Q&A: INVNT co-founder on enduring a company (re)acquisition

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INVNT's CEO and co-founder talks about the effect of the agency's acquisition and its sudden resale.

The Drum Network caught up with INVNT's co-founder and CEO Scott Cullather to discuss his initial ideas for launching the agency, Time. Inc acquiring INVNT - followed by subsequently reselling it - and the main bits of advice he's learnt from the whole process.

What prompted you to establish the agency in the first place?

Kristina McCoobery – who is also our COO – and I launched INVNT because we wanted to shake up the live event industry with a new kind of agency model, attitude, culture and results-driven approach to live brand storytelling™. We are both passionate storytellers and recognised that there was an unmet need in our industry, which had started to feel a bit uninventive, for this kind of service and expertise.

INVNT started out as a scrappy start-up – we went out and pitched these really creative, out-of-this-world ideas to clients as a means of challenging their expectations and differentiating ourselves from our competitors – many of whom were much bigger, more established agencies. Our challenge everything battle cry and positioning came off the back of this, and it still shapes our approach to this day.

What considerations led you to sell the agency to Time Inc. in 2015?

We weren’t looking to sell the business; Time Inc. approached us. Their CEO at the time wanted to create new revenue streams to offset the decline of print and saw the potential in live. He believed that creating events for flagship titles such as People, Entertainment Weekly and TIME was one tactic the company could employ to increase its profit margins.

We were told we would be providing strategic relevancy to these titles, and Time Inc. was also willing to allow us to continue to operate independently and maintain our challenger mentality, which appealed to us.

Why didn’t that alliance ultimately work out?

There was a complete change in leadership during our time there, and a number of key stakeholders involved in INVNT’s acquisition departed the business. Their replacements did not have the same belief in the power of live events, and so we approached Time Inc. with a buy-back proposition in early 2017.

What were the biggest challenges, mental and actual, to re-acquiring the agency?

Our biggest challenge was in finding a balance between continuing to run the agency day-to-day and devoting enough time, energy and focus into re-acquiring the business. It was almost as though we had our day jobs, and then worked on our secondary jobs at night.

The mental challenge was knowing that we had convinced an incredibly passionate, loyal group of people – our employees and clients – to stick with us as we embarked on this new journey with Time Inc., and encouraging them to remain with INVNT as we became independent again. There was a lot of uncertainty around whether they would continue to believe in us and what we stand for, but luckily, they did.

How did you manage employee and client relations during this period?

We strived to be as transparent as we could with both our employees and clients, keeping them updated on developments – where we were legally able to. The approach proved successful with the majority of our employees remaining with us, and we didn’t lose one client, which is testament to our team.

What tips can you offer others facing a similar situation?

There are six key pieces of advice I’d offer others:

  • Seek out expert advisors. They will work on securing the best deal for you and your company, and ensure that negotiations don’t consume you, so that you can focus on building and growing your business. That way when you do buy it back, it will be worth its value.
  • Identify your non-negotiables. Including your number (stay firm and don’t back away from it) and make these the focus of discussions early on. Devote your time and energy to the less essential – but nevertheless still important items – after that.
  • Maintain your professionalism. This is easier said than done, especially when, like us, you’re the founders of your business, but it’s important to remain composed and not let emotions cloud your judgement.
  • Control the message. No matter how confidential the negotiations are, chances are information about the deal will leak. Be prepared – create a robust internal and external communications plan and implement it where appropriate.
  • Celebrate. Once the acquisition process is complete, you will reflect on it as one of the most rewarding experiences of your career. Share that excitement and enthusiasm with your team.
  • Re-set. Now the company is yours again, it’s time to take a step back and consider the changes that need to be made in order to ensure future growth and success. This might involve restructuring, diversifying your service offering, or taking a look at your staff and the value they bring to the table. Don’t be afraid to make any necessary changes – change equates to progress.

You’ve just had a record-breaking quarter – what are the factors behind that? Do you see that as a vindication of your decision to re-acquire the agency?

INVNT’s growth is due to three key factors:

  1. Our ability to develop compelling live brand stories for our clients that are on message yet disruptive and create real impact. These experiences physically connect the mind and body to a brand, allowing audiences to see, feel, hear, touch and even smell their products and services in wholly immersive environments.
  2. The dramatic increase in the strategic relevance of live events for brands and consumers around the world. Events are now a vital part of the marketing mix as more and more brands come to recognise the power of stories that are delivered live and in the moment.
  3. The development of a global team of INVNTrs, who now operate across eight offices, five countries and four continents. This structure enables us to create consistent messaging for our clients’ events, which is then tweaked by our teams in each respective location. They live and breathe the local culture, which ensures the experiences are on brand yet also strike a chord with audiences in these various parts of the world.

What are the business priorities moving forward?

We want to be able to provide our clients with end-to-end solutions wherever in the world they are. We are focused on building out our storytelling capabilities in strategic areas in particular – one example of this is the recent launch of our content studio, HEVĒ, which specialises in award-winning storytelling brought together for the first time with the latest in predictive analytics. With HEVĒ, we’re now able to create more holistic campaigns that encompass both live events and branded content. There are also plans to continue to strengthen our global infrastructure and recruit the best talent, so that we’re expertly equipped to service our clients across the globe.

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