Here with very limited time we try and grab a few wise words and Tom’s take on the challenges other agencies may face as they head down a similar path.
AS: I can only imagine that there must have been quite a celebration when Foolproof was acquired 18 months ago?
TW: Celebration is one thing we did! The M&A process was really tiring, long and complicated for everyone involved. Of course, we celebrated but in the immediate aftermath we needed to get our team up to speed as quickly as we could – why we have done this, who these people are, why we think it’s a good fit, what will happen now. Essentially – don’t worry! Because we were being acquired by a PLC we’d had to be very secretive with the team during the build-up to the deal, which was an uncomfortable period- I didn’t like that! It was a relief that finally we could talk to everybody.
AS: No one gets acquired without a pretty healthy looking new business pipeline. Can you share any tips on that front?
TW: We have and do win big pitches, but they aren’t the most fundamental part of our business development strategy. Most of our big clients we started by not winning an exclusive relationship to provide all of the services in the area of design. In the early years I don’t think a big pitch would have been right for us. You’re up against people with more resources and that’s a hard game to win. Getting in on a project and then spreading out is more viable. Of course, when you are in a pitch situation and you’re up against someone else, it’s all about picking your battles!
AS: You’ve also twice grown your team and global footprint via acquisitions. How did those opportunities come to your attention?
TW: Both times they were because of meeting people. I’m a big advocate of being part of networks. A piece of advice I received early on was to be a friend to the industry you are in. Don’t get me wrong, particularly if you’re an agency in the early years, every other agency in the world seems like the enemy because they are trying to beat you to that brief. You’ve got to be on point and on message and better than them if you want a piece of work, that’s correct. But equally, you might be surprised how open people in other agencies are to share and be helpful – especially if you are helpful to them. There are all kinds of possibilities that come out of being open and engaged with other companies in your field. A couple of times that led to conversations about buying a business.
AS: Your first acquisition was to take Foolproof from being a design consultancy to a fully-fledged studio design business. Before going down the expensive route of acquisition, did you try and organically build those capabilities yourselves?
TW: We could have done but we told ourselves, we’ve already got a world class reputation for user research and UX consultancy, but if you hire 2 designers that’s not a world class offering. You’re going in to a client who sees you as having a high value and selling services that potentially you’re not very capable of executing very well. There were other capabilities that we built out in that more organic way. But where we were fundamentally trying to shift the focus of the company it felt like the only way to do it was through acquisition.
AS: Surely one of the worries when acquiring another agency is the risk of staff not sticking around?
TW: Of course you want people to stick around, however if it’s really not for them, they’ll vote with their feet, and that’s ok. There are other assets you’re buying too: clients, and reputation (the ability to validate the claims you’re making about your capabilities.) You buy contracts of employment, but you can’t buy people.
AS: Have you got any advice on engaging a large team and ensuring you keep those people you want to?
TW: People really do need to know what the bus is and where it’s going.
AS: The bus?!
TW: Every year we’ll get everyone together to share where we are, where we think we need to go, and how that relates to the things we’re going to try and do over the next 3-5 years. We’ll talk about the things we’ve not got right yet, the things that we need to carry on working on, and share the new stuff we’re going to do.
And then we keep talking about these things regularly because it allows people to say right “I know what the bus is, and I know where it’s going.” As opposed to “why are these idiots not doing this thing that I think they should do” because they’ll understand why that’s not our priority at the moment.
It’s giving people the information that allows them to say whether they want to be here or not.
And then beyond staff engagement, having a business strategy alerts you to what is happening in the market place you and the risks you are exposed to if your company stays exactly the same.
AS: We’re almost out of time! Quick-fire, one thing you’re proud of?
TW: Broadly speaking everything we have achieved has been achieved between about 8.30-6.30 Monday to Friday. I’m quite proud of that.
AS: Lastly, where’s the Foolproof bus headed over the next year or two?
TW: We got what we wished for and are now part of a global technology group and that gives us the ability to offer more sophisticated services and technology, to deliver better, and potentially to look for more opportunities globally. North America is where the biggest opportunities would potentially be for us, so I really want to get on with that.