Craig WilkieCraig Wilkie, Feather Brooksbank’s new head of digital, is an anomaly in media buying. Instead of giving up the rat-race to play golf, he’s given up golf to go back to the rat-race. When he left I-Level, the agency he founded, in 2002 Stirling-born Wilkie realised he wanted to return to Scotland, but not to rest as many might imagine. Not Wilkie. He moved back and almost immediately enrolled in a degree course at UHI Dornoch.
Before you admire his commitment, the degree was in golf management. “What can I say?” he said. “The only term of reference was there were six mature students who started the first year, and none who started the second year.” Needless to say, Wilkie quit the course after one year when he too realised it wasn’t all about playing golf.
Wilkie’s return to media buying has been prompted by two things: his desire to get back into the working world and Feather Brooksbank’s rapid growth demanding a focused department for online planning and buying. The agency and Wilkie were already acquainted as Wilkie – in his other guise as a director of new media training house Shedlight – had come into Feather Brooksbank in the late 90s to train the buyers.
“We’ve been looking for a head of digital for quite a long time now,” said Stuart Bell, Feather Brooksbank’s commercial director. “We’re starting to grow quite significantly and it’s quite important that we give our clients an all-round service. Online media planning and buying is a very important part of the overall mix. We’d known Craig for a while; we’d worked with him, and it was a good fit. This was a big jump for us, so it was important to get the right person.”
When I-Level launched in 1998, it brought together some of the brightest minds in online, linking founders Charlie Dobres, Lowe Digital’s founder; Andrew Walmsley, Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s head of digital; and Wilkie, who joined from Guardian New Media Lab. One of the marked differences between I-Level and other new media agencies at the time was its determination to act as a traditional company working in a new marketplace.
“At that stage, everyone and their dogs were leaving to set up internet companies, so I thought I better do it myself,” said Wilkie. “We were very aware of the fact that a lot of the new media companies, your Boo.coms, were living the life and we were very conscious that we wanted to be like existing agencies. We tried to behave like an established agency; it just so happened that we were dealing in a relatively new field.”
Wilkie brought to the launch of I-Level a wealth of experience in traditional publishing. As ad sales manager at Guardian Newspapers, he was offered the chance to work on the paper’s joint venture with Wired magazine, in 1995. The venture was short-lived. He hesitates when asked why. “How can I say this? There was culture clash. It was actually a successful venture. The Guardian, being the progressive organisation that they are, they could see how important all this stuff was going to be and it was a match made in heaven. Fundamentally, though, a culture clash was identified early on.”
Six months later – after a brief sojourn working with Wired US – Wilkie returned to the Guardian camp. “I was then slightly in limbo, having been very happy at the Guardian, I then found myself in this situation, where I’d had to leave The Guardian as the joint venture [and it] were two separate companies,” he said.
In the time Wilkie was away, The Guardian had set up its New Media Lab, a small unit to explore opportunities in digital media. These were the days before GuardianUnlimited, and Wilkie saw an opportunity. A few sponsored websites later, GuardianUnlimited launched with Wilkie as publishing manager. GuardianUnlimited introduced Wilkie to Dobres and Walmsley, who were pioneering the first online efforts with Vauxhall and Levi Strauss, respectively. With Dobres, Wilkie worked with Vauxhall on one of the first flagship marketing efforts when the General Motors-owned brand sponsored The Guardian’s Euro 96 coverage through Lowe Digital.
The meeting of minds gave birth to I-Level. Wilkie’s decision to leave I-Level in 2002 was purely for lifestyle reasons. “Personally, I wanted to move out of London, and the nature of my Shedlight work was that I could be anywhere to do that,” he said. “As it was consultancy work, I could dip in and out of London as and when I needed to, whereas with I-level, I really had to be there. At that time, one of our original board members was resigning anyway, so it made perfect sense if there was going to be a re-organisation, I seized the opportunity then.”
He is honest about his targets at Feathers.
“I think what’s got to be recognised is that anyone can plan and buy online, but planning and buying online well is a completely different proposition,” he said. “I think there’s a whole load more sites out there [than the top ten] and there are a load more ways to deal with the creative. We want to raise the standards of our offering to our clients. Obviously all elements of digital platforms will be considered, but the reality is online is where the client demand is at the moment.”
Part of Wilkie’s remit will be to challenge the common perception of online media planning and buying. “At the end of the day, I believe the reason so much of the money gets spent with them [the top ten sites] is it’s so demanding and it’s very labour-intensive to do online properly. I think there’s a lot of lazy planning going into it too. It’s like, ‘no-one ever got fired for buying IBM’. We want to be as creative as we possibly can and be as innovative as we can possibly be in our planning and buying,” he said. “If we’re sitting here in a year’s time, and there’s two or three people planning and buying online, and they’re spending 80 per cent of the client’s money on the top ten sites, then I’ve done something really wrong.”