So, the big news. ONF has a new home.
The last few years for ONF have been manic to say the least. We’ve twice doubled our annual growth, expanded our headcount by two thirds, cast our net into the Middle East, launched new publishing brands, created new products, developed best-in-class technology and expanded our 1st party data 10x.
Our client roster today was an aspirational list of ‘dream logos’ only a year ago.
Despite all the huge leaps, we’ve stuck true to our beliefs of working discreetly, treating clients as confidential partners (while sharing our journey with them), quietly going about our long term ambition of redefining the demand gen sector.
Contrary to our DNA of doing our best work out of plain sight, the demand gen world was hotting up. Marketing budgets were growing exponentially, demands on transparency, quality and data-driven results were suddenly all front & centre. We were suddenly catapulted into new conversations, regions and partnerships. This bubbling hot environment came with lots of new interest and increasing ripples of intrigue about how we had built our reputation. We were the clichéd overnight success.
That intrigue, conversations and eyeballs very quickly turned to quite direct questions from organisations wanting to explore acquiring us.
I would be lying if I said it wasn’t flattering, but we very quickly dismissed further exploration on the simple premise that those conversations didn’t feel right.
Throughout our journey, and being founder led, the question I’ve been asked more than any other is “so, Jordan, what are your plans to sell the business?”
My answer has always been the same. “I don’t know, but when I meet the right people, I’ll know it’s the right home.”
Most of the direct conversations focussed on ‘exit’, they didn’t even consider (or even ask) what my or my team’s ambitions were.
I’m not done, and neither is my management team. In fact, despite all our success to date, we believe we’ve hardly even started. I personally love what I do and, even more so, love seeing those around me – our team, our partners and our clients – win. I’m also a competitive so and so… the finish line will always be out of reach.
The summer of love
Going back to May of last year; the world started to wake from a bleary covid slumber, the weather seemed to pick up, people were meeting in person, London had its buzz back, clapping had gone from outside your doorstep and, instead, people were patting each other on the back and buying a round. We also had the backdrop of a major football tournament.
Life seemed good and then it became great….
Cleary the feel good factor was there, our proposition stacked up, the demand gen world was hot and we remained in hyper growth. But with growth comes growing pains. As a management team, our time was massively focussed in the business, rather than on the business. The next big leap of growth looked like exactly that, a big leap, albeit a much slower one than we were used to. We knew we needed some help.
Specifically, we needed help with our ambitions to grow our team on the ground in the US quickly, help with our tech road map to evolve our 1st party intent platform, help with the expansion of our embryonic paid media demand gen services and our desire to build the very best working environment for our team.
Help with the move from being generalists to the demand gen specialists in B2B marketing.
As the summer unfolded, the stars aligned, football was coming home and then, the people appeared.
Initially they came as a partner and a working relationship, but very quickly the realisation that coming together formally would make sense, and that conversation then followed very naturally.
We talked through our joint ambitions, our perspective on what made client service brilliant, our shared vision on what an ABM-led focus on demand gen could do for our clients. We shared notes on how, looking at our respective teams culturally, it would be hard to pick any differences in how we delivered our services, the environment we worked in and the bloody great people that made the whole thing tick.
In short it was obvious that these were our people, and this was something we wanted to be part of.
Led by CEO, Clive Armitage, those people were Agent3.
Getting it done
Into July, and knowing the opportunity to formalise a partnership was right, the conversation moved to the nitty gritty and then into the swift agreement that we’d work towards Agent3 formally acquiring ONF.
Having been involved in ‘DD’ processes in my old publishing days, I took a deep breath and prepared for long days, sleepless nights, hard balled haggling and lots of legal & finance professionals around us trying to justify earning eyewatering hourly fees. This, all while trying to maintain the day to day running of the business.
In fact what transpired, though, was a truly collaborative process; a constant circle back on how we were feeling, a shared approach to tackle any bumps with a joint steamroller, an open line of communication and a huge level of support on any areas we weren’t clear on or hadn’t previously experienced. .
Those daily emails, shared communications and weekly calls, almost always finished with ‘we can’t wait until you are this side of the fence.’
Agent3 had prior acquisition experience, and it showed. Leaning in on the wider communications group of Next15 (who employ over 1,350 people across 32 offices in 14 countries), they held our hand throughout. The dreaded ‘look for any skeletons in the cupboard’ process, whilst massively thorough, was always done with a smile and ‘lets find a way’ and ‘let’s get it done’ attitude.
As we reached the conclusion of finalising the deal, although Covid put paid to any clinks of glasses and a night on the tiles, the DocuSign and close-to-midnight finish didn’t feel like a damp squib. It felt exactly as I hoped it would: a heady mixture of adrenaline, pride and excitement.
A huge thank you to the team that kept the enthusiasm up and made the entire process enjoyable, exciting, energetic and were supportive throughout. Whilst acquisition was the formal process, the conversations were always around partnership and supercharging ONF.
That brilliant team was led by;
Clive Armitage, Agent3 founder & CEO. A brilliant guy whom I now class as both a mentor & friend. From the outset he said to me “Jordan, go build the business you’ve always built, shout me when you hit a hurdle and I’ll help you find a way through”
Dan Sands, Chief Strategy Officer and, as I now refer to him, Chief Hope Officer. We’ve spoken every day since the first conversation. He’s always believed in what we, as a business, were setting out to do and has been our biggest cheerleader. The Chief Hope Officer title refers to his unwavering desire to give hope & direction that anything is do-able.
