Agency Unfiltered - Ingunn Bjøru from Avidly

How We Navigated a 4 Agency Acquisition

Ingunn joins us to discuss how her team approached the M&A and creation of Avidly, how she knew it was time to open the discussion, and what the transformation into Avidly meant for her leadership team, her employees, her processes, and her clients.

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Episode Transcript

Today on Agency Unfiltered we have Ingunn Bjøru, COO from Avidly, in the studio. Avidly, a Nordic marketing company that is the result of a successful acquisition in combination of four Diamond HubSpot Partners across Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, is now one of the largest inbound agencies in the world.

Ingunn joins us to discuss how her team approached the merger, how they knew it was time, and what the transformation into Avidly meant for their leadership, their employees, their processes, and their clients. M and A, mergers and acquisitions is always a hot topic for agencies regardless of size and which side of the coin they fall on. Ingunn breaks it down and shares her learnings from the creation of Avidly. Let's dive in. Ingunn, hello.

KD: Hi, Ingunn. Obviously you've just recently completed a major merger, the new Avidly team, formerly Inbound Norway — and so I'm hoping today to pick your brain on some of the lessons learned.

I think with a lot of HubSpot’s agency partners or people in the community, mergers, acquisitions, both looking to be acquired versus looking to make an acquisition, hot topic and people are always looking to learn more.

You seem like a perfect person to connect with, so maybe the best place to start: how did you identify for Inbound Norway it was time to open up that Avidly conversation? What's the timeline to begin this whole process?

IB: For us, we started Inbound Norway 18 months ago. When we opened our strategy was to grow and work with other partners. That was the initial thought. It was kind of an opportunity we already saw. We saw other agencies outsource but we really wanted to fully work with other agencies. When we started looking into that, it quite quickly became we should probably merge. It's much easier to work side by side. It's fine for a while but we realized it was so much easier to just become one company.

KD: How did you identify the right fit? Obviously Avidly, and correct me if I'm wrong, it's merging three teams, so how did you identify these are the other two agencies we want to go into Avidly with?

IB: Yeah. No, good question. We, I said in, I did a talk yesterday and I said, you need to get to know yourself first as an agency unless you want to be like us and be lucky. We met Doidea from Sweden, Katalysator from Denmark, really early on through Growit Group, which helps agencies grow. They were on the same type of ambitious growth path as we were so we started talking to them, working with them just to see kind of is this a good fit? It was a match really quickly. We saw that they were thinking in the same way, they were ambitious in the same way, and they have very similar values. Obviously we had phrased them quite differently but at the core we were all carrying on the same.

KD: When you boil it down it felt pretty similar.

IB: Exactly, yeah. As soon as we saw that we were like, this is the right fit. After we started working with them and were on the path to merging, we got contacted by Zeeland Family in Finland and they said, we see what you guys are doing, we want in.

KD: Really?

IB: They were also very similar in many ways and we thought, why not? If we're doing three, why not do four? But I think it's a, it's a gut feeling, a lot of it. I think we felt quite quickly that these were a good match. There's always going to be differences but the core felt right.

KD: You mentioned ambitious growth goals. I would say if you polled a number of agencies they'd say, yeah, our goals are pretty ambitious. What did “ambitious” mean for you and how did they align with that?

IB: I guess we had goals that made people laugh. We had goals where even ourselves we're like, can we say this? Every time someone, I saw someone hesitating before contributing with a goal, because we included the whole team, and if they were like, hmm, I could tell they were hesitating, I was like, say that, that's the goal.

I mean, some of them were ridiculous in terms of five-year goals where we're going to have a massive office with a pool on the roof and the whole thing. But you have to just go big so you can actually get halfway there.

KD: Right. If you just go small with your goals, you're always just going to be small. And I think an office with a pool on the roof, I mean, it's almost like a culture thing, too, right? Like, okay, you're going to attract team members, and you're going to get everyone bought in on the idea that, if you agree with that mission, then you're going to fit in really well here.

IB: I listened to a podcast recently where they talked about Airbnb and they said that when they were creating their customer experience they thought, okay, what's a one-star experience? What's a two-star experience? Up to 10 and on the 10 they were flying their guests to space with their favorite celebrity, eating your favorite food, they were creating a full experience that was insane. But then they took it back down and said but we can actually aim for seven. That's actually possible. But if you go, okay, what's our goal, it's a one-star experience, then, you're going to.

KD: You're going to just deliver one-star experiences.

IB: Exactly, exactly, yeah, yeah.

KD: So you’ve identified some agencies, you begin those conversations, what would you say are the biggest takeaways or lessons learned? If you were to go right back to “Day One” of those processes, is there anything you would do different or things that you would keep in mind?

IB: I listed some mistakes when I was sharing this with partners yesterday and I think not knowing, again, knowing ourselves 100%. We, in Norway, had to create what we saw as our core at the same time as merging with these other companies. That's a challenge and, again, we were very lucky. Being in the Nordics, we were similar cultures, not the same but similar, so that helps. If you're merging with someone from far, far away, I think that would be a huge challenge.

