When Blue Engine Message & Media and JDA Frontline merged in 2018, the firms decided they would rebrand under a new name to better capture the essence of the sum as greater than the parts. In this episode, Trevor Francis discusses the opportunities and challenges that the merger has presented.
In particular, Trevor talks about how the team settled on Seven Letter as the new name for the business, how the integration process has been going, and the unique aspects of bringing together two agencies with differing partisan leanings.
- Chip: “How many four letter words were there before you got to seven?”
- Trevor: Rebrands are “a lot more complicated today than it was even a decade ago. You’re not only thinking about what your brand says about who you are and what you do, but you’re also thinking about the extensions of that brand on social handles and URLs. “
- Trevor: “Every single person in our firm participated in this process.”
- Trevor: “Business relationships are marriages, and I think as you enter into the kinds of agreements that Blue Engine and JDA did, you have to make sure that there is a common culture and a common purpose.”
About Trevor Francis
Trevor Francis has more than two decades of experience working at the intersection of politics, government and public relations.
At Seven Letter, Trevor specializes in corporate reputation and issue management, and is responsible for a number of issue, advocacy and cause campaigns aimed at shaping public perception and influencing government decision-making. Previously, Trevor served as President of JDA Frontline, which merged with Blue Engine Message & Media in 2018 to form Seven Letter. (more)
CHIP: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Chats with Chip podcast. I am your host, Chip Griffin. And my guest today is Trevor Francis. Trevor is the founding partner of Seven Letter in Washington, D C. Welcome to the show Trevor.
TREVOR: Great to be here, Chip. Thank you.
CHIP: It is great to have you here. I am really excited for this conversation because there’s a lot going on. But start by telling us a little bit if you would about a Seven Letter and and what it is, how it came to be.
TREVOR: Sure. So Seven Letter is really sort of the byproduct of a merger between two firms that we began about this time last year. Actually, it was October of last year where we finalized the agreement to merge what had been historically a Democratic leaning firm with what was a historically Republican leaning firm. Blue Engine was on the democratic side, JDA Frontline was on the Republican side. And while neither firm did political work, all of our bio’ and backgrounds were [inaudible] in sort of Republican and democratic politics.
TREVOR: And one of the things that sort of led to the merger is we found ourselves increasingly sort of in a divided Washington and anyone that looks at the news sees that we are more polarized than ever. However, clients expect that their consultants are united and integrated based on partisan affiliation and experience. So we found ourselves at JDA Frontline where I was leading the firm increasingly having to partner with democratic firms. And having partnered with Blue Engine on a number of different clients in the past, it sort of stood to reason that we would start talking about ways of integrating our two firms under a single umbrella. And that’s really what was the catalyst for the merger and the change of the name to Seven Letter.
CHIP: So in an environment where it’s increasingly polarized where you’ve got Republicans and Democrats, red and blue, you’ve essentially bucked the trend by becoming purple.
TREVOR: That’s exactly right. And you know, Chip, and a lot of it depends on the nature of the work. You know, I would say probably two thirds of our business is public affairs oriented work and that’s really where you need to be purple. Or at least clients expect you to have purple perspectives and purple backgrounds. The reputation management, some of the branding, some of this sort of the issue work we do that is non public affairs oriented, it’s probably a little less important to have bipartisanship. But in Washington where most of our book of business, our clients that are trying to navigate the policy or regulatory climate either here in this city or in state capitals around the United States, being a purple firm, was sort of a… It wasn’t a nice to have. It was a must have. And that was really what prompted the discussions and got us to where we are today.
CHIP: And obviously as you came together and you decided to come up with a new name, that was quite a process. And so I’m curious to learn more about that and I’m curious to learn how many four letter words were uttered before you got to Seven Letters.
TREVOR: That’s a great question. Well, so one of the things about rebrands is I think it’s a lot more complicated today than it was even a decade ago. You’re not only thinking about what your brand says about who you are and what you do, but you’re also thinking about the extensions of that brand on social handles, on URLs. So you have to think about how your name and how your positioning is reflected on all of the channels that you use to communicate, not just in a one on one conversation with your clients.
