CLOSE-UP: WHERE ARE THEY NOW? - Controversial ex-adman tries new role as cancer crusader

Chris Woollams' daughter is the catalyst behind his quest for a cure for cancer.

Chris Woollams is on a mission. Yes, he made a killing in advertising and is now a tax exile living in Barbados, with a house in Thailand, one in the South of France and another in Kent. But he doesn't spend a lot of time hanging out on beaches drinking rum and coke. He's more likely to be writing or speaking on ways to beat cancer.

Seven years after Woollams' early retirement from advertising in 1994, his 22-year-old daughter Catherine was diagnosed as having an aggressive, malignant brain tumour. His life has since been focused on pulling together the large amount of research that exists about cancer and addressing anyone with an interest in the disease.

He's published two successful books - Everything You Need to Know to Help You Beat Cancer and The Tree of Life - and, together with his cousin Lindsey Fealey, he also publishes icon magazine (integrated cancer and oncology news) and puts together the heavily used website.

The next step is to establish a charity, cancer ACTIVE.

Since he's not based in the UK, Woollams often contributes at arm's length.

He's put a chunk of his own money behind the various initiatives but, as well as research and writing, he jets from one venue to another to talk about cancer. At the end of last year he did a 36-day speaking tour of the UK, followed by a short break in Barbados, and then he's scheduled working visits to LA, Japan, Australia, Singapore and Israel.

When Woollams left advertising he was only 45 and something of an ad world phenomenon. After graduating in biochemistry from Oxford, he refused the offer to stay on and study for a doctorate in cancer research and instead went to Ogilvy & Mather as a graduate trainee. "I'm afraid the call of capitalism was too strong," he says.

After spells at Bates and Grey, he returned to O&M as a director in 1980, switched agencies in 1984 to become the managing director of the then McCormick Publicis at the tender age of 35 and wound up as the chairman of the Ted Bates Group London just a year later.

He went out on his own as the chairman of Woollams Moira Gaskin O'Malley in 1987. It was a natural step for an unquestionably ambitious man with a self-professed entrepreneurial streak, described as "a man in a hurry to get on". Although the agency flourished at first (becoming the UK's third-largest independent agency, with billings of £40 million to £45 million), a series of set-backs saw it gradually crumble. Woollams, always controversial, was ousted before WMGO went into voluntary receivership in 1995.

Woollams' reputation in advertising was as a quick-witted, charming but outspoken exec. He was famously fired from Bates after describing the US network's merger with Saatchi & Saatchi as "management by Sellotape". His ability to tread on toes left him disliked by many.

What reason does he give for his unpopularity? "The British ad industry hates to see people succeed," Woollams says.

He adds that he was more than ready to leave the business when he did: "I think I was two years past my sell-by date." He can afford to be self-critical having come out of the situation with a very healthy bank balance.

But he didn't hang up his marketing shoes straight away. For five years in the 90s he helped launch new ventures, such as Kettle Chips and Richard Branson's chain of Virgin Active health clubs.

After that, he decided to do a few things for himself, including research on fitness and nutrition and exploring the field of healing, becoming versed in the art of Reiki. He also qualified as a personal trainer "just for fun".

Then, in 2001, Catherine, Woollams' eldest daughter, discovered she had cancer. She'd just left Bristol University and was working for Conde Nast.

"We were celebrating my second daughter's birthday with a Saturday dinner and a Sunday lunch, so the headache on Monday was not entirely unexpected, although the sickness was. By Tuesday evening St Thomas' hospital in London had given her a scan and we were told Catherine had a brain tumour."

Since Woollams was experiencing a relatively idle career moment he was able to leap into action, phoning experts, reading a mass of information and trying to see the wood for the trees. He gave his daughter's lifestyle a makeover - changing her diet, advising on supplements and pointing her in the direction of yoga and healers. "I did what any good father, biochemist and marketing man would do."

His zeal and the results it produced inspired a raft of people, including doctors, who encouraged him to write his first book. He self-published and sold 10,000 copies of Everything You Need to Know to Help You Beat Cancer in three months, with the aim of using proceeds to fund further work. The monthly title icon "came from the idea of having a magazine as easy to read as Cosmo or Men's Health".

He's had messages of support from, among others, Cherie Blair, Prince Charles and Geoffrey Boycott, who suffers from throat cancer. Boycott is the patron of the cancer ACTIVE charity.

Woollams' organisation Health Issues, which employs 30 part-time workers, frequently receives calls from people living through personal tragedies.

"I thoroughly enjoyed advertising, but this has put it all into perspective," Woollams says. He quotes the statistic of 270,000 people a year being diagnosed with cancer in the UK. His daughter's cancer is in remission, but it's still a time-bomb.

Clearly, Woollams has just started: "This is our mission in life."

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