I was reminded of this last week, watching several of my circles debate the letter sent by comScore's CMO Linda Abraham to the company's client base. The letter countered one-by-one a number of factual claims made by Nielsen in its announcement of improvements to its panel. That announcement, made earlier this month, characterized the company as holding the "largest, most representative online audience measurement panel" in the industry. Contents of the comScore letter aside -- though it dissects every one of Nielsen's assertions of superiority and is an interesting read if you've seen it -- here are the questions that came up regarding Abraham's counter-move:
1. Is it appropriate for the CMO to send such a letter directly to the client base?
2. What if it had been paired with a counter marketing and media campaign?
3. Should this have come from the sales force instead of from her?
4. Is this tacky?
5. Is this a case of thou doth protest too much?
6. Does the fact that the letter focuses only on factual claims make it simply routine business communications?
7. If a competitor issues statements that another feels factually untrue, is there an outright obligation to send out such a letter?
8. Is this too transparently competitive?
And on and on went the debate.
Personally, I felt that an internal letter to the client base, considering the nature of the claims, was appropriate. Like many, on issues of style, I might have handled a few things differently. But was I bothered by the outward competitiveness? No. Why? Because Nielsen and comScore are, well, competitors. And, as a matter of fact, answering to each other and to the greater market, is a timely call and response. Data integrity is a very current affair. And, by sending this letter, Abraham armed her sales force in a way that they should be armed in today's marketplace. There is a difference between being baldly, vapidly competitive and all parties wanting to keep the record straight and information in order.
Competition Doesn't Have To Be Awkward
There are two other instances of our dealing with competition and its potential awkwardness that are especially interesting right now: "coopetition" and the ever-popular "non-compete" agreement. Both bear greater ramifications in a market like this one, where it is our collective hope that business at large will continue to flourish.
On coopetition, challenging economic times inspire those more industrious to work with partners in new ways, often forging cooperative relationships with the competition. That is, where mutual value can be hatched. The capacity to even embrace such structures requires a person and a company to have a pretty healthy relationship with the principle of competition in the first place.
Namely, this is an ability to look above the foot race and upward to the bigger picture. If you played certain sports in school -- track & field, swimming -- you learned early the value of cooperative competition, where individual and team success are separate yet related. In the business world, we see this type of arrangement a lot in the fields of technology, media, data management --- and certainly where these fields intersect.
Most of us have had some experience with the animal that is the non-compete agreement: issuing, adhering to, or navigating its gray areas. In a world where most of us have such a diversity of business dealings, where the stakes are high and opportunity is rampant, such agreements can feel punitive, unduly awkward and muddying to the marketplace.
And everyone seems to play from a different rulebook. For example, the restricting party often does not even lay a creative hand on business to further develop what is off-limits to another party. Opportunity off-limits to one and squandered by another at the expense of a client's greater success is a pity. While constraining your competition and protecting fairness absolutely does have value, idling opportunity in this market is awkward to watch.
Our relationship with competition is curious. We all acknowledge it as a tenet of the business world, yet we must know that there are no universal rules. Even those of us who have always considered ourselves competitive know that this professional value has a mixed reputation. And so, on playing fields small and large, we just have to deal based on instinct and experience, and see how the game goes down.