Media Headliner: Adventurous Arnold takes the IPA Digital helm

The new chairman of the digital marketing body talks to Alasdair Reid from the summit of North Africa's highest mountain.

Usually when we do these things long-distance, the interviewee is somewhere fairly prosaic. Such as the terrace by a hotel pool.

Wayne Arnold, the new chairman of IPA Digital, effortlessly trumps that old-school routine. When he eventually returns our calls, he reveals that he's at the summit of Jebel Toubkal, at 13,665 feet the highest of the Atlas mountains - and he is pleasantly surprised, not to say astonished, at the quality of signal he has managed to find up there.

He's decided to take a couple of days off after a management course in Marrakesh. It was an IPA-backed event and it is perhaps telling that Arnold helped steer the event towards Morocco rather than Maidstone. Or Mauritius, for that matter.

The location seems somehow fitting. While parts of the advertising industry are still steering with old Michelin Guides or Baedekers, the digital business is all Lonely Planet and Rough Guide - counter-culture, perhaps, but stripped of the stoned stupidity of hippydom.

And many will hope that his intrepid sense of adventure is indicative of the way he intends to tackle his new role. Arnold, the managing director of Profero, takes over as the chairman of IPA Digital, the body that was formed by the IPA back in February to supersede its Digital Marketing Group, from Dare's John Owen.

Arnold, 31, takes on the role at a time when the online medium has started giving out mixed signals. On the one hand, it can seemingly do no wrong - adspend was up 65.6 per cent last year to £1.4 billion and growth has seemingly been accelerating throughout 2006. On the other hand, it is continuing to trip over a couple of intractable but rather fundamental issues.

Such as the fact that it has yet to develop a universally accepted online planning and buying currency. Critics contend that this is important if the medium is to evolve to the next level. Available measures such as clicks and conversion rates are fine for e-commerce clients, but brand advertisers need a bigger-picture understanding of audience behaviour.

So leadership from Arnold will be important there. And he will also doubtless be called upon to referee in a growing dispute about remuneration.

For decades in old media, publishers and broadcasters have always stood by a system that gives the same levels of commission to all-comers, no matter what their level of spend.

Online media owners, especially Google, have been looking to introduce sliding-scale incentives, much to the chagrin of agencies. More fur is almost certain to fly where this debate is concerned - and it will be interesting to see Arnold's response.

He says he sees his role as conciliatory - getting media owners and agencies to talk more - where that issue is concerned.

And on the currency debate, he argues that any interim solution must be grasped - the industry should definitely not hold fire for three years or so while it comes up with the perfect solution. However, he admits, he still has no hard and fast blueprint.

"The IPA has an incredibly strong role to play in moulding outcomes," he says. "It's about making sure that when there are potential problems, people feel they are able to have conversations with us."

At this stage, he's more voluble when it comes to generalities. For instance, he talks a more or less convincing game about the digital medium having "reached an irreversible tipping point" and about how it is now changing the dynamic of the whole media industry as never before.

And few in the business have the sort of perspective that Arnold offers - he has been in this market longer than most. Along with his elder brother Daryl, he launched Profero in 1998, toughed out the dotcom crash when it came and helped build the agency into the largest independent full-service network going, with offices in Milan, Singapore, Beijing and Sydney, as well as London.

Daryl, the agency's chief executive, is regarded as the more charismatic of the pair - an absolute workaholic, he's the one who's arguably done more to construct the international network. Currently, he works out of the Singapore office. Wayne is more grounded, not at all dazzled by the flashier aspects of the advertising industry.

And that worries some - although he is as passionate an advocate for all aspects of digital media as you're likely to meet, it might also be true that in the past he has not exactly cultivated a high profile. That might not help in some aspects of his new role.

"It's true he's not the sort of guy who's out to kick sand in people's faces," Mark Cridge, the chief executive of glue London, says. "He's a really nice guy - one of the best."

Not even Moroccan sand. Arnold is quick to counter industry rumours that he's a fitness fanatic but he does own up to participation in the Marathon des Sables - a Foreign Legion-style slog over 150 North African miles, in six stages. He's clearly a glutton for Moroccan punishment.

But the IPA job could prove tougher than he thinks - because some say that the internet's second honeymoon period is coming rapidly to a close.

Christine Walker, the chief executive of Walker Media, would agree that the industry desperately needs better models for deriving realistic cost-per-acquisition figures. "The sooner people stop thinking in silos, the sooner digital's revenue growth will settle to the right sort of sustainable levels," she argues.

But Walker (her agency used to have a partnership agreement with Profero) certainly approves of Arnold's appointment. And, obviously, she agrees with the consensus that he's a lovely guy.

"When we first met, he seemed deeply young, but you quickly realise that he is wise beyond his years, and, of course, he is a very bright bloke," she recalls.

"He has a lovely nature - if he says he'll do something, he'll do it. I am sure he will take an intelligent approach to digital's place in the wider scheme of things. He has a good understanding of all media."

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