New Business Battles: Why Can't Your Competitors Be Your Friends?

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“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” was advice given neither by Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu nor Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli. Rather, that dark counsel was written by screenwriters Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola, and put into the mouth of actor Al Pacino, who portrayed Michael Corleone in the epic "Godfather" movies. But if you run a company, whether that be a PR agency or otherwise, might it be smarter to recognize that your “enemies” (aka: competitors) could actually be as valuable as your “friends”?

keep-your-friends-close-but-your-enemies-closer.jpgConsider this: For years, our Minneapolis PR agency has puzzled clients by expressing respect for the PR agencies with whom we compete. In some cases, we’ve even advised a potential client to select another agency rather than ours, if we believed our rival would better fit their needs. Would your company ever dream of telling a sales prospect about the rivals that you most admire – even as you plan to hammer those companies into submission at the next sales or new business pitch?

Picture this scene: our PR agency was competing against strong two rivals – Padilla and Snow Communications – to win the business of a food company.  Our firm’s pitch was scheduled right after that of Snow, so our agency waited in the client’s lobby for that competitor’s pitch to be over. At the appointed time, the client and Josh Schneck, the president of Snow, walked down the stairs to signal that it was our time to do battle. At that moment, Josh and I – spying each other – gave each other what can only be described as a “bro” hug. The client, I admit, was taken aback – these two agencies are battling each other, so why are they exchanging high-fives with such laughing affection?   

The value of appreciating your competitors came home to me when Maccabee competed against two Twin Cities PR agencies for a national restaurant chain that had expressed dissatisfaction with its incumbent PR firm. All three of us challenger agencies went into overdrive, aggressively preparing to convince this chain why one agency was better than the other two. The final decision? The chain informed all three of our agencies that none of us would be chosen, and they would stay with their incumbent (with whom they parted ways a few months later). And what did our three rival agencies do after that loss? Called each other up, met at the bar inside Crave and licked our wounds together over some very fine wine and pasta.

paul-maccabee-steve-shapiro.jpgWhen Steve Shapiro and I co-founded Maccabee Public Relations 21 years ago (see Steve and I above at our agency's anniversary party), we were told that our best sources of new business referrals might be attorneys, venture capital executives, graphic designers or search consultants. Not true. Client referrals are #1, but referrals from competitors are a close #2. And, not surprisingly, we’ve referred hundreds of thousands of dollars of new client revenue back to our favorite competitors. Sound crazy to you?

Don't Be Shy: You Can Tweet About Your Competition

When we suggest that our clients refrain from talking only about themselves on social media – and, in fact, suggest that on occasion they might praise their biggest competitors – they express incredulity of the “WTF” variety. However, followers of our agency’s social media channels may have observed that we happily share in the success of our opponents. Maccabee has tweeted and blogged about our most potent rivals, featuring quotes from competitors such as Doug Spong of Spong PR; CEO Fred Haberman of Haberman; Teresa McFarland of GdB Pitch; Jorg Pierach of Fast Horse; Alexis Walsko of Lola Red; and Kelly Puspoki, a veteran of three competitors: FleishmanHillard, Olson and Weber Shandwick.

Why would you possibly talk about your competitors on your own channels? Well, because:

  • That’s what confident industry leaders do. It shows you’re unafraid as you step into the ring with your competitors.
  • It demonstrates to clients that you’re part of a professional community – and by hiring you, they can benefit from a network of friendly rivals.
  • It reveals a generosity of spirit that potential clients appreciate. Clients know that if you bad mouth your competitors, it’s only a matter of time before you might badmouth them.

In Closing

A final story about compassionate competition: Years ago, I asked my then-boss Dave Mona, head of Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin (now Weber Shandwick), if our new business team could pursue a prominent retailer in the Twin Cities. To my surprise, Dave declined to go after that business, but for a reason I never saw coming.  He confided to me that a small PR firm was already serving the chain. If Dave’s larger agency took that client away, it would be a devastating blow to the little agency. So, Dave decided, he’d rather pass on the new client rather than destroy someone else’s PR business. I was stunned. I never forgot Mona’s principled stand, nor his obvious respect for the agencies with whom he so successfully competed. 

After more than two decades running a public relations and online marketing agency, I’ve concluded that our competitors aren’t even close to being an agency’s #1 "enemy." Instead, complacency is. Not learning from our own failures is. Not admiring what our rivals do better and absorbing their excellence to make us more successful competitors is. And the closer I can get to my rivals, the more we can serve our clients more effectively.  

More than anything, treating your competitors with respect means you’re learning from your rivals. I’ve attended national martial arts tournaments and marveled at how Tae Kwan Do competitors fight their opponents with blazing force and ferocity, striving to dominate them in the ring. But, once the match is over, the fighters shake hands, hug and sometimes discuss what worked and didn’t work.  
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As Sun Tzu said: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” And if you can transform your "enemy" into a friend who forces you to up your own game? Then you’ve already won the most important battle, no matter what the outcome might be.  

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  PR Perspectives

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