I think that was really maybe something we should have considered. And something we have fought hard for is open and honest conversations. I hate this old, oh, I heard this a week ago. No, you heard it today, say it today, and get it all out on the table. Because it's not about the feelings and emotions of the situation. It's about actually getting the things done and I think these things build up so quickly. If you're working with people that you don't see every single day, you should at least let them know what you're thinking.

KD: Sure. Yeah. Communicate consistently, openly.

IB: Absolutely. Be honest even if it's a little bit painful there and then, it's much more pain three months down the line when you're like, oh, I've been thinking about this for ages but now it's too late.

KD: Yup, that makes sense. What about just like business as usual? You're having all these conversations and negotiations, I would imagine that Inbound Norway is still delivering at 100% capacity and getting all of their clients results. Is there anything to keep in mind, how does that balance work and how did you make sure that clients still got the services and results they needed?

IB: You have really focus. We've kind of split it up a bit so our core teams in the different countries are focusing on that country. They know the merger is going on and they get all the information but they're not necessarily involved in all the processes around it. If you're a consultant in Norway, you still work on your project and then if it's something relevant to pull you into, you're pulled into the shared project across all the countries. For most of the consultants, they don't necessarily notice a difference right now. They will when we start getting all the lines set up.

And all the processes set up. But for now it's a lot of the same and their focus is to deliver, the same as before. And the same with sales, which I think can be a huge challenge because you start thinking, oh, part Nordic, can I go off to different clients, you shift your focus a little bit. We really worked hard to try to pull that focus back into the separate countries. That is your core market, that is where you need to deliver. But it's definitely something you have to almost do a weekly reminder on.

This is where we are, remember this. If you don't deliver in your country, there's going to be none of the rest. But it's so important to keep that focus.

KD: You bring up an interesting point, you mentioned process. Three different agencies, four different, whatever a merger may look like, everyone's going to have their own unique systems and processes, methodologies, approaches. How do you kind of bring those together? Did you end up with something that's a little bit of all or I mean how did you guys merge processes?

IB: We started looking at it really early on. In Norway we are crazy about processes. Absolutely love them, have a process for everything. For our team, it was a lot about being open to the feedback.

Because we had our ways and we knew how we wanted to do things. Then the other countries had some processes and then it was about looking, okay, how different are they actually? Because so much of it is built on the Inbound methodology and what we've learned from HubSpot so in that way the core was always the same and we just had to look at, okay, how does that work for you? Is this process something that gives you great results? Okay, our process gives okay results. Great, we're going with this one. Learning that to the whole team. We are in the process of going through everything like that but luckily in a lot of ways we were very similar.

KD: Sure. At the end of the day we're all trying to do the same thing so there were some similarities. Focus on the similarities versus maybe the small differences, at least to start?

IB: And it doesn't all have to be the same. It's often about what's the size of the client? If you have this size client, then working this way. If it's this size client, working this way. There will be some differences and there will be some differences based on kind of the culture in that country or the size of the client.

KD: Maybe it's not about just identifying the one size fits all process but knowing there might be some differences there.

IB: Yeah. And building the confidence in the consultants working on the project to be able to choose. To know that okay, this is this type of project, I should go with this type of process and move on from there.

KD: Yeah, for sure. Obviously, there's geographical differences between all of the different segments of Avidly now and I would imagine for a lot of agencies going through a merger or acquisition, similarly, right? They're just different places. How does communication change across the organization? What have you had to shift around to make sure everyone collaborates appropriately, communicates appropriately?

IB: We were already using Slack really actively in all different countries so we're in the process now of moving everyone into one Slack workspace, which is going to be huge. And a million channels.

We're really working on that and obviously we have a process for how you use Slack. There's very strict rules on how to use the different channels because you don't want everyone to post in the general Slack channel with tagging everyone.

KD: Yeah, at all, or at here and then just pinging everyone.

IB: Yeah, she's having lunch and then it's liked to everyone. That's one way where we can at least have people in direct communication with each other. We also try, we do a weekly all-hands meeting where everyone's on video and we talk through good news from each country, news about Avidly as a whole. Yipper, who's our HubSpot expert, does a little whiteboard Friday about what's new in HubSpot. Then we often have our developers showcase, okay, we created a new template, it's really successful, this is how we did it, this is how you guys can offer this to your clients. We try to do a bit more knowledge sharing and that kind of stuff. It's going to be a lot of video and a lot of Slack.
And we have realized that definitely doing more video done writing is useful because there's different ways of phrasing things which cause miscommunication. We've even just seen the different use of emojis can cause.

KD: Yeah. This emoji here might not be the same there.

IB: A lot of people do this where they do dot dot dot after writing something. Someone came to me and said, are they angry with me? Or what's going on? I'm like, I think they're just thinking. But it leaves it up for interpretation so we're trying to use more video because then you can actually see someone's face. For example, if they're smiling...

KD: It reduces the confusion on what they're trying to mean and how they're trying to say it.

