Robert Horler has the confident air of a man who just led his company to what he believes is the biggest online pitch in the UK. After picking up the £26m Aviva digital account, Diffiniti's Horler can be happy, but he is very aware that now the real work starts.
"Come and see me in three months, when I'm lying down and groaning," he says, as he talks about the transition period for Aviva's Norwich Union and RAC accounts.
Diffiniti is the Aegis-owned digital agency that grew out of the old Carat Interactive. It works with clients from sister agency Vizeum, but also seeks out new business in its own right, like Aviva. Diffiniti sits in Aegis' Isobar network alongside creative agency Glue, Carat Digital and De-construct in the UK. Horler was in charge of setting up the UK part of the global network.
Horler admits that being part of Isobar was an important part of the Aviva win, which came down to a shoot-out between Diffiniti and Harvest Digital.
"I think what helped us was the fact that we group trade," Horler says. "Without Aviva, Isobar will trade in excess of £100m in the UK market this year, and clearly that's a benefit and something they were interested in."
Preparations are now underway for the account to arrive and it will be no small undertaking. Such is the magnitude of the win, Horler and his team have closed off new business activity for the next six months. At the beginning of the Aviva pitch process, Horler told the client: "Anyone who tells you they can resource your business from day one when they win this is lying to you."
Therefore, the next step for Diffiniti is to restructure and recruit to accommodate the new business. The internal moves will come easily, but finding the right digitally experienced planners and buyers will be a harder task.
"The current recruitment situation is absolutely dire, it's completely horrendous. It's the worst I've ever known in any job I've ever had. There is an almost total absence of lower level account directors to senior planners."
Horler's view on digital recruitment is backed up by his reaction to Barclays' recent decision to move its account to Walker Media, which has undertaken a commitment to staff up in the online area.
Referring to Media Week's story about Walker's plans to boost online, Horler says: "(Barclays marketing director) Jim Hytner is in there saying 'any agency can staff up'. I would absolutely fundamentally disagree with that. I think he's hugely misguided if he thinks Walker Media is going to be able to cherry-pick five digital people of any real aptitude in the next 12 months."
Horler's view on Walker demonstrates his reputation as someone who is a frank, but not aggressive, talker. The word that crops up among peers is "considered". Giles Ivey, sales director at AOL, says: "He's straight and honest, and the thing is he's usually right."
It was his "plain English" that convinced former Aegis UK and Ireland chief executive Mark Craze, now managing partner at MPG, to hire Horler as a Carat managing partner in 2000, when he was commercial director at Emap Online.
It was at this point that Horler made the move from seller to buyer, having worked in sales both offline and online for News International, and then heading the agency sales team at FT.com. "He could communicate in the whole interactive space in a language clients understood, and we understood. It's important because the market is full of jargon," says Craze.
If Horler is usually right as Ivey claims, then we can expect the digital planners and buyers of the future to have a more rounded approach to their jobs. The Diffiniti boss feels that while expertise in all agencies has grown in digital direct response, online has lacked strategic planning for brands.
He explains that in the feedback from Aviva after the chemistry meetings, the client had "seen virtually no examples whatsoever of what they would call strategic planning. They said 'you still didn't talk about it anywhere near enough, or as much as your offline colleagues would'".
For media agencies, Horler insists, the issue is not now about how much budget should be going into online, but how best to qualify digital planner/buyers in strategic communications and vice-versa, and how to ensure traditional media planner/ buyers can talk confidently to clients about digital.
More personal challenges away from industry issues now await Horler. Firstly, to settle the Aviva account into the business and secondly, to play his part in making the Isobar network a client-facing proposition. Large brands will start to look for an international, full service digital network, Horler believes, and Isobar is preparing for that.
Six years on, Horler sees his own immediate future with Diffiniti. "In some respects, it's at the entrepreneurial end of working in a network. I'm certainly not bored yet."
2004: Managing director, Diffiniti
2002: Managing director/Aegis Media UK Board Carat Interactive
2000: Managing partner, Carat
1998: Commercial director, Emap Online
1996-1997 Head of agency sales, FT.com
1996: Head of agency sales, LineOne
1994: Times Newspapers.