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After six acquisitions and a £25m cash boost, what next for fast-growing Manchester agency CTI Group?

Steve Gale

It’s not often an agency success story in Manchester shies away from shouting about its growth and ambitious plans.

“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!” 

At the digital group’s headquarters in Manchester, “no two days are the same.” There’s a buzz at the HQ after a flurry of new client wins have seen CTI begin work with big brands Prezzo, Chester Zoo, MIND and Zip World.

The office could be mistaken for the inside of a Halford’s store one week, surrounded by dozens of bikes for the launch of a new cycling brand, or on a different week you might find models walking around for a Horlicks campaign. The wheels are constantly in motion, in more ways than one. “It’s chaos, I adore it!,” says Gale.

Joining the group 13 years ago, he acknowledges it’s a “long stint” in the agency world. It’s been a whirlwind journey ever since, the group’s growth has seen it go from a handful of staff based out of one office to just over 200 staff now based across Manchester, London, Wales and Serbia.

“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.”

With a turnover of £17.5m for the latest financial year, it’s already proving to be a successful year for sales with the group’s financial year starting in March. CTI exceeded sales of £2m for March and, at the time of our interview, was on track to hit its Q1 target.

“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.”

With that growth comes the need for more hands on deck. Now on a hiring spree, there are around 30 jobs currently being advertised at the group across development, marketing and project management.

The group recently appointed Arif Ahmad as chief financial officer, who Gale says has already made “quite an impact.” and a new director of mobile and .NET has recently joined too. 

“We’re looking to grow the team, it’s trying to keep up with the demand more than anything else.”

Following a £25m minority investment from private equity investment firm LDC last year to further supercharge the digital group’s growth plans, it has shaped a slightly different structure at the company too.

“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.”

Acquisitions, international expansion and new group brand name

Having completed six acquisitions in the past three years – with CTI Digital, Supercharged Commerce, Stardotstar, Nublue, Ixis, Worship, Mosquito and app development agency Silverchip all under the CTI umbrella – the group’s acquisitive plans are not over yet. 

Back in 2021, Prolific North spoke to CTI’s CEO Nick Rhind about plans to get “boots on the ground” for expansion in Europe within five years. Part of the cash injection from LDC in 2022 is to support the next stage of international growth through a “buy-and-build strategy.”

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.” 

Over the last few years after growing out a solid customer base in Europe, the group is now eyeing Germany and Spain. 

“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.”

Ultimately, it “has to fit.” From the group’s varying specialisms from ecommerce with Nublue, creative brand communications with Mosquito to app development with Silverchip, is there a missing piece of the jigsaw?

“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 Guns N’ Roses ‘Chinese Democracy’ album that was 15 years in the making – he teases it won’t take that long to reveal.

“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.”

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