M&A: The Challenge Of Combining Agency Cultures

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, February 15, 2017

Mergers and acquisitions are nothing new to the marketing world. In addition to the likes of failed billion-dollar marriages between major players like Omnicom and Publicis, countless smaller deals are brokered on a routine basis. 

The marketing technology sector alone saw 72 M&A events in the first quarter of 2016. While the financial aspects of these deals can be murky, the merging companies face a much greater challenge once the ink has dried on the paperwork: combining cultures. 

Our agency is no stranger to the difficulty of mergers. Three years ago, Sandbox didn’t exist; we now have 400 employees spread across seven locations. We didn’t start from scratch, though—we built our company on the foundation of five established agencies, combining their rich cultures in the process.   

We knew blending these individual agencies would be a challenge. There was no precedent for us to follow. Each agency brought unique traditions and worldviews to the new organization; we had to accommodate these diverse perspectives while creating a cohesive work environment. 



Rather than force each agency to abandon its quirks and traditions, we preserved the best elements of each. We used these attributes to build a fresh, inclusive culture that reflected our shared values. 

But there can be barriers to cohesion. Well-intentioned leaders sometimes fail to integrate their teams because they’re unprepared for obstacles that pop up along the way. 

For one thing, mergers force leaders to deal with a variety of egos with conflicting viewpoints. That in itself is a challenge. Agency owners rightfully take great pride in the cultures they’ve built. Culture is a critical factor of an agency’s success, so leaders logically want to protect this aspect of their companies. 

It’s easy to overlook this during an acquisition, with the leaders of the acquiring company typically attempting to force their way of doing things on agencies they’ve purchased. They might think launching “fun committees” and task forces will compel employees to adopt the desired mindset. It’s a losing proposition. 

Whether you’re combining two cultures or five, people need time to adjust. Plopping a ping-pong table in your break room doesn’t exactly fast-track cultural cohesion. You can’t manufacture a culture — it evolves from the people and attitudes behind an agency. 

When that environment changes, so does the culture. But it can be reflective and adaptable if everyone has a chance to grow into the new circumstances. 

Our agency is built on the premise of partnership, which follows the golden rule of improvisational comedy: the “Yes, and...” approach. This structure requires team members to meet change with a positive, collaborative outlook. 

Here’s how to foster cultural harmony, whether it’s during a merger or while integrating with a client’s environment: 

Embrace collaboration. Employees are happiest when they get along with their co-workers. Not only are they more likely to stay with the organization, but they’re also more motivated and productive. Collaboration enables people to get to know one another and encourages team members to share resources. Agencies that leverage the collective knowledge of their workers benefit from new ideas and innovations. 

Be willing to accommodate new ideas. Acquirers sometimes become stuck in their ways, not making room for other perspectives. This approach alienates workers, making them less likely to offer insights that could generate value for the organization. Strong leaders create forums for people to share their thoughts and pursue good ideas, regardless of whether they deviate from standard processes. Organizations that update their assumptions as they gain new workers and data are best equipped to compete in their markets. 

Encourage agency-wide contributions. Employee buy-in is essential to a successful merger. Agency leaders should operate on the principle that everyone is necessary and all team members have something valuable to add. Leaders would be wise to break down silos for the sake of collaboration. 

Collaborative cultures help agencies thrive. Free from the shackles of negativity and petty politics, workers can pool their knowledge and resources to achieve incredible results. If you find yourself merging cultures, don’t resist as much as engage and challenge everyone to create a healthy, dynamic ecosystem that allows previously disparate entities to flourish as one.

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