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Dominic Mills 

Whatever next? Media bloke takes charge at creative agency

Whatever next? Media bloke takes charge at creative agency

After Karmarama took the bold step of appointing a media man - Jon Wilkins - as its executive chairman, Dominic Mills says we're seeing how digital is pulling down the barriers that define media and creative agencies.

If you wander round the offices at Karmarama, you can't miss a neon sign emblazoned with the words "Keine Wixer Bitte".

It translates as "no wankers, please", which is a pretty pithy way of describing the Karmarama philosophy.

Last week, just weeks after what many agencies might regard as the confidence-sapping blow of losing its biggest account, the £40 million B&Q business, Karmarama took the bold step of appointing a media man as its executive chairman.

As a statement of intent, it is pretty compelling.

There was a time, however, not that many years ago, when the mutual antipathy was such that "Wixer" was how creative and media agencies would regularly describe the other, if not face-to-face, then to third parties like journalists.

Indeed, one prominent (but atypical) boss of a media independent once told me his dream was to see a senior media agency executive appointed to run a creative agency - but that it would never happen during his working life.

He, for one, will be delighted to have been proved wrong.

Of course the media bloke turning up at Karmarama tomorrow for his first day at work is not just any old media bloke, but Jon Wilkins, founder of Naked.

For those with a short memory, Naked took the world by storm when it launched in 2000 by pioneering a form of media-led creativity that completely captured the Zeitgeist.

In some senses, Naked did little more than steal the clothes of the more advanced and thoughtful media agencies. But it packaged it better, did it better, and came with none of the baggage that they did.

All this meant that while the established media agencies couldn't charge for this sort of thinking¬ł clients were more than happy to pay for the sex and sizzle that Naked offered.

What's more, creative agencies - such as Mother - loved working with Naked and Wilkins because they had a much broader way of looking at creativity.

It's tempting to think of Karmarama as (just) a cool independent ad agency with a reputation for creativity and punching above its weight. In fact, it's more interesting than that."

So how does Wilkins fit into Karmarama? Well, brilliantly, I would say. The cultural match is spot on, and he steps nicely into the large pair of shoes vacated by former chair Nicola Mendelsohn, now running Facebook Europe. Like her, he combines gravitas, experience, connections and the ability to talk meaningfully to senior clients.

In short, he's a grown-up, the value of which to a youthful but fast-growing independent agency like Karmarama and group chief executive Ben Bilboul is significant.

More pertinently, Wilkins is thoroughly steeped in the business of modern communications. It's tempting to think of Karmarama as (just) a cool independent ad agency with a reputation for creativity and punching above its weight.

In fact, it's more interesting than that, with a raft of additional offerings: data, digital (of course), social, content and even PR.

The trick, however, is joining them all up and demonstrating to clients how best to use them. Wilkins, with his command of the modern media scene and experience at Naked, is just the person to do that.

Like all ambitious agencies, Karmarama is also casting its eyes overseas. I suspect, however, that any overseas expansion will come off the back of a UK client - Costa, for example - rather than by closing its eyes and sticking a pin in the map.

Going international, however, is fraught with traps. Here, Wilkins' experience with Naked will stand him good stead: during his time, it opened in New York, Sydney, Melbourne, Sao Paolo and Tokyo.

And this is where Wilkins' experience gets really interesting. Expansion - whether of product offering or geography - is expensive and requires deep pockets. Karmarama is backed by the venture capital outfit Phoenix Equity.

So far they have been highly supportive - and even took a sanguine view of the decision to resign B&Q - but VCs are not known for their patience or selflessness. If, at some point, Phoenix decides to cash in - what then?

This is where Wilkins will also be critical, even if it's a question of advising Karmarama on what not to do.

Naked's sale in 2008 to Australian mini-marketing services conglomerate Photon - which arguably paid far more than it could afford (which is not the same as saying it paid too much) - has been, not to put too fine a point on it, a screw-up.

At the time of the deal, it looked as though Naked had the world at its feet. Photon's financial meltdown could be said to have set it back years. At the very least, this is not an experience Wilkins would want to repeat.

So, it is clear Wilkins' experience of dealing with outside shareholders could be a significant asset.

Which takes us back to the idea of media people running creative agencies. It seems to me that one of the things we will see is that, once you strip out the buying, the distinction between media and creative agencies will become less relevant as digital knocks the barriers down.

Indeed, we can already see this: media and creative agencies are already beginning to offer the same ancillary services - social, content, data and so on.

As this process accelerates, there'll be nothing remarkable about media people at the top of creative agencies, and hey - who knows? - the other way round too.

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Drayton Bird, Chairman, Drayton Bird Associates on 15 Dec 2014
“I know someone who worked there for quite a while. Amateur night at the opera.”