Sticking it to John "Singo" Singleton in 2001

By Stephen Mayne
June 9, 2021

Stephen Mayne took on John Singleton at his AGM in May 2001 and this is what was sent to Crikey subscribers at the time.

John Singleton held the AGM of his Singleton Group Ltd in the bar on the 18th floor of the IBM Tower in Sydney so it was possibly the most informal AGM I've ever been to.

Two years back he insisted the whole thing be wrapped up in 5 minutes and no-one said boo. This year we managed to string proceedings out for 45 minutes and had an excellent open bar-room discussion with none of Singo's trade mark brawls or bear hugs.

The directors were swearing, chairman Mark Carnegie walked to the bar mid-meeting to get a coke, directors joked about Singo drinking all day and all night and CEO Russell Tate copped it for having a degree and being school captain. The bar is a key part of Singo's culture. A mate of mine Pete was up their a few months ago with another mate and was confronted by Russell who demanded to know "who the f**k are you?"

Singo said it cost him $130,000 a year but said it was well worth it for the work talk that happens each night when it opens at 5.30pm. "They (the staff) think they're having a free drink but they're not. They're actually working another couple of hours every day," Singo explained.

The biggest news story that came out of the meeting was Singo's attack on governments of all persuasions for not giving the only big Australian advertising agency any work.

"I have zero business from is absolutely appalling," Singo moaned. "We are the most dominant Australian agency ever, ever."

"Can you imagine the media buying in Paris being given to a Japanese company."

Singo had earlier gloated that his agency never lost clients which sparked my question as to whether there was any chance of winning back the ALP account which they lost a couple of years back partly because Singo insulted John Della Bosca's wife Belinda Neal about a decade earlier.

"There was every chance but we have decided against it," Singo said. "Advertising won't decide the next election so it is better to stay out of it."
"We have an ongoing very good relationship with the ALP and with the Prime Minister and his advisers in the Liberal Party."

"If Hawkie or Paul decided to come back we might be tempted."

Singo loves Hawkie and Paul who looked after him for all those years. In fact, Singo has gifted Hawkie a stake in a couple of nags as a thank you and has paid Paul's sister Anne Keating a few hundred thousand for sitting on his board and helping him land a couple of FM radio licences in China.

Which brings us to the question of Anne's apparent conflict in trying to push as much NRMA business Singo's way as possible. When I asked the question of whether Nick Whitlam's departure from the NRMA board would clear the way for him to get some business, Singo gave "Annie" a big hug and said "that depends on whether Annie gets in as CEO."

Then before saying it was all "water under the bridge", Singo added: "We have not actually been unappointed. We have a three year contract but they (NRMA) have stopped paying us."

And what was that contract for? Surely that wasn't the $3 million Salvos campaign which Anne Keating pushed through the board when chairman Nick Whitlam was overseas?

The question of what Singo defines as government is interesting because he got paid very handsomely for running his spectacularly unsuccessful "Yes" campaign for the Republic.

"We were actually appointed by the Australian Republican Movement although they were government funded," Singo replied to my question.

And who were all those Packer and Labor connected people in the ARM? Malcolm Turnbull, Nifty Neville Wran, the McGuire brothers, Janet Holmes a Court etc etc. Current ARM boss and campaign manager Greg Barnes was one of the few Tories in the Republican campaign.

And poor old Singo gets no work out of government when his single best client is Telstra, which is 51 per cent government-owned. And Singo has no problem milking the former government bodies as his next biggest client is Qantas, in part because CEO Geoff Dixon has a blokey and long-standing friendship with Singo.

Which brings us to the Olympics, a big contributor in the spectacular 50 per cent profit rise to $20 million for Singleton Group Ltd last year.

Telstra heavies led by Ted Pretty decided the agency that spent 7 years working up their Olympics campaign had blown it and called in Singo to put something together just seven days before the Games started. A few of his mates such as Herb Elliott and Dawn Fraser were quickly slipped $20,000 and it didn't look like too much of a rush job.

This paid very well for Singo and helped him keep Telstra as a big client going forward. Singo also profited from the massive Qantas ambush against official Olympic airline Ansett and also masterminded the foreign-owned Tooheys ambush of CUB.

And despite personally profiting, Singo has officially declared that the Olympics and the $3 billion public investment was not worth it for the country.

"The Olympics gave us a free kick....but people are not flocking here, there are not millions of tourists, it was just froth and bubble not substance," he told the shareholders.

