‘Queen of the media’
As Lorna Tilbian leaves her banking past behind, with accolades from luminaries such as Sir Martin Sorrell and Lord Saatchi ringing in her ears, she reflects on the past, present and future of the media industry
As Lorna Tilbian leaves banking behind, she reflects on the ever-changing media industry
‘It’s been a hell of a ride and great fun, but I really didn’t want to do a fourth downturn’
Lorna Tilbian has made her name by calling the market right for 34 years, so when the media industry’s favourite banker quit her role at stockbroker Numis Securities at the end of last year, it was not only the end of an era but also a “sell” sign. “It’s been a hell of a ride and great fun, but I really didn’t want to do a fourth downturn,” Tilbian says, explaining why she felt it was time to step down as head of media at Numis after 17 years and sell her £17m shareholding. “[Downturns are] very long and very hard,” she says. “The City is full of people who haven’t operated in a rising interest rate environment. They don’t know what’s coming.” Tilbian’s record means she commands attention in advertising and media circles. As a young analyst, she called the top on Saatchi & Saatchi’s shares at the end of the 1980s before the crash, and called the bottom on a debtladen WPP in 1992. Later, she became a corporate financier who advised Aegis on its £3.2bn sale to Dentsu, the biggest M&A deal in advertising history, and floated Ascential, the owner of Cannes Lions, and Auto Trader. She says she has always been on the side of “the good guys” against “the charlatans” and has a story about seemingly everyone in the industry, from Maurice Saatchi and Sir Martin Sorrell to Conrad Black and David Cameron, during his days as a “very slick” PR man. Tilbian’s leaving dinner at The Ritz in February was a who’s who of media and ad people. Lord Saatchi showed he harboured no hard feelings by toasting her as “the undoubted queen of the media”. Sorrell said in a message that he would “miss her contribution at a time when the industry really needs her enthusiasm”. And her erstwhile colleagues from Numis quoted a line from Campaign’s A List, which read: “She is simply a legend.” Her love of media remains undimmed and Tilbian has taken a clutch of non-executive directorships in the sector since leaving banking, but she senses that the tectonic plates are shifting, just as they did at the start of her career in the City in 1984. Back then, the big themes were globalisation and the rise of “one-stop” advertising and media groups. Now, it’s technology and streaming, Tilbian says. She is not alone in calling change. Rupert Murdoch unveiled the sale of his Fox TV and film assets to Disney a few months after Tilbian announced her Numis exit. “If you’d said a year ago that Rupert was a seller, there’s no way I would have believed that,” she confesses. “I think the FAANGS [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google] have just made so much headway in the last year that he realised it was an unequal struggle and it is better to have a small part of a big giant, rather than fight on his own, and to get back to his roots, which is news.” Tilbian believes the Disney-fox deal is one of many signs that the global economy is near the top of the cycle. (Comcast’s subsequent, higher offer to buy Sky, the jewel in the Fox business, reinforces the point.) She has a list of six warning indicators: all are flashing. • An advertising slowdown, dating from WPP’S annual results a year ago. • Debt “has been rearing its ugly head”, as the collapse of Carillion showed. • Record M&A deals, with Broadcom bidding for Qualcomm and Disney’s play for Fox’s assets. • A big, leveraged deal, with Blackstone buying a stake in Thomson Reuters by borrowing heavily.