In June Cicero announced it’s buy-out of Westbourne to create the UK’s largest public affairs agency. Cicero Executive Chairman Iain Anderson reveals how difficult meeting and ‘warts and all’ honesty helped make it happen.
There is nothing better than building a business and it’s been some summer for all of us at Cicero.
Now I have stopped for a few weeks and am sat “refreshing” myself on holiday I thought it would be good to capture some of the whirlwind around some of our recent moves for other industry insiders to share. I hope the insights are useful.
In 2017 we announced our ambition to grow the business significantly in the next few years. Since we launched in early 00s we have built Cicero into a leading name around financial markets. It’s been an amazing ride – launching the business and looking for angel investors just after the dot.com bubble burst and a few months before the tragedy of 9/11 upended most things.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008 Cicero was almost totally aligned with financial markets so we rode the rollercoaster down and then up again. For anyone running a business – it was a bone shaking time.
But then three things happened in early 2009. Central banks provided massive stimulus and markets bounced. Gordon Brown ‘saved the world’ at the G20 held in London and unleashed global financial regulatory reform all at once and everywhere. Finally, it looked in the UK like a change of Government was upon us.
Change creates business. More than that – as I like to say: “where there is confusion there is consultancy”. What the financial market maelstrom allowed us to do was to grow Cicero significantly enhancing our operation in Brussels and providing wider international reach. At the same time, we initiated our corporate communications offer, invested in digital and soon we made our first acquisition – the social listening and digital strategies brand Yatterbox.
By the mid 2010s we were experiencing strong growth in our thought leadership business and we made another acquisition in the research space.
But by 2016 as a Board we knew we needed to make a transformational move. We brought in an investment boutique well versed in the M&A of the corporate communications sector – SI Partners.
We commissioned SI to assess Cicero and provide the Board with a ‘warts and all’ look at our strengths and weakness.
With my business partner and our financial brains Cicero CEO, Jeremy Swan, we sat down a couple of months later with SI partner Joe Hine to have one of the most difficult meetings I have ever undertaken in my business life.
Well, we had asked for ‘warts and all’. By the end of the three-hour meeting Jeremy and I felt we had been run over by a chieftain tank! And as a former investment banker Jeremy was used to taking a difficult meeting.
But it was money well spent. SI Partners placed Cicero on a financial plan that improved operating margins and ended ‘hobby-like’ behaviours [Come on, we all have them running any business]. They also created an incentives programme for the entire business that runs like a Rolls Royce.
By 2017 – having worked through the health plan – we felt fitter – we had some clear options on the table. Should we sell Cicero to one of the big marcoms groups or should we look to grow by acquisition. We opted for the latter.
SI then helped us identify potential suitors. Joe was candid with us; “You will need to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince or princess,” he said. He was right. We met a whole bunch of companies during 2017 and for lots of reasons the fit didn’t work for us or them.
We had wasted some time. By the early part of 2018 we realised we needed a more specific financial offer to place early into discussions in order to ‘smoke out’ intentions. It had the effect of speeding up negotiations.
Around then James Bethell came along to see us to talk about Westbourne. Within days it appeared it was a great fit for Cicero. It would add new sectors such as tech and energy and infrastructure. The Westbourne team has a brilliant brand focus on campaigning which would also become a new strength for Cicero.
So we set to work. In just ten weeks we had completed the deal and announced to the market. And the announcement contained the really important message that the combined Cicero/Westbourne Business is now the UKs largest independent public affairs agency. A core part of the rationale for the deal.
In the breathless moment of the announcement SI were very clear with us – to integrate the businesses rapidly. And that’s just what we have done. Cicero and Westbourne colleagues now sit together, marketing is integrated and joint work is now taking place on every RFP that hits the inbox.
Financial integration is being driven by Cicero CEO Jeremy Swan – those investment banking skills are coming firmly to the fore. And Jeremy is on the lookout for more opportunities.
So while I reflect on an amazing year so far – plans are already under way to continue the strategy of looking for great PA and PR and research businesses that will work under the Cicero banner.
We have the financial template and we have been building the financial firepower. Watch this space – there’s more to come.
Photo courtesy of Cicero, James Bethell (l), Iain Anderson (r).