Capital's rising star wants group brands to work harder

Chris Bennett's primary task will be to monetise the stations' audience, writes Alasdair Reid.

Chris Bennett doesn't much care for the suggestion that he's been asked to "do an Emap" at Capital. Last week, he was promoted to the new role of commercial development director, charged with the responsibility of making the radio group's content properties and brand assets work harder. Which sounds sort of familiar, but Bennett points out that Capital and Emap are very different beasts.

His role, he says, will be all about "monetising" (beyond existing spot advertising and sponsorship) the relationship Capital has with 8m listeners a week across its national network of stations. "In general, people don't tend to value things they get for free, but the opposite is the case in commercial radio," he points out. "It's free but listeners put a huge value on the relationship they have with it. The trick is to monetise that without adulterating the relationship."

When you ask for details, the name of Craig David looms large. David's record label is Wildstar, a joint venture between Capital and Telstar: David's successful debut album, Born To Do It, has so far sold six million copies and contributed a seven-figure sum to Capital's bottom line. More of that would be nice, although Bennett admits you don't discover a Craig David every day of the week. But he does, for instance, envisage the release of more compilation CDs carrying Capital branding -- such as, for instance, the Capital Gold Legends series.

And then there's publishing. The launch issue of X-Ray magazine, an Xfm spin-off published in a joint venture with Swinstead, sells 57,000, making it the UK's sixth-largest music title. Again, that model could be replicated. And then there are new digital distribution channels to be explored. Content from a Capital event, such as Party in the Park, could be packaged for 3G network owners.

The potential, in other words, is there. Is Capital genuinely serious about reinventing itself? And is Bennett the right man for this job, some observers wonder. They say he's primarily an airtime trader and doubt if he has a grasp of the big picture needed to work the magic Capital clearly needs. This, after all, is an entrepreneurial job that will demand lateral thinking.

It's a very different type of role in other ways, too. Previously Bennett, said to be an excellent motivator and manager, has been the head of a large team and his focus has been on sales. His new position will be lonelier, the spotlight will be more firmly on him and he will be removed from the familiar parameters of London's advertising and media village. It will be difficult to hide if he isn't delivering.

Others warn about underestimating him. They point to his background in TV (he was part of a Thames TV generation that included Nick Milligan, Peter Shea and, of course, his boss at Capital, David Mansfield) and argue this gives him big-picture awareness. They say his universally acknowledged negotiating skills will come into their own in this new role.

"He gets things done, he's thorough and he's the ultimate deal maker," Morag Blazey, the PHD managing director, says. "When he's negotiating, he has a creative understanding of the complexities and possibilities. I think this could be an idea arena for his talents."

Richard Jacobs, the MediaCom head of radio, goes even further: "He strikes me as the kind of guy who could be successful at anything he turned to," he says.

So, a star in the making? Perhaps, but Bennett will certainly have to tread a fine line. City analysts, for instance, will be scathing if they believe they are witnessing a new era of crude Capital "diversification": their memories of Capital's disastrous move into restaurants in the mid-90s remain all too clear. "Of course, it's not about the equivalent of moving back into restaurants. It's not about T-shirts and mugs either," Bennett states.

Nevertheless, some observers are sceptical about how big a role this will turn out to be for Bennett and, indeed, Capital. They argue it lacks critical mass in terms of its portfolio of properties and that it has been slow to look at the options in both print and TV. If it grows too large as a record company, it could start facing ethical dilemmas and complaints from music industry rivals, some say. Its ambitions, almost by definition, must stay relatively modest.

Bennett, though, has no doubts about the magnitude of the opportunity this represents for him. And indeed, without wishing to be drawn on particulars, he admits he's hugely ambitious. If he is going to prove a point, now is the time.

And he's certainly willing to put his neck on the line. "Obviously, we're not the first coming to the market with these new ideas but we prefer to be best rather than first. And we will make deals happen quickly," he promises.

The Bennett file

1988 Thames TV, graduate trainee to sales executive

1993 Media Sales and Marketing (Capital Radio subsidiary), account manager

1997 Capital Advertising, sales controller

2000 Capital Radio Group, director of national sales

2003 Capital Radio Group, commercial development director

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