November 2013: LAST MONTH Johnny Hornby dined with his competitors at a London restaurant. It was a regular date with Moray MacLennan, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Worldwide, and Robert Senior, who heads Saatchi & Saatchi in Europe — advertising agencies that pitch for big accounts against Hornby’s own company.
“We are incredibly competitive when we pitch. Then we go for dinner and the losers pick up the bill,” said Hornby, the “H” in CHI & Partners, set up in 2001 with Simon Clemmow and Charles Inge. “Some people think it’s weird that I even go on holidays with my competitors,” he said.
Keeping friends and rivals close has helped Hornby turn CHI into a recognised player. When he left a high-powered job at another agency, TBWA, he took with him one of the company’s best clients — Sir Charles Dunstone, chairman of Carphone Warehouse. “My employer struck a deal. I could take Charles but had to promise not to poach any others.”
Dunstone let his friend start CHI in a loft above a Carphone Warehouse shop on Marylebone Road, northwest London. “I didn’t have to put in any money at the start-up stage because of the Dunstone account and the office space he lent us,” said Hornby.
He soon began to win clients, such as the drinks company Tango and Typhoo tea. As CHI grew, it moved its headquarters to Soho. Today, its 400 staff look after clients such as Samsung, Virgin and Royal Bank of Scotland, which contribute to revenues of £20m.
In 2007, Hornby sold 49.9% of CHI to advertising giant WPP, whose chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, was reported to have handed £30m to the three founders.
The deal sparked a string of acquisitions. Hornby added nine businesses to his portfolio and this month created a holding company to house the growing empire. Called the & Partnership, it embraces M/Six, a media-buying venture, and the Social Practice, a social media arm. Recently it bought Halpern, a PR agency set up by Jenny Halpern Prince — daughter of Topshop founder Sir Ralph Halpern — whose clients include Unilever and Tiffany.
“They are all complementary ventures,” said Hornby. “It is better to put a campaign together sitting with someone from PR, media and digital.”
Last year the & Partnership, which has 1,400 staff and offices in New York and Singapore, had sales of £85m. Hornby is the single largest shareholder with 22%; the rest is shared among 20 staff.
Hornby was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. His father Derek ran the Royal Shakespeare Company and his mother was a journalist.
Business played a big part in his upbringing. His father, who had two children from a previous marriage, later became chairman of Rank Xerox in Britain. “His jobs took us abroad,” said Hornby, who has a younger sister. The author Nick Hornby, best known for Fever Pitch, is his half-brother.
His father’s work took the family to Valbonne in the south of France where Hornby attended a state school. When he was seven, they uprooted again and moved to Connecticut.
“I was very laid back about education, which is probably why dad sent me to a strict boarding school,” he said. At 14, Hornby was sent to Marlborough College in Wiltshire and then he studied history and politics at Edinburgh university. “I got into a lot of debt and had to work through my holidays.” He cleaned restaurant kitchens and worked in a wood-chip factory to clear his loans.
At 19, an internship in London gave him a taste of advertising. Hornby was a runner at the Cogent Elliott agency. “I loved every second. I was in the city, there were lots of pretty girls.” It inspired a career in the industry.
He graduated with a 2:2 and joined Ogilvy & Mather as a trainee. For four years he worked on accounts such as Ford and Guinness. “It was shaping into a measured career path that was a bit slow for my liking,” said Hornby.
In 1995 he joined another agency, CDP, and was promoted to board account director in six months. “It was a crazy thing to do. I wasn’t qualified enough,” he said. He worked all hours: “I had a bed in my office and made up for my lack of experience with graft.”
He was soon responsible for clients such as Honda and Panasonic but left after three years. “It was very tiring, and there were things I didn’t want to repeat.”
His next move was to TBWA, “one of the hottest agencies in town”. He joined as a senior partner and became managing director. There he met Clemmow and got his teeth into his most challenging campaign.
Hornby was in charge of the Labour party’s advertising before the 2001 general election. “It was intense and difficult. Trying to manage Labour at that time was challenging because [it was split into] Blairites and Brownites.”
But the campaign was a success and launched a long-standing link with Peter Mandelson, who was on CHI’s board until 2007. “He introduced me to people who could help,” said Hornby.
On the day Labour won, Hornby resigned from TBWA, along with Clemmow. They went into business with Inge, another friend in the industry. Clemmow and Inge no longer work in the company but own some shares.
Plans are afoot to add another venture to Hornby’s collection. The Vineyard will produce six-second videos for Twitter. “As more digital platforms evolve, our clients will need more,” he said.
Hornby, 46, lives in Notting Hill, west London, with his second wife, Clare. He has five children, three from his first marriage.
His advice to budding entrepreneurs is: “If you think you have a really good idea, it’s a risk worth taking. However, you have to be prepared for no work-life balance for the first five years.”