Media Headliner: Walmsley ready to see i-level realise its potential

Expansion is on the horizon for the agency, but, according to its co-founder, digital will remain at the core.

At a major media conference last year, a senior media person, who shall remain unnamed, stood up and snapped to the assembled notaries: "I'm fed up of hearing about digital. Over the next few days, we're going to call it 'courgette'. I don't want to hear the word digital again."

Andrew Walmsley, who plainly isn't a fan of courgettes, was not amused: "I hear that and part of me wants to put my head in my hands and think what sort of a future has this media business got if that's the attitude of senior people towards digital. The other half of me thinks: 'Fantastic, we're going to kick their arses.'"

You see, professing indifference towards digital is not just sacrilege to Walmsley, a co-founder of the digital media agency i-level - it's fighting talk. And, as the agency has just been bought by the private equity group ECI in a £45.5 million deal, i-level now has enviable ammunition with which to do battle.

The deal, which sees ECI taking a 60 per cent stake in the company, with the remaining shareholding controlled by i-level's existing management, allows the company to keep what it holds most dear - its independence, Walmsley hopes.

ECI has invested £38 million (the remaining £7.5 million comes from senior team members including Walmsley) to consolidate disparate shareholders. Walmsley, who is the deputy chairman of i-level's parent company ILG Digital, says the agency's "very long tail" of shareholders was something they needed to address because it made it difficult to raise money for expansion. Also, he believes, the deal is a "leaping-off point" that will allow i-level to fulfil its potential.

It comes after protracted talks and talks about talks with numerous potential suitors including the networks Aegis and AKQA and private equity groups. I-level's senior team didn't want to hear about exit strategies or cosy earn-outs, they just wanted the investment to take the agency to the next level. "We wanted somebody who would get behind the business and help us to expand it. We didn't want to be the sticking plaster for someone else's historic lack of investment in digital," Walmsley says.

The buyout, despite coming frustratingly soon after the change to the capital gains tax rules, is, Walmsley argues, good timing: "We weren't always convinced we'd find the right people, but we didn't at any time think 'Oh, we've blown it', because, as the process went on, more people were approaching us with their ideas and expressing interest in the business.

"We've had lots of people wanting to invest, but it was the first time we'd taken the decision: 'Right, now is the time for us to do this.'"

Walmsley can now unfurrow his brow when he ponders the future of his agency, but, undoubtedly, his undiminishable focus and single-mindedness won't allow much time for self-satisfaction.

That focus was key to transforming the agency from an idea into a successful business. The company sprang out of a project Walmsley did as part of his MBA. He subsequently persuaded Charlie Dobres to join him in launching it in 1999. It started out with clients from media agencies who wanted to outsource digital, but this was quickly eclipsed by i-level's ability to grow its own direct business. "We're a business that's been profitable every year since we founded it. I don't think there's a business in digital media that can say that," Walmsley says.

Creativity in online is part of the agency's DNA, he adds: "There are lots of projects that we have created where the idea has come from here."

But have media agencies clamouring to put their digital where their mouths are caught up with i-level yet? Walmsley thinks not. "They're far in advance of where we were eight years ago. But that assumes that we don't move either, which, of course, we do. And we still think we are between 18 months and two years ahead of most media agencies in this space and our job is to stay in front," he says.

Walmsley is matter-of-fact about last year's loss of the AA, one of i-level's major clients, and similarly nonplussed about splitting with Sky, which came about, he says, because the agency resigned the account. Its current clients, including Sony, Orange and Specsavers, are very positive about the new deal, he says: "It means an independent third party has come out and given a big seal of approval to the i-level business, and they know that it helps us to bring to market faster the sorts of services that will help them stay at the front."

He believes that, while i-level may not be right for every advertiser, the company delivers on digital. "If digital media are important to you, either as a marketing channel or a channel to market, then a business like i-level can radically expand your performance in that area. So it's not uncommon for a client to come here and double profits in the first year," he says.

Walmsley's vision on digital is singular, according to David Pattison, the former head of PHD who became ILG Digital's chief executive last year: "He thinks digital is different to any other form of communication. I thought it was just another channel, but it is a route to market and uses the language of commerce, not of media."

The development of new services and geographical expansion now lie ahead for the agency, as well as the possibility of acquisitions. But there won't be any digressions from the digital path. "Digital is what we do. We're not setting up a fruit and veg stall," Walmsley says. Don't expect any courgettes then.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 44
Lives: Hammersmith
Family: Wife and two children
Favourite ad: "Think small"
Last book read: The Plague
Favourite TV show: Mad Men
Motto: Nothing's more important than learning

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