Earlier this year, best-selling author Daniel Pink released an enormously popular book on the psychology of sales, "To Sell is Human." In his introduction, Pink says that while one in nine U.S. workers has a job focused on persuading someone to make a purchase, the other eight are also in sales. They just don't know it.
Of course, Pink isn't a revolutionary for saying that. "We're all in sales" is a common refrain from CEOs, sales executives and small business owners, and in today's competitive market, it's easy for most people to understand and digest. But if you're in middle-market M&A, this mantra needs to be tweaked a bit: "We're all in marketing."
If you read this magazine or our expanded coverage on TheMiddleMarket.com, you know that differentiation in mid-market M&A is not a new challenge. The term JAMBOG, for "just another mid-market buyout group," has been around for more than 15 years, and has often been referenced in discussions about the dynamic of too much money chasing too few opportunities. Intermediaries, lenders and service providers have historically faced similar obstacles, although perhaps not to the same degree as private equity firms.
Following an active fourth quarter in 2012, the first half of this year hasn't seen much of a pickup in M&A activity compared to the prior year. But with company debt levels low and the financing markets loosening up, there's an expectation that the second half will be more active. Even so, the second half won't have nearly enough deal flow to change the lopsided buyer-to-seller ratio that exists in the middle market. It's not just the usual suspects having capital to deploy; it's the big firms heading downstream, corporate acquirers and the regular churn of private equity pros breaking away from funds to launch new investment vehicles.
While some funds and investment banks have done a decent job boosting their online presence and maintaining a presence at the Association for Corporate Growth and other mid-market events, those activities aren't enough anymore to get a PE fund into a deal process, or for an intermediary to get traction with a seller. Talking about how big your fund is or how many deals you've done hasn't been sufficient for years now. People want to know what type of organization you have - your transactional sweet spot, specific successes you've had in the past and why their company would be a good fit for a particular buyer.
In many cases, they also want to know who your key players are, and specifically which partner in the fund and which banker at the firm will be involved in your deal. You can rest assured that if you're being considered for a mandate, the partners in your firm are being heavily Googled. That's why more firms are investing in thought leadership, content-driven marketing, so they can position their professionals as experts.
"Okay, I get your points, and I get 'we all are in marketing,' but I have 100 other things to worry about, and marketing isn't my job function. We have an outside public relations agency that handles our media coverage, and we have a partner at the firm who handles the limited marketing we do. The middle market is all about relationships, which is why I'm on the road 35 weeks a year. There's only so much time for me to worry about marketing."
If you agree with that sentiment, my question for you is: How do you define marketing? If it's simply getting some press when you do a deal and sponsoring a conference, then yes, find outsourced options to do that and keep using your phenomenal relationship-building skills to get your next deal. But to me, good marketing means you have a well-articulated message that is delivered consistently through every channel-from your corporate web site to the elevator pitch that your first-year associates can recite to the family business owner he meets at a friend's wedding.