Should you ever hire a competitor?

John Moore at Brand Autopsy notes a case of one ad agency hiring another to solve its branding issues.

According to Ad Age, Campbell-Mithun, a Minneapolis-based advertising agency that’s been around since the 1930s, recently hired another ad agency to solve its branding/positioning issues. (Yep, you read that right…)

Unable to define or articulate why Campbell-Mithun is indispensable and how they go about helping improve the branding/marketing efforts of their clients, Campell-Mithun hired Cue, a Minneapolis-based ad agency, to solve for these communication issues.


John offers his own thoughts, and suggests that people shouldn’t hire an ad agency that can’t solve its own issues. I see his point, but at the same time, I see the other side of the coin, and I wonder aloud which side should win out. In a kind of point/counterpoint fashion, I want to consider both sides.

Bad Idea
1. Hiring a competitor implies you aren’t capable of doing the work yourself — at least, that’s the most common assumption. It could be that you’re too busy, but it’s less likely that outsiders will see it that way.
2. Hiring a competitor means you have to give them a very close look at your own inner workings and trade secrets. I think if your inner workings can’t stand scrutiny, that’s a problem on its own… but it’s still an uncomfortable position.
3. Hiring a competitor means giving them a serious feather-in-the-cap, and probably an edge over you when competing against them directly on future business.

Good Idea
1. You can’t be objective — it’s impossible. An outsider can be… but can a competitor? You’d need to hire a good one to achieve this.
2. You may well find out what scares your competitor most about you.
3. You’ll find out first-hand how strong they are — you get to scrutinize a lot of their inner workings and capabilities.
4. You get to turn a competitor into a colleague. Far too many industries view others as competitors rather than colleagues… personally I never liked that, and welcome opportunities to buck the trend.

The first thing that came to mind for me with this story is the old legal adage, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client and an idiot for a lawyer.” The Ad Age article suggests C-M views it that way as well. “It’s a bit like heart surgery,” said Campbell-Mithun CEO Jack Rooney. “You can’t operate on yourself.” I think there’s wisdom in that, and despite the risk to reputation, I expect it will pay off. Obviously they’re planning a fairly major overhaul, and the assistance of outsiders will, I think, only make the process easier.

The firm I left at the end of last year has a creative house as part of the stable, which I managed for most of the year preceding my departure. One of the tasks we had following a corporate merger was rebranding, and while I think we achieved an excellent result,1 I also believe that we faced several unique challenges inherent in being our own client, which resulted in some spinning of the wheels. We had some tricky issues in devising the brand, the overall message, and a strategy to communicate it. I wondered myself a time or two if outside perspective might not be helpful, but in the end we pulled it off despite the process taking much longer than it would have had we undertaken it for a client. All that to say that I have some appreciation for the decision to outsource the delivery of one of your core services.

A point that I’ve noticed about most creative houses (or ad agencies or marketing firms) is that few of them actually use the products they recommend to their clientelle. They’ll spend a lot of effort on creating a concept and layout for an advertisement in a trade publication, and they’ll take their markup on the ad buy… but for their own promotion, they tend to rely strictly on word-of-mouth. And every few years, they’ll rebrand themselves. In my view an ad agency spending internal resources to rebrand themselves makes me wonder if they aren’t getting enough business to keep their team busy. The cynic in me wants to know why the last brand they created hasn’t stood the test of time… and I wouldn’t want to hire an agency that is always rebranding themselves. Rebranding is not in and of itself a marketing strategy, and if business is slow for them, perhaps rebranding isn’t the solution. Another adage comes to mind, namely, “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail.” Campbell-Mithun’s decision to hire a competitor looks to me like a firm that isn’t willing to waste time spinning its wheels, and one that’s willing to take outside scrutiny if that’s what it takes to get to the best solution. A wise stance in my view.

Clearly a strong answer is required when asked why they didn’t handle their own brand redevelopment, and I believe that a response can be given that illustrates wisdom for the decision. It looks to me like they’ve given it some thought and already had to answer the question. In that context, a client considering hiring Campbell-Mithun should be shown that the firm is not afraid to indicate where they need outside help and that they’re smart enough to go out and get it. Nor are they afraid of the risk of external perceptions, because they know how to manage those too. A bit of a risk:reward analysis needs to be conducted and a careful decision made with due consideration to risk mitigation strategies, but on balance (and without knowing anything about the agency they hired), I think they’ve made a good decision to hire. In my cursory review the risks (which ignore their specific market), I think most of the downside is short-term, whereas the upside is long-term. And I’ve always been a long-term player.

Besides — and here I’m just being nasty — if all else fails and the new brand isn’t strong, they can always blame their competitor. ;^)

Footnotes:

  1. We developed the brand, but the execution of the branding strategy was largely left until after my departure, as well as that of the creative director. As such, the current presentation and development of the brand is not quite as envisioned. [back]