The secrets of building an integrated agency

I recently caught up with Jeremy Sice, ex CEO, MSLGROUP London, to talk about the lessons he has learnt from leading the integration of a PR firm (MSL), the digital agency SAS and Publicis Consultants (the ad agency.)

Jeremy talked to me about the issues that he had encountered while integrating the agencies but which he felt had now been overcome.

Ben Smith: Jeremy, lets deal with the elephant in the room up front – why have you recently left your role at MSL?

Jeremy Sice: I started SAS (the agency that Publicis bought) 25 years ago and 25 years was always a time that I set myself to make a change, to do something different.

Also, at heart, I’m an entrepreneur. I have lots of positive energy to lead the merging of three businesses together. I was never going to be the guy to lead the new integrated business. That requires new leaders, with a different skill set to me.

BS: So the integration phase of the integration agency was done and at that point you decided to get off the bus. What are you up to next?

JS: Exactly, as I said I’m an entrepreneur at heart. In the immediate term – in a couple of weeks I’m travelling to China with my son.

BS: MSL, SAS and Publicis Consultants were merged together roughly three years ago. No doubt there were some key changes you made, but first of all I just want to talk about those little subtle things that make a difference or that were an unexpected hurdle to creating an integrated agency.

JS: There are an immense amount of similarities between the disciplines. However, one of the little things that made a big difference was language. At times it was like people were speaking French and Italian, they had a different language for the same thing and it takes quite a while for people to say “oh, when you say that you mean that!”

So for example, a studio and a creative team are exactly the same thing, but people see them as completely different. There are lots of processes and language that absolutely get in the way of being able to go in the right direction.

There’s also the issue of who owns what from a process – who’s to say one person’s method of a briefing approach is better than another person’s method of briefing?

You have to create an environment whereby people are open to change. It doesn’t matter what something’s called, it doesn’t matter who earns X or Y, all that matter is that it’s the right process.

So processes, systems and language can trip you up. And jobs titles actually. People have different jobs titles for exactly the same roles.

BS: But when those things happen, how can you get people on side? It’s easy in a small organisation but in a big one it’s much more difficult.

JS: How I did it was to be myself. Be honest and straightforward with people. You have to build trust. You have to show people you’re backing that and you have to be truthful.

It was really important that people understood that all I was interested in was getting to a situation of collective success. I didn’t mind where something came from – it didn’t matter.

As a leader you can hide behind your title – I’m the person at the top and it’s going to happen this way. It’s not about that – as a leader, in my mind, people have got to trust you and respect you.

BS: So it’s a democracy?

JS: I’d describe it more as a theme but in any theme at certain times the captain has to say “it’s that one.”

It’s a lot about listening to people. You hope it’s going to go a certain way based on your experience and intuition and it usually would flow that way but the alternative is to say to people it’s this, this and this – but you’ll lose them and disempower them.

BS: And you’re on a learning curve as well right? So you’re not pretending to have all the answers?

JS: Completely. Completely. It’s like being a new parent, you think when you’re a child, you think that your parents know everything and then you realise when you’re in the position you know absolutely nothing at all!

I don’t pretend to know all the answers but it was my job to get the best solution. It’s not a democracy because you won’t get there quickly enough.

It has to be an environment to listen. I did a lot of listening lunches where I answered any questions honestly. And I would spend a lot of time with people. That meant if I had to make a tough decision – people would at least respect and understand where I was coming from.

BS: Any other things that can trip you up?

JS: Another trend was the jam tomorrow syndrome. We are in the communications industry – people are very good at creating a narrative. What you’d often deal with was people playing that narrative internally. So you were told they’d win a job and it would bring in £200K but it would never come through. It would always be less. That bit about saying you’re a really good comms person but save it for the outside would – because all we’re doing is kidding ourselves here. You have to deal with certainty.

One other thing was understanding people’s insecurities. In times of change people feel under the spot light. And it’s very easy for people to get into land grab situations, people try and own every success. One of the things I wanted people to understand was don’t feel that spotlight is on you, actually that spotlight is on all of us. So don’t try and land grab because you will get found out.

