Feature

Chris Ingram - media's silver medallist

Chris Ingram is not a bitter man, rather one who, despite it all, feels he could have done more. But as the industry is now exciting him again, who can predict what he will do next, writes Claire Beale.

I think Chris Ingram started smiling last summer.

There was probably the pernicious hand of a PR professional at work, and the effect was disturbing. But as the kaleidoscopic Tempus takeover battle shimmied across the business pages during the languid summer months, the enigmatic smile seemed to take on a gleeful glint. Chris Ingram was enjoying himself.

And in a way he won. Sir Martin Sorrell was forced to honour a takeover bid he had tried to back out of. Tempus was sold to WPP. Ingram made £64m.

A triumph of sorts, by any businessman's standards.

But as Ingram packed up his office last week and finally left Paris Garden, the Southbank headquarters of Tempus' CIA Medianetwork, which Ingram launched back in 1976, it was not without a shocking sense of failure.

"Run me through all the Olympic silver medallists you can remember," Ingram demands. Erm... "It's gone quiet, funny that, that's my point," he says ruefully. "We're Olympic silver medallists. We didn't get the gold."

Well, not the right sort of gold. Not the sort that means "number one".

This could be the story of a young man who leaves school with few qualifications, the chip of an emotionally reserved father weighing on his shoulder, who starts out as a lowly messenger boy and who finds fortune beyond the dreams of most optimists.

Indeed, such a story is Ingram's. Yet this broad romantic sweep of events hardly does justice to a 40-year career that has played its part in shaping the global communications business. And it belies the fact that Ingram feels he was never finally able to fulfill all his ambitions for Tempus.

"Our plan was very much to stay independent and be right up there as a major global player. We nearly got there, but we ran out of road because of the whole consolidation thing. There was a point somewhere around last April when we knew we had to sell the business. That was the really sad moment, there was a bit of a sense of failure at that point."

That he should feel failure when he has achieved so much is a key to the man. A self-confessed "stubborn old bastard", Ingram loves a challenge. His career has thrived on dogged defiance and a gnawing frustration. It's why Chris Ingram and Associates was launched in the first place, way back in the 70s when Ingram and his fellow media independents were the punks of the ad business.

"When we launched, the status of media was so unbelievably low. So I had this sort of self-righteous indignation, 'this isn't fair, I'm going to bloody change it'. Having a chip on your shoulder and being paranoid is a wonderful, wonderful driver." Apparently the then chief of the IPA called Ingram and his ilk "the arsehole end of the world". He could hardly have understood that such comments were the touchpaper to Ingram's fire. And the fire still burns.

Over the years you'd have thought Ingram might have dislodged that chip. He's proved media is an independent business, he's proved it's a global business and one that can catalyse a whole range of marketing services around it to offer clients...well, pick your cliche: 360-degree communications, upstream thinking; connectivity. His company has led the way in visionary thinking, even if it was often shamefully bad at putting it into practice.

Reading through a history of CIA and Tempus is like hitching a ride aboard a rollercoaster. By the 90s, the pace of change was ferocious as CIA, now flush with City money after coming to market, gobbled up or struck alliances with many of the plum media agencies in Europe. By 1996, 20 years after its launch, CIA was the second-largest independent in Europe and had a firm grip on the Asian marketplace.

But the pace pitched the core company to the wind. "Doing deals is fun and you can get deal frenzy where everyone wants to do deals and we were guilty of that sometimes," Ingram admits. "In the end, I think there were too many changes which weren't bedded down and followed through absolutely ruthlessly." It was a climate of upheaval and distraction that incubated two of the worst times Ingram has faced in his career and which rocked CIA to its foundations.

The first was a very public war with ITV, which accused CIA of cheating in its airtime dealing. Even now Ingram blanches. "I've never made so many mistakes altogether in one great clutch as I did over that issue, it was a staggering set of misjudgments on my part. But you know you learn a lot from that sort of thing." The education cost Ingram £1.8m, the size of the cheque he was eventually forced to write to settle the dispute.

The second low point followed soon after and, ironically, sowed the seeds that grew into Ingram's £64m purse. Marco Benatti, who had joined the CIA board when Ingram snapped up his Italian Blufin company, sold his shares to WPP after falling out with Ingram. Suddenly Sir Martin was in the chicken coup, nursing a 14.4% stake in what Ingram still resolutely saw as "my baby". "I went absolutely ballistic," Ingram admits. "That wasn't in my plan. Even after flotation I ran the business as if it was my own and felt a strong parental responsibility. If we'd been able to buy Benatti's shares when they became available then the company might still be independent today."

