Mergers: how do we avoid a culture clash?

I’ve just completed a merger that sees me takecontrol of an enlarged marketing group. My headoffice is in London and the deal gives us a national spread by adding a number of regionallocations. I wanted to integrate administration and accounts, align branding and work together to win new business, but there’s been a culture clash and I’m finding it hard to get the group topull together. How do I turn the situation around?

A. Sam Jordan writes:

Mergers are notoriously tricky and are particularly tough in this sector. Marketing agencies are often relatively small, close-knit organisations. The principles within the business, often owner-managers, have a strong personal influence on the type of people hired and the overall personality of the company. This adds up to strong and distinct organisational cultures. These are very important in deadline-driven, high-pressure environments that require active collaborations, but make integrating two or more businesses challenging.

Having seen similar deals both work and fail, I would advise treating any merger as you would if it were two individuals or two separate companies working together – ultimately, the same fundamental principles apply.

You need to trust each other, you need to be complementary to each other and you both need to benefit financially from the situation. All three of these factors need to exist and should be visible to your employees. If one of these doesn’t exist, it probably wasn’t a good idea to merge, and it will be impossible to establish the other two factors successfully.

To get people to trust each other, it’s preferable – but not essential – that they like each other. However, if you can effectively communicate the complementary skills and financial benefits, this will be your best foundation. You can’t force people to like each other, but you can create the right environment for it. The integration of teams is a good idea as it will help form new bonds not based on former allegiances. Once you do it, however, you need to encourage those bonds to form through both work and social activities.

It’s just as essential that the above factors are communicated well, so dedicate more of your time to staff, particularly new employees, and even more so the key social influencers. These will not always be the most senior people. You’ll obviously have a lot going on, but it’s imperative that you find the time. Be as open and honest as you can be and start engendering the trust you need from the top down.

In mergers there will be some inevitable casualties, so I’d suggest being up-front about this too, and taking decisions early. Eliminate uncertainty about people’s future employment one way or the other, so that the pain can be limited to as short a period as possible. Then you can move on and start building again.

Sam Jordan is managing director of Baber Smith, one of the UK’s fastest growing marketing agencies. He recently led the successful merger of three agencies.


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