My biggest mistake

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The Independent Online
Chris Ingram, 50, is chairman of CIA Group, second-largest media independent in Europe. He started as a messenger at the Collett Dickenson & Pearce advertising agency in 1960, and by age 26 was on the board of KMP, one of the hot agencies of the Sixties. There he saw group billings amalgamated into one of the UK's first specialist media buying companies, TMD Advertising. After four years as its managing director he left in 1976 to form Chris Ingram Associates. In 1989, CIA Group was floated on the market; today its annual billings exceed pounds 600m.

MY BIGGEST mistake was in 1985. We had been considering ways of diversifying from our core business of media planning and buying. Around that time, four guys knocked on the door and came in with the idea of using music as a sponsorship vehicle.

Young people spend even more time listening to music than they do in front of the TV - so harnessing the power of music as a marketing tool to reach this rather irreverent group via their heroes seemed a sensible idea.

We did some research which showed you could literally match the artist to the brand. For example, the fan profile for singer Boy George was of seven-to-10-year-olds, girls and boys. It meant we could be very precise in our targeting, be it for soft drinks, snacks or jeans.

The company was called Music Link Marketing and I ended up agreeing to help finance it. It was great fun - because at last, to my kids, I was doing something important, instead of just working in boring old media. When I went home, we'd watch Top of the Pops together; I'd listen to their music, and they'd laugh at mine.

My daughter was into alternative music at the time. She would find groups like The Smiths or New Model Army, then, as soon as they became popular, she'd move on. My son was into electrofunk and rap. It was desperate stuff, but I went along to concerts and became quite expert on music and who it appealed to.

Pop groups were much more high-profile in those days and Boy George was front-page news. It was extraordinary how it opened doors to marketing directors; you could get in and see anyone. Pop music was a 'sexy' subject and everybody wanted to talk about it.

On the surface, Music Link Marketing was very successful. We'd match an advertiser to a musical event or a group, then create spin-offs with competitions, promotions, local radio and so on - which in turn led to media coverage. After all, for every pound you spend on sponsorship, you should always spend another pound or two exploiting it, otherwise you're just throwing it all away.

Within two and a half years we had captured 40 per cent of the market - but in our peak year there were only five musical events sponsored. And 40 per cent of that means we had only two - which means the company never made any money.

Eventually I withdrew, but it taught me a great lesson which I shall never forget: it's not just about finding a gap in the market: you've actually got to be sure that there is a market in the gap.

I also realised that it was far too soon to diversify. I should have stuck to my knitting and concentrated on our core business.

That mistake cost me about pounds 40,000, but thankfully it was mostly my own money and not CIA Group's.

I had a sneaking suspicion after the first nine months that something was wrong, and after 18 months it was pretty clear to me that it wasn't going to work.

But when you're involved with other people you tend to hang on in there.

It was a totally amicable parting, and we're still good friends today - but had it been my own business I would have cut my losses even earlier.

(Photograph omitted)

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