As it was, Sorrell clawed more and more CIA shares and finally last summer ploughed in with his own £432m bid for Tempus after Ingram had backed a white knight bid by Havas. Ingram's distaste for the Sir Martin way became more visible as he battled to fend off the fox. Well-recorded fireworks ensued, but -- and I am very disappointed to discover this -- Ingram never actually said the infamous quote attributed to him: "I'd rather lick an abattoir floor than work for Sir Martin."

"It's the sort of colourful phrase I don't use," he explains simply. A glance at the tie he's wearing in our photograph suggests he's telling the truth.

When Sir Martin tried to pull out, citing the aftermath of September 11 as "material adverse change", Ingram was determined to see the deal pushed through. Did he enjoy watching Sorrell squirm? "I don't want to get into any personal comments at all, I can't see the point." It's a question he doesn't really need to answer. It was, he does admit, "a hugely exciting time last summer, hugely".

The Takeover Panel turned down Sir Martin's requested exit and by November last year Tempus had been sold to WPP to be merged with the Mediaedge network. A new management line-up was announced and Ingram's name was not included. The end had come.

"In 27 years, I had never thought about leaving the company. It wasn't in my vocabulary. But after we'd sold I didn't consider staying on for a micro-second, not a micro-second."

Still, Ingram can now admit that Mediaedge makes a better partner for CIA than Media Planning might have done: "When you look at the geography and at where you'll get the best return it's better, yeah. We were only partly aware last summer that the Media Planning business wasn't really consolidated in the US at all, and obviously Mediaedge has existed there as an entity for some time. So strategically there is nothing wrong with the WPP deal on the media side at all, the people have a lot in common and Mediaedge is itself a relatively new addition to WPP.

"If you look at what we were trying to do in terms of taking the group upstream, though, it's now a different ballgame. There's a different agenda under WPP. Who knows who is right? Culturally WPP is such an anomaly. I wouldn't say our way was totally right but they're phenomenally different."

So how did Ingram feel about cutting the umbilical cord? "Pretty screwed up really. In a way I still do. Partly I felt huge euphoria that we'd won a battle that had been fought out in public blow by blow. But also we'd lost. That phrase 'bitter sweet' has never been more accurate."

Yet he cautions against getting too misty eyed. "The reality is that when you get to the scale we were, the whole public thing becomes hugely demanding and also you become more and more internally focused. I was having to fight hard to still feel entrepreneurial. It was like: 'How do I get rid of this bloody great concrete overcoat that's been laid over me, being corporate man.' So I was already thinking where is the end, what is success... because the journey is the excitement."

And he's not done with journeying. "I do miss the stomach-churning of trying to achieve something big and not knowing if you'll succeed or not. I like big, crazy challenges and I'm fed up, absolutely fed up, with people in this business whingeing away saying 'we're only treated as suppliers now, we used to be partners'. Well bloody earn it. That's an interesting challenge."

He's circumspect about exact plans for next year, but admits: "The industry, structurally, is getting me excited again like it was in the 70s. I'm very interested now in what's happening in marketing communications. To me it doesn't make sense and I'm always someone who eventually puts my money where my mouth is. This whole business is practically wrapped up by seven or eight companies globally. Now is that the way it's meant to be? I sure as hell don't think so.

"It's a supreme irony for me to say it but we've got over-specialised, we really have. That's part of the reason I think why the industry isn't at the top table, people can't actually talk in a general way about clients' business. And the pendulum is starting to swing back away from consolidation."

Before he can address this new challenge, though, there's a book to write about entrepreneurs and a football club to run (his one financial extravagance so far, buying Woking Football Club: "I went along with my dad when I was 13 and have been a fan ever since. When I heard it was in difficulties, well... there was no way this club was going to be allowed to fail, no way").

As for simply enjoying his money, well that's never been Ingram's style. "It's far more money than one person could sensibly spend, it's just a by-product of my work. It does give you a degree of freedom and you have to keep asking: 'How self indulgent am I being?' Not very, probably. Charities, such as Shelter and the World Wildlife Fund For Nature, will see some benefits, though."

But £64m be blowed. Ingram's achievement is so much greater than the money. He's a passionate Brit who's built a business and taken it global in a world defined by faceless financiers and American corporates -- a homegrown talent of which we should all be proud. And as he closes the door on this particular corner of the marketing services business, Ingram does so with his decency intact. He's a decent bloke. It's not much of a description, and there are so many others that are equally accurate ("multi-millionaire", "international advertising magnate", "visionary"). But decent suits.

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