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Tamara Ingram: 38 years of clients, crises and clarity in advertising

Ingram was named chairman of Wunderman Thompson in 2018

Few people have strapped into advertising’s wild ride quite like Tamara Ingram, the chairman of Wunderman Thompson, who is “stepping away” from the agency later this year. She speaks to The Drum about her near four decades in the industry — from salvaging Saatchis to working for her seat at the global table.

Some execs in advertising repel the pen of the profiler, either because they have nothing to say, no interesting way of saying it or no interest in revealing what they really want to say to the world. Then there are those who positively glitter under the spotlight.

Tamara Ingram has always fallen into the latter category.

The outgoing global chairman of Wunderman Thompson is always full of anecdotes from the golden years on London's Charlotte Street. She's wise enough to pause before giving long answers and cordial enough to answer all questions.

She’s honest. She calls you darling. She could probably wangle you theatre tickets for tonight.

This willingness to play the game is nothing new.

In a 1999 article published in the Irish Times, the then-39-year-old was so high on her elevation to sole chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi that she threw her “pinstriped trouser suit and black ankle boots on the arm of her chair” while sparking up a B&H cigarette mid-interview.

Ingram had spent the past half-decade successfully saving the business after the infamous exit of Charles and Maurice Saatchi. Now, she was reaping the rewards in a time when things really did only get better.

The article, which now reads like something of a pre-9/11 parody, cited Tony Blair as her “political hero”, declared her first name to be of “It-girl” refinement and saw her reeling off the “Internet” as a new media solution.

“Hey, how fantastic,” she told the paper. “To be able to do something with this lovely brand.

“What a lucky girl.”

Would she call herself that today? Would anyone in advertising?

17 years of WPP

Since the 90s, when, according to the Independent, she became known for her booming catchphrase “Bloody maaarvellous!”, Ingram hopped to McCann-Erickson before resurfacing at the adolescent Kantar in 2003.

From then it was WPP all the way – first to Grey, then to the holding co’s Team P&G, then to the global gig at J Walter Thompson in New York, then to one of the biggest M&A shocks of the post-Sorrell era.

When Ingram was nearly three years into leading a global agency (a job Sorrell himself says “she always wanted to do”) it was announced the 154-year-old JWT would share a name and a client list with Wunderman.

“I think mergers are really tough – it’s very hard to get them right,” she says. “You have to take everyone with you. And I think I learned it before, and I'll learn it again: you can never communicate enough. It's all about your real behaviors and role modeling how you're going to behave in the future – what you expect from the people in the company.

“But it's part of business. It happens all the time. And there is a way of doing it. It's not the toughest thing you have to do.”

And it could have gone much worse. Ingram and her Wunderman co-pilot, Mel Edwards, have kept a fairly low but united profile since WPP boss Mark Read named them global chairman and global chief executive respectively.

Edwards describes Ingram as “someone you love being around, [who] always makes your day better”. Layoffs have been brushed over with superstar hires. Clients, largely, have not packed up their businesses.

But it’s the “human things” that are the toughest, Ingram says.

'A moment of crisis'

If the 90s flounce of the Saatchi brothers didn’t teach her that about agency culture, then her baptism of fire into JWT surely did.

Ingram was parachuted into the top job in March 2016, a week after Erin Johnson, chief communications officer at the company, filed a lawsuit accusing incumbent boss Gustavo Martinez of racism and sexism.

As the case continued through the year, Johnson leveled that Ingram had kept her “in a box" of isolation in the workplace – an accusation denied by WPP. Johnson, Martinez and WPP parted ways two years later after an “amicable settlement” was finally reached.

Nearly four years since the case first kicked off ad land’s #MeToo reckoning, Ingram looks back on her hasty, messy entrance onto the New York ad scene with diplomatic composure.

“I think it's an honor to be given a job in a moment of crisis because that's when you have to be at your best,” she says. “I think that, actually, we can all perform at our best in those moments.

“If everything's rising and everything's doing well, that's no standard of leadership – you're just lucky and in a great job. A standard of leadership is when things get tougher. So, I thought it was a privilege. And to be the leader of J Walter Thompson was fantastic.”

But does she think she would have got the global job sooner had she been a man?

“Of course. I think all women feel that in some way.”

A force of clarity

This is Ingram’s real luck today: to be a 59-year-old woman in advertising who now gets to willingly step off the top of the ladder and live a transatlantic life of philanthropy.

So many never get so high, booted off by unfair maternity practices, exhausting sexism and the promise of a better life on freelance terms.

Ingram’s own assessment is she always knew what she was good at and where she wanted to go, ever since her Doc Martins first crossed the threshold at Saatchi.

“I don't think there was anything particular about me except my desire to remain within the business and being very focused on the goals,” she says. “I enjoyed and was fascinated by working with wonderful [clients], but I always knew my value was giving them a different type of perspective.

“I think that clarity ... helps you enormously because then it doesn't matter what's around the corner – you just keep going. I absolutely love my job. And I think that just gives you so much energy and carries you forward in a wonderful way. That's the difference really.”

A force of energy

It’s Ingram’s vivacity that gets referenced time and time again by her colleagues and peers.

Sorrell, in a remarkable display of candor, calls her “full of energy and enthusiasm and intuitively optimistic”. His successor, Read, says “there are few better at building relationships between clients and agencies that get the best out of both.”

This blazing determination burnt various spectators in her wake. All the way back in 2005, when Sorrell named her chief of Grey London, Marketing Week described her as polarizing opinion “like few others in adland. To some ... she is an outrageous caricature of the 1980s advertising luvvy still living in the past.”

One Wunderman Thompson staffer says they viewed her career path as one forged entirely for herself and not her female employees.

“Tam has a huge personality and her energy is immediately felt in the room,” says another “For people who click with her this combined force can be incredibly effective. But I’ve heard that for those who aren't on the same page, it can be hard to be heard.”

For what it’s worth, Ingram believes she has become a better listener. Her resolution to stop talking so much is, she says, probably the only thing that’s changed in her 38-year career – well, that and her military surplus wardrobe from Camden Town.

“In the end, I think I have the same energy and the same enthusiasm and the same commitment to the things I always did have,” she says. “And I've kept myself permanently naive, as if it's all fresh every day.

"That's been a very lovely thing – to always feel surprised and joyous about what it is that I do.”

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