How Ink Began

As years ago 2015 was a great one for Ink. We were awarded more top industry accolades than ever before and we won and delivered on prestigious new business accounts . But the story of how the company came to be where it is today started 21 years ago, via a ping-pong table, a Big Mac-scented office and a bar in Beirut.

In late 1993, a 23-year-old Michael Keating was working as a TV researcher for the London Tonight news programme. Simultaneously, his friend’s father – Nadim Lababidi – was working in tourism in Beirut, and was launching holiday packages to attract visitors back to the city following the recent end of the civil war. He suggested that Michael pitch this as a feel-good “And finally…” story to his producer, assuring him that he already had a number of bookings lined up. “At that time, Beirut was really on its knees,” says Michael. “All you would associate with it were bombs and bullets. It was almost unthinkable that you’d consider going to Beirut on holiday, so when I pitched it to my news editor I was virtually laughed out of his office – but he did say that if I could find a real London couple who had booked a trip to Beirut, the story could run.”

Of course, when he asked for the names of those tourists who had already booked their places, it transpired none had. But by chance Michael got talking to a painter and decorator who was passionate about railways, and whose great wish was to trace the old Lebanon-Damascus line. “I asked if he and his wife would like to go on a free holiday to do just that. He said it would be a dream come true and asked what the catch was. I explained we would need to send a camera crew with them, and he agreed instantly.” One surprised news editor later, the team touched down in Beirut and spent several days shooting their stories, after which they went to get themselves a well-earned drink. “All good things start in a bar in Beirut,” says Michael, “and while there I was introduced to a man who was thrilled with the publicity the programme was bringing to Lebanon. He happened to be launching an airline and asked if – given my understanding of television – I would like to be responsible for its inflight entertainment.”

With absolutely no previous experience of airline systems, Michael said yes, and back in London arranged to meet with Hugh Parry, the Chief Financial Officer of the new airline, British Mediterranean Airways (BMED). First, though, he needed a business plan. “I just picked up the phone and called international directory enquiries for the telephone number of Warner Bros in Hollywood. I was so naive but eventually got through to their licensing department and figured it all out.”

Likewise, he knew several DJs and radio broadcasters, and came up with a plan for eight channels of audio programming. Armed with his business proposal, put together on an early PC in his childhood bedroom, Michael drove to the meeting. “After I had presented my plan, Hugh looked at me over his half-moon glasses and said, ‘You look a little green to me,’” remembers Michael. “But because the man I had met in Beirut was the main financier of the airline, and he believed in me, the contract was won.” Now all he had to do was fulfil it. “I just about sorted the film and audio channels, and when it came to earphones I went to a wholesaler and bought 300 sets which I hand-delivered to Heathrow for the inaugural flight,” he says. With graphics designed “after hours” by his colleagues at London Tonight, Michael’s first inflight business venture was – wait for it – off the ground.

Meanwhile, a 26-year-old Simon Leslie was running a small publishing company on the King’s Road (“Above a McDonald’s,” says Michael, “so it always stank of Big Macs and fries”). The company was producing a free glossy magazine, funded by advertising that was posted through doors in the most affluent areas of London. Michael, who was still working at London Tonight, was also doing some restaurant PR, and invited Simon to one of his restaurants for lunch, hoping for a good review and to persuade Simon to let him write for the magazine. “The food was really terrible, but I asked him if he would give us a good review anyway. Simon told me the kindest thing he could do for me was to write nothing at all. So then I cheekily asked if I could write a column for him instead, and he agreed.”

It was a natural progression that, when the initial entertainment package for BMED was up and running, Michael went to Simon and asked if he would be interested in teaming up to produce an inflight magazine. “Being the expert negotiator, Simon tried to drive a hard bargain. But since I had won the contract we eventually agreed it would be 50/50.” Just like that, the odd couple were in business. The airline agreed to the magazine on the basis it was self-funding, so Michael and Simon went to Beirut and found a printer, selling advertising in person. Impression magazine was born. Its publishers? The newly founded Electric Ink, est. 1994. “Back then, there was no digital printing. Everything was delivered on film, with four layers of plastic acting as the CMYK,” says Michael. “So every month one of us would have to take the films out to Beirut, then hire a car and drive around picking up the individual artwork from each advertiser. If we spotted a mistake we would have to cut individual letters out of the film using a scalpel, duplicate the correct letter and stick it in. It was very labour intensive.”

The airline flourished, increasing its number of planes and destinations, but by 1997 British Airways (who had stopped flying to Beirut during the war) saw that BMED was making money and decided to reinstate their own routes. BMED couldn’t withstand that competition, so instead became a franchise operator for BA, who said Impression would have to go. But Michael and Simon successfully argued the destination-specific content was too valuable to lose, so it stayed onboard, alongside BA’s High Life. “It meant we had the BA logo on the magazine, so we could show prospective advertisers that Impression was now on BA-affiliated flights,” Michael says.
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