Media Headliner: An English gentleman who made a difference

Engaging, entrepreneurial, pompous - whatever you think of John Billett, his impact is undeniable, Jeremy Lee writes.

The relationship between agencies and auditors might be tetchy, but few would dispute that John Billett has provided the media business with some much-needed colour.

Famously pompous and impossibly grand he may be, but he's also full of old-fashioned virtues - such as industry, integrity and conviction - often lacking elsewhere.

It is for this reason that even his detractors have begrudgingly offered Billett their congratulations on his sale of the company he formed ten years ago. Selling to Thomson Intermedia could land him up to £10 million.

All in all, it's been quite a journey for the former Exeter Cathedral schoolboy and twice choirboy of the year (1954 and 1955). Along the way, he spent a brief stint as a trainee bank manager, was a semi-professional rugby referee, sang at the Proms and launched his own agency, before changing the face of media with the launch of Billetts. That takes some drive and ambition as well as, he'll admit, a certain amount of serendipity.

While Billett's early career (from trainee at Lintas to media director at Allen Brady Marsh) identified him as a potential high-roller, his big break came with the sale of his media agency, Billett & Company, to Chris Ingram in 1989.

Billett became the chief executive of the new agency, CIA Billett, and assisted with the subsequent flotation of Tempus. With this complete, Billett was ready to work on the genesis of the auditing company that now bears his name.

Billett admits that it wasn't always easy. "I spent two years trying to make it work," he says. But the opportunity to buy out of CIA proved a catalyst for its growth - understandably, some clients had resisted his advances and agencies had doubted its independence because of its links with CIA.

Andy Pearch, now the chief executive of the Billetts media consulting division, was with him at the launch. He gave up his job as a TV buyer at CIA to help set up an independent Billetts and was rewarded last week with his own share of Thomson's takeover spoils.

It was quite a risk for both men. Billetts was attempting to break into an already relatively mature market - the then market leader, Media Audits, had been going for nearly two decades and there was other competition in the form of Barsby Rowe and Fairbrother.

Pearch says: "I went with John because of his personality and presence. He was the frontman - engaging and entrepreneurial, whereas my skills were more analytical and deep-thinking."

The combination proved compelling and Billett adds that the way the company was structured speeded its growth. "We did two things differently - we used maths and systems rather than just data, which produced some pretty good modelling. We also blended prices with measurement of quality."

This approach, combining quantitative with qualitative data, led to the creation of the notorious Billett Rack, which is still the benchmark for auditing practice.

Agencies are beholden to auditors, so finding anyone to talk on the record was difficult. But one agency managing director admits the Billetts offering was more sophisticated than those of its rivals. "John took it to a different level - he offered a more integrated service than the others," he says. Another, less charitably, adds: "I think John is famous for being a man who never underestimates his own talent. In a category (media auditing) that lacked an opinion, he always had one, and this helped it grow."

Billett is not a shy man. One story goes that at an industry dinner in Cyprus, the guest speaker was Billy Connolly. Connolly, then still drinking, was getting agitated with the attention he was receiving from the guests and the atmosphere was getting distinctly volatile. Suddenly, a tall man appeared at the piano, played a jazz rendition and started singing - Billett restoring order in his own inimitable way.

Beneath the talk of systems and data, Billett acknowledges that other factors assisted the further expansion of the company. "The growth of purchasing and procurement people, especially in the US, became a significant force. These developments have been beneficial to the business," he says.

He's also generous enough to acknowledge the help he received from those he worked with. "Surround yourself with very talented people, incentivise them and pay them well. In the short term you have to bite the bullet - there is no cheap way," he advises.

The next key development came in 2000, when Billetts acquired Barsby Rowe to become the dominant player in UK auditing.

Now the sale is complete, Billett will be staying on for a while to maximise his earn-out. After that, he plans to tour the world listening to the great symphony orchestras playing in their home cities and spend more time in his bucolic Norfolk home, where he has created a wild-flower meadow and planted trees. Typically English, for a very English gentleman.

And what of his legacy? Undoubtedly, he assisted the fundamental shift of power from agencies to clients, which inevitably upset some apple-carts along the way. Personally, he says he would like to be remembered as "a man who made a difference".

Whatever your views, for better or worse, he has achieved this.

- Simon Marquis, page 11

THE LOWDOWN Age: 61 Lives: Westminster, London and North Creme, Norfolk Family: Wife Glynis, children Andrew, Nicola and Sam Most treasured possession: My 1720s converted barn Interests outside work: Music - playing and singing, my wild-flower meadow, rugby Favourite music: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue Most admired media agency: The original TMD Favourite wine: Chateau Picho-Lalande Motto: Get it right first time