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Compelling strategic reasons to sell - Paul Downes of Instictif Partners shares his view

08 Sep 2015 by Sarah Leembruggen.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background and career path to date?

I started out working for an excellent boutique firm, Lombard Communications, where I learned a lot and which enabled me to progress relatively quickly to a couple of the then largest international firms in our sector, namely Valin Pollen and Georgeson. Subsequently, in 1994, I co-founded Merlin, a consultancy that over the next 18 years became well regarded in the City as a specialist financial PR boutique.

In 2012, we sold Merlin to College Group, since rebranded as Instinctif Partners, which is today one of the largest and fastest growing international business communications consultancies. We have over 850 clients and some 450 people operating from 23 offices  in 13 countries, with particular strengths in Western Europe, Middle East, and Asia. We also have offices in New York and San Francisco and intend to increase our presence in North America significantly in the medium term.

Instinctif Partners is a private equity backed business wherein management and staff own just under half of it, which is a very important motivator. In my role, I am focused on new business development, especially on a cross-practice and international basis, including as Chairman of our European Board. I also advise a portfolio of clients and am very active in our investment bank and intermediary marketing, including in liaison with international colleagues in Asia and the Middle East as well as in Europe.

How did you make Merlin stand out in a crowded market place?

If I were to give a one-word answer, it would be ‘specialisation’.  We wanted to be seen clearly as an effective financial PR boutique. When you are part of a very crowded market place, it’s really important to have one thing that you are noted for – and for us that was financial PR. If you are going to do transaction work, the most competitive end of the market, you’ve got to be well regarded as a media consultant and manager, which means you’ve got to have great contacts and be able to get access at the most senior levels of the media. Ultimately, you’ve got to be able to engender debate which helps shape media perceptions in particular and which will have a major impact and influence on wider audiences. 

Naturally, we covered other fields too, such as sell-side analyst communications, corporate PR and crisis management when our clients needed us to do so. But specialisation in financial PR implicitly demands excellence in media relations, both as regards the associated strategic counsel and on implementation, and that principle remains the same within the Capital Markets operations of Instinctif Partners.

So why did you decide to sell?

We found that in the post-financial crash environment, many clients were re-basing their businesses to focus on faster growing international customer markets and they wanted an agency that could match that sort of reach. They also wanted us to be more directly connected to related disciplines, especially areas such as public policy and government relations as a result of the more highly regulated environment which was fast emerging across many business sectors after 2008, not limited to financial services. And the heightened importance of digital communication management also required broader resources and skills across content generation as well as monitoring, tracking and management. 

So we were acutely aware of these imperatives which led us to decide quite quickly that we needed to find the right strategic partner to be able to facilitate these needs and which could deliver the next level of opportunities and growth. Straightforwardly, we saw the breadth of relevant services and the international reach of Instinctif Partners as being a very compelling combination and platform which would enable us to provide the broader support that our clients needed. And over the past three years since joining the Group, that has proved to be correct.

What other factors underpinned the successful development of the consultancy?

We also had to evidence that we could deliver on our promises to clients. The execution aspects of consultancy are obviously critical to client satisfaction and therefore to any firm’s success and I think it is fair to say that we are well regarded for delivering on the strategies that we agree with our clients. If you can establish that in reputation terms, you will gain a natural momentum of new business interest and opportunities, and the good name effectively continues to build itself.

In underpinning it, we were also reasonably structured in our approach to sustaining awareness of and demonstrating the wider character of the firm and its team of people. We didn’t promote Merlin in an ostentatious way but, during the course of a year, by holding dinners and running other hospitality and discussion based events, culminating at the end of each year with a big Christmas party, we looked after our clients and intermediary contacts by “giving back” relevant networking opportunities and introductions.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the great team of people that worked with us. Over the years, we generally enjoyed a very low level of turnover which gave us stability and the means to build stronger client relationships. Our solid and highly capable team was integral to the successful development of the business.

What would be your number one tip for making a merger work?

Having a clear strategy and sticking to it. When you have decided upon a sale strategy, be formal about it – have a business plan and set some clear objectives, including a timetable. And write it all down!

Doing this allows you to think about how you want to grow the business, what kind of client base you want to develop and to check that you are doing what you set out to do at the beginning, while ensuring that you’re also doing things that would be attractive to an acquirer or an investor.

When it comes to making the merger work post-acquisition, a big priority has to be managing the culture change. We were blended into a much bigger business with a quite different culture and background and it was important on both sides to understand the differences and sensitivities. Ultimately, there has to be some give and take, especially in terms of ensuring the best aspects of both teams’ approaches are captured but also in determining and aligning the professional practice and management priorities.  Developing the culture and ethos is a constant work in progress for any firm, but it is especially so for a ‘people business’. We aren’t perfect and there have been some lessons learned, but the combined bigger business has moved forward substantially in the three years since the acquisition, so the strategy is working!

The Works specialise in placing high flyers in PR and corporate communications. We have a strong track record of placing with professional services and offer career-making advice. Do get in touch if you would like our support building your team.

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