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Matt Williams: The Engine Group deal – what employees really want from an acquisition

So we’re done and dusted. The Engine acquisition, I mean. Chances are you’ll have read about it over the past couple of weeks. And of course it’s taken a little longer – and generated a few more headlines – than most would have initially anticipated.

But news that the partnership with Lake Capital has now been approved by shareholders and will go live later this week was one that’s been greeted with rather a lot of excitement at 60 Great Portland Street, Engine HQ.
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I’m not here to speak on behalf of Engine as to why the deal has been done. I’ll leave that up to those far smarter and more in the know than I am. But I can tell you why it’s generated so much excitement throughout the company, not just for those who are now shareholders in the new Engine vehicle.

I suppose a lot of it comes from this not being your typical agency deal. For the usual merger, you’d read countless articles featuring network bosses and agency chiefs, who would all blather on about the ‘perfect fit,’ the ‘endless opportunities’ and the ‘huge potential’.

Yet deep down you know it all to be code. The network boss would really be saying: “Well they’ve won a couple of clients my current agencies don’t have, and I didn’t want a rival to own them,” whilst the agency heads would be doing all they could to stop themselves blurting out “have you SEEN how much they’re giving us!? T-minus 1,025 days until my earn-out.”

We’d all then spend week upon week analysing the deal. Financial experts, industry rivals and columnists would all have their say. What would the implications be? Where are the conflicts? How many times will said agency be merged in the next six months?

Speak to some of the employees of said agency and it’d be a bit of a different story. Not, you understand, necessarily negative or derisory, but one of far less drama.

Their reaction to the takeover would tend to take the form of a few basic questions: “Weren’t we owned by them anyway?” “Omnicom? Is that the one owned by that Sorrell guy?” “Does this mean we’re moving buildings? How far is their headquarters from Farringdon?”

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I’m over-exaggerating for effect here, but you get my drift…staff priorities are certainly quite different to those of the analysts, journalists and network chiefs looking for statements and hidden agendas.

What really interests employees hasn’t changed, and hopefully it never will. Quite simply, they just want to do brilliant work for great clients. They want to work in a great place full of talented and like-minded people. And they want to be paid fairly for doing so.

It’s not that people don’t have morals. Or that some couldn’t care where they worked as long as they got paid top dollar for doing so. But I’d suspect most people move agencies in order to work on more exciting accounts, to work on brands that give you the ability to do great work, to make your own decisions and work with the most entrepreneurial and creative leaders.

They don’t get into a creative industry to spend every single day huddled in the corner tweaking T&C’s for a multinational FMCG brand, just because the global network they work for is bending over backwards to keep hold of a big-dull-but-lucrative account.

They don’t want to work for an agency that looks the same as the one across the road, whose management will only invest when they’re told they’re allowed to. Who won’t fight for best-in-class on all fronts because it’s not cost effective.

And they certainly won’t want to work for a company that can’t make necessary changes for fear of rocking the boat. The type of company that has new leadership every year because it’s easy enough for a network to shift deckchairs as the solution to any problem.

I’m not simply network bashing for the sake of it, and I’m not saying that every network agency turns out like the above. Far from it.

But the thing that seems to have most excited those working on the day-to-day within Engine is that this feels far more like an investment than a takeover. It’s not about becoming a cog in a machine. We still get to sit in the driving seat.

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That sense of independence is important. It’s been in Engine’s DNA since the group’s birth, and it’s comforting as an employee when you know that those who launched the company with a particular vision still remain a decade on.

And much of that vision means expanding into new areas that complement the existing group, allowing things to grow organically, rather than bulking up on what already exists.

With this deal we don’t now have some sister agency in Los Angeles who does the same thing as we do (although that may be added later), we have a company in LA (Trailer Park, below) that brings production, content and entertainment marketing expertise. And in ORC (the other company to be brought into the fold by Lake Capital), we have a specialist research offering that those of us already at Engine can work with rather than secretly compete against.
Trailer Park

In short, this deal feels the right fit, not just for investors and shareholders, but for employees too. And I still – hopefully not naïvely – believe that in the long run that something that’s the right fit for employees is the right fit for a business.

Because sometimes no matter how good the PR bluster is, too often a deal in this industry brings with it unhealthy competition, overlapping of jobs, cost-cutting ‘resourcefulness’ and sometimes even redundancies. When really what you want is a platform for further growth, additions rather than replacements, and as little threat to the existing culture and approach that made that company interesting in the first place.

Hopefully that’s what we’re seeing with this Engine deal. Although I’m still not sure it’ll stop most of those working here at Great Portland Street trying to figure out ways of blagging a year’s work experience with Trailer Park in our new Hollywood office…

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About Matt Williams

Matt Williams
Matt Williams is head of content at Partners Andrews Aldridge.
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