Now if someone had told me a couple of years' ago that Big 4 consultants would start acquiring firms with names such as "Ant's Eye View" I may have remarked that you may still be suffering from those over-indulgences of the '60s and '70s.
However, we are now living in an age where things like this are actually happening... so without further ado, here is HfS' social business impressario Jonathan Yarmis on why PwC just went and bought a social business strategy firm with a hallucinogenic name...
So what on earth's an "Ant’s Eye View" ...and why did PwC acquire one?
On August 14, PwC announced its intent to acquire social media strategy firm Ant’s Eye View (AEV). There are all sorts of reasons to dismiss this acquisition – this is neither the first nor the last acquisition we’ll see by big companies attempting to acquire their way into the social business space – but we’re actually guardedly optimistic about this one.
From its inception 3-1/2 years ago, Ant’s Eye View has been more than an opportunistic company. With its focus on real-life practitioners and with a sweeping vision for the impact of social business, AEV is differentiated from the thousands of agencies chasing “the next hula hoop.” Time will tell whether AEV can preserve its distinctive culture under the PwC umbrella but the parties are entering this relationship with their eyes wide open. Despite these concerns, we nonetheless expect PwC to be able to drive at least some incremental traffic and awarenessto AEV, so If you’re a PwC client looking for an agency to help develop a social strategy, I’d get in the AEV queue quickly (after, of course, talking with HfS).
The Social Gold Rush
Seemingly anyone who has more than 50 friends on Facebook or 500 followers on Twitter has set up a social business consultancy. Noted social media observer Peter Shankman penned a blog post a year ago entitled “I will never hire a ‘social media expert’ and neither should you” (http://shankman.com/i-will-never-hire-a-social-media-expert-and-neither-should-you/) where he noted the similarities between the original dot com furor and our new fascination with social media. Back then, numerous agencies popped up with names like Scient, Viant and Agency.com. Many of them got acquired, at astronomical (and in retrospect, insane) valuations; a few exist in quasi-independent status to this day.
We’re now seeing a similar frenzy in the social media space. From big acquisitions like Salesforce.com’s acquisition of social media monitoring powerhouse Radian6 and Microsoft’s acquisition of social platform company Yammer all the way down to acquisitions like this one, there’s a feeding frenzy to acquire social media skills and market presence. Unfortunately, most of these deals are focused on the latter: companies who were slow to react to the explosive growth of social media are now buying their way into the market. Ultimately, those kinds of acquisitions may bring along a few clients but the ability to scale the acquisition, or even retain the existing client base, is questionable at best. These kinds of acquisitions simply don’t scale, the skills of the people acquired are of great variability (and the better ones are often the first to go), the IP acquired is scanty at best and the integration into the acquiring company is often problematic.
Reason for Optimism
Against this largely negative view, we actually believe PwC’s acquisition of Ant’s Eye View stands to be better than most. What differentiates AEV?
- The founders are very well-regarded practitioners, with a passionate belief in the transformative nature of social media. This is not just a company chasing the next hula hoop.
- From the beginning, the founders had a vision of building a big company that was able to deliver against the transformative vision. CEO Sean O’Driscoll called it a BHAG: “big, hairy audacious goal.”
- AEV has built a roster of top-level practitioners. They didn’t want a bunch of self-proclaimed “social gurus.” They focused on people who had practical experience at top brands (and often brought those brands along as clients). We’re familiar with some of their people and have spoken with people familiar with the firm’s efforts and there is universal praise. These guys are good.
- AEV approaches this deal with eyes wide open. This isn’t a deal for the AEV founders to cash out while the cashing’s good. Instead, they have a significant understanding of the growth opportunities PwC affords them, opportunities that they just wouldn’t have had given their own organic growth plans.
Concerns and Caveats
Despite all this, there are numerous caveats in any acquisition like this.
- This doesn’t dramatically change PwC’s “social chops.” With specialized expertise like this, there’s no easy way to build this out into a broader PwC capability. The acquisition will certainly give AEV greater reach but their ability to scale with the scope of the opportunity just doesn’t exist; they can’t answer every PwC partner’s call. If they push too hard, it could actually hurt their value proposition. That said, our discussions with O’Driscoll indicate not only an awareness of this risk but a strong belief that the business can scale and that PwC will facilitate that growth..
- O’Driscoll talks proudly about AEV’s focus on culture from the beginning. In his blog post announcing the acquisition, O’Driscoll writes “We have a lot to be proud of, but perhaps what I’m most proud of isn’t the work we did, but the way we did our work. We created a culture and environment that inspired us. We knew right away that in order to hire the best people, we needed to be the best place to work. Culture wasn’t an accident at Ant’s Eye View, we co-developed it as a team and it’s resulted in bonds that will have a lasting impact on all of us.” What happens when that vision meets PwC’s enormity? Promises of autonomy and representations of understanding of the unique cultural environment last until the first missed quarter or deadline or change in management. Fortunately, both sides are going into this with solid understandings and insights. For instance, O’Driscoll talked candidly about talking to many potential suitors, most of whom he walked away from because of poor cultural fit, particularly in the advertising/agency space. And in our conversation, PwC Advisory Partner Tom Puthiyamadam voiced all the right things about PwC’s support for the AEV approach and culture.
In summary, while we look askance at many acquisitions in the social media space, PwC’s acquisition of Ant’s Eye View is better than most. AEV is a well-regarded firm with more experience and intellectual rigor than we typically see. If PwC was going to acquire anyone, they really couldn’t have done much better than this, and AEV seems to have done its diligence in selecting an acquirer. Time will tell how effective PWC is in opening doors for AEV to its clients' CMOs and whether AEV's distinctive culture, to so critical to its success, can survive in a big consultancy known for its risk-averse culture and accounting legacy. If you’re a PwC client looking for an agency to help develop a social strategy, I’d get in the AEV queue quickly (after, of course, talking with HfS).
We are obviously fervent believers in the impact social will have on wide swaths of how we’ll do business in the future. It is beyond the scope of this document to convince you of that imperative. If you’re not a believer, well, you’re probably not reading at this point anyhow.
HfS Recommendations for Buyers of Social Media Solutions
It will take some time for AEV to scale up with PwC’s reach, resources and capabilities. In the interim, if you can’t get onto AEV’s list of current engagements, you should look at their approach to this business when you evaluate other potential provider partners.
- Focus on practitioners with real-world experience as opposed to self-appointed social gurus
- Deep industry/vertical knowledge. Regulatory considerations among many other factors make it such that one-size-fits-all approaches do not work.
- Focus on process and frameworks. While we’re still in the very early stage of the evolution of thinking around social business, it’s not so early that you can’t look for emerging structure. Providers with real IP and processes are likely to provide more durable value than those who merely exist for “Imagineering.”
HfS Recommendations for Service Providers
In our conversations with service providers, we’re struck by how serious they are about the opportunity afforded by social technologies…and the depths of their uncertainty about how to approach the business. Even while you build out your own organic capabilities, you’re likely to pursue acquisitions to supplement your capabilities. The Ant’s Eye View acquisition could serve as a template for what to look for. You want companies that have:
- Real, referenceable clients;
- Deep, compelling vision;
- Intellectual property and replicable processes; and
- Strong culture.
You will have to balance the inherent tension among:
- Letting the business continue to grow on its own trajectory,
- Injecting your own capabilities and functions (and overhead) into the company, and
- Mining their approach and processes for incorporation back into your own business (at the cost of their single-minded focus on growing their own business).
There are clearly trade-offs involved but if you don’t balance appropriately, you won’t realize the full benefit of your expenditure and may in fact destroy the value proposition.