TREVOR: So when we started this process, we had kind of a hybrid it was Blue Engine plus JDA for about seven months as we were developing the brand. One, we decided to do this ourselves because this is work that we do for our clients. So we thought that this was a great exercise for us to do as a combined firm. And Chip really, every single person in our firm participated in this process. I think from the very beginning of the onboarding. We had some offsites, we started thinking about the attributes of who we are as a firm, the work we do, what we wanted to convey in a name. You know, a lot of public affairs firms of which by the way, we’ve identified more than 300 self identified public affairs firms in this space. So it’s a highly competitive market.
TREVOR: So we wanted to have something that stood out from the pack and really spoke to the kinds of work that we do and who we are as a firm. And we arrived at Seven Letter after going through about 210 names none of them really spoke to us in a way that again got to who we are and what we do. But, kind of funny story, we realized on a chalkboard that a lot of the words that we were using to describe what we do, content, digital insight, message, counsel, success results all happened to have Seven Letters. So that really was what were the driver was in us adopting that as the new name of the firm.
CHIP: And that must have been quite the moment when you sat around and you realized, “Hey we might have something here.”
TREVOR: It really was. And I think this process, I think we always thought that we would know it when we saw it and that’s exactly it. That came to fruition when we arrived at Seven Letter there were a lot of names that spoke to a couple individuals along the way, but they weren’t really consensus builders. And you know, one of the things we really run this firm by is consensus, consensus driven conversations. Internally we like to have consensus as it relates to the council we give to our clients. So we thought it was really important that when we arrived at something, everyone saw it as an accurate representation of what we were trying to do and say about our firm. And that’s exactly, it was a giant aha moment in the conference room.
CHIP: It’s something that stands out too, particularly in the public affairs space where most firm names are either of the partner’s names or some variation on red or blue or something about advocacy or public affairs right in the name. And so you’ve managed to come up with something that I think stands out a little bit more.
TREVOR: That’s a great point Chip. You know, and we looked at all… You know, we did a lot of benchmarking about how other firms don’t only talk about their work but sort of what they call themselves and you’re right. A lot of them are… They feed off of partisan affiliations. They are individuals names. A lot of them are location specific. They find some abstract monument or river in Washington DC and called themselves after that.
TREVOR: You know, a lot of our work though in public affairs is changing. You know, there was a time where most of our time would be spent talking to reporters and now it’s more creative services across a multitude of different platforms. Whether that is on digital or content development for our clients, internal channels to the traditional media relations work. We wanted to speak something that not only spoke to who we are but the creativity that we are trying to show to our clients. And we thought Seven Letter got at that.
CHIP: And it also strikes me that the public affairs space as has been evolving in other ways too. Where as it used to be 20, 30 years ago when I first got involved, it was highly focused on legislation, regulation, that sort of stuff. It now has branched out more into general corporate reputation, crisis communications, corporate responsibility, a whole suite of other things that that really come into the picture.
TREVOR: That’s exactly right. And I think the smart industries and companies that are engaging in this space are not only thinking about it the way that you just articulated your question, but they’re getting ahead of the legislative process by decades or years. You know, I think we all could think back in the 90s when Microsoft found themselves being scrutinized by the regulatory bodies in Washington. They never saw a need to play here in this town. And I think we could all agree that they paid a price for it. Industries are getting smarter about how and when they engage here. We’re seeing the same thing, Chip, in state capitals as well where the lethargy of Washington is completely the inverse in state capitals where you could have a bill introduced, heard and voted on within a couple of days.
TREVOR: So it’s really a dynamic environment. The one other thing I’ll say about that too is the traditional lobbying firms have had to change how they operate in this space too. Lobbying firms for a long time, their value proposition to clients where the relationships they had among staff and among lawmakers and congressmen, state capitals, they are increasingly getting into the content business as well. You know, they… A lot of them are doing what we do to some degree, whether it’s on digital or on content. So you know, we found ourselves with an entirely new competitive set in the public affairs space and we needed make sure that we had a business strategy and a name that reflects that market dynamic.
