Arlene Dickinson on her new ad venture: Believeco:Partners

A new 300-person agency player appeared in Canadian adland on Thursday, with big hopes to grow quickly—and the deep pockets to make that goal a reality.

Believeco:Partners was created through the merger of six independent Canadian agencies: Venture Play, Argyle, Brightworks, Zync, Revolve and Castlemain.

Long-time Venture CEO Arlene Dickinson (and Dragon’s Den star to much of the non-advertising world), is executive chair of the new business, while Brightworks founder Neil Follett (left in top photo) has been appointed CEO. Daniel Tisch (second from right) is co-managing partner and CEO of Argyle, while managing director of shared services Stefan Moores (right) rounds out its four-person executive team.

Four of the founding agency brands, Venture Play, Brightworks, Revolve and Zync, will disappear and operate as one full-service ad agency, Believeco, with particular strength in health, wellness, food and beverage sectors. While still part of Believeco:Partners, PR agency Argyle, and Castlemain, which specializes in Indigenous communities and communications, will retain their brands.

The Message spoke with Dickinson at length on Thursday afternoon to learn a little more about the deal: why she did it, why these agencies, and what will happen next.

The roots of the deal go back a couple of years, when Dickinson started considering merging Venture with other agencies.

“I was thinking about the future and what I wanted to do with the business, and where I wanted to take it next,” she said. Selling to a holding company didn’t appeal to her because she believed in the importance of independent agencies, but she also knew Venture needed “strength and depth” to thrive.

“I started to think about this idea of consolidating independent shops,” she said. “And I thought, ‘I can’t be the only one that’s wondering what does the next 10 years or 35 years look like? How do you manage that?’”

Dickinson reached out to other independent owners and quickly found a lot of interest. She soon found the six partners willing to join together, but they are just the start of things for Believeco; they want to expand, and have about $60 million in funding to make it happen, thanks to an investment from the Canadian Business Growth Fund (which has taken a minority stake in the company).

“We always look for ambition in the entrepreneurs we invest in,” said CBGF’s CEO George Rossolatos in the release announcing the deal. “Believeco:Partners not only has an impressive and experienced business at launch, they have an innovative plan to scale independents and create value—for clients and for Canadian business as a whole.”

Here’s some of the other highlights from our chat with Dickinson, who talked about the partners and motivations behind Believeco, and where things go from here.

Does it make you sad that Venture is gone? Are you sentimental about those kinds of things?

“No, I don’t think I’m sentimental in that way,” she said. “I was really so happy that I was able to do something for the team and the clients, and make it go to the next level… I mean, certainly it’s going to be difficult to think that Venture doesn’t exist after 35 years of running it, but then I think about what’s in front of the team, and I get super excited.”

Why these six partners? Was it about the people? The focus of the services?

“It’s certainly about the people, that we can work with each other,” she said. But it was also about geographic and discipline representation: Revolve is based on the East Coast for example, while Brightworks specializes in healthcare, Venture has focused on food and health CPG, while Castlemain brings expertise in Indigenous issues. “The most important issue facing our country is reconciliation with Indigenous people, so having Castlemain as a component of Believeco, was just so compelling to me,” said Dickinson.

The press release says the deal is “powered by an investment by Canadian Business Growth Fund.” What does that mean exactly and what is the ownership structure.

“It is majority owned by the entrepreneurs from each of the shops,” said Dickinson. “The outside investment was $60 million led by CBGF who has taken a minority equity position. The majority of the shares are owned by the entrepreneurs from each agency who sold their businesses, then rolled a significant portion from the sale into Believeco:Partners.”

What is your role as executive chair?

“I’m going to focus on mergers and acquisitions… because there’s a real growth opportunity in front of us. So that’s where I’ll be. I won’t be running the day-to-day at the agencies in any way.”

So this is just the start of what you want Believeco to be?  

“100% this is just the start,” she said. “We are focused on bringing in other independent leaders and shops that can help us with, like I said, geographic reach and disciplinary expertise…

“We are well funded, we’re going to be able to have the dollars to acquire, and we’re going to be able to bring people in and partner, just like we did, who will roll some of their equity into this.

“It is different than some of the other consolidation plays, where you just have a lot of money at play and somebody is out there buying shops, and they were trying to jam EBITDA together versus trying to create something that the partners run.”

Can you say what your short-term targets are?

“In the short term, I would say it’s going to come from adding disciplinary expertise that builds up bench strength in specific areas—whether that’s media, whether that’s digital, whether that’s analytics,” she said. “We have the strength now, but we want to continue to build that strength to be competitive, so probably in those areas.”

Zooming out a bit, what do clients need today that you think Believeco can give them?

The industry has become increasingly crowded by firms and technology focused on automating marketing, data and analytics, she said.

Believeco is about strategy and the ability to understand a client’s business from an entrepreneurial or leadership perspective. “That skill set is very rare, and it’s becoming increasingly rare because nobody is spending time focusing on it.

“If I look at the marketing and communications industry over the next five to 10 years, I think what you’re going to see become increasingly rare is exactly what we offer—which is that partnership that actually understands your business… Yes, we’re doing it with the data. Yes, we’re doing it with all the tools and the technology, but not at the expense of strategy and human interaction.

“Too many firms are headed to efficiencies through technology, and not enough through thinking and actually adding value through strategy and your ability to really influence and change the direction of the businesses you serve.”

David Brown