Marco Benatti turned up a fashionable 10 minutes late for lunch at a posh restaurant popular with Milan's power crowd and extended a careful greeting in English, "The pleasure to meet you."
Mr. Benatti, 52, is working on his English to better understand and defend himself against the charges levied by his former employer, Martin Sorrell. His unusual language strategy involves memorizing the words of popular English songs to improve his vocabulary. He pulled from his pocket a sheet of lyrics to his current song, "I Will Survive," Gloria Gaynor's 1978 classic. "It took all the strength I had not to fall apart," he recited with a sad smile.
With its "walk out the door ... you're not welcome anymore," lyrics, it's an amusingly appropriate anthem for the Italian adman, who was marched out of the office Jan. 9 and since found himself at the center of an unfolding drama that has everything: big-money, bitterness, office break-ins and a purported romantic entanglement between Mr. Sorrell and Daniela Weber, who was Mr. Benatti's No. 2 at WPP Italy.
During a two-hour lunch, Mr. Benatti described his version of the headline-making events.
"I honestly can't understand Sorrell's motives for doing what he is doing to me," the affable, low-key Mr. Benatti said, speaking in Italian peppered with an occasional freshly learned English phrase. "If he wasn't happy with my work, then of course he should ask me to leave, that's his prerogative," he said. "But I cannot understand why he would want to treat me like this, like a criminal."
The WPP camp has accused Mr. Benatti, its former country manager for Italy, of diverting WPP clients to FullSix, an Italian media company he owns a stake in, and failing to disclose a sizable stake he had in a company, MediaClub, that WPP acquired. Investigators vaguely hint at other activities that have yet to come to light.
For his part, Mr. Benatti said that Mr. Sorrell and WPP will eventually owe shareholders an explanation for why they have spent as much as $10 million, according to estimates by people familiar with the situation, investigating him.
"They have Kroll, Deloitte, lawyers, public-relations companies and staff all working on this in order to try to prove I am a criminal," Mr. Benatti said. "They make a lot of accusations, but there is not one bit of proof."
WPP said proof will be forthcoming. "Why would we show our hand now?" said an executive involved with the case.
Mr. Benatti first made his name as an entrepreneur in his native Verona. He founded a local newspaper and started a radio station and a TV channel with friends in the 1970s. He kept making acquisitions, including a stake in U.K. media independent Chris Ingram Associates, now part of WPP's Mediaedge:cia, when he sold CIA other assets.
Mr. Benatti and Mr. Sorrell first met back in 1996 when Mr. Sorrell looked into buying Mr. Benatti's Mediaedge stake; that deal was done in 1997. They admired each other and stayed in touch.
Their professional relationship started in 2002, when Mr. Benatti became WPP country manager. Later that year, he identified the fast-growing MediaClub as a solid takeover target -- the deal that later became a point of contention because Mr. Benatti owned a large but indirect stake in the company that he failed to disclose.
For years, Messrs. Benatti and Sorrell were close, exchanging personal Christmas gifts and visiting each other's homes. By most accounts, Mr. Benatti was an effective country manager. Italian financial daily Il Sole /24 Ore reported that WPP's revenue in Italy grew from $178 million to $334 million during his tenure. Profit more than doubled from $18 million to $41 million over the same period.
One might expect that the tight-knit Italian advertising community might close ranks with its own, and view Mr. Benatti's nemesis as a British intruder. But that isn't the case. One well-connected Italian ad executive quipped that Mr. Benatti and Mr. Sorrell seemed to be "cut from the same cloth ... with a similar win-at-all-costs attitude." (Mr. Benatti's spokesman dismissed such talk as professional jealousy. "When you win, the losers get jealous," he said. "And WPP won a lot when Marco Benatti was in charge.")
Another big player in the Italian ad scene worried how the fallout might color the local industry as a whole. "One newspaper calls this a `spaghetti mess,' as if it's a problem typical of Italy," the executive said. "But this is a WPP problem. It comes from that company. It just happened to take place in Italy."
Mr. Benatti said the first sign that his cozy relationship with WPP was changing came in July 2005 when WPP's Ogilvy & Mather balked as he tried to appoint a new CEO for the Italian office. He said he offered to resign at that point, concerned he might have lost Mr. Sorrell's trust. Mr. Sorrell reportedly talked him out of it.
Then in December, Mr. Benatti clashed with Chief Operating Officer Ms. Weber over who was in charge of the office. They agreed to let Mr. Sorrell resolve the dispute after the holidays. Ms. Weber started her career as Mr. Benatti's secretary in 1982. Until January 2006, she had spent her entire career working with him.
"I don't speak good English and I couldn't go to London that often," Mr. Benatti said. "At WPP, she had become my eyes and ears. I depended on her."
But Mr. Benatti evidently wonders whether Ms. Weber's professional, or even romantic, links to Mr. Sorrell, led to divided loyalties.
(The matter was made to look even more complicated by some press reports that suggested Mr. Benatti had also been romantically linked to Ms Weber-an embellishment to an already complicated tale, that Mr. Benatti dismisses as categorically untrue.)
Through a spokesman, Ms. Weber said she does not comment on her private life. A WPP spokesman has insisted that Mr. Sorrell and Ms. Weber's private lives are "irrelevant" to the case at hand.
Ms. Weber was with Mr. Sorrell when he entered Mr. Benatti's office Jan. 9 and accused him of the charges Mr. Benatti vigorously denies. "Martin wouldn't even shake my hand; I was in shock," he said. "For a moment I thought it might be a joke. But Martin walked me to the elevator and told me to leave the office. I told him that I would at least like to gather my things, but he told me that if I didn't get on the elevator immediately he would call the police."
Mr. Benatti said he left that chilly day without a coat, leaving a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the WPP garage, and artwork, sculptures and personal effects in his office. He couldn't even provide a journalist with a photograph because the images are on his office computer.
Almost two months after his dismissal, Mr. Benatti said the events of Jan. 9 still burn. "This has caused me a great deal of harm," he said. "It has ruined my reputation in a business where all you have is your reputation."
Even as the lawsuits continue to fly, Mr. Benatti hopes that Mr. Sorrell will be a peaceful partner if WPP Group keeps its stake in FullSix, which Mr. Benatti is bidding for this week. He owns 42% of the Italian media company and Ms. Weber is a board member. Ironically, Mr. Benatti could remain tied to the man he describes as his former "friend and mentor" if No. 2 shareholder WPP doesn't tender its own 26% stake.
"I just hope that if WPP does end up being a major shareholder in FullSix that they don't attempt to be disruptive," he said.