CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - The Ingram Partnership aims to transform its marketplace

Chris Ingram has faith his £2.5m investment will reap rewards, Bob Willott writes.

Almost everyone that has come across Chris Ingram's new consultancy venture, The Ingram Partnership, agrees he has identified a gap in the market. But is there a market for the gap?

The perceived gap is for an independent, informed and innovative strategic consultancy, dedicated to helping clients build their businesses from a brand perspective.

Ingram's perception of the global marketing groups is that they are too heavily weighted towards time-serving executives who are preoccupied with pleasing their masters by achieving their immediate revenue budgets, rather than thinking about what clients actually need.

He also accuses them of a "silo" mentality - reluctant to look at a brand's development potential in the round if that could result in the client's budget being reallocated to communication channels other than their own.

And there are questions about their objectivity. "Clients have difficulty when seeking impartial advice," Ingram's partner Andy Tilley says.

But objective consultancy is already available elsewhere - from McKinsey, Bain and Boston, to name just three. Ingram argues that his troops are far more experienced in the practical aspects of brand development and include project management within their offer.

That leaves unchallenged the case for niche operators such as The Added Value Company - one of the Tempus subsidiaries Ingram acquired during his time there. Added Value defines itself as "a leading-edge strategic marketing consultancy dedicated to creating growth for your business through harnessing the power of your people and brands" and that sounds remarkably similar to Ingram's new venture.

Clearly, TIP has experience and intellect - it cost more than £2.5 million to acquire Ivan Pollard, Tilley and Leslie Butterfield's companies alone - but there are variable quantities of each. Butterfield's slice of Ingram's largesse was about £1 million - half in shares and half in cash - while Pollard and Tilley shared the rest between them. Apart from Ingram, the other five partners are the design consultant Duncan Bruce (earlier career with Michael Peters Group) and his colleague Marc Cox, Carol Fisher who brings a client perspective - most recently from COI Communications - plus the ex-McKinsey strategy consultant Ditlev Schwanenflugel and the finance partner Alastair Rhymer.

Questions have been asked about whether this is a serious business venture or merely an indulgence by a wealthy entrepreneur who is still trying to prove something.

It takes less than a second to deduce that Ingram is seriously serious. Yes, he is trying to prove something - the need for better, more professional brand consultancy in the marketing industry. And he is committed: Butterfield alludes to the £10 million Ingram has made available to buy in partners, and to fund a significant amount of office space and a very large salary bill that, on Ingram's own admission, will result in a loss being incurred in year one.

Asked what he would regard as the most disappointing outcome, Ingram says: "That it will stay just an interesting little niche business."

If Ingram is spending to build, presumably he and his partners will be looking for a financial return. What if someone comes along in about seven years' time with a fat cheque book? "Well, if we're talking about a 34 multiple again, I guess I might be interested," he laughs, memories of WPP still ingrained on his mind. But he dismisses the subject as hypothetical.

He ponders whether they could adopt the traditional partnership model whereby partners make a good living in the job and expect no capital gain at the end. That sounds a little unrealistic in an industry where almost every ambitious player expects to make a financial killing within about ten years, and where his own partners are all sitting on significant shareholdings.

And how will they motivate and retain future personnel? At present, every partner and associate holds shares or share options. That may encourage young blood not to move on too hastily, but equally it may offer the prospect of some financial reward if they do. Tilley attaches great importance to training younger consultants, offering them opportunities to bridge different disciplines.

Ingram sees the challenge not so much in terms of locking in good people, but in sifting out the not-so-good: "This is an up or out organisation."

As for any idea that TIP is a rest home for his marketing mates, Ingram points out he has never worked with any of the partners before. That highlights a different sort of risk as past evidence suggests start-ups offer the best prospect of lasting success if the founders have worked together previously.

The partnership expects each fee-earner to take direct responsibility for winning as well as servicing new business. However, Ingram accepts that someone needs to ensure the team is properly managed, builds a value that is intrinsic to the brand, and avoids becoming just a collective of bright individuals each with their personal client following.

But the ultimate litmus test is whether prospective clients will pay for the extra advice Ingram has to offer. Ingram says TIP has handled 23 briefs since starting up last autumn, that about 40 per cent involved an integrated approach drawing on the various skill-sets of the partners, and that every client has committed to another project since the first one. So the consultancy seems to be getting something right.

As for fees, they don't achieve the hourly rates of McKinsey, but Ingram says they are getting about 60 per cent of those rates - still higher than average.

In many ways, Ingram is surprisingly open in exploring the pros and cons of his vision. He acknowledges that some aspects are uncharted territory for him. But his ambition is clear: "If this is successful in a big way, it will change the market."

- Bob Willott is the editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence (www.fintellect.com) and a special professor at the University of Nottingham Business School.

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