Mark Sanford, leading the in-house counsel. Mark made the legal jargon accessible, made the complicated simple and always presented information through the lens of the real world, as opposed to the T&Cs. Simply put, Mark is a guy that cares, and it showed throughout.
Katie Smith, Deputy CFO, Next15. Worked tirelessly to ensure the ongoing transparency around anything numbers and answering our conveyor belt of continual questions that usually started with “what would happen if…?” I lost track of how many times she checked in that we were happy. I’ve worked with numerous finance leaders in the past, Katie is one of the very best.
Nick Chapman, who works across Next15 M&A. That experience translated into nothing but support. Whilst Nick often had to hunt for skeletons, he always came back with reassurance that none were lurking. I knew that, in any DD process, you hit a stage when so many questions are being asked, you then question if you ever had anything in the first place. Nick always reassured us we very much did.
I must also mention Mark Wiseman-Smith, MD of The Craft. Very early on Clive suggested I speak to Mark as his business was the most recently acquired by Agent3. Mark was transparent, honest and incredibly encouraging. He did it all without ever pushing an agenda to ‘do it.’
Tim Dyson, CEO, Next15. Early on in the process I spoke with Tim, who is a veteran in B2B marketing and widely recognised as someone known for contributing ideas that set the bar in the industry. Whilst my conversation with him reaffirmed all that his bio suggests, moreover I found someone approachable, curious by nature and with a genuine desire to understand you and your ambitions. Being smart he quickly connects how Next15 could help.
As for our team;
Julian Thorne, who was there from day 1. Initially as a consultant, then as an advisor, moving into a mentor, shareholder and ending as a true friend. Thanks for always having my and Lisa’s back. You saw it all and always willed us on. Forever indebted to you for your support and guidance.
Our legal team from Simon Muirhead Burton, led by partner, Neal Hodges.
Once the conversations got ‘serious’ we held a beauty parade in order to assemble our team. From the very first few conversations, Neal was who we wanted to help us. Straight talking, humorous and often giving us two versions of every document or conversation (the real thing and layman’s terms). Neal led and coordinated a fantastic, tireless team of Lucy, Dan and John. In addition, Neal introduced us to Simon Meredith, partner of NGM Tax Law LLP. Simon is a brilliant guy whose experience in M&A and tax advice was compelling.
Khalid Mehmood, Partner, Hadleys & Co. As our accountant from day one, we knew there was no one better to support us with our finances. Khalid and his team had seen our growth every step of the way and adapted their advice & support accordingly. What started as ‘just someone to do the basics’ many years ago, Khalid became a true friend and someone who navigated the complicated.
Every sunset brings the promise of a new dawn
So, what does all of this mean for me, us, our team, and our clients? Ego to one side, me first. I’m not going anywhere, and neither is our brand. As I said, I’ve only just got started.
Day to day, I’ll be leading a newly expanded team of 40 talented people, based in 5 countries across 4 continents. My role as CEO remains, but my leadership team has grown, as have our demand gen solutions and client base.
The ONF brand remains, but is supercharged with centralised resource from Agent3. That crucial piece of instant access to areas including core infrastructure, systems, technical developers, and talent recruitment & learning, can be leant on as we need. We also have a new home – a brilliant new working environment in London Bridge.
Our team now has far wider career opportunities and the environment to do their very best work for years to come. We now have an extensive team in Sydney, Ireland and across the US in addition to our team in Dubai, and there’s a lot of excitement about gaining an office in NYC! Remember I mentioned earlier about the need to grow our team internationally?
Importantly our clients. We know first-hand that CMOs need big wins; sales teams demand more support and customers expect specialised support. So, whilst we can now vastly expand the support to our clients – from data insights through to positioning, creative, applied tech and paid media – we’re going to continue to do what we’ve always done; working discreetly, treating clients as confidential trusted partners and quietly (alright, a bit louder) going about our now short-term ambition of redefining the demand gen sector.
The thank yous
Rina, Malinda, Tim. The management team that helped us answer all the questions that needed answering, gave us unwavering moral support and willed us on over the finish line. The landscape is now set for you guys to get your just rewards.
Our clients. Cliched yes, truthful ever more so. Our clients really have supported us and been with us throughout the manic years. In many cases they have been with us since it was just me on a coffee table. That support and honesty will be further repaid with us now fast track improving all that we do.
Our team. I’ll start with the apology of being distant for a period and swerving seemingly obvious asks, that now make sense. You’re a brilliant bunch who would run through walls to make good. Continue being brilliant and thank you for believing it was possible.
My co-founder, my wife and mum of our daughter Beatrice. The continual show of unwavering belief, selflessness that saw you quit your own career to join me in our coffee table. The sacrifices made; holidays with us both having to work, not knowing if we would have the cash to pay for our wedding the night before, the 300-mile round trip to Nottingham every day for 2 years, paying ourselves last and the least of all our staff for years, the constant blurred line between home & work life. This new opportunity created for everyone, simply wouldn’t have happened without you by my side. You’re not a working mum, you’re a super mum. We did it. X
So that’s it, a new chapter and one that we are now excitedly back in the starting blocks, that finish line is nowhere near in sight.
Jordan Adams, CEO, oneninefive, now by Agent3.