MEDIA HEADLINER: Walker Media has to develop beyond its challenger status

Five years on, the agency is now alone in the middle ground, Alasdair Reid says.

It's like one of those word association tests that psychiatrists used to swear by. Ask anyone who's been in the media business over the past decade or so what comes to mind when you say "Christine Walker" and the standard response is something like: "Drinking and smoking and talking. At 2am. With clients, of course. She's client obsessive."

And the beautifully symmetrical bit about this whole story is the fact that some of those clients are Walker obsessives too. That's why, when she left Zenith Media five years ago, the likes of Dixons (when legally allowed to do so) eventually came with her.

Actually, if we're being arithmetically accurate, she resigned as Zenith Media's chief executive just over six years ago, in January 1997, but it was only after a year which included notice, gardening leave, quiet manoeuvering and some very public legal posturing that Walker Media could open its doors. Five years ago last week.

So, what has Walker Media achieved? And what did it set out to achieve?

The agenda, Walker insists, was probably simpler than most people think.

"Essentially, I left Zenith because life was becoming a bit bland. Five years on, my view has been proved correct. There are a lot of similar media brands in the marketplace. I saw opportunities for a company that is more personality driven."

Walker says she measures the company's success in terms of its ability to attract like-minded clients. "Whenever possible, we wanted to get entrepreneurial companies and challenger brands and in that we fulfilled our ambitions. We knew we were unlikely to get companies such as Procter & Gamble and Mars."

She is proud of being responsible for the last full-service media start-up in the UK. More recent launches, she points out, have been brand or planning-only consultancies. She's also proud of Walker Media's adherence to three core values: client service, great strategic thinking and the ability to implement that thinking. She argues that her company is one of the last distinctive brands in the market.

Not that Walker Media is a one- man (or woman) band. Many observers point out that her fellow founding partner, Phil Georgiadis, has strengths that complement Walker's perfectly. "Christine and Phil are hugely respected.

Christine is very driven and is the go-getter. She's a tough individual.

She gets things done. Phil is more of a thinker and systematic. Christine needs someone like Phil. He's a counterbalance," Mick Desmond, the joint managing director of the ITV network, says.

Its broadcast director, Jon Horrocks, is highly respected too. But, understandably, it's Walker herself who commands most of the headlines. The whole Zenith saga gave her eminent drama-queen credentials to go with her iconic status as the girl who's one of the boys but still made it to the top.

There are some critics, obviously. Equally obviously, some of them are now or have worked at Zenith Media. They say that at Zenith she was great with the sorts of clients who loved sitting up until the small hours getting drunk and flirting; but she tended to ignore the others, implying she doesn't have what it takes to lead a big outfit, and the broad church that usually entails. But then she admits she struggles to accommodate blandness.

Unfortunately, though, that's what the future is all about, isn't it?

In a market where both the media sellers and media buyers are continuing to consolidate, absolutely no-one can survive in the middle ground. Indeed, Walker Media is already the only remaining middle-sized agency of real status.

According to one observer, there will come a time, sooner rather than later, when Walker could start to feel the loss of that status. "Will she be able to retain a passion for a dwindling number of clients at the margins? The cruel thing about being at the margins is that people stop returning your calls. I'm not sure she'll want to be a part of this business when she can't tell people she has to dash off for dinner with Charles Allen (the chief executive of Granada)."

Many in media think that before the next five years are up, Walker will have opted for the south of France, a balcony with a decent view (she's actually just bought a new property out there) and a bottle or two of fine wine. Others can't see it. She's far too determined and driven, they say. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Walker herself agrees with the second assessment.

Walker Media will keep moving forward, she says. Clients will increasingly become disgruntled with what they're being offered at the big buying points.

"The next five years will be about choice. Advertisers always want choice. The fundamentals don't change. Service is a real issue, especially when at many clients there are fewer and fewer people looking after the business of advertising," she asserts.

You'd like to think that she will be right. The big media companies currently come in any colour you fancy as long as it's grey. But whatever the future holds for Walker Media, doesn't she regret leaving Zenith? Many assume she must. At Zenith she had the top seat at the very top table. Anything after that must, eventually, at some level, be something of a come down, especially from today's perspective.

Absolutely not, she says: "I was fond of Zenith, it's difficult not to be. But the world I was living in was bland and filled with people sitting about waiting for their pensions. That's fine but it's not for me."