BS: In practical terms how does it all work? The theory of the integrated agency is simple – we all get it. But in practical terms when a client rings you up and says I’ve got this brief – what happens?

JS: That’s one of the key things. The most important thing is assembling the right team. The ring master approach.

BS: That’s exactly the same approach that’s always been done though isn’t it? Be it a PR firm or an ad agency.

JS: The difference is that you’ve got to respect the knowledge that different people bring – be that PR, design, creative. Those people behave very differently and they have different motivations. So the aspect of forming the right team is easier if you’re in a single discipline agency, you just grab that skill with that experience. When you’re bringing different disciplines together it’s a much more complicated thing. That’s why creating trust and shared agendas are so important because you’ve got to respect that people do have different motivations of why they joined those industries.

BS: I guess the other element of this is that at the start these people were strangers. So they had to get to know each other?

JS: I created an environment that people got to know each other, got to trust each other. We spent a lot of time doing continual knowledge sharing and boot camp sessions. You’ve got to like, respect and rate people. If someone likes, respects and rates a colleague you stand a chance. If they just like someone but don’t respect them – you’re not going to get anywhere.

BS: What’s the most difficult thing about integrating an agency?

JS: I’d start by asking how many true integrated agencies exist. And the reason it’s so difficult is because of the historical agency bias. But the other really difficult thing is that you are being asked to change the tyres while driving the car. It’s really hard. Really hard. And what happens is that your focus becomes internal and you end up dealing with all the internal things when the reality is that we’re still in a tough economy, agencies are fighting for every bit of business. It’s really easy to lose sight of the outside world and clients. So then the danger is that not only does your offer become not relevant to what’s out there – you don’t become relevant to your clients.

BS: How much evidence is there that clients want to buy an integrated offer?

JS: They don’t. Client want issues solved and in solving those issues they want integrated answers. Integrated communications saves you time and lots of money.

But many clients are still commissioning on the basis of discipline. I.e. I need PR, I need an ad. Rather than what am I trying to solve here. The way communications link together is critical. So ultimately – do clients want it? No. Do they need it? Absolutely yes. It will save them a fortune. The clients we were working with at MSL who were doing that were flying, absolutely flying.

BS: Who is buying that internally?

JS: It starts and finishes in many different places. Sometimes the CEO, sometimes comms guys, sometimes marketing directors, sometimes the digital director. They all start in different places. The interesting challenge here is that the ways the clients are structured make it very difficult for them to do integrated communications.

But you can still get there. I really believe that. One of the reasons it worked at MSL was by having strong specialisms so that those people would understand the specialisms and therefore touched the senior people on the client side. So you would start getting into conversations with those people.

BS: But very often does that not mean that your integrated solution costs a lot more that the budget of the smaller original brief?

JS: This whole integrated agency aim is to be an advisor. You can only advise if you are honest. You cannot sell people short. In the 1980s many agencies believed that you were only going to get one job out of a client so you needed to get as much money out of them. Many of my biggest clients I’ve known for years, and I’ve known them for years because I haven’t ever fleeced them.

So the agencies duty is to solve the problem, the agency’s duty is not to take the money.

BS: Just to wrap up – what are the big things that you must get right when integrating an agency?

JS: You must get the right people, the second is a group reward structure and the third is, and this sounds really crass, is culture, culture, culture.

BS: How do you gauge that the MSL integration was working? Albeit that it’s early days.

JS: You have to look at the different phases but my gauge was revenue growth – absolutely we had good growth. We had dood people joining the business – James Warren was one.  Were we increasingly producing good award winning work? Absolutely. Did we have an increasing number of clients using a broader set of people?  Absolutely.

All you can gauge is if you are going in the right direction and on those stats that’s absolutely the case.

PRmoment is putting running an Integration in Reality event on Oct 23rd – this is free for all in-house people. Register for your ticket here.

If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our twice weekly event and subscriber alerts.

Currently, every new subscriber will receive three of our favourite reports about the public relations sector.

PRmoment Awards PRmoment Patreon