A buy & build strategy: Sideshow Group case study

James Kesner

Sideshow is an integrated, content and data led, digital consulting group with services spanning strategy, creative and technology working with some of the largest blue-chip brands. Tony Hill founded the business in 2008 on the South Coast and, following four acquisitions, the group now stands at over 200 heads with acquired talent remaining active in the Group.

There were just 20 of us when we made our first acquisition. The agency was Strawberry Soup, we learnt a lot, and that experience sparked the next three. Today we’re a pretty decent size, a middle weight, approaching £20 million in turnover and approximately 200 people.

What drives strategic M&A choices?

Gaining new capabilities in growth areas and building a strong team are key drivers for us. We consider client needs now, and in the future. But most important is the chemistry and fit between businesses, from first impressions at initial meetings with the Founders, through to understanding the culture of the company and how well we feel the wider teams can work together.

The real bonus at the early discussion stage is when you see a potential extra gain that might be possible by bringing the two companies together.

How is your approach to M&A different?

While the people who negotiate M&A for the big groups are unlikely to be around post-acquisition, at Sideshow we are actively involved in growing, nurturing and developing the business that we are going into a strategic partnership with. All of the companies in our group are highly connected, and I guess that’s what makes us different; we are truly invested in the businesses we acquire.

Post-acquisition you have to have a plan for the new addition. There’s simply no point in buying a company for it then to just sit in the group, doing what it has always done. You have to involve the wider team in actively driving it forwards so that everyone benefits.

Having the right culture is a key part of ensuring that silos don’t spring up and agencies aren’t competing against each other – in other words making everyone feel part of a connected whole, all on the same side, able to share and discuss plans and objectives openly.

Why culture is so important

If the leadership team is open and fair-minded with an absence of politics, that helps set the tone for the whole of the organisation including companies that join. It’s really as simple as that. A disruptive culture can lead to all sorts of problems. In extreme cases, it can mean losing clients or good people and no one wants that.

Aside from culture, we are extremely customer focussed, and have a can-do attitude. It’s easy to spend time obsessing about your peers and what the industry thinks of you. A bit of that is OK, but your main priority has to be understanding your clients and what they want now and in the future. It also provides the context for our acquisitions.

Final thoughts

I like to think that we are open and honest about the type of business that we are. We play the hand we have, which at the moment means leveraging our ‘medium size’ to out-big the smalls, and out-small the bigs. We have the resource and quality to compete against smaller rivals, plus the passion and energy to rival the bigger groups. It’s knowing how and when to dial up certain traits.

It’s important to know what you’re about, but also where you want to get to. The industry is prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, so staying true to what you are will always serve you well.

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