Rarely does a thriving agency in Manchester refrain from proudly showcasing its growth and ambitious aspirations.
“Historically, we’ve been really terrible about talking about ourselves,” Steve Gale, chief commercial officer at CTI Group, told Prolific North. “We don't really sing and shout about what we do, we never have done. Perhaps we should do more!”
Every day at the digital group's headquarters in Manchester is filled with excitement and variety. The office is abuzz with energy following a series of new client wins, including renowned brands like Prezzo, Chester Zoo, MIND, and Zip World.
One week, the office resembles a Halford's store, brimming with dozens of bicycles for the launch of a new cycling brand. The next week, it transforms into a bustling scene with models strolling around for a Horlicks campaign. The office is constantly in motion, both literally and metaphorically, with a dynamic atmosphere that keeps things exciting. “It’s chaos, I adore it!,” says Gale.
After becoming part of the group 13 years ago, he recognizes that it has been a significant and enduring tenure in the agency realm. Since then, it has been a thrilling adventure as the group has experienced remarkable growth, expanding from a small team operating from a single office to now employing over 200 staff across Manchester, London, Wales, and Serbia. The journey has been nothing short of exhilarating.
“The company was a lot smaller when I joined. Whilst it's been quite the journey for me, it has been really exciting to be part of it. We're 10 times bigger. There were around 20 of us when I joined and there's over 200 of us now.”
Boasting a turnover of £17.5m in the most recent financial year, it is evident that the group is already enjoying a prosperous period of sales. With the financial year commencing in March, CTI surpassed £2m in sales for that month alone. During our interview, the group was well-positioned to achieve its Q1 target, indicating a promising start to the year.
“After what was a challenging year economically for everyone, we're pleased that we managed to maintain the previous year, rather than go backwards in light of the economic climate.
“I'm proud of the way the whole team has risen and responded to the challenges to avoid a backwards step, which I believe is an achievement especially when others have unfortunately reported losses or have sadly ceased trading. We've had a strong start to our new financial year and are looking forward to the year ahead.”
Trying to keep up with demand means there are “a lot of candles being burned at both ends in various different places to try and make things happen,” he explained, adding it’s a “fortunate” position to be in.
“Like so many others, we've had our tough patches too but it's how you respond to those and how you come out of it that’s the most important.”
As the growth continues, the group is actively expanding its workforce. Currently, they are in the midst of a hiring spree, with approximately 30 job openings across various departments such as development, marketing, and project management.
In addition to this recruitment effort, the group recently welcomed Arif Ahmad as their chief financial officer, whose contributions have already made a significant impact, according to Gale. Furthermore, they have also brought on board a new director of mobile and .NET, further strengthening their team.
“We're looking to grow the team, it's trying to keep up with the demand more than anything else.”
After securing a £25m minority investment from private equity investment firm LDC last year, the digital group has not only fueled its growth plans but also molded a slightly modified structure within the company. This substantial investment has played a pivotal role in propelling the group forward and shaping its strategic direction.
“We've been through a lot of growth over the last five or six years alone with acquisitions, developing new services and new capabilities. We have an office building with workshop rooms, a UX lab and a creative studio.
“The growth that you go through to get you from the point you were to that point of acquisition, there's a lot of activity that happens over that period of time. You get to that level, then that opens the door to the next stage.
“What we found is that the next stage brings a new ambition and a new direction. You can't go into that next stage in the journey just doing more of the same of what you did beforehand, but on a bigger scale, because that's not how scaling works. So it's brought around some changes in structure, some changes in behaviours and changes in process and how we manage things, gearing up for that next stage.”
International expansion, a new group brand name and acquisitions
Having successfully concluded six acquisitions over the past three years, including CTI Digital, Supercharged Commerce, Stardotstar, Nublue, Ixis, Worship, Mosquito, and app development agency Silverchip, all integrated under the CTI umbrella, the group's appetite for acquisitions remains unabated.
In 2021, CTI's CEO Nick Rhind discussed plans with Prolific North to establish a strong presence in Europe within five years by "putting boots on the ground." As part of the funding received from LDC in 2022, a portion will be allocated to support the group's forthcoming phase of international expansion through a strategic "buy-and-build" approach.
That’s still on the horizon, says Gale. “It paused a little bit, particularly with some of the acquisitions we were looking at. We were close at one point, but they weren't quite right for us.”
In recent years, as the group has successfully cultivated a strong customer base in Europe, their focus has shifted towards Germany and Spain. These two countries have captured the group's attention as they explore further growth opportunities and expand their operations in these promising markets.
“Part of that plan is obviously the acquisition. They've got to be right, buying agencies isn't easy. It doesn't matter how many times you do it, it's not like it follows a formula and there's a lot of work that goes into that integration.”
In the end, it all boils down to a perfect fit. With the group's diverse range of specializations, including e-commerce expertise with Nublue, creative brand communications with Mosquito, and app development with Silverchip, one might wonder if there's a missing piece to complete the puzzle.
“The jigsaw keeps getting bigger,” he says. “It's as much about missing pieces as it is about the picture changing. As a result of the picture changing and evolving, it opens up new opportunities, new ideas and directions that acquisitions might bring in.”
It’s not just Europe on the horizon, the US is in the group’s sights too. “A very major client of ours has been asking us to open the New York office for quite some time. We're very much still looking at the US but again, it's about finding the right fit and beyond as well.
“The challenge is getting it integrated so that it does all work together. That can be tricky at times for any agency, that's not unique to us,” he explains. “We did a live stream event for one of our clients at short notice recently and it was one of those moments where it was like ‘hit the red button on the wall and Avengers Assemble!’ The team just came together and delivered.”
As for the new group brand name hinted by Rhind two years ago, it’s now “tantalisingly close.” “It’s still coming!” he says. “It's taken a little bit longer to come together than we first anticipated.
“As a group with a very diverse range of services and people, launching a new brand and a new identity is not a small task and there's lots of things to consider.
“Like all agencies, you talk about what you do for your clients but inevitably you always neglect yourself. It's prompted us to think a lot more and open up questions that we haven't previously asked ourselves in the past.”
Unlike the legendary 15-year creation process of Guns N' Roses' album "Chinese Democracy," he playfully hints that the revelation won't keep us waiting for such an extended period.
“You just want to get it right,” says Gale. “Throwing a couple of acquisitions in along the way changes the dynamic, which has been part of the delay.”