Counselors Academy Spring Conference in Toronto- Diversity, Inclusion & M&A

I’ve been a guest speaker at the Counselor Academy spring conferences for many years, and this year’s gathering was no exception. The 2018 Counselors Academy Spring Conference, which took place May 6 through May 8 in Toronto, Canada, was a perfect forum for PR firm owners and C-suite executives.

This year I was happy to be part of a Pre-Conference session that I’m confident will inspire PR firm owners who are seriously considering an exit strategy, have started the sale process or are  aspiring to be in a “Build to Sell” Program.

The session, titled, “Planning Your End Game: A Master’s Course in Maximizing Your Agency’s Value and Preparing for Sale,” featured Brad Schwartzberg, partner at law firm Davis & Gilbert, yours truly and David Tobin, managing partner of Tobin Leff.

The session was quite timely. PR M&A transactions are picking up both in the U.S. and abroad, as the appetite for PR firms grows among both strategic buyers and private equity players. On the sell flip side, the transition to digital communications is forcing the hand of PR firm owners—borne of the analog age—who understand they need access to the digital (and larger) resources that buyers can provide.

I focused on “building to sell,” which is a crucial component of the M&A process and something PR firm owners probably want to think about.  I also discussed why it’s crucial to cultivate the second tier of management. Not having the second tier on board at all times could lead to some major issues during the sale process.

With that in mind, here’s a few priorities for proper succession planning:

  • Start early. PR firm owners may be ambivalent about selling their firm. After all, in many cases it’s their baby and sometimes it’s difficult to let go, especially if the firm is doing well and the future looks bright. But others may be eager to sell for multiple reasons. Either way—whatever the outlook —owners must begin the succession planning five to seven years before they plan to fully exit the business. Having a succession plan in place enables firm owners to focus on growing the agency and develop the business, if they hope to get maximum value.  It also gives owners assurances that when they start to get wrapped up in selling the firm and are dealing with buyers there’s a solid second tier running the day-to-day operation and adding value.
  • Define personal objectives. The onus is on PR firm owners to gauge who among their senior executives would best carry the agency torch following a sale. Who has the vision to maintain the legacy of the firm but also make it thrive in a post-digital and Facebook age? Among senior executives, who’s brought new innovations to the firm? Who’s most simpatico with the staff (regardless of how many people work at the firm) and makes colleagues feel good about themselves? Who’s digitally and social media savvy? These are questions you need to answer before you start to build a succession plan.
  • Begin to incentivize.  Owners need to ensure the next generation of leaders and top executives of their firm has an economic interest to keep the firm growing, vibrant and attractive to new clients. There’s a few ways to incentivize individuals, such as the purchase or grants of actual equity, contract equity (phantom stock), or performance-based incentives.

I have to mention that the theme of diversity and inclusion was widespread throughout the conference. Here is a link to the piece I co-wrote with Aerial Ellis & was a handout at the G+P sponsor table at the conference PR Industry Should Move Beyond Discussing Diversity and Take Action.


Rick Gould, CPA, J.D., managing partner of Gould+Partners, is the author of “The Ultimate PR Agency Financial Management Handbook: How to Manage By The Numbers for Breakthrough Profitability of 20% or Greater,” and “Doing It The Right Way: 13 Crucial Steps For A Successful PR Agency Merger Or Acquisition.”

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