Opinion: Perspective - Why media is losing a one-off in Christine Walker

It's characteristic of Christine Walker that her last day at the agency she founded a decade ago will coincide with the last day that smoking will be allowed in a public place. She has always been a defiant nicotine addict.

There will be lots of people telling their favourite anecdote about Christine Walker this week; she has become an adland legend. I remember a rather sweaty Monte Carlo conference many years ago. All the blokes (this being media, they were nearly all blokes) were turned out in polo shirts, chinos and sports jackets. Christine Walker was giving a speech and bounded up on to the stage in a rather tatty pair of leggings and a shapeless T-shirt. She made a brilliant, utterly confident presentation and blew the men out of the water. It was typical Walker. No frills - literally or metaphorically - but you get your money's worth. This is the woman, after all, for whom cost-per-square-office-foot has always been a matter of pride.

Cost-efficiency is built into her DNA, right from the pile-it-high, buy-it-cheap philosophy that launched Zenith in a warehouse in Paddington (back in the days when warehouses definitely weren't high fashion). And she has relentlessly been associated with high margins and tight costs, while others in media worried about gimmicky add-ons that had a questionable effect on their own or their clients' bottom lines. As media has matured, these days you need quality thinking, of course. That's never been Walker's forte, but in her business partner, Phil Georgiadis, she found one of the very best thinkers in the business. But you can bet every bit of investment the agency has made has been a Walker-led negotiation.

Now Walker's quitting her eponymous agency and it's time to assess her legacy.

Christine Walker is a woman of firsts. For starters: by being a successful senior woman in a media agency world that for most of her career was unapologetically testosterone-fuelled. Over the years, Walker has out-boyed the boys, while using the fact that she's not one to business-building effect.

And although she was not the only architect in 1988 of Zenith Media, the first big media buying shop, she came to epitomise this market-defining brand. Then when she quit in 1997 and launched a full-service media operation at a time when planning-only start-ups were the fad, she bucked the perceived wisdom that media buying had become too expensive to service and too volume-driven for a humble start-up to be able to compete.

Not that there's ever been anything humble about Walker, either. She drops names (mostly big cheese clients or global media owners) like cherry blossom. But she's as comfortable drinking the juniors under the table in a cheap bar as she is black-tie-ing it with the big dicks at a 30 Club dinner.

So as Walker prepares to walk away, the media industry loses one of its very few enduring personalities. Still, critics (and the outspoken Walker certainly has a few) would say that much of what she stood for through her career is of less relevance today, like all that stuff about low-cost media. But match value with first-class strategic thinking, as Walker Media has done, and that's a pretty attractive proposition for the 21st century.

If there are lessons to learn from the Walker approach, though, they have more to do with client servicing than media buying. Throughout her career, Walker has forged top-level client relationships and generated a client loyalty that has enabled her to build a top-ten company. She can out-network the best creative agency suit, and there's virtually no-one else in the media agency world you can say that of.

Christine Walker might always be associated with the days when media was a commodity, but her approach to client servicing has been anything but. She is proof that people still matter in the media business: people who are passionate about what they do and passionate about the people they do it for.

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