What’s next: The U.K.’s best known media pioneer looks to the future

In 1976 when Chris Ingram founded U.K. media agency CIA, he had a vision of the future of advertising. Media was at the heart of that future.

In 1976 when Chris Ingram founded U.K. media agency CIA, he had a vision of the future of advertising. Media was at the heart of that future.

He launched CIA with a $16,000 stake, took the company public in 1989, and by 2000 had built it into Tempus Group PLC, a multinational with 67 offices in 29 countries. In 2001 Ingram sold the company to Martin Sorrell’s WPP for more than $700 million.

Ingram returned to the agency business last July in London, Eng., but this time with The Ingram Partnership, a strategic consultancy focusing on brand building and communications for senior management.

It’s not that Ingram’s move away from the media-only model reflects doubts about media’s importance in the advertising universe; he just believes it’s time for media agencies to evolve once again.

He says media agencies should become communications agencies – communications planners rather than simply companies executing media buys. Media agencies will live on, he says; it’s the multinational agency groups that are on life support.

Why didn’t you come back with a new media agency, given your experience?

There were several reasons:

a) I had done media agencies and wanted to do something different.

b) I wasn’t at all sure it was a fun business anymore.

c) The media implementation market is now controlled by a few agency groups – it’s an oligopoly. If you want global clients, then you have to provide a global network for implementation – a minimum of say, 150 offices. That’s exactly what I wanted to escape.

d) Not least is that I believe today’s media agency model has gone almost as far as it can. I know it’s a cliché, but the market is ready for a paradigm shift.

What drove you to establish a branding and communications consultancy?

Having decided that I wasn’t going back into media, I had the opportunity to take a really considered view.

The general thing that had bugged me in recent years was the continuous moaning in our industry that ‘clients used to regard us as partners but now they treat us as suppliers.’ It’s true, but rather than whinge about it, why not do something about it? How about starting afresh and planning a business in marketing communications that really gains the trust of its clients and is regarded as a partner?

I started with a blank sheet of paper and considerable funds from the sale of CIA, so I was able to draw up a long-term plan and, hopefully, stick to it. I researched clients, spent time with management consultancies and studied top professional services businesses – yes, including lawyers and accountants – from whom we can learn quite a lot.

There are now 12 fundamental beliefs supporting The Ingram Partnership, which include many things we won’t do, as well as those we feel we must do.

Was there an obvious gap to fill?

We are concerned with creating organic growth for our clients. What we are offering is a service to ‘build business from a brand perspective.’ To do this we have put together skills in business strategy, brand strategy and communications strategy – all under the same roof. The service is unique – elsewhere they sit in very separate silos – so in that sense, there was a gap to fill.

What role can media agencies play in branding?

There is no question that, in the right hands, media planning can evolve into communications planning, which is an important part – but only part – of building brands, and the major media agencies all seem intent on going down that route.

The issues for them are how credible will they be in ‘channel planning’ when they make their money out of implementation, buying classic media? Will clients pay properly for this service or expect it to be bundled up with the buying? Will they end up in internecine warfare with creative agencies, often their sister companies in the same group, for what is often seen as the strategic high ground?

Do you believe that consultancies such as yours, rather than traditional media agencies, are what is needed to guide advertisers in this new fragmented media world, where consumers are choosing where, when, what, and how they want to consume media?

There is a philosophical difference – I believe that communications planning, which definitely includes channel planning, works best if integrated with brand strategy. My offer is a horizontal, joined-up consultancy service. The media agencies think communications planning should be integrated with media buying.

We can debate it as much as we like, but our arrival means that the client now has a choice, so I am happy to let the market decide.

When you established CIA in 1976, media had a secondary role in the communications process, and even after all the full-service agencies scurried to establish their own media-only brands, buying clout relegated media to the status of a commodity. In many ways this is still true, despite much talk of the ‘new creativity’ in media. Do you agree?

The status of the media function has changed hugely in the agency world: That battle has been won. The fact that, in many countries, media specialists are paid more than account handlers proves the point in a pretty basic manner. Clients also give media far more attention.

But you are right, the media service has become a bit of a commodity but, often, so has the creative product. Basically our market is over-supplied with agencies: They are not sufficiently differentiated and we hid for much too long behind the commission system, which meant we forgot how to value our services properly. Sad, but true.

Are media-only agencies obsolete?

The more fundamental question is ‘Are the agency groups obsolete?’ In other words, the holding companies that own all the big media agencies.

The agency groups have been a successful financial model and will be for several years. However, many clients regard this model as being broken – big multinational companies on both sides of the pond are saying it. If agencies seriously want to be strategic partners and sit at the top table, then I am convinced the current model will never provide the answer. They are driven by implementation and clients know it. Ad agencies recommend ads, PR agencies PR and so on.

It just isn’t a credible basis for so-called ‘channel-neutral planning.’

What innovations and changes – both technological and social – are having the biggest impact on communications today, and how must media planning and buying change to address them?

Media fragmentation; increasing competition for the consumer’s attention – not just media but all the other growing leisure activities; a big chunk of the population becoming money rich and time poor; and the increasing inability of research to keep up with all these developments.

Attitudinally, things are changing too. This is a big subject, but two examples would be the effect of living with the threat of terrorism – permanently – and the rise of Asia, particularly China.

Therefore, really connecting with prospects is the real challenge, which puts insight and innovation at a premium: Clout is not going to help you a lot in this scenario.

Ingram is the keynote speaker at this year’s CMDC conference, What’s Next – Media Outlets, Outlooks & Outcomes. It takes place on April 13 in Toronto. See www.cmdc.ca for details.