Inking a long-awaited deal was a nice early Christmas present for Robin Grant. The We Are Social co-founder and global MD concluded a two-year search to find a buyer for the five-year-old agency when Chinese network and Hunstworth partner BlueFocus acquired an 80 per cent stake in December.
Valuing the firm at £22m, the deal places We Are Social in exultant company; the agency was valued slightly higher than Portland, valued by Omnicom at £15-20m, and just behind Blue Rubicon’s £30m price tag for private equity firm LDC.
Grant is "a hungry man in a hurry", according to his former boss, 1000Heads CEO Mike Rowe, and the 40-year-old has made no secret of his ambitions for the agency.
"He was the kind of guy destined to run his own business," adds Rowe. "They [Grant and co-founder Nathan McDonald] have done a tremendous job in building the business, but also in building its name and profile."
Simon Collister, ex-director of We Are Social and now a senior lecturer in PR and social media, says Grant’s goal has always been to create "the world’s biggest and best social media agency".
Grant partnered with McDonald to launch We Are Social in 2008 when Facebook had a mere 100 million users and Twitter an estimated six million. These numbers now stand at 1.11 billion and 200 million respectively, and the agency has ridden this wave, experiencing average annual fee income rises of 98 per cent over the past three years in the UK alone.
Now Grant, the more public-facing and vocal of the agency partners, faces the challenge of continuing this eye-watering pace of growth post-purchase.
Cornering the market as a dedicated social agency was crucial to its early success at a time when social became another string to the bow of PR, media, creative and digital agencies, or a network add-on to create full-service and integrated offerings.
Ambition has elevated it beyond other pure-play social shops where generally staff numbers are yet to breach triple digits or cover more than a couple of territories. The agency now has 400 staff in eight offices covering every continent apart from Africa. The decision to go global has also paid dividends, with the ability to provide consistency and cohesion of messaging across countries.
Rowe points out that client demand for social activity is likely to increase as social further integrates with other disciplines: "We Are Social has carved a niche for itself and doesn’t look at social with blinkers."
Collister warns that the agency has now achieved a status where it will face competition from ad network behemoths as social networks move towards ads and away from earned media.
Though a Chinese buyer was largely unexpected, the agency will no doubt welcome the increased insight BlueFocus can provide into non-English social media such as Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, Qzone and WeChat, with a combined user base of 1.5 billion across just these four platforms.
However, there may be bumps in the road ahead as it navigates cultural differences, as with any business expansion into the region, says Rowe.
Collister also points to the less familiar ways of Chinese business, an unknown quantity in comparison with US and European networks, which are broadly similar in their strategies. "BlueFocus must trust Robin’s approach," he concludes.