CHIP: And from a purely business standpoint, I think a lot of public affairs firms, particularly those that are focused on the federal space, have really needed to start looking elsewhere. Whether it’s to the states for the more dynamic atmosphere that you mentioned there or out into other areas because the DC market has become… So what’s the best, most diplomatic word to use? Uncertain, shall we say in the last few years. And that has led to a lot of public affairs firms taking financial hits.
TREVOR: That’s exactly right. One thing though is the uncertainty of the market though it’s actually interesting, Chip is we’re seeing a little bit of a change in that. There’s been a couple of studies done by various organizations that found that despite sort of the political and… Sort of the gridlock that I think we’ve come to realize, or the uncertainty and the regulatory and policy climate. You know, companies and industries are starting to think that that’s going to break in the near future.
TREVOR: Now some of that is tied to an election that we’re going to have next year and maybe people are reading the tea leaves as to maybe who gets elected or what party’s in control. But we’re seeing more companies engage in this space, even if there isn’t a bill right now. Because they recognize and at some point either there will be lawmakers with an interest in their industry or increasingly Chip companies and industries are using legislation as an offensive weapon against their competition. And we see that a lot in the states. It’s a great way to try to get a business practice that your competitors using to get banned or modified. If you’re the first mover in introducing legislation and putting your competition at the defense from the beginning, it’s a new use of public affairs.
CHIP: So now let’s talk a little bit about the integration or the firms. Obviously anytime you’re integrating two businesses, there are challenges. And I’m not looking for you to air the dirty laundry about who didn’t like their office placement or the view out their window or that kind of stuff. But what advice would you have for an agency owner who’s listening, who is maybe going through their own merger process or considering a merger? There’s a lot of things that you don’t know until you have to go through it and I’d be interested in your advice for those folks.
TREVOR: Sure. Well I think first and foremost I would say culture is king. Business relationships are marriages. And I think as you enter into the kinds of agreements that Blue Engine and JDA did, you have to make sure that there’s a common culture and a common purpose. The upside of that is I had a firsthand look at through our partnerships in the past, a lot of the sort of the Blue Engine people and cultural sense. So that was really important. A lot of the listeners to this podcast may not have an understanding of the kinds of agreements and arrangements they may be making but having similar culture is really important. And what I mean by that is the particulars as to how you enhance culture may differ from firm to firm, but making sure that there’s this common commitment to people, to even things like in our space Chip, neither firm, as an example billed hourly. I can’t imagine how two firms, one of which is counting by the quarter hour and one is retainer based, sort of come to terms with what that approach is.
TREVOR: So I think trying to find commonalities in culture and their impact on the business is really important. It secondly is again it’s… We did a lot of screening, we started the conversations between myself and the three other founding partners about seven months before we closed the agreement. And a lot of that time was spent looking at our respective businesses, looking at our client rosters, figuring out one, are there areas of conflict that we would have to navigate? All of that actually went surprisingly well. We were conflict free from the very beginning. So those are things that we did not have to negotiate. But I think as firms are looking at agreements similar to the ones that we ex entered into. Those types of things are really important.
TREVOR: And then third sort of the business plan moving forward. You know, we entered this agreement, our number one priority as I mentioned earlier. You know this year is the first year that we are one integrated firm. While we closed the merger on November 1, of 2018 we had separate PNLs for a couple months. This will be our first calendar year. We didn’t really set aggressive growth targets or financial numbers. I would say we’re doing very well, but we wanted to make sure that our priority was on the integration and not take it one step further and start… We thought that the aspirational growth and revenue goals would come over time. We’re realizing them earlier than we thought we would and that’s good. But again, we’re been completely committed to making sure that our processes and things that… And adopting the best practices from each firm and constantly sort of fine tuning what we’re doing in terms of personnel reviews and client satisfaction studies and those types of things. Sort of to adopt a similar approach as we move forward.
