Adland's Entrepreneurs

Advertising's top innovators built their empires by breaking the rules. But is adland the best place to make your fortune? Pippa Considine reports.

Sir Martin Sorrell, David Abbott, the Saatchis, Chris Ingram, Christine Walker, Charlie Dobres, Robert Saville. They might not match Sir Richard Branson's extreme style of non-stop business promotion, but plenty of faces in adland fit the "entrepreneur" description.

The industry prides itself on employing people who make ideas happen, can-do types who have a clear vision and can get inside the business mindset of the clients they work with. But does adland have more than its fair share of entrepreneurs?

When it comes to major UK business players, adland's list is not a long one. Just four admen make it into the top 1,000 of The Sunday Times Rich List: the Saatchis, worth £226 million, are at number 274; Sorrell, with an £85 million personal price tag, makes number 680; and Ingram, worth £60 million, comes in at 944.

The industry's entrepreneurs have, however, more than made their mark.

The Saatchis introduced a more business-like approach and showed how to play a high-profile game, while Sorrell has been instrumental in consolidating the industry by seeing things from a canny, financial perspective.

Ingram was one of the first to launch a media independent, which created a new breed of agencies.

But advertising is not an obvious choice for a budding entrepreneur.

"I don't think as an industry it particularly breeds entrepreneurs," Jonathan Stead, the founder and chief executive of Rapier, says. "To pick a low-margin people business is arguably a bit daft."

Entrepreneurs have, nevertheless, been drawn to areas of the marketing communications business at particular times. Digital was something of a magnet at the time of the dotcom boom. "There was a window when everyone in digital was quite a pioneer or risk-taker," Dobres, the founder and chief executive of the digital media agency i-level, says.

Others believe some disciplines, such as media, are more likely to harbour entrepreneurs. One successful media man says: "History would suggest media people (are more likely to be entrepreneurs) because their core skills - negotiation, not over-spending on budget - are incredibly businesslike. Everything they do has an element of science or business."

However, Walker, the founder and chairman of Walker Media, points out that the financial barriers to setting up a media buying company are higher than those associated with most other types of agency.

Some argue that the low start-up cost for most agencies is a reason why the sector can be attractive to entrepreneurs. Charles Fallon, a former Saatchi & Saatchi account handler, who now runs the business advice company SIP, says: "There are no barriers to entry. You can start from the kitchen table and generate good returns in a relatively short time."

It seems that unless you've risked a start-up and set out on your own, you cannot strictly be a member of the entrepreneurs' club. Nick Horswell, who set up the media independent Pattison Horswell Durden and is now what he terms a "business uncle", says that, although the marketing services industry is always a tough and relentless challenge, an entrepreneur is someone who goes it alone and takes on all the associated risks. "If you work for someone else, you might get a bollocking or the sack - it's not the same as losing your company. It's only when you've got your bum in the bacon slicer that you understand," he says.

The business psychologist Dr Adrian Atkinson, who has specialised in researching the nature of entrepreneurs for 20 years, is a little more technical with his definition. He has entrepreneurs down as just one in a class of four different types of wealth creators. There are the experts, such as the inventor James Dyson; the corporates, who harness the power of the organisation; the enterprisers and the entrepreneurs. "Entrepreneurs work all the time and continue to work while they are on holiday. They are very rigid and black-and-white about things and they tend to do things without the consideration of resources. They're not rational, not all the time, anyway. They are high risk-takers who never stop taking risks all their lives. The word 'failure' never comes into their life," Atkinson says.

"Enterprisers, in contrast, are often people who don't mind taking some risk but in a very calculated way. They are often bright and often do management buyouts. They do take advice and holidays and they do have a balanced life." Atkinson believes there are few entrepreneurs and more enterprisers in the advertising world.

"In the communications industry you have to make ideas happen, you have to have a lot of discipline," he says.

So, according to Atkinson's theory, Sorrell is not an entrepreneur but more of a corporate or an enterpriser.

Atkinson has a few fascinating facts on true entrepreneurs, which include his belief that males of the species were marginalised in their youth, and that as many as 40 per cent of entrepreneurs are dyslexic. Also, that the average number of business failures for an entrepreneur is five. And male and female entrepreneurs are very different, with women being driven primarily by competition and more likely to start a business later in life. "You don't want to get stuck in a lift with an entrepreneur," he concludes.

The entrepreneurial characters in adland might not fulfil all the elements of Atkinson's definition, but there are some who come close. Walker helped to set up Zenith in the 80s at the tender age of 27 before moving on to other challenges, most notably Walker Media. She claims never to seek anyone's advice. Although she does not think she is a workaholic, Walker admits that others probably do - almost every long working day ends with a business-related dinner.

Ingram describes himself as "a serial entrepreneur" and has said that his drive came from an early desire to prove he was not a failure. He failed O' Level maths in his teens, thereby disqualifying himself from the sort of safe career, such as accountancy, his father hoped he would choose.

Yet there are plenty who have placed their backsides in the bacon-slicer but still do not qualify as entrepreneurs. "Most agencies are created by a group of managers in the belief they can make a bit of money by going it alone," Stead, who claims he has seen some less-than-sparkling launch activity, says."It seems that once people get into agencies, some of the entrepreneurial vision gets knocked out of them. It explains why people keep launching agencies with almost identical propositions."

