The First Meeting Between a Public Relations Agency Seller and Buyer

Art Stevens, Managing Partner, The Stevens Group

I had the good fortune of recently assembling and moderating a panel discussion on behalf of PRSA’s New York Chapter on the subject of “Why Should I Hire You?” The panel consisted of three agency CEOs: Edelman’s Richard Edelman, Finn Partners’ Peter Finn and Peppercomm’s Ed Moed.

The panel focused on the changing nature of public relations agency jobs and how technology and agency client goals affect the current skillset required by agency account people. The panel also focused on the agency-employee candidate interview process. In the past, an agency representative seeking to add to the staff would essentially read from a standard set of questions during the interview process:

  • “What was the role you played in the XYZ product launch?”
  • “Describe your years at ABC agency.”
  • “What do you consider to be your strong points?”

The First Meeting Between a Public Relations Agency Seller and BuyerThese questions aren’t really asked anymore. The interview process has more to do with the two parties connecting on both a visceral and social level. The discussions today focus more on outside interests, such as favorite movies, hobbies, opinions, attitudes and lifestyles. In fact, agencies welcome multiple questions on the part of the job candidate so that the process is no longer a one-way street.

I mention all this because the initial interview process between an agency principal seeking to sell his firm and a prospective buyer has become very similar to the initial interview between an agency job candidate and an agency manager. Although each participant will describe his or her business, vision and reasons for entering into such discussions, the conversations will quickly drift to the personal and social.

The reason for this is that a seller and buyer want to begin the process of making sure that they will get along after the signatures are affixed to purchase agreements. They want to be sure that they are compatible and comfortable with each other should a transaction be consummated.

In my travels through the world of PR agency mergers and acquisitions, I have always stressed the importance of establishing a positive working relationship between sellers and buyers. An acquisition is more than just about the money; it’s about establishing an environment for the seller and his or her employees that will empower and not diminish.

I always cite case studies where sellers got what they wanted out of a deal financially and then dreaded coming to work every day during the three-year earn-out period. Why? Because they began to hate the people they now worked for and rued the day they decided to accept the terms of the buyer.

This is why the initial “interview” process is so vital. It is the first step of a romance. There will be ample time to go into case studies and the like. But if there’s initial stress or an underlying current of discomfort, the chances are that the discussions won’t get very far.

The power of listening

I will never forget several instances where it became clear at the outset that the chemistry between a prospective seller and buyer could never work. In one instance, a buyer went on and on about his vast ranch, horses, personal wealth and penchant for total control over his business. The seller listened for a respectable while and finally said: “Would you mind if I leave now? I have no further interest in taking this discussion any further.” He got up and left. The buyer and I were left sitting with our jaws in our laps.

Another time, a seller tried so hard to impress the prospective buyer that he wound up carrying out the longest run-on sentence in business lunch history. He talked about everything under the sun and didn’t allow the buyer to say anything at all. The seller left all his food on the plate, as he had no time to chew his food, lest he miss a beat.

After the lunch, the buyer expressed deep disappointment. He was very interested in the seller’s firm, but realized that he could never work comfortably with him. So end of discussions.

If you’re a prospective seller, don’t shoot yourself in the foot during the course of the initial conversation. Don’t underestimate its importance either. It’s an interview: The buyer is sizing you up and determining if he wants to go to the next step. If you as a seller and are good at getting new business, then you’ve learned the true secret of impressing a new business prospect — listening.

The same rule of thumb applies to that very first meeting with a buyer. Listen, and then listen some more. Don’t hog the spotlight. Make that first discussion an equal opportunity situation. Make it light, tension-free and comfortable. If you do this, I can readily envision multiple additional meetings with a buyer and a transaction in your future.

As originally published on PRSA Public Relations Tactics.


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