CHIP: Well, I think one of the things that you made a great point of there is that a merger is like a marriage. And I would say it’s the same. You know, whether you’re merging two firms or you’re just bringing on a new partner in your firm or you’re starting something with another individual. You really need to think of it from that perspective. And so as you said listeners need to understand what they need to have from a paperwork perspective. And this is not the show to go into that, but you just know that if you’re going to have a partnership or a merger, make sure there are all sorts of documents that lay out what happens if it goes wrong. Because that’s fundamentally what those documents are for. But more importantly, from a business perspective, making sure that you have that shared vision, that that shared approach to things really makes everything go much more smoothly. And if you’re working at cross purposes, it’s going to fail.
TREVOR: Completely agree. That’s a great point. And on the paperwork we didn’t start the paperwork until probably five months into the conversations. Because as you said, Chip know, making sure that there is the common purpose, making sure that you have… I would say we had weekly meetings between myself and the three other founding partners that lasted two to three hours at a time for four or five months. You know, thinking through really every aspect of what a combined firm would need to do and look like.
TREVOR: And it was in those conversations where you build the chemistry with one another, you understand what unique roles each of those partners are going to play in a combined entity. So you’re right, that paperwork should be the last piece. But again, if anyone listening to this podcast is in a similar position, making sure that you have that chemistry and mutual trust across both sides of the table is really a foundational element before any paperwork is exchanged.
CHIP: Right. And you never really know until you’re fully integrated how those things play out. But you can get a good sense and if you’re not having extensive conversations in advance, that’s a problem. You’d never want to rush into any kind of a partnership or a merger because you can make a lot of bad decisions that way.
TREVOR: That’s right. The other thing, back to one of the questions you asked earlier though is the other thing that both firms were very thoughtful of is how, and when we rolled this out to our employees. A JDA Frontline was 12 people at the time. Blue Engine was about just under 20. Both firms had a lot of people that had spent considerable amounts of time being employed at those respective firms. So we were very thoughtful about how we rolled this out.
TREVOR: You know, I think everything we said has proven to be true about under one umbrella being a force multiplier, more opportunities, more clients for some of our team members that are relatively early on in their career, having an expanded peer set was something that was very important to them. Being two somewhat boutiquey firms when you add in four or five people that could be considered to your peers, that was a really important dynamic and it’s proven to be really successful. So that’s the other piece to look at when you enter these agreements too is the impact. It’s more than just the principals. It’s everybody that you’re trying to bring with you as well as the clients.
CHIP: And so what advice would you give on how soon you communicate this to folks how do you do it what were some of the key questions, because I think that’s an area having been through this process myself on both sides, having acquired and been the acquirer, there are lots of questions that the team often has and navigating that can be a challenge.
TREVOR: Of course. And change is difficult for a lot of people. And you know, you have to be sensitive to that. I think first the advice I would give is the more often you communicate, the better off you are. Even if everything is not done. You know, we started communicating with our respective firms probably about a month or two before the deal was closed. We thought it was important to let them know that there was an opportunity that each of us were exploring to combine into one single entity.
TREVOR: We didn’t have answers to some of the questions that were asked at that point, whether it was are we moving office locations too? Are we going to have titles? All of those things were to unveiled later on. But we thought it was very important for us to inform our respective teams about the conversations that the four of us were having. And to actually end it, I think that it had the benefit of building excitement about what we were trying to build because we were very transparent about the why and the who and the what. And I think when everybody sort of saw what we were doing from the very beginning, they saw that [inaudible 00:18:36] not only have a personal stake in the outcome of the discussions, but they got really excited about the prospect of working together in a bigger scale.
CHIP: Well, and I think one of the things you said there was particularly key, Trevor, which is, if you don’t know, just say you don’t know. Because the way that you always get in trouble in any kind of communications, whether it’s external or internal, is by making stuff up. And making promises that you can’t keep and all those sorts of things. So even though uncertainty can be uncomfortable, it’s often best to just communicate that you’re not sure exactly how something’s going to work out, rather than have it work out differently because you’ve guessed wrong.
