In my experience, the PR industry has always been very competitive. During my time in agency, I have certainly faced my fair share of challenges. Far from letting this deter me, these situations just encouraged me to want to do the best job I could. Fast forward nearly 20 years and as a business owner, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learnt is that supporting competitors isn’t as crazy as you think.
In all the agencies I worked at I was lucky enough to make friends. These people aren’t always those that I would tell my deepest and darkest secrets to, but they are colleagues that I value for their professional input.
Over the years, Emma and I weren’t the only people that chose to go it alone. Along the way many of my former team-mates have launched their own businesses. Despite being in direct competition, I quickly realised that supporting competitors isn’t as crazy as you think. In fact, it has very real benefits.
I have seen people who have taken the opposite approach and it never works.
In contrast, we have celebrated the success of others, passed on our best wishes and offered advice when asked. As a result, when these individuals or agencies have received a brief they cannot fulfil, we are often on the list of businesses they feel comfortable passing the information on to.
PR is very much about influence. This goes beyond client activity and can extend into the industry at large. Despite being vast, people in PR talk, a lot!
If, as a professional, you want that ‘chat’ to be positive, then you need to manage that. Providing the right context by behaving correctly is a good start.
I remember coming out of a pitch years ago and we