How to make your agency fit for acquisition

Partners at Green Square, Corporate Finance Advisors to the media and marketing sector, cast their eyes over the latest industry deals and look ahead to the next tranche of acquisitions.

As a Chelsea fan, the recent Carabao Cup final was one to forget – the first shot on target wasn't until the 43rd minute, 0 – 0 after full time and extra time, ultimately dumped in a penalty shoot-out. But arguably the biggest talking point came from a brief and extraordinary period when the Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga defied his manager Maurizio Sarri, refusing to be substituted for specialist penalty saver Willy Caballero.

Arrizabalaga stayed on the pitch, while Sarri blew his top, and was held back from confronting him. Later, they both said that the situation was a misunderstanding. Whether this was true, or a face-saving exercise is not really the point. But it got me thinking …. how could it have ever come to this? Would this farcical situation have ever happened at Chelsea’s opponents that afternoon, Manchester City? As soon as full-time came I watched the City players, coaches, manager, other support staff all get into a tight huddle near the centre spot. They were tight. Chelsea meanwhile seemed to be in a dispersed daze.

As anyone who’s seen Amazon’s documentary on Man City, All Or Nothing, will tell you, their manager Pep Guardiola is a man with a plan, and an eye for detail to match. He would have ensured that every player knew exactly where they had to be and what they had to do – including in the event of extra time or a penalty shootout.

Pep, you see, is a fellow who has his house well in order, and that’s part of the secret of his success.

The same applies to any business that’s looking to leap from the lower leagues into the big time, or perhaps seeking a partner or acquirer to take them there.

When we begin our journey with a new client it normally begins with an Ascension Day – this covers the whole spectrum from the very basic house-keeping to the grand plan and road map to get there.

So the first rule is, know what it is you’re supposed to be doing, who you’re doing it for, how you’re going to do it and why – what’s your proposition and why will someone want to buy that just from you. This is way more important than the Shoreditch offices, the flat whites, beanbags, pool table and shiny new Macs – all things too many businesses concentrate on too much, often to cover up the un-exciting offer that sits behind it all.

Then you have to make sure everyone you’re working with – creative, suits, strategists, data bods, CRM experts, production people – knows and understands this too. And that they buy into it, are genuinely excited about it and will do whatever it takes.

This is what Pep has done so successfully with his team. Everyone has bought into his vision, method and strategy, from the boot boys to the groundsmen and the catering team to the players and fans and crucially those above him. They have bought into it and understand where they fit in and what is expected of them to achieve success.

This is why City – and I’m not a supporter as you know – are so good, and why defeats or dips in form do not faze them. They’re prepared. If you are, losing an account, a pitch, a key member of staff, a particularly tricky brief won’t faze you either.

So plan ahead, be ready for any eventuality that you can think of and make sure everyone understands what they’re supposed to be doing, when they’re supposed to be doing it, how and why; a winning mentality.

Another crucial part of putting your house in order is understanding your place in the world.

Smaller or startup businesses have traditionally – notions of nimbleness and hipness aside – been at a disadvantage to their bigger matured cousins, because they’re seen to lack the scale that big global brands demand; they certainly lack the resources, human or otherwise, to compete on a level playing field.

If your analysis of your competitive landscape reveals that you won’t for the moment be competing with the giants, then all well and good. So, who do you compete with? And can you co-exist, or will it be a competitive fight to the death?

And what can you do with the resources you have? Over-promising, not meeting deadlines and the like can be fatal. Will you have to hire in extra talent? The so-called “Hollywood model” – having a small core team and drawing on a wider pool of outside or freelance talent – is becoming increasingly popular. It’s interesting to note that one of the smartest and most successful agencies of recent times, R/GA, came out of the film industry before being snapped up by IPG. Despite having 2,000 employees on its books, it still draws on outside help, whether that’s collaborating with other experts or ‘hiring in’ individual talent.

Next, and a related point, decide whether you’re a generalist or a specialist. Five hundred years ago, a very good scientist might, over a lifetime, be able to understand the entire sum of human scientific knowledge up to that point. Nowadays, it’s impossible for a theoretical physicist, geneticist or cosmologist to know everything in their own chosen discipline – so they have to specialise.

Similarly, nowadays, it is very hard for all but the biggest businesses to do everything for a client. Far better to do one or a few things, even if it’s looking quite niche, extraordinarily well rather than overstretch yourself.

And if you want to do more, you will have to invest. You can’t do this on the fly, put up a facade and hope no one looks behind it. Guardiola will have a transfer budget, and will work out how he wants to spend it long before the contract is signed. His bosses will be aware of what he wants to do, and he’ll have convinced them of his targets’ merits, how they will improve the team. You’ll need to do something similar, perhaps just within your own existing resources as opposed to investors or banks, but it needs to be done well.

You’ll also need to constantly evaluate your methods and processes, and be hard on yourself. In an industry being ripped apart by disruption, you’ll need to be a disruptor of yourself in order to survive and thrive. What intellectual property do you hold – this could be software and systems based, it could be processes, methodologies, data, freelance resource databases.

Even when his team have won, Pep looks constantly at the performance: what could have been better executed? Where are our weak spots? What dangers and opportunities await us in the next match?

Just as Pep and co continually evaluate players’ fitness, performances and attitudes, and endlessly re-watch past matches, you’ll need to do the same – constantly review your creds (with outside help if need be), carry out pitch post-mortems or reviews and revisit your positioning in the competitive set.

This last point is incredibly important – a positioning within a disrupted market or industry is never static as the environment is itself in a state of flux. And again, this involves being aware of one’s surroundings at all times. After all, if you can’t create your positioning for yourself, how can you expect clients to trust you to be able to do it for them?

To return again to the football analogy, every player in a good team knows where they must be at any given time. This has all manner of implications, particularly when you’re after new business.

I remember back in the late noughties, there was an agency that kept winning new business pitch after new business pitch. Their sister agency, which was housed in the same building, kept losing the pitches it went after. Why was this, I wondered?

The boss of the successful shop told me: pitches were rigorously researched, practised, rewritten and rehearsed again – as were presentations. She made sure her team knew more about the client than the client did. And other agencies in the process (if known) were studied for strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, every single person in the room with the client on the big day knew what they had to do and say, and when. Crucially, she also always ensured that there was talent in reserve to keep the rest of the agency running smoothly and to ensure that existing clients enjoyed high levels of service and creative.

The other agency’s pitches and presentations were by all accounts sometimes chaotic and unfocused, even though the creative ideas may often have been spot on – it was excused as being ‘dynamic’, ‘free-willed’, ‘highly innovative’, ‘not prescriptive’. All things that the successful shop’s chief executive almost certainly created the environment for.

The successful agency had a continual run of success… because they had their house in order.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that for all the glories of their 2017/18 season, Manchester City didn’t appear out of nowhere. Despite his stellar record at other clubs, Guardiola was forced to learn lessons from a transitional first season (2016/17) that many felt was a relative disappointment given the expectations that accompanied his arrival.

But learn from that first season he did, and it has been pretty much all upward from there. City won’t always have everything their own way of course, but for the time being they look like a team that has its house well in order – and as a result they look like champions – this season and moving forward. That was a hard thing to say from a Chelsea fan, but credit where it's due…

Barry Dudley is a partner at M&A advisory Green Square

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