Walmsley reflects on I-Level's first decade
Andrew Walmsley tells Media Week why he remains ambitious about the future of the independent digital agency he founded 10 years ago.
Andrew Walmsley, co-founder of I-Level
Ask Andrew Walmsley, co-founder of I-Level, anything about the price of Rolls-Royce helicopter engines and there's nothing he can't tell you. Or perhaps there are gaps in his knowledge now, since it was 22 years ago that the head of the leading independent digital agency started his career selling helicopter engines for the manufacturer, after failing to gain entry to the advertising industry.
"Rolls-Royce was the perfect grounding for getting into the media industry, because it mostly involved flying to places and drinking a great deal," Walmsley points out.
I-Level recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a black-tie ball at Dartmouth House in London's Mayfair. Walmsley's peers describe him as "visionary", and the agency he founded with Charlie Dobres and Craig Wilkie has gone from strength to strength. In 2000, I-Level became the first digital agency to win an IPA Effectiveness Award and, in 2007, it won a Queen's Award for Enterprise in Innovation.
However, Walmsley has been on a journey and has lost two partners in the process. Dobres left in 2007 to run an educational charity and Wilkie departed soon after the agency was formed, following the failure of its sister training company Shedlight.
Walmsley's career break came in 1989, when Steve Harrison, former media director of London agency BMP, now OMD, appointed him as a trainee TV buyer.
Walmsley left the agency after eight years due to its lack of investment in digital and moved on to become head of digital at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which gave him an insight into how to run his own business. He says: "Working at BBH was a fantastic experience. It was the most professionally run agency in town with a strong sense of ethics and it taught me how to run an agency well."
Two years later, Walmsley spotted a gap in the market and decided to start I-Level, a concept he had dreamed up while studying for an MBA.
Ask Walmsley where his agency will be in 10 years' time, and it's clear he plans to remain at the helm. Buyout specialist ECI invested £45m in I-Level last year, giving it a 60% stake, and Walmsley remains ambitious about the potential for his business.
But he concedes that if the right group came along with the right vision, he might consider further talks. He has had interest from major agency networks, but as a true digital advocate, he says his reason for not selling was the networks' "lack of vision about where the digital space is likely to take them". He says: "We didn't want to be a plaster for lack of investment and skills in the digital area."
I-Level now has 150 staff and its turnover in 2008 was £100m, so Walmsley is doing something right. However, even he couldn't have foreseen the Government's decision to consolidate its £250m media buying business into one agency or agency group. I-Level holds the digital buying contract at present, and its best course of action now is to team up with a partner agency to pitch for the entire COI buying business as part of a consortium.
Walmsley declines to comment on the repitch, preferring to focus on his clear strategy for the future of the agency - to continue making digital "the heart of interaction with consumers". He says: "Digital is the best place for businesses to learn what their consumers want and it is a place where consumers want to interact and buy stuff with them.
"Digital is an area of great importance to businesses' overall corporate performance, which is why they want an agency with specialist skills."
I-Level covers the full range of digital media planning - from pay-per-click to affiliate marketing - but Walmsley predicts that data, search and social media will be the biggest disciplines for 2009-10. He says: "Data is driving a revolution in marketing, supplementing consumer insight with statistically based skills. In social media, there is widespread misunderstanding and bandwagon- jumping of epic proportions, with lame Facebook pages that have been set up for no specific purpose."
Walmsley has a Twitter account, but does not tweet because "the majority of my day is spent with people who wouldn't be pleased if our meeting was public". But he adds: "Social networking will continue to grow because, as social animals, we love to interact with one another and social networking removes geographical barriers. There will be ebbs and flows on individual sites, but the overall level is rising."
Having hit the jackpot as an early adopter of digital, Walmsley's vision is about to be tested again, through his investment in online trading platform MediaEquals. Walmsley will also advise the board as and when it needs his expertise.
He comments: "MediaEquals enables businesses to build relationships and add value and not get bogged down in admin. It's never been so important to have MediaEquals, because everyone is looking to make their business more efficient."
I-Level has recently had management changes, with group managing director Faith Carthy moving on, and chief financial officer Stephen Rust becoming chief executive, replacing David Pattison, who became non-executive chairman following the departure of John Bartle from the position after 10 years.
Walmsley says it was natural for Pattison to take Bartle's role and, having worked for Bartle at BBH, believes he owes part of his success to his former boss. "John was a fantastic influence on me and the business. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude."
2007 Deputy chairman, ILG Digital (holding company of I-Level and Generator Consulting)
1999 Co-founder, I-Level
1997 Head of digital, Bartle Bogle Hegarty
1989 Trainee TV buyer, taking on a more new-media role from 1994, OMD (formerly BMP)
1987 Helicopter engine salesman, Rolls-Royce
Married to Angela with a son, aged eight, and a daughter, aged four
Digital consumption: Digital is already a means of delivering TV, radio, outdoor and newspapers to consumers. Digital is becoming a broader market across all disciplines rather than a bigger one. The e-reader will be big. When Plastic Logic launches its e-reader next year, we could see a systemic change.
Digital growth: There is also huge growth in online video delivered to TV and computers. We will see huge growth in media exchanges and behavioural targeting will become a bigger part of how that works.
Bing versus Google: Bing has upped Microsoft's game. But Microsoft has a real challenge, since half Google's traffic comes from its long-term arrangements with publishers and distributors. No matter what consumers choose to do, most sites will present them with a Google search box whether they like it or not. This buys Google time, so it has about a year to get its product as good as Bing. Bing is superior in some areas, such as video, but Google is still superior in others, so it's swings and roundabouts. It's not a Google home run.
This article was first published on mediaweek.co.uk
Latest jobs Jobs web feed
- Account Director- Exciting Online Content Marketing Company- Up to £70,000 plus OTE Cedar Scott Up to £70,000 basic (up to £90,000 OTE) plus share options, Central London
- Global Product Manager Evans Taylor c£50k - c£60k p.a. plus car, bonus and benefits, North East of England or Central London
- Brand Manager Radisson Blu Edwardian, London Competitive , South Kensington, London
- ACCOUNT DIRECTOR/SENIOR ACCOUNT DIRECTOR - BTL/SP/Brand Experience - London - £45 - £55k plus bonus Judi Patton £45K-55K plus bonus, London/Greater London
- Senior Planning Director, International Agency, London, to £120k Fill Recruitment Ltd to £120,000, Central London
- Senior Designer Duke Circa £40k - £43k , London
Integrated digital marketing offers huge opportunities to engage, servic...
Mobile marketing is coming of age, and the pace of change is now exponen...
With UK consumers spending an average of £1,083 a year online, int...
Conversational Mobile Marketing: Engage Customers and Empower Advocates (Expert Reports) External website
The pressure is on for marketers and mobile operators to embrace a strat...
As a nation, the UK is media and technology obsessed with over half of t...
All customers have the potential to become your brand advocates, driving...