was almost exclusively a male domain.

While senior positions at media agencies and media owners are still dominated by men, and testosterone still fills the air, there has been a very sizeable shift in gender balance. The exception to this remains TV selling, where the TV companies have become even more male dominated. As far as I can remember, with the notable exceptions of Caroline McDevitt at TSW and Tess Alps at Yorkshire/Tyne Tees, we haven't had a female sales director since the early 80s.

The media agencies have done better, with Morag Blazey at PHD, Ita Murphy at MindShare, Linda Smith at Starcom, Pippa Glucklich at BLM, Jane Radcliffe at MediaCom and Nicki Hare at Walker Media all occupying top positions. I can't help wondering if Interpublic's media companies in the UK are underperforming because they lack female influence.

Returning to Thatcher's 80s mantra of "competition and choice": my observation is that competition is now merely apparent and choice is minimal. There is obviously huge choice in media channels, but not if you are an advertiser choosing a media agency or indeed a media professional choosing a career path. I am, of course, referring to the rise and rise of the holding companies - Omnicom, WPP, Interpublic and Publicis - and their trading houses - OPera, Group M and Magna. Interestingly, Publicis doesn't appear to have a trading arm in the UK, but I'm sure this is more to do with the personalities at Starcom and ZenithOptimedia, and therefore only temporary.

There are two points to make here. The first is that while we see very regular creative agency breakaways, we don't see the same thing happening in media. In the past decade, there have only been three - Walker Media, TAP (which ceased trading in 2004) and the7stars. And only Walker Media has made its way into the top ten.

This is partly due to the sheer cost of systems and research these days, but more to do with the narrow scope of most people's experiences. This does not bode well for the future of the media industry, and I would encourage all young media people to avoid getting corralled into one discipline and work in an agency that gives them the scope to work across all media channels, including digital.

The second point is a commercial one, and concerns the trading arms of the holding companies. There is absolutely no evidence that they afford their clients better pricing. In fact, the evidence is that small advertisers consistently out-buy large advertisers. If, for example, Billetts had to give evidence to a public hearing, this would become clear. Thanks to media auditing, the enormous price differentials between competing agencies in the 70s and 80s are now extremely narrow. Media owners have to make certain it stays that way.

All of this leads me on to what I feel is the single greatest change - the relentless squeezing out of personality. A number of factors have contributed to this.

While there is no question that technological advances have led to productivity gains, they have also created a bland world. BlackBerrys (I don't have one) and e-mails have largely displaced telephone calls, and this has led to less personal contact and more sanitisation. It never ceases to amaze me how many people hide behind (often illiterate) e-mails and avoid the most interactive medium in the world - the phone.

Technology, of course, has allowed those who want to measure everything to do exactly that. It seems to me that media agencies now spend far too much time devising ways to beat the audit rather than single-mindedly focusing on the client's objectives. Haven't recent political doctrines taught us that every time anybody institutes a measurement system, there will be someone trying to cheat it? For example, who really believes that NHS waiting times have improved as a result of measuring them? So why on earth do we seem to believe that endless auditing of media results in more effective advertising?

And, finally, we have the relationship/new-business consultants providing another dampener to personality. Walker Media's business has grown hugely, largely uninfluenced by these "chaperones", who can act as a barrier to direct contact with advertisers.

So, 30 years on, there is more technology, more middlemen and fewer personalities, but it remains a great industry, and if I were 21 again, I'd follow exactly the same path.

Christine Walker, a founder of Zenith Media and Walker Media, stepped back from the frontline last week after 31 years in the industry.

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