TREVOR: Great point. And I think we uttered those words quite a bit. And the other bit of advice I think we would offer in this conversation as well is you having been through this as well as, I think it’s okay to say you don’t know, but I think one of the things I found myself saying to our team quite a bit was “This is the first time I’ve ever done this.” So we’re figuring it out.
TREVOR: You also ask for input. I think that was another thing too, particularly on the side side where we had some team members that got immediately excited, but the way to sort of temper any anxiety, even if they weren’t demonstrating that was to get their input about things that we should be considering and things that we should do as part of an integrated firm. And that was really valuable as well. So no nobody was caught by surprise when we actually made the announcement. I think we wanted to make sure that everyone was bought in. In fact, I think we did some of our first sort of team integration events before the press release went out and it generated some news coverage.
CHIP: And when you have a small to medium size businesses, it’s often challenging to keep secrets, right? So if you’ve got a Fortune 500 company and they’re merging with another you can keep that to a relatively small set and you’ll probably be okay. The line employees probably aren’t going to find out at least until the media gets it. But when you talk about companies with 10 or 20 employees it’s just the sheer nature of the activity you have to go through in advance of a merger is likely to tip people off. So you’re unwise to try to keep it secret for too long.
TREVOR: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. The one thing I would say kind of where we are now though and after a year is we’re… The other advice is you continually fine tune the processes that you’ve put in place from day one. And that’s exactly where we find ourselves down. We are starting our first review cycle. We are a year in it’s typical in agency life that your contracts are annualized, typically tied to the end of the year. So sort of determining sort of client satisfaction and sort of beginning of the renewal process, which was a little bit different from each of the firms. So the evolution continues but you, and there are things that we have done that we set in place maybe the end of last year, that we’re going to probably rethink overtime.
TREVOR: So I would encourage folks to not… It’s okay to move back to things that you had decided and agreed upon in the past in an effort to fine tune them moving forward. And I think that that’s just a commonality of the business. And there’s also things you learn too. I would say that the back of the office integration is something that I would also encourage you… Firms have, you know, in our case as well, we had very different ways of invoicing and expenses and things. And those are the kinds of things that you never have enough time to integrate. So I would say that you kind of asked a question that got to lessons learned. Those are the kinds of things that even starting that process a little earlier. I think we learned along a lot along the way and that’s one of them. You can’t start those types of things early enough.
CHIP: Well I guess it’s been almost a year now, not quite, but 11 months or so since. What, what do you wish you had known then that you now know? Anything?
TREVOR: Great question. I think one thing we do know now is as a combined offering, we have realized business that we would not have gotten individually. So I think that sort of take that question and apply it to the before the merger, I think we’re realizing the market potential. And this is other advice I would give to your listeners too. There are things that you can do from a business standpoint that…
TREVOR: So that was one of the learnings, right? Is having an integrated offering with the same business cards opens doors that we didn’t have. And while that was always the plan of the merger, I think seeing it in practice was really reaffirming. So that’s one thing. And I think again, back to the conversation about process, we’re going to be fine tuning things as other as businesses typically do. And it may take another year or two to get every aspect sort of the way that we want it moving forward. But it’s an evolution and it’s an exciting one. And as a consensus driven, we’re taking a lot of feedback from our employees about things like review process for example and those things and we’re going to apply them moving forward. And so yeah, it’s really exciting.
CHIP: Well this is, this has been a a great conversation. I think you’ve offered lots of great advice for agency owners who may be going through a merger process or thinking about it somewhere down the road. So I really appreciate it. If someone would like to learn more about you, Trevor, or Seven Letter, where should they go online to learn more?
TREVOR: Website is sevenLetter.com and our firm’s bio’s and background and an intro video that gets to sort of how we arrived at the name could all be found there.
CHIP: Excellent. Well we’ll include links to all of that in the show notes, so have no fear if you are on the treadmill or in the car, you do not need to crash off just to take down notes. It’ll be right there in the show notes. So again, my guest today has been Trevor Francis, the founding partner of Seven Letter in Washington, D C.
TREVOR: Thank you, Chip.