Is Graham Duff man enough to step into Christine Walker’s
This was the question exercising some of the finest media minds in town
As word spread last Monday that Walker was quitting the company she had
been synonymous with for so long, it was inevitable she would attract
the choicest headlines (Campaign, last week). But the footnote to the
second most exciting resignation of 1997 (let’s just say Kevin Keegan
has a lot to answer for) was that her successor had already been chosen
There would be no speculation as to who would take the crown.
Step forward Graham Duff, chief executive designate.
In many respects, his succession was always assured. With the benefit of
hindsight, it’s clear that Walker had been grooming Duff for some
She had retreated slightly from the limelight over the past year or so,
allowing Duff room to carve out a position as agency frontman.
From Duff’s arrival in 1993 with a brief to sort out the TV department,
his responsibilities have widened to embrace the agency’s entire
commercial portfolio. His hand was apparent in the October launch of
Zenith Direct, as well as the deal struck with Leagas Shafron Davis in
December which resulted in the birth of Zenith’s first joint venture,
With the blessing of the Zenith chairman, John Perriss, Duff attended
more European and global management meetings than Walker in recent
months, thus beginning an important process of familiarisation with
other agency chiefs throughout the network.
Add to that Duff’s undoubted popularity, his unquestioned ability and
his innate people skills - and you appear to have perfect leadership
But why should Duff have been chosen for the plum job above Zenith’s
other joint managing director, the equally capable and respected Andy
It would be easy to dismiss as idle tittle-tattle reports that Walker
put less value on Tilley’s more cerebral skills. But Duff has a similar
pedigree to Walker and it’s one she is entirely comfortable with: TV
As Perriss explains: ’It would have been difficult to have had someone
at the helm with an entirely planning-oriented background when 80 per
cent of our revenues are derived from buying.’
Yet it is precisely this area where Zenith attracts the most flak. Some
claim that Duff’s elevation stamps Zenith once and for all as a buying
shop at a time when the rest of the industry is searching for additional
standards by which to calibrate a good deal.
One media owner, who preferred to remain anonymous, says: ’Big agency
deals are under serious threat now and the big buying points have to
change the way they sell. The answer has to be added value; Zenith needs
a different measure. Planning must come in-house. You can’t have the
planning done outside then give it to someone else to shoehorn into the
Some Zenith clients agree. Sheila Lamport, media communications manager
at Allied Domecq, one of Duff’s clients, adds: ’It still has too much of
a buying shop mentality. Zenith is not doing enough of its clients’
planning. It needs to beef up its planning department
Duff faces the charge that he is ’one-dimensional’, that while he may
have excellent TV skills, he is less adept in other areas and his tenure
at the top may lend the agency an unfortunate bias. Some whisper about
the imperative for him to keep his hand firmly on the TV tiller and not
leave the department at the mercy of a ’bunch of kids’. Then there are
others who carp about his lack of ’statesmanlike stature’ as he prepares
to ascend the Zenith throne.
It is time for Graham Duff to face his critics and lay out his vision
for Zenith post-Walker. Duff has been in the know since November and has
had time to prepare mentally, but today he looks every one of his 38
years (with exquisite timing, his birthday fell last Monday).
Nevertheless, he is friendly, chatty and typically self-deprecating.
When asked whether he will establish a cult of personality a la Walker,
his response is: ’That would be boring wouldn’t it?’
But seriously, how do you follow an act like Christine’s? Well, if
you’re Duff, you don’t try anything fancy; you put your head down and
hope your experience will help you do a bloody good job. And with stints
on the agency and media owner side, Duff appears to have it all sorted
in that department. As Mark Cranmer, managing director of Motive, points
out: ’No other person in the industry has seen as much media from both
sides of the fence as Graham.’
According to Duff, it’s very much business as usual. After all, he had
increasingly been acting as guardian of the Zenith brand.
’The only difference between now and last Friday is that the buck stops
here,’ he says. ’This is a pretty successful brand and it would be
stupid to change it. Of course, the media market is changing rapidly,
but our job is to look at how the pieces fit together and ensure we have
the best product offering.’
He believes he has an opportunity to ’refresh’ the Zenith brand and
steer its evolution rather than introduce knee-jerk changes. Part of
that process will involve trying to persuade clients to pay more for
strategic thinking, but as the ever practical Duff points out, it
depends on client requirements and some specifically ask Zenith not to
get involved in certain areas.
Under Duff, there will be further brand extensions and joint ventures,
and almost certainly a different management technique. Perriss believes
Duff will operate a more ’consensus’ style.
When you ask Duff if there will be changes in that area, his response is
a swift: ’Yes.’ He talks about empowerment and building from the bottom
up. He is a general who likes to walk amid his troops and, unlike
Walker, has less recourse to the internal phone when discussing points
of order. His may not be an overtly aggressive style, but many insist
that he should not be underestimated.
Duff counters slights about his TV bias, first by claiming he wasn’t
that good a buyer anyway, and then by pointing out that he has spent a
disproportionate amount of time with the press team of late.
But, understandably, the Zenith TV department is Duff’s pride and joy
and it’s one area where he thinks he has the right to feel a
As Cranmer points out: ’It’s hard to do what Zenith does, against that
client base to never have had the reputation of being bent, overclaiming
on discount or promising too much.’
As Duff puts it: ’It’s no accident we have the right reputation.’ And
the right reputation is something that has rubbed off on Duff
He may never be remembered as an industry visionary, but he has many
admirers. Nick Milligan, sales director at Channel 5, says: ’Graham Duff
has loads of faults, but over the years I haven’t spotted them yet.’
Tim Wootton, whom Duff first worked with at Anglia Television, believes
his big break came when he severed the umbilical cord as a time-buying
manager at Publicis and returned as a founding director of the first ITV
sales house, TSMS, in 1990.
’We gave him general management experience which has proved
He’ll be just as effective as Christine in a different way and he’ll
make the tough decisions,’ Wootton says.
As I am about to leave I can’t resist one more question: will he miss
Christine Walker? Duff pauses for a moment before answering carefully:
’As someone I have enjoyed working with, yes.’ But he clearly won’t miss
the battles that reporting to the combative Walker entailed. ’We have
disagreed on occasions and sometimes I have got my way, but it was
always a case of, ’On your head be it’, rather than with good
What did they disagree about? ’Usually about how much I want to pay
someone,’ laughs Duff. Well, Walker won’t be around for arguments much
longer. The purse-strings have passed to this man. The buck stops right