Sell, don’t sell – what Aurora decided

A few months ago, my business partner of 12 years, Claire, and I announced, to our team and clients, and then the outside world, that this agency wasn’t for sale. We’ve made a decision to stay independent as we believe we can make more of a difference for our clients without the hindrance of a parent company. This obviously bucks the typical ‘build and sell’ trend of independent agencies in the marketing communications sector.

We felt compelled to make an overt decision for a number of reasons. This included the need to quieten our peers (business-owning and salaried leaders alike) who kept asking us ‘when?’. We also needed to quash or commit to the decision for ourselves due to hearing stories from our friends who were in the midst of, or who were post, sale. A common narrative of cultural decimation and the odd post earn-out apocalypse. Many sellers also talk of restructures in their buying company impacting their earn out including the ‘lovely’ employed executive, who attracted them to sell in the first place getting a better job elsewhere and all the undocumented promises going out of the window.

The unanticipated

Having decided to be out of the selling game, nothing actually physically changed, however, the announcement generated five reactions I hadn’t anticipated would be so strong:

From our management team (many of whom had worked in other independent agencies that sold and had the scars to prove it): genuine happiness and praise for the decision

From our Aurora team: spontaneous whoops, applause and follow-up emails confirming their heart-felt commitment to the business – they felt working for an independent was better

From our clients: overwhelming supportive emails endorsing their belief in us – they knew that an independent agency offered them commitment and focus they couldn’t get elsewhere

From our independent network partners around the world: Lots of ‘Go Aurora’ and ‘Go GLOBALHealthPR’

For myself: no more thinking ‘what will the future owner think of this decision?’

Let me unpack this last outcome… our philosophy since launch, in October 2005, has been that: happy team + happy client = great work. That’s consistently guided us to the ‘right business decision for us’ rather than the ‘profitability-only’ based decision. We both stuck unwaveringly to this approach. However from time-to-time I’ve frequently thought, and occasionally voiced to my co-owning partner, the aforementioned question followed by cascades of thought ranging from: ‘too maverick?’ to ‘too soft?’, through too… too… I dunno… ‘too unlike an employed big agency network honcho’.

As we planned for the business back in the spring and summer of 2005 we did an exercise with the brilliant coach Sally Jackson. She asked us to write down ideas in response to the question: ‘what does Aurora look like a decade from now?’ Here are those squirreled away Post It’s…

I’m proud to say we built that agency. Aurora won the ‘agency of the year’ awards and as owners we’ve been recognised with trophies for our leadership in creating and sustaining that culture.

That makes me happy. We decided we wanted to keep Aurora firmly in our working futures.

So does not wanting to sell mean we’ve lost our business mojo? Far from it, we’ve built an agency that does great work, in what we believe is the right way. Now we want to innovate and do even more in the healthcare communications space.

So what’s your point Neil? Well let me tell you dear reader…

A) To the business owners out there I’d ask you: “Do you actually want to sell your business?”

As a very smart lady who grew her business and sold it told me: “Selling your business isn’t wrong Neil, but neither is it right. Just work out what’s right for you and Claire”. Being clear either way is bound to be beneficial and help you be single-minded and uncompromising in your ongoing decision making.

B) For budding entrepreneurs: consider whether you are building for sale or the long-game.  Proactively decide whether that amorphous future owner on your shoulder needs to remain or even take form in the first place.

For me it’s been unexpectedly liberating to exorcise that demon.

PS: numbering on Post-Its is the order of priority we assigned in 2005 (1 most important to Claire and I)

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