Media Headliner: Bammo returns with new way of trading media

Nick Bampton and his VBS colleagues believe their start-up can help revitalise a battered media market.

The sun is shining on Soho, spring is in the air and there's a spring in Nick "Bammo" Bampton's step. Golden Square has, in Bampton's eyes, never looked more golden.

"It's a great day to be launching a new company," he says. "In many ways, being at Viacom was one of the best phases of my life and they treated me very fairly but I've always known I wanted to start my own company and I've been looking forward to this moment for the past five years."

This sort of enthusiasm is always infectious - and on such a day, with such wildly optimistic plans as Bampton has in mind, you're always going to find it easy to put any thoughts of scepticism on hold. Bampton has never lacked confidence or self-belief - and it's been donkey's years since we've seen a significant media start-up. This one seems a compelling act of faith.

But there will be those who ponder, sun or no sun, over whether Bampton's right with his timing. Yes, there are signs of proverbial green shoots in the TV market - but times are still terribly tight.

And that's before we consider the fact that Bampton's not launched any old media company. He's seeking to rewrite the rulebook - aspiring to occupy the leading edge of a new wave, one that will reinvent the way that media is traded. It's a hugely ambitious project, thus his new company's portentous title, redolent of spiritual journeys and visionary political movements - The Third Way.

He's joined in this new enterprise by two former colleagues from the now-defunct Viacom Brand Solutions: Agostino DiFalco, formerly the director of insight and planning at VBS; and Dan Salem, its director of commercial partnerships. The trio were made homeless (in a business sense) in December 2009 when VBS, where Bampton was the managing director, was closed after Viacom decided to move its ad sales into Sky Media.

The nub of the matter, though, is that he wants to occupy a new space between media owners, media agencies and advertisers, and "interrupt" current media trading models. He'll look not just to stimulate the sort of bespoke, programme-relevant work that he specialised in at VBS but also go out and identify "highly demanded media assets for wholesale acquisition". And the new venture will open its doors having secured at least one significant contract - the job of selling bespoke advertising solutions on behalf of Five.

This is the point at which, for some, alarm bells will start ringing - because they'll interpret this as "broking" and broking just isn't British. Bampton cautions against that sort of knee-jerk response, hinting that the proposition will actually prove more subtle and innovative than this.

And it all comes back to timing, he insists. Not just in respect of the fact that a crash in the London office space market means he's able to set up from day one in Golden Square, that most resonant of media-land addresses.

More important, he argues, is the notion that we've reached an intriguing point in the business cycle. And he's not alone in feeling that the media agency sector is intellectually, morally and emotionally depressed - the determination of clients to cut costs has knocked the stuffing out of almost everyone.

On the other hand, Bampton's recent history should give us pause for thought. Under him, VBS not only punched above its weight in market share terms, it was also lauded within the industry for its innovative outlook. So its ultimate fate suggests the industry's harder heads are not always swayed by sentiment or aesthetics.

Bampton was well remunerated by Viacom and will have left with a handsome redundancy settlement. Which might come in handy. Collateral is surely going to be rather important. If you have ambitions to acquire inventory "wholesale", then you'll surely be required to put the cash up front.

Not necessarily, he counters: "There's a genuine desire out there to find more flexibility in the market ...

and there are ways to finance that. And, yes, it is true that it will take leaps of faith. But we don't necessarily need to raise a big war chest. It will be down to the companies out there, be it advertisers, agencies or media owners, who have a desire to do this."

Sceptics will find this sort of rationale rather woolly - and they will also point to the fact that, in the past decade, we've seen a handful of media initiatives seeking to reinvent the trading model. These start-ups have all talked a good paradigm-shift game but have tended to be shortlived.

Yet some commentators argue that if anyone can crack this, it will be Bampton - his track record at VBS (and, before that, at Five) means that he's very highly regarded. He also confesses that he's ferociously ambitious - and has not entered lightly into this.

"I think we're pretty good business people," he says. "My ambition is as large as it can be. The aim certainly isn't just to be a quirky niche operation ... but it's equally important to do it the right way."

He doesn't want to commit himself too definitively - but he admits it wouldn't be too outrageous to say he hopes to build The Third Way into an agency employing 50 people within five years.

And it doesn't bother him in the slightest that the agency's launch has left one or two people scratching their heads. "Someone said to me recently that when you launch a new business, with new ideas, there will always be people who don't understand it," he explains. "But you have to take strength from that. Because if you're doing what everyone else has always done, there's really no margin in that."

What the market thinks about The Third Way

- Steve Platt, trading director, Aegis Media

"It's certainly a brave move. The thing about Bammo is he has a good track record and he's well-liked in the industry - whatever he does, he'll get support. Clearly he's trying to approach the media market differently - and it's certainly true that its trading methods have been in place for a long time now and it's getting more difficult for everybody to work within them.

"I think he has to be careful about the issue of broking - broking isn't something we'd want to enter into. But if he can come up with new ways that are transparent and make the marketplace more efficient, then that will be welcomed. If we can buy it cheaper from him than from media owners, then there will be interest. But what would media owners want to sell to him on that basis?"

- Mike Parker, head of strategic sales and commercial marketing, Channel 4

"They are great guys and VBS was a really good sales operation. It's sadly missed. Anything or anyone who tries to do things differently in the television market and envisages new ways to attract money to the medium has to be welcomed. But what's the business model? The problem they may find is that big broadcasters don't want to broker their airtime. And in terms of a creative approach to inventory, we are already doing what they seem to be promising to do - and we feel we are best placed to develop the proposition for ourselves.

"We have our own strategy in terms of creative use of inventory. So they may meet with reluctance from broadcasters. But if anyone can make it work, they can - and if it does work, then everyone will be doing it."

- Nick Theakstone, chief executive, Group M

"I think it's great that a character like Nick finds a niche that he believes is worth going for. He has the energy, enthusiasm and drive to make almost anything work and I wish him every success. He will get support but has to offer something of value - his personality will not nail it alone.

"Knowing him, he has something of substance that we will all find out about fairly shortly. It's a tough time to launch but I think The Third Way will find a place. The prevailing theory is that big is beautiful and we all anticipate the number of sales houses shrinking - but I also think small, cute, radical, fast, nimble and creative, offering real business solutions, will also work. With the personal service of Bammo, Dan and Ago, I think it will do more than survive. I look forward to the sell."