Thursday, October 26, 2006

Acquiring (and Acquired) Minds Need to Know

It doesn’t matter whether you’re working in a small company or a large one, at one point or another during your career, there’s a more than zero chance that you’ll be involved on the giving or receiving end with an acquisition. And marketing is one area where an acquisition can wreak obvious havoc. That’s because our activities are likely the most visible and outward signs that “something” has happened.

A while back, I had a client that was acquired about six months into our relationship. My sponsor was pretty much the sole survivor of the old marketing team, and I can’t say that the acquirers made life very easy for him. What he got was continuous stop-start, go/no go, contradictory responses every time he asked for any clarification. As the acquisition approached its first anniversary, we lamented how little headway we’d made with “them.”

With the anniversary upon us, I couldn’t help wondering whether tin was the first anniversary “gift category”, as in tin ear. I know things always move more slowly than you like, but by this point, “we” should have a clear answer on logo, branding, product nomenclature, combined messaging and positioning, boilerplate, budget levels – and an idea about who’s responsible for what.

No such luck! My suspicion was that when it came to this acquisition, marketing had no seat at the table. At best, they had been at the “kids’ table”, not really privy to the conversations the grownups were having. So a year after the acquisition, they were still struggling to answer questions that should have been thought through months before.

A lot of the problems we were experiencing seemed to be on the acquiring side, but that may only have been because “our side” had been pretty well decimated. But the situation did get me thinking about acquirer/acquiree behaviors that could have improved the situation. So a bit of advice:

If you’ve been acquired, and you make it through any post-acquisition purge, don’t just sit around licking your wounds feeling bad for yourself that the company you know and love – and maybe even had a hand in building – is no longer in existence. Jump in. Try to find an “information ally” in the acquiring company. Try to make your ‘requests for information’ as specific as possible: not “what’s gonna happen?” – rather, “can I assume that this quarter’s budget is intact?” (Make sure “they” know what outcomes you’re expecting from any spend – “they” didn’t acquire you so that they could lose money, did they?) Don’t wait to be asked for what’s contractually committed and what’s under plan – make sure that you have this information at your fingertips.

Volunteer to take a stab at joint company positioning. See if you can get on the team that’s working things through. You may not have all that much authority – especially if your company has been a really small player – but you will at least have a sense of what’s going, and be able to put your ideas, or at minimum your questions and requests, on the table. Remember that you’re the expert on your products and markets, the repository of what worked and what didn’t, the one who knows what reference customers you can rely on.

There are no guarantees, of course. The acquiring company may want nothing more than your customer list and revenue stream. That may want you to just pick up your pink slip and go, and your company to fade into the sunset where all ‘used to be’ companies go. But it’s always better to be proactive than to sit around moaning and groaning, fearing the worst and lamenting the past.

If you’re the acquiring company, make sure that you have a roadmap – or at least a roadmap to develop your roadmap – on how the new acquisition will be brought into your fold from a marketing standpoint. Share what you’re planning – and what’s still up in the air - with the marketing folks at the company you’ve acquired. Develop an FAQ for marketing from the perspective of the company being acquired, throwing in everything you can think of – i.e., everything that would be on your mind if you were getting acquired. How do I do a PO? Is my budget still good? Will we still be exhibiting at next month’s trade show? Should we change our signage? What should we have on hand in the booth? Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes and keep the questions and answers coming.

Everyone will understand that things may not work out quite as planned, but at least they won’t feel like they’re being completely marginalized. And you’ll end up looking like the pros you are.

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