Ingram may make for stealthy sparring partner in Tempus war

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Chris Ingram was obsessive about independence. Until now. The Tempus chairman, currently the object of an agreed $600 million bid from the French group Havas (and at time of writing, a potential counter-bid from WPP, a 22% shareholder in Tempus), had every reason to be. Although he did not invent the concept of the media independent, he is the individual who made it work.

Together with the Gross brothers, who simultaneously founded Carat in France, Ingram revolutionized advertising by launching Chris Ingram & Associates in the U.K. in 1976. Vilified by creative agencies and media owners alike, the pig-headed (his description) Ingram endured countless threats and personal and professional abuse to build a serious network and a personal fortune. Now, media independents are no longer "the European disease" but the global standard.

Ingram believed creative agencies did not take media seriously, that clients' media needs were being ignored and that media practitioners were not taken seriously. Gradually, the idea attracted ever more influential marketers. Once the more talented media practitioners in larger shops could see the trend, they too jumped ship to grab a slice of the pie.

When the Saatchi brothers set up Zenith in the mid-'80s, they did so for different reasons. Although they learned from Ingram (who they of course tried to buy), they also saw that combining media billings could force media owners into volume-buying discounts. The rest is history.

Suddenly everyone wanted to buy Ingram, although he was still not personally popular. Despite his sincere passion for media, he was too abrasive, chippy and almost self-righteous to be universally liked-not that he minded. He was a dour, earnest media man in a London dominated by flighty creatives.

Twice before though, he did think of selling. He was worried he needed to be international when the Saatchis called, but says he knew that because they did not knock personally they didn't take media seriously. The second time was 1997-98 when Leo Burnett, the last remaining major full-service network, bowed to the inevitable and launched Starcom. Ironically, it was to Young & Rubicam that Ingram thought of selling.

Instead, Ingram determined to be more than "just" a media buyer, and set about building up Tempus Group: strategic and brand consultancy allied to media expertise. He hoped to grab lead-agency status away from creative agencies. Having abandoned his desire to become one of the world's top six groups independently, he began preaching that size did not matter.

So why sell now? Can it just be that he has never truly cracked the U.S.? That's unlikely, given that even the newly merged CIA Media Planning Group still only ranks eighth here. More likely, Havas CEO Alain de Pouzilhac appears a plausible white knight, rescuing Tempus from the avaricious Sorrell, and paying a healthy premium for its shares.

Why the antipathy to Sorrell? It's personal. Ingram resented the manner in which Sir Martin first took a stake in CIA in 1997. He sums up Sorrell's approach as "coming in telling me what was wrong with the company, how he could fix it, and that my staff were unhappy-and he thought that was being friendly, which is the problem." Since then the "relationship" has deteriorated further.

Ingram believes de Pouzilhac wants to buy Tempus because it is "absolutely not" just a media buyer. Perhaps. Havas' own press spin on the deal suggests otherwise, crowing about creating the No. 4 global media buyer. Well, it was for one night, until the new Optimedia-Zenith operation was announced. More acquisitions in the U.S. will inevitably follow.

Meanwhile, the specter of Sorrell still looms large-although Sir Martin rarely gets into bidding wars with the intention of winning. Will de Pouzilhac prove to be Ingram's white knight? The only sure thing is that this genuine iconoclast has built a successful, lucrative career on being consistently underestimated. It won't be dull.

Stefano Hatfield is managing director and editorial director of Ad Age Global.

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