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Competitors: with friends like these, who needs enemies?

Hoo-boy, can I hold a grudge. Don’t get me wrong, most people who know me use words like ‘friendly’, ‘easy-going’ and ‘laidback’. But that’s just a persona. The real me, the one that’s DNA-level deep, will quietly note the details of when you wronged me and Never. Let. It. Go.

To be fair, my enemy list is not a long one. But it is permanent.

In the professional realm, it includes:
  • The writer who relentlessly steals yet often gets in touch when they need something to help them personally in their career. (Sorry, forgot to respond to your email).
  • The Marketing Director who closed their eyes and held their hand up to my face as I was presenting concepts to them, in a very large room full of my bosses, peers and clients. (Never spending another moment on one of your briefs).
  • And the Creative Director who conspired to manoeuvre me out of a global role in New York that I’d already been hired for. (Still looking for an opportunity to kill you in your sleep*).

Perhaps it’s a function of toxic, hierarchical, holding-company-owned big-agency culture, but almost everyone on my list comes from my time spent in toxic, hierarchical, holding-company-owned big-agencies. Or maybe it’s the realisation that, as a specialist agency founder and owner, making enemies is a luxury you can ill afford.

That’s not to say the opportunity to create new enemies doesn’t present itself when you’re ‘free range’. We recently found ourselves in the flummoxing situation of discovering a valued client and self-described ‘fan of the business’ suddenly appear one Monday morning in direct competition to us, beating us on a pitch we thought we’d won.

Much head scratching and pacing (and, if I’m honest, revenge-plotting) later, my business partner showed me an email he’d already sent to our fledgling competition. It was a ‘congratulations’ note, containing the offer of a meet up to see how we might be able to collaborate or support them on the project they’d just won, or on their new venture, more broadly.

I thought it was madness – I hadn’t even had time to put my top 5 revenge/sabotage ideas in a PowerPoint and present them to the team.

Turns out it wasn’t madness. More like genius.

My partner had spent a moment in someone else’s shoes and recognised what that person most needed as they went through the risky, stressful, exciting and often frustrating process of starting up a professional services business: support.

Our newest competitor replied almost immediately. He’d been expecting a barrage of criticism from the fiercely competitive agencies that were his super-friendly vendors as recently as last Friday. And he probably got some.

We were among the first to express admiration, (obviously, they’d done something right to win their very first pitch) and an offer of assistance. We outlined where the obvious conflicts were (no surprises there), but quickly moved on to areas where we knew we were stronger and suspected a start-up might not yet have the depth.

No strangers to collaboration and specialisation, we opened the door to discussions around how we might join forces to defeat some of our other, more established foes in the market. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that.

Tactically, we lost out on a small executional project, which would have been nice for cash flow and relationship-building, but in the bigger, more strategic picture, we gained another potential ally and sales channel for our core service offerings.

During the discussions we also gained deep insight into how a segment of our audience really behave and how they make decisions, insights we had been struggling to uncover on our own. We also learnt our newest competitor had struck out on their own largely for personal reasons very similar to the reasons that motivate us to stay small and independent. How can you begrudge someone who shares the same philosophy?

You could put it down to an overdose of instantly forgettable inspirational quotes on LinkedIn, or perhaps I’m just running out of energy to grudge or maybe it’s become massively obvious that there is far too much hating going on, in general, of late.

The better explanation is that it doesn’t take much effort to look beyond the knee-jerk hyper-competitive ‘crush everyone’ macho business mania as espoused by Vaynerchuk and his ilk and think how both of you might possibly find a win, together.

* I jest, obvs.

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