By Lisa Lacy, contributing writer, CMO.com
Deals such as Disney’s 2006 acquisition of Pixar, Microsoft’s 2011 purchase of Skype, and Facebook’s 2012 Instagram buy have gone down in history as arguably some of the biggest–and most successful–sales of all time. Others, unfortunately, don’t go as smoothly–even long before they close.
With 2017 expected to be a big year for marketing and media M&A activity, it’s a prime time to ask what separates good deals from bad.
“It’s all about making sure you understand how each company works and making sure the change is gradual,” said Adam Brown, senior SEO consultant at content marketing agency Zazzle Media. “It’s a must to make sure both companies are working toward the same goals, as collaboration can be difficult if goals are not the same.”
Beyond recognizing that gradual changes take time, how can senior marketing executives ensure the successful integration of teams when combining companies? Insiders shared 11 best practices with CMO.com for doing so.
1. Create An Integration Team
A crucial early step is appointing an integration team lead by members of the legacy organization and assigning responsibility for discrete functions. In terms of marketing, specifically, that includes functions like marketing automation, product marketing, competitive intelligence, and campaign strategy, said Armen Najarian, CMO of security technology company ThreatMetrix.
“Allow these integration owners to map out the current situation and identify what the desired integration scenario should look like,” he said. “It’s important to develop realistic timelines and assume that some flexibility will be needed.”
Suzanne Lentz, vice president of marketing and a partner at customer engagement company LiquidHub, agreed a multidisciplinary integration team can help a company deal with the disruption that comes naturally with M&A.
“Most customers and employees on both sides of a deal fear that this disruption will negatively impact them, with changing locations, new businesses, and leadership models all potentially affecting brand and market perception,” she said. “One of the best ways for CMOs to ensure success is to embrace this disruption. … [An] integration team … [should ensure] that every action is considered in light of internal and external messaging and perception.”
An integration team must also outline what success means early on, said Kevin Knight, CMO of Experticity, which operates a community that connects brands and influencers.
“I believe a successful acquisition is one where the incoming team is able to catch the vision of the company they’re joining–and instill in the employees an enthusiasm for what they were working on before,” he added. “Ultimately, I think the success of an acquisition can be measured in the ability of the combining teams to cross-pollinate ideas, curiosity, and passion in a way that leaves the combined company with a new DNA.”
2. Demonstrate Sensitivity And Composure
An important factor that’s often overlooked in M&As is people and culture, said Anne Bologna, chief strategy officer at digital marketing agency iCrossing.
“Merger and acquisition activity is often conceived and executed for rational business reasons–but reality hits the road when real people and teams have to start working together to generate the growth and profit promise that instigated the marriage in the first place,” she said. “Smart CMOs are the ones that overindex on the soft factors–people, culture, fit–in activating what is generally an arranged marriage.”
That said, Najarian recommended the acquired company relax a bit, too.
“Know that [they] acquired your organization because it’s likely addressing a need that [they] have,” he said. “Your team may be the final piece of the puzzle for their plans, so view this as an opportunity to partner with your new CMO to make this a joint success.”
3. Thoughtfully Blend Cultures
In addition, never assume the company being acquired will automatically inherit the parent company’s culture and values, said Catherine LaCour, senior vice president of corporate marketing at nonprofit software and services company Blackbaud.
“Mismatched cultures is one of the leading reasons why acquisitions fail. Spend time learning about each other’s culture and values,” she said. “Work to discover the aspects of their culture you can absorb into your culture. This is a crucial step to successfully integrate and bring their employees into your fold. Then, integrate those pieces into your stated corporate values. Once your values are restated, spend adequate time training employees on these values.”
Indeed, according to Agathe Blanchon-Ehrsam, CMO of growth strategy firm Vivaldi, a company should create a shared mindset, language, and way of working by translating a brand’s strategy and values into practical knowledge, tools, and skills and defining processes that can be incorporated into day-to-day work.
4. Allow Time To Settle In
Further, acknowledging the human element and allowing the necessary time and space for people to settle in is important, yet easy to overlook, said Melinda McLaughlin, CMO of Extreme Reach, an enterprise technology company.
“Most people don’t like change,” McLaughlin said. “Clear assignments and collaborative projects that rely on contributions from members of the formerly separate teams can speed the process of bringing them together. … If infighting arises, do your best to nip it in the bud and seek guidance from a seasoned HR colleague. Success depends on a unified team.”
5. Conduct A Skills Gap Analysis
Also, consider not only the role each person most recently played, but how he can best fit into the needs of the newly combined group, McLaughlin added.
“You may be able to tap into strong skills that haven’t been fully utilized,” she said. “Considering people first and team second ensures that everyone starts off on equal footing.”
This calls for a skills gap analysis to identify what the combined organization needs and how each employee can fill those needs, according to Bruce Milne, CMO of hyperconverged infrastructure company Pivot3.
“You’ve got a new team, so take advantage of the opportunity to tap into new skills, energy, and perspectives,” McLaughlin said. “Not every team member will be motivated by the same things, so tune in to that and trust your intuition to guide you. Setting clear expectations and defining success from the outset are critical, as are open and authentic dialogue and knowledge sharing.”
