This week, Matthew Hooper, boss of Interfocus, the self-proclaimed ‘integrated advertising agency’, begins a new phase of his career. He is aiming to build the agency he founded in 1989 into an international network, and plans to acquire businesses across different disciplines to help him.
Last week he received the financial firepower after buying back the majority share in his agency from Lowe Group, and selling it to Canadian marketing specialist Maxxcom (MW last week).
He used the resulting funds to buy the troubled Osprey Group, acquiring the management (veteran ad man Chris Still, who joins Interfocus as joint chairman) and &£15m worth of client business from the likes of Furniture Village, Seiko Watches and Pirelli. But he did not take on Osprey’s debts, thought to be up to &£2m.
Behind this story lies the tale of a deal that went badly wrong. Lowe Group bought the 60 per cent stake in Interfocus in July 1996 to merge it with its troubled Brompton sales promotion business. It expected Interfocus to offer group clients a sales promotion specialism, as well as winning its own business.
It seems incredible that such a deal could have gone ahead, given Hooper’s view of what Interfocus stands for. It is not, he claims, a sales promotion agency, but a multi-discipline, integrated agency. He did the deal to build an international network. Lowe did not build it.
So did Lowe make an error in buying the Interfocus stake? “It was not a mistake,” says Tim Lindsay, European president of Lowe Lintas, part of the Lowe Group. “It was a rational decision at the time, but circumstances and personalities meant it did not work out,” he says.
Or was it Hooper who made a mess of the deal? Given that his strategy has always been to portray Interfocus as an integrated agency, why bother getting into bed with Lowe, which was looking for the exact opposite? “As a multi-disciplinary company, we did not fit with Lowe’s single disciplinary structure… As time went on, it became apparent they did not know what they wanted to do. It is not beneficial to be in a partnership where there’s friction,” says Hooper.
One observer says the deal reveals much about the way Hooper operates. Intensely driven and a super-smooth salesman, his ambition can manoeuvre him into a position he later regrets.
Seemingly, he manages to surf the reefs without one carefully combed hair falling out of place. “Matthew is a salesman basically. He is great at talking things up, but he has some delusions about his and Interfocus’s strengths,” says one observer. But for a man with a great sales patter, “it can take him a long time to express himself”, says the observer. This trait may have contributed to the mix-up over the relationship with Lowe.
But Hooper has bounced back. He says: “We are looking to expand internationally. Chris Still has worked with a network and has got some good management experience. I have been interested in getting things done.”
How typical of a salesman to gloss over the bad patches and launch headlong into a bright new future. But as one source admits: “Matthew really has been very tenacious – he believes his own self-promotion. For some clients he’s very exciting.” Some say that Hooper is the ideal small-client man, perfect for the organisation with &£2m to &£3m to spend on marketing, but with little idea of how to spend it. Hooper, in response, points to clients such as Lloyds TSB and Visa.
Hooper’s refusal to accept the popular view of Interfocus as a sales promotion specialist is typical of what some call delusion, and others call ambition. One source says: “Very few people own up to being in sales promotion these days.”
Nevertheless, Hooper is considered a prime candidate to become chairman of the Sales Promotion Consultants Association, though it is thought he has made it a condition that the SPCA changes its name if he takes up the post.
He is also a well-known character in a direct marketing industry notably devoid of interesting personalities. He is certainly “larger than life”.
Described by women as “easy on the eye”, one who knows him says: “He’s nice looking and beautifully turned out with the tie and the cuff-links. People either really like him or think he loves the sound of his own voice.”
Hooper’s hobbies include driving his favourite car – a Mercedes convertible – and collecting watches. He wears a Tag Heuer which he describes as a “replica of the 1969 Monaco, first worn by Steve McQueen in the film Grand Prix.”
The 37-year-old ex-public school boy, born of wealthy parents, claims that he is in marketing for the enjoyment of problem solving, rather than a search for filthy lucre. But as with many of Hooper’s statements, one wonders whether this is what he really believes, or is it a salesman saying what he thinks people want to hear? He observes: “The people who are concerned with money never actually get it. Money has never been a motivating factor for doing this. That’s not what I am interested in at the moment.”
The question of what motivates him intrigues colleagues and rivals alike. One rival ponders his quest for perfection, from the immaculate haircut, tightly knotted tie and sparse, well-ordered office to his love of sports cars, the ultimate status symbol. (You guessed it – he has owned a Ferrari.)
“Is it a lack of self-confidence? He’s trying to prove something to someone. He’s driven by ambition, but I’m not sure it’s his own ambition so much as his family’s,” says the source. “He’s always got the prettiest girls on his arm, though I believe he may have been spurned in love (which he denies). But he can come across as quite effeminate.”
She adds that Hooper gives the impression of having come from an ambitious family, expecting the very highest standards from their son. And he has done his reputedly pushy family proud so far. But Hooper denies his ambition is down to anyone but himself. “I like to give 110 per cent and get things right,” he says. He will not reveal the extent of his wealth, but he lives the lifestyle of a very successful man, with a house in South Kensington and holidays in the South of France, where he hopes one day to have a second home.
Interfocus is seen by outsiders as a one-man show, closely identified with Hooper. The wall to the foyer of the Interfocus office in Kensington sports as many as five newspaper cuttings with pictures of Hooper’s smoothly smirking face.
He says: “Every organisation has a leader who speaks on its behalf, but this agency would not be what it is today without the effort and enthusiasm of the people in it. I mean, is WPP just Martin Sorrell?” But he quickly adds: “I’m not comparing myself to Martin Sorrell. He’s in a different league.”
Having extricated himself from the Lowe Group, Hooper will need to ensure that he does not disappear down any more blind alleys if he is to get anywhere near the premier league.