Those with a clear proposition stand out. Gary Duckworth, a founder of DFGW, who now runs his own management coaching practice, Paths With Heart, cites Clemmow Hornby Inge, VCCP, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy as agencies with "a clear sense of their own direction".

While acknowledging that, strictly-speaking, an entrepreneur is someone who has started their own business, Duckworth believes some agencies or networks have a talent for keeping entrepreneurial talent. M&C Saatchi is one. "It has a flair for being successful when not expected," Duckworth says. "It's a venture-creating mentality."

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that M&C has spawned so many agency managing directors and start-ups. The most obvious of its string of business-minded alumni must be Sorrell, closely followed by Lord Bell, the chairman of Chime Communications. And there is also proof that it harbours entrepreneurial types in the shape of the founding partners Bill Muirhead and Jeremy Sinclair, who both created their own businesses while running M&C. Muirhead started up Porkinson Sausages, selling it in 1993 to concentrate on his day job, while Sinclair bought the restaurant Villandry and turned around its fortunes.

Most agencies like to have a bit of an entrepreneurial feel. "Without entrepreneurialism, organisations like traditional agencies would die," Dobres says. "Companies can sow the seeds of their own destruction as they go along, they become too safe almost without realising it. An injection of entrepreneurialism is vital."

Successful agencies and networks manage to foster entrepreneurial talent by giving people some of the opportunities and rewards they might be looking for outside the organisation. There are individuals who have opted to stay, when the option to do their own thing must have been presented on a plate many times. Michael Baulk, for example, is widely credited for keeping the businesslike approach at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO that enabled David Abbott and Peter Mead to become such highly respected industry players.

Of course, a balance is essential. Steve Booth, another of Zenith's founding directors, who went on to start Booth Lockett Makin, is clear about the need to have some entrepreneurial skills in an agency - but not too many.

"Clients want to be confident that there's an entrepreneurial aspect to the operation. But you've got to blend it," he says. "Being an entrepreneur is fundamentally about being prepared to break rules, innovate and take risks. The role of the manager in advertising and media agencies is about eliminating risk."

Those who take the risk to start up a company rarely do it on their own.

Despite the blind optimism that fuels their determination, those that succeed recognise when they need some help. Dobres believes his partnership with Andrew Walmsley was vital. "You can be convinced that you're right, so you have to have someone to bounce ideas off," he says.

"You always need a good partner," Walker says. Her business partner is Phil Georgiadis. "He's quite different from me, he has different skills. He's a brilliant thinker, but I can see a deal a mile away."

Walker is not alone in thinking there is less entrepreneurialism going on in the marketing services business at the moment, with the exception of planning agencies such as Naked and Unity. "Part of it is that the owners aren't letting them," she says, referring to potential backers who are looking to play safe. "People like me are troublesome," she concedes.

There might not have been entrepreneurial start-ups with the same flair as Mother or CHI in the recent past, but the ambition is always there.

Fallon says: "Entrepreneurs come in lumps, often in recessions. Perhaps they don't spring into action when things are going very well." It is generally agreed that now, while business is pretty good, does not seem to be a particularly lumpy moment. Roll on the next recession.

CHRIS INGRAM - FOUNDER, INGRAM

- Founded The Media Department (now Carat).

- In 1976, launched Chris Ingram & Associates (CIA) and later accepted £435 million from WPP for the Tempus Group.

- Named 2000 London Entrepreneur of the Year.

- In 2002, started Genesis Investments, a private equity business.

- In 2003, launched Ingram.

JIM KELLY - MANAGING PARTNER, UNITED LONDON

- In 1993, co-founded Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, which was acquired six years later by Young & Rubicam for £27.5 million. Stayed on for five years as chief executive.

- In January 2006, acquired a 12 per cent stake in United London for £8,025. "I enjoy being a competitor," he says. "I love the adrenaline and all the competitive aspects. I am at my best when I feel proprietorial about a company."

SUKI THOMPSON - MD, THE HAYSTACK GROUP

- Set up the China office of Kendall Tarrant.

- In 1998, founded Bunker Gin, a brand of gin aimed at golfers.

- In 2001, started the Haystack Group with her husband, Alan. Last year, the company handled £1 billion of business. "I am paranoid about our current and potential competition. I'm never fully satisfied but constantly striving for better ways of doing things," she says.

ROB WILKERSON - MD, TARGET MEDIA

- Helped found Target Media in 1990.

- Stayed on as managing director after the business was bought by the NMI Group in 2001. Delivered best ever turnover and profitability in 2004.

- Raised money to buy back the business's independence in 2005. "For me, entrepreneurialism is not about one person, but about the spirit within a company," he says.

MARK CRIDGE - CEO, GLUE LONDON

- After graduating as an architect, set up his first company, tw2.com.

- In 2000, launched GlueMedia, backed by Deepgroup, which later went bust.

- Relaunched as glue London in 2001 with new backing from St Luke's.

- In 2004, regained 100 per cent independence.

- In 2005, sold to Isobar (part of Aegis) in a deal worth up to £14 million.

STEVE PARISH - CEO, THE ADPLATES GROUP

- Worked at TAG before founding the graphic arts specialist Turning Point Technology.

- Returned to TAG, becoming managing director in 2000 and has since increased its turnover from £12 million to £57 million.

- Expanded the business into new areas such as video post-production, bought Smoke and Mirrors and Red, and set up several in-house TAG divisions within agencies.

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).