Singo's Labor Party connections helped him get the Media Director title at SOCOG but he quit in disgust after they would not dump 2UE as host broadcaster thanks to cash for comment and hand it over to his privately owned 2GB.

Which brings us to the very first question I asked about the potential conflict of interest between "private Singo and public Singo". It's the same issue that Kerry Packer faces when some of the best investments are taken by his family company rather than put through PBL.

Are we going to buy 2GB from one of Singo's family companies? Why didn't the public company get to share in the $4 million profit he personally made from his Text Media investment to fund the launch and ultimate closure five months later of The Eye magazine?

"I try to keep it all private," Singo grumbled before chairman Mark Carnegie chipped in to explain that there is "a policy of doing it through the agency" but with a "nose-bleed PE" it was difficult to justify some investments and they needed to own more than 20 per cent of any asset so they could equity account it.

Singo has profited very handsomely from his investments in what is now the outdoor advertising company Eye Corp but at least he did put his $4.5 million Channel Ten investment through the agency and they enjoyed the profit of almost $40 million.

Many people suspected that Singo's mate Packer encouraged him to buy into Ten with a view to keeping it as a low-cost distant third that would not challenge his ratings dominance at Nine.

The Packer mateship remains evident today. Along with Robert Whyte, the three of them made good money in their Manboom property and outdoor advertising joint venture. Packer got Singo in to do the initial Crown casino advertising. Packer has also helped Singo buy and run his stake in a highly profitable Indonesian TV station.

Given all of Paul Keating's contacts in Indonesia, it would be interesting to know if he and sister Anne helped Singo get set in this investment. This was the last of my questions and lets paraphrase Singo's explanation as follows:

The station made a profit of $45 million last year and they bought it debt free from the government run Indonesian Bank of Reconstruction. Jakarta is a very sophisticated market and the station is very well run with lots of modern equipment. It is full of fantastic young people educated in Australia, the US and the UK.

AC Nielsen estimated the Indonesian TV audience at 131 million and the top 10 agencies in Jakarta are the same as everywhere else, including three owned by Ogilvy & Mather's London-based parent WPP. O&M own one-third of Singo's ad business in Australia. It is a third world country but aren't we all. They still sell more cars and shampoo in Indonesia than in Australia.

And to prove our third world status, some of the young Indon TV staffers came to Sydney and were talking about replacing some of their 10-year-old equipment. Singo sent them over to Channel Nine and they were staggered to see how old all Kerry's equipment is ("everything is still there from 1956 except Bruce Gyngell") and since then his staff have stopped complaining about their old equipment in Jakarta.

Everyone believes Singo is a credible, responsible and independent media proprietor and just the person to be in charge of disseminating news to the masses in Indonesia.

"They showed the riots and their credibility has been massive ever since," Singo explained.

That's our Singo, the uneducated, six times married, big-drinking, Labor-connected, self-made adman and former member of the White Shoe brigade who is shooting up the BRW Rich List.

Poor old Sydney Morning Herald business reporter Emiliya Mychasuk had to tolerate Singo with his arm around her after the meeting. Emiliya was in part responsible for getting Singo to invest in The Eye where she was the business editor. She is a terrific journalist but just sometimes I worry she is too close to colourful characters such as Singo, Rodney Adler and some of the Packer mates such as Theo Onisforou (sic).

Singo's whinge about governments ignoring him is a very good news story given the whole foreign ownership debate at the moment. Yet it was kind of odd that sitting proudly in his foyer were monuments to foreign owned products such as BP, Kettle Chips, Tooheys, Pizza Hut, Panadol, Kodak, KFC, Continental Cuppa Soup and IBM which Singo spruiks to the 18 million Aussies he is so in touch with.

These people have got to be asking whether they are getting value for money from Singo because his profit margins were almost 40 per cent last year. SOM is the stand-out agency in the entire WPP global operation and its boss Sir Martin Sorrell is constantly haranguing his people to lift their pathetic 14 per cent returns to match what Singo's outfit in Australia does.

So how do they do it? "I haven't got a clue," said Singo before muttering something about working hard, not losing clients and being available to take calls from heavyweight CEOs.

I reckon it's partly because clients are too scared to sack the highly strung and oft-quoted Singo. Look at what he did to Eric Beecher, publicly bagging The Eye and Eric personally. And look at how he attacked SOCOG publicly for not getting the radio rights. And what about the public attacks on the NRMA for cancelling the $3 million Salvos contract that Annie pushed through for him.

We're not scared of Singo or worried about his powerful friends. We'll happily bag him where it is justified and look forward to more exchanges in the future.