Our Awkward Relationship With Competition

Naturally, in the business world, competition is a fact of life. But our regard for the competitive spirit is not all that cut-and-dried. While that spirit is innate to some, it is an uneasy fit for others. Many thrive on competition and honor it; others are unsettled by and avoid it. And while some business situations are an open competition understood by all spectators and participants, other situations may invoke judgment, criticism or a quarrel on ethics. As a whole, we have an awkward relationship with competition.

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.

3 comments about "Our Awkward Relationship With Competition ".
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  1. Richard Monihan, July 27, 2009 at 1:18 p.m.

    Competition exists to make us better, but completes the nature of business (and sport, etc.). In other words, what good is a sport (or business) without competition? The nature of the competition can vary. In golf, you are either competing against other players in a tournament, or you're competing against your best score (yourself). But you still have a form of competition to deal with. You have to mentally deal with items that are presented and alter your strategies to meet the varying degrees of difficulty you run into throughout the round(s). One mistake, and you face potential disaster (watch the Stewart Cink playoff with Tom Watson and see what I mean - Tom beat himself, thought Cink "beat" him). It seems to me, Nielsen views itself as playing golf against themselves, while comScore is seeing this as a wider competition.

    The letter from comScore matters little who sent it or who received it. comScore has to protect its business and that business means defining what they do and how they do it. I had huge problems with the Nielsen numbers when I was a client of theirs, and I never felt the revisions they were making to the panel were significant, beyond size. I can appreciate the response comScore's CMO issued because is was in line with my views and made me comfortable with my decision to change services early this year.

    The letter could have been sent out by sales, but if it was, then I'd have perceived it as "just another sales guy letting me know not to worry when maybe I should be worrying". The fact it was not from sales was meaningful and more credible.

    Given the nature of the letter, I don't see how it can be a matter of protesting too much. Given the focus on factual claims, it generates credibility and thus goes beyond mere routine business communication. It becomes a point of discussion for everyone concerned (including non-comScore clientele who will undoubtedly see the letter).

    Competition is always played by different rules - the "winner" is usually determined by whose rules fit the playing field more efficiently. Last week, for 71 holes, that was Tom Watson. For the 4 final holes, however, it was Stewart Cink. Part of competition is making the compilation of holes a WHOLE. To that end, comScore's letter was written with precision and care.

    Along those lines, I feel the message was well-designed and well thought out. I do feel, however, that comScore would have been served better by expanding it into a wider media campaign, as you suggested in your 2nd question. As a standalone, it makes me feel part of a campaign, it becomes a viable tool for growth.

    Overall, the tone of the letter was not combative, nor was it done in a style that was apologetic. It was done to define what comScore's values are - and it was done well in this regard.

    I'd say, if this is a 3 hole playoff, the first 2 holes have gone to comScore. That makes for some good competition.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 27, 2009 at 3:14 p.m.

    Kudos for the letter detailing specifics from the CMO. It represents that the person in such a position comprehends what its competition does and how it reports their actions to clients from macro-managing to those who need to micro-manage - yes, sales in particular. Addressing the situation as soon as possible to ward off explicit or implicit client assumptions is welcomed by the people who are responsible for client support. One of the first rules I learned in sales was "Know Thy Competition" and the ability to "read avails upside down" was a plus. (I learned how to have the client hand you the competitors avails even a better tool.;)

  3. Thorsten Rhode from marqueteer, July 27, 2009 at 7:23 p.m.

    Would we be having this discussion had incorporated this info into a 'comparative ad'? I don't think so. As an ad this information would also have been dismissed more easily (right?).

    So I commend comScore's CMO for this action -- putting the record straight is within everyone's right and, at least in this case, appears to benefit their customers as well.

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