IB: Absolutely, yeah. If we grow further, which hopefully we will, then video is going to become even more important.

KD: We've talked a lot about merging and bringing things together. Is there anything in particular that you're keeping separate from all the different locations and, if so, is that permanent or is that, where are you in your merging process or are there some things that you're like, oh no, we're going to keep those separate and that's on purpose?

IB: A lot of things are still separate just because we wanted to make sure that we took the right steps first and to deal with the Zeeland family on Friday, no, the Zeeland family just went through on Friday. So we haven't had time to really move into all of it but we are combining as much as possible.

And then some things make sense, like we have to have local versions of the website. Because we have to have the different language versions. We will have one shared English one. At least we have one kind of shared face for the world. Then we have some centralized roles moving forward. But there will still be team leaders in each country, there'll still be obviously the Country Managers and certain specialists will only be in some countries based on the market.

If we see integrations, for example, they're great at in Sweden, they will grow a team doing integrations. We're not going to start establishing a team of integrations in Norway because it doesn't make any sense.

KD: We'll just lean on that team that's already the pros, the experts.

IB: Exactly, yeah. We would rather train our sales people in selling it and then delivery comes from Sweden.

KD: On this kind of dichotomy of things that are merged, things that are separate: where do financials fit into all of it?

IB: At the moment we're keeping it in the different countries and there will be things where, we're creating this website right now, that's being created part in Finland, part in Denmark. But then we have other things which are happening in the other countries so it equals out. And we have to do it for that kind of, well, that's the best way of doing it for now.

Moving forward that might change but it's just the easiest way to do things right now. It's a lot about kind of just technical things like everyone would have to be hired from a company that's centralized, there's tax rules. So keeping that separate for now makes sense. Then there's minor adjustments and fluctuations in between.
KD: Sure, yeah, I mean, at the end of the day it's really going to depend on, okay, where are the agencies looking to merge or where is your acquisition. Obviously you guys are operating in a number of different countries versus if it was another team in the same country maybe that simplifies that whole process.

IB: That's the thing. If you're merging with someone in your own country, I think that just makes sense to have one system and financing and everything. But since it's different countries, there's so many laws and rules that would, yeah, make it impossible.

KD: Now, last few questions here. Every agency's going to have their leadership team. So if you're merging or acquiring that's bringing together two leadership teams. How do you avoid, I don't know, power struggles — or how do you make sure roles and responsibilities like all leaders feel or continue to be leaders?

IB: Yeah. So far what we've done is anyone who was currently a CEO, if they want to continue in the same type of position, they're the Country Manager because that's basically still the same role. A lot of that just falls into the same kind of brackets and everything. Then we have, we had kind of planned to have some more specialized roles, like we created a position for Head of New Ideas and Innovation, Head of Strategic Partnerships, and then kind of the management teams from different countries could move into these kind of positions. Depending on what they want to do because a lot of companies also when they merge, they want to step into a different role. We've seen some move into delivery again because they missed that part.

KD: Interesting, yeah.

IB: Maybe they were part of building this company and now they're like, actually I really miss delivery. I miss the client-facing work and I don't want to do the management anymore. It's more about kind of talking to the people we're merging with, what is your interest, where do we see opportunities, and quite often when we've been talking about this, they have a very clear idea of an area that they've sat with and been, this is my dream or this is something I see huge potential in but I put it on the back burner because I'm running this company and growing this company. Then they have the opportunity to kind of build on that coming in to us.

I mean, I think the important part is you're identifying new roles, is that, okay, as we're trying to right-fit everybody into their new roles in this new kind of larger organization, there can be some alternate pathing. There are, it's not just all the existing roles but there seems to be some new opportunities. And you can map that out as well.

That's the thing, as long as it's kind of, I said justifiable almost in terms of is it profitable that you're going to do that

KD: Yeah. kind of work, then it just makes sense. As long as that's an area where we can grow and develop then why not do that? Okay: final question. I tend to ask this for each one of these. Never really sure kind of how this is going to take us.

But I think you're going to have an interesting perspective on it. I tend to ask what's the weirdest or strangest part of agency life? Maybe yours would be a little different. It would be what's been the funniest or weirdest part of going through the building of Avidly? If there's anything.

IB: I think there's several smaller things maybe. First of all, realizing how little we understand each other's languages sometimes. We're still just in the Nordics. Taking kind of the Finnish part to the side, because that's a completely different language, looking at the Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian, very similar languages. We still speak English most of the time. That's a little bit strange.

KD: Yeah. It even goes back to emojis and things like that, right?

IB: I know, it's the subtleties that you sometimes just go no. Sometimes in meetings I can hear someone say something and the other person from the other company says something and I'm sitting there thinking you're both speaking English, you're saying the same thing but you think you disagree. So there's some translation work sometimes.

But I think that's something also to just get used to when you understand how the different people operate and what their priority is.

KD: That's a pretty good answer, that's great. I think that's all for us today. I appreciate you, again, coming in.

IB: No, thank you.

KD: And obviously best of luck with everything Avidly.

IB: Thank you.

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