But it also means looking at the management team of the acquired company to see who will fit best with existing management, Milne added. And, ThreatMetrix’s Najarian said, if the CMO’s goal is to preserve talent from the acquired organization, she should promote one or more from the acquired team into visible roles and allow these people to shine.
6. Do What Is Necessary–Even The Hard Stuff
When it comes to overlap, iCrossing’s Bologna said to make the hard decisions on leadership, team, and talent and to be sure to drive out conflicting agendas early.
McLaughlin agreed. “Set everyone up to succeed in every way you can, but commit to making changes quickly if necessary should your gut tell you that a person is not likely to be a true team player in the new reality,” she said. “In the end, you’re still with the same company, but you actually have a new role, and that’s the best way to approach it. Clean the slate and look at this team anew.”
“I like to give them a platform to talk about their own personal growth goals and career goals and what they’d like to see different,” he said. “If you give them an ear, they feel like they’re participating in the planning of the business. Oftentimes when they are acquired, they feel like an add-on and don’t get direct visibility to the planning cycle.”
Further, Blackbaud’s LaCour said to continue to build relationships between both companies as time goes on.
“For example, leaders from different parts of the organization should speak with other departments to help educate them on the process, the value their organization brings, and how employees will be impacted,” she added.
On the flip side of listening, and just as important: A good leader will also overcommunicate.
“My own experience has shown me that taking the time to connect individually with each member of the newly acquired team to understand his or her marketing experience, skill set, and career aspirations is time well-spent,” Extreme Reach’s McLaughlin said. “Even brief meetings can reveal a lot about how each person is approaching the new structure.”
Within the marketing department specifically, Milne said communication helps everyone understand philosophy and priorities. That, in turn, helps those people coming in to the organization “get with the program and start helping,” he added. “So communicate a lot, set super clear goals, and then evaluate progress and measure those goals as you go.”
8. Ease Into Operational Changes
The acquiring company should be sensitive to the fact that specific tools, systems, and processes were established by the acquired entity, and the team members who are joining the organization are familiar and possibly happy with them, ThreatMetrix’s Najarian said.
“For example, a wholesale rip [and] replace of the acquired company’s marketing automation platform could be both highly disruptive and demoralizing,” he said. “If what they’re using isn’t beneficial, create a reasonable timeframe for grandfathering it out of use.”
On the flip side, Pivot3’s Milne said companies that are acquired shouldn’t assume their new parent wants to steamroll everything they accomplished and to, instead, be open-minded and see how they can contribute to the overall good.
“Don’t think of yourself as an island, and don’t be resistant to change,” he said. “Work with the new marketing team and figure out how to bring the teams together. Nobody likes change, and being mature about change is tough, but it’s always the best policy.”
Ramon Chen, CMO of data-driven application company Reltio, agreed M&As can quickly escalate into what he called highly politically charged situations in which teams are defensive and want to protect their own territory.
“It is often natural to take things personally and feel that hard work is being minimized and dismissed,” he said. “The most important thing to instill in all teams is that the focus should always be on the customer.”
Indeed, Experticity’s Knight said the key word of any acquisition is humility.
“The most important thing the CMO being acquired can do is remain a leader,” he added. “A good leader will shepherd her or his team through without letting themselves get caught up in the drama.”
9. Use Data
For his part, Chen recommended a data-driven approach so CMOs better understand the performance, efficiencies, and goals of their combined teams and determine the best path forward.
“CMOs should not fly blind without the appropriate data to inform decisions that need to be made on people, processes, and technology,” he said. “It should not be assumed that the acquiring company’s team and assets should just fit into the framework that exists. Every acquisition is an opportunity to look at revisiting existing processes, [learning] about new ideas and methods, and [bringing] in fresh talent that can help take the company to the next level.”
LiquidHub’s Lentz agreed that CMOs should tap into both qualitative and quantitative data that support long- and short-term goals.
“Using data to quantify a change of this magnitude will help ease the transition period since it will show employees that the combined company is more qualified and uniquely positioned to better serve clients’ needs,” she said.
10. Align Strategies
iCrossing’s Bologna recommended taking the time to get senior leaders to align on mission, vision, goals, KPIs, and team, as well as to pause to understand what made the acquired company successful.
“Protect and preserve that like it is gold, but also learn from it and apply what’s relevant to the rest of the organization,” she said.
And, of course, teams must understand how new products and services fit into their pre-existing portfolios.
“New products and services will affect how you position the company, the markets you serve, and the language you use,” Blackbaud’s LaCour said. “Make sure you train all employees to fully understand the changes and what they mean to your customers.”
It also includes aligning social and digital go-to-market strategies and considering how the deal will impact pricing, promotion, products, and placement, she added.
11. Analyze The Competition
Also worth noting: An acquisition means a company also acquires new competitors, costs, and risks.
“Consider a SWOT analysis to better understand the competitive landscape and how it will [impact] your messaging and positioning for the fully integrated company,” LaCour said.
Zack Long, CMO of sports travel and event management company PrimeSport, agreed.
“The merging teams must find shared strengths and weaknesses and utilize the expanded organization to fill those gaps and develop best practices,” he said. “It sounds very academic, but the tried-and-true SWOT analysis works well here. You need to approach this process with honesty and make sure the real story is revealed, but the result when successful will guide your action plan moving forward.”