Media Headliner: I-level spurns suitors for life as an independent

The new-media agency has turned to the old-media veteran David Pattison to spearhead its expansion, Ian Darby writes.

The founders of i-level sound like frustrated teenagers made to listen, just once too often, to the latest Meat Loaf album in their dad's car.

After talking to several advertising holding companies about the future of his agency, Charlie Dobres says: "If we hear the phrase 'it's about putting digital at the heart of our business' one more time, then I'll scream."

It would be fair to say that i-level hasn't been that impressed with the vision provided for its business during acquisition talks, and last week its parent company, ILG Digital, announced the appointment of the former PHD Worldwide chief executive David Pattison as its own chief executive.

It's an appointment that announces i-level's intention to build itself as an independent network, at least for the time being. Pattison, who will take a stake in the business, has been charged with building the company's critical mass and, who knows, this could have the knock-on effect of making it a more attractive acquisition target.

I-level's founders are open about having talks with advertising groups. However, Andrew Walmsley, the man who in 1998 convinced Dobres to join him in launching the business, says: "We've never been against selling to somebody, but we just haven't seen anyone with a clear idea of how they would give the business a real boost."

Dobres adds: "We've never been shown a strategy that's better or different than our own. We've been seen as the 'finger in the dyke' - plug us in and get us to say hello to people around the world. So if we're braver about things we can be our own group."

Others would argue that i-level's supposedly high asking price, based on a multiple far beyond industry norms, has deterred potential buyers, but whatever the truth, i-level is committed to a short-term future of fueling its own expansion. And its latest profits, due to be filed at Companies House later this week, are likely to be far greater than the £1.2 million posted for the year to 31 March 2005.

Pattison's new role will be accommodated by Dobres moving to a backseat position, becoming a non-executive director and focusing on not-for-profit projects in the education sector while continuing to help with ILG Digital's Generator Consulting division.

The founders are at pains to point out that there is no concrete plan, that it's down to Pattison to develop the strategic future. And while critics paint Pattison as "a dyed- in-the-wool old-media man" or as a "leopard who will have to change his spots" as he gets to grips with digital media, there is little doubt he has good experience of building a successful media business.

As Dobres points out: "We were lacking somebody who knows what they're doing. We've been good at making things up as we've gone along and have been backed by a strong management team, but we have learned we're not that good at taking a fledgling group worldwide and becoming grown-up by launching a bunch of new services. That's now much more exciting than just selling to somebody."

Pattison won't find the task easy, perhaps, especially against the power of holding companies now finally investing in their own digital networks. After all, we've seen the likes of Publicis investing in Zed Media, which could benefit from the Digitas acquisition, and Aegis' Isobar unit, which has used its holding company resource to buy dozens of businesses - from creative to search to media. However, i-level has an intellectual headstart and is already strong in areas such as consultancy and mobile marketing, and has a successful UK business of 120 people and around £80 million in billings to build from.

Whatever route Pattison explores is likely to be driven by client demand. Therefore, international expansion is top of a checklist of around 15 possible growth areas for the business, given that i-level is already working on international projects for the likes of France Telecom, Sky and Procter & Gamble from its London office.

Creative is another area i-level will explore, though its attitude to the word "creative" is more ambivalent than that of the traditional ad agencies. Walmsley says: "You'd be hard-pressed to say some of the things i-level has done are either media or creative. Are these terms really relevant to the way things are moving?"

Walmsley confirms he can see an argument for moving into "executing in the digital space" and Pattison says: "It's hard to see how the two things can remain separate. We work well with creative businesses and don't want to be a threat to those partners, but you could see us developing a creative resource within the group - that's different to there being creative within i-level itself."

What i-level is interested in, and what it seems to mean by creativity, is that development of the digital creative idea should come at the start of the process. Pattison says: "Most digital creative work is still an extension of an idea from the mainstream. The future has to be that the idea comes from digital and it feels to me this is where the opportunity is - finding ideas and getting them into the mainstream."

And the opportunity for i-level, it feels, might reside in what it sees as ad agencies increasingly terming digital "just another medium". Walmsley animatedly says: "It isn't just another medium, people use it for everything - creating content, transacting, researching but (traditional agencies) label it just another medium and stick it in a box, which might be useful to them, but it's cobblers regarding consumers."

It's now for Pattison to work with Walmsley and the rest of the i-level team, including the group managing director, Faith Carthy, on a vision that isn't cobblers for its clients and their consumers. Pattison might be a more traditional operator than the departing Dobres and is a man who uses a Guns N' Roses riff as his mobile ringtone. In his defence, though, at least it isn't Meat Loaf.

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).