Ingram holds key to future of CIA

Marco Benatti is a name which has risen from relative obscurity to unexpected prominence in the last week or so. To Mr Benatti this may be welcome news: no more than his due, he might argue. But to his senior colleague, Chris Ingram, chief executive of CIA Group, it is a headache.

Benatti is important to CIA. Not only does he run Medianetwork, one of the media independent’s most successful and profitable subsidiaries, but he personally controls nearly 15 per cent of the group’s shares. Unfortunately for CIA, Benatti is unhappy with his lot and threatening to offload them. The source of this discontent is a little obscure. It seems to boil down to a mixture of personal pique and disagreement over the group’s strategy. More certainly, washing this dirty linen in public does little to enhance the reputation of a company listed on the UK stock exchange.

All of which must leave Ingram feeling pretty peeved. Taken in conjunction with allegations of over-dealing in the UK – which won’t go away – this boardroom rift is distracting attention from an otherwise fine track-record.

By any yardstick, the achievement of CIA Group is a remarkable one. The single-minded vision of one man has resulted in a highly-focused company delivering year-in, year-out growth which would be the envy of most marketing services companies. CIA has expanded with alacrity into Europe and is now seeking to repeat that success in the Far East. Anyone doubting CIA’s impact need look little further than its recent capture of the Shell account in Europe and Lloyds TSB in the UK. Both speak volumes about the damage a well set-up independent can do to full-service agency networks.

It’s a track-record all the more remarkable for CIA being publicly-listed, and therefore under the constant scrutiny of a City audience. While other service companies fell by the wayside, or sold out, CIA has performed a solo act of distinction on the earnings treadmill.

But how long can it go on? The Benatti affair and the over-dealing allegations would seem to have at least one theme in common. They are symptomatic of a company straining for growth. Which in turn raises issues of management style and strategic direction. Yes, investing in the fast-growing markets of the Far East and in-filling the minor ones in Europe is important. But how quickly should this expansion programme proceed and with what commitment of resources?

These questions are likely to be answered by one man, and one man alone. Which is the strength and weakness of CIA as a company.

Cover Story, page 40

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