THE CAMPAIGN ESSAY: THE BALANCING ACT - Avowed workaholic Christine Walker says she used to find the idea of pursuing a work/life balance a strange one, but now she realises that today's successful manager is also a flexible one

Some time in the last quarter of 2000, I found myself chairing the IPA's Retention of Talent working party. At the heart of this project is the issue of a work/life balance and, given that I wouldn't know balance if it dressed up as a tank and ran over me, I don't know how this happened.

I could conclude that it was a Hamish (Pringle)/Bruce (Haines) joke but I assume I was appointed by one of those e-mails you don't read and then spot your appointment in the council minutes. When I told my husband he laughed, and my teenage daughter did her lop-sided expression while looking at the ceiling and commenting: "Whatever!"

I should probably own up now to the fact I have never been to a school play or a sports day and have been known to move family holidays because of my obsessional work behaviour ... more of this later.

So back to finding myself in the chair and the fact that a wonderful band of people had been seamlessly recruited to form my working party.

They are: Barry Cook, the managing director of D'Arcy; Allan Rich, the chairman of MediaCom; Mandy Pooler - then at MindShare, now at WPP's The Channel; Martin Smith, then Grey Advertising, now at the start-up Rapley Smith & Jones; and, very importantly, Debbie Klein, the head of planning at WCRS.

Debbie has been pivotal to the project because it was her impressive research, documented in Women in Advertising Ten Years On, which got all the agency chiefs (mostly men) thinking. This report followed up on Marilyn Baxter's findings in the original 1990 survey. The quantitative data broadly found that the world of advertising has improved for women; for example, board representation has increased from 16 per cent to 22 per cent (still low considering the overall makeup of the advertising community).

But it was the qualitative findings which revealed a sizeable change in attitude to work among both men and women. Debbie summarised this part of her findings as follows: "Women lead the way in wanting a better work/life balance and this has grown over time. Yet what was once a woman's issue is now a human issue. Many men, particularly younger men, now also want a more balanced life."

As I read the research I couldn't get that Blur song out of my mind: "Girls who are boys, who like boys to be girls ...

and privately couldn't help wondering what had happened to society. My world had been characterised by work hard, play hard and, despite being somewhat of an absentee mother and wife, I felt it had all hung together rather well.

Sure I've spent quite a lot of my working life tired, my daughter has frequently gone to school without her correct kit, my young son regularly used to appear at school without any underpants on, and my husband just about accepts when I over-run my schedule again. But I've achieved my lifelong goal to run my own media company and it's all been worth it.

Nowhere along the path had balance come into the equation. Both times in my career when I was setting up companies - Ray Morgan & Partners in the mid-80s and Walker Media in late 1997 - coincided with giving birth.

I had coped, so what, I pondered, had happened to result in so many people (and men, for goodness sake) wanting a more balanced life.

Barbara Cassani, the chief executive of Go, threw some light on the changes in her foreword to the Women in Advertising report, observing that her favourite line in the report was from the Harvard Business Review conclusion that "motherhood is no longer a liability, it is an advanced management programme". I couldn't agree more, Barbara, but what about those men? Could it be that they increasingly see themselves as fathers with a carer role to fulfil and enjoy?

Could it also be something much deeper than technology-enabled balance?

I can't help feeling that it's got a lot to do with the escalating choices in life and the fact, as I see it, that employers can no longer rely on loyalty; they have to earn it.

Anyway, there I was in the chair and if truth be known, I was deeply uncomfortable in this role and hoped that I could act the part well and get as quickly as possible to some best practice guidelines, or maybe even an Advertising Industry Charter, and rush it through council.

It wasn't to be. Almost immediately my integrity was tested. A young lady called Sam Hale, in my own company, requested a three-month career break so she could fulfil the opportunity of living in Peru. My immediate instinct was to say no, rapidly followed by "well, she shows promise, so OK, but don't tell the staff, we don't want a deluge". Old habits die hard. This was my strategy until I had a chat with Ann Murray Chatterton, the director of training and development at the IPA, and the project facilitator who politely suggested that this undercover strategy might not sit comfortably with my position of chair.

All the staff were told. Sam spent three great months in Peru, sending the occasional update e-mail, and has now been back at work for more than a year, performing well on the Marks & Spencer media account.

The next thing that happened caused me to go green with envy, and for about a fortnight I questioned everything about my lop-sided life. Mandy Pooler announced she was resigning her post as the chief executive of MindShare and taking up an as-yet-undefined role at WPP. The green sting in my side was that she was to do an agreed three-day week. How on earth had Mandy achieved this? How had the conversation gone with Sir Martin Sorrell, a man well known for regularly achieving three breakfast meetings before seven in the morning? I could only conclude that WPP wanted to retain her talent and that three days of Mandy's own style of brain power were definitely better than none.

So I emerged from my mini life crisis. I knew I would never achieve work/life balance, indeed I didn't want to, but I could now see the real point of the Retention of Talent working party.

Retaining talent, be it male, female, gay, straight,black or white, is essential to the future health of our industry. There is a strong commercial logic to it. As an industry we spend a lot of money on search fees, we then invest heavily in training and all too often lose talent because we fail to provide flexible working practice solutions. We also fear telling our clients - after all, we aim to provide a 24/7 service - which is rather strange given that so many of them operate very developed work/life balance programmes. In fact, the research we commissioned through Flametree Life Solutions, with government sponsorship, was very clear in demonstrating just how far we have fallen behind our clients in this area.

This leads me to my latest experience. Nicki Hare, a managing partner at Walker Media, with ten years of experience under her belt, returned to work in April after six months' maternity leave. I'd be lying if I said those six months did not cause me and our all-male senior management to work longer hours; indeed our lives went further out of balance. However, Nicki is back working a four- day week, our clients know, and we feel la difference. It works because Nicki has a fantastic track record, she is confident about the value of her contribution and manages her time exceedingly well. She remains flexible and she is sensitive to her full-time colleagues. Above all, she appreciates it is not an entitlement, it is a practical solution to retaining her talent. She has most, if not all, of the characteristics required for effective work/life balance.

It's early days, but so far, so good.

Both examples I've quoted involve women. This is either a coincidence or simply a reflection of women's greater sense of the roots of fulfilment.

That said, my response to any male member of staff would be just as supportive, so long as I could see that their request was both well earned and would have a long-term benefit for both the employee and company alike.

There is, of course, a significant difference between establishing guidelines and instituting policies. Company policies are just that - they are for the company. They are there to ensure that the company is strong and healthy and protects individuals within it.

Work/life balance is not about the company, it is all about the individual and so I believe it is up to the individual to take responsibility for deciding their own "balance

and then articulating this to the company or, more specifically, to their manager. If the company can in turn satisfy the particular requirements of each individual, then you have the perfect balance. We will support the cause by example, not through some fancy corporate philosophy or mission statement.

So I've gone from being an uncomfortable participant in developing best practice guidelines for our industry to being a cautious supporter. I won't change, it suits me to be out of balance, but unlike a few colleagues within the industry I do see the need to change. All I hope is that no-one else lets our industry down and that those of you reading this article who are happy to be obsessive in your work, my advice is - go for it!