MEDIA HEADLINER: Waller to focus on expansion as Premier retains BA contract - It's time Premier stopped relying on High Life to pay the bills

Craig Waller should be a relieved man. As the chief executive of Premier Media Partners, he has just seen his company retain its prestige account after the first open-tender review in the history of British Airways' High Life magazine.

Craig Waller should be a relieved man. As the chief executive of Premier Media Partners, he has just seen his company retain its prestige account after the first open-tender review in the history of British Airways' High Life magazine.

The November pitch, which raised eyebrows and pulse rates across the contract publishing industry, was close. Redwood, in particular, pushed Premier to the wire. And the stakes could barely have been higher. Failure to retain the business would have raised the prospect of Premier's parent, Omnicom, folding the publisher into the very company that almost vanquished it in the review.

With this in mind, it could be argued that Waller has just finished pitching for his company's existence. 'There would have been bigger headlines in Campaign if we hadn't retained it,' he admits. 'But we wouldn't have closed down if we had lost. We'd have continued to be a strong agency.'

It's true that Premier is not a one-trick pony, but it's also the case that the company's client base has narrowed in recent years, leaving it increasingly dependent on BA. 1999 saw the company lose the Asda and Vauxhall businesses. Even successes, such as picking up Airtours in 2000 and winning awards for its work with Go, have not been quite enough to allay concerns. 'We would want to have grown more,' Waller concedes. 'We don't have a big retail client now and that will be a priority this year.'

Part of the reason for Premier's apparent lack of momentum outside the airline business could be the level of attention paid to the client on which Waller founded the business, with its former chairman, Bill Davis, back in the early 70s. Keeping hold of the High Life contract appears to be a labour-intensive business. 'A team of us have worked on the business for a long time,' Waller's deputy chief executive, Clare Broadbent, says.

Sources close to the BA review confirm that the care given by Premier to building a partnership with its client at all levels makes it difficult for a single marketing executive to take the business from them. But even with a relationship this strong, it's clear that BA cannot be taken for granted. Waller says that last year's pitch was occasioned by the arrival of a new chief executive, Rod Eddington, something that could also give the incumbent agencies M&C Saatchi, Walker Media and Optimedia cause for concern.

'It was best business practice,' Waller says. 'They have a new chief executive who is clearly going to review all aspects of their business. We needed to embark on a new phase of our relationship with them.'

There has never been much dispute as to the editorial quality that Premier offers through High Life. The editorial director, Mark Jones, has been praised across the industry for his work on the title. It was on the commercial side, sources indicate, that BA demanded Premier step up its game. The airline's management wanted revenue driven harder and that required a promise to accelerate media sales around High Life.

'We have a massive media sales growth target in the next three years,' Waller says. 'We have a chunk of people that we can reach who are not being bombarded. This isn't just about meeting BA targets. This is a service we can develop and roll out to other airline clients.'

Expansion of Premier's offering has increasingly become the focus of Waller's attention since he took over the role of chief executive in November 1999. 'He tends to do a lot of the strategic thinking,' Broadbent says.

'He has very strong beliefs and he's very passionate about the business.'

Waller's passions are currently directed at finding avenues for growth outside Premier's current UK print niche. He believes that the digital arena offers a particular opportunity, given new-media agencies' inexperience in providing regular content. The second growth opportunity lies overseas.

Premier has successfully established relationships with leading contract publishers in Scandinavia and Germany and started up an office in New York last year.

'We've got the BA contract back and now we want to go to the next level,' Broadbent declares. First, though, Premier must learn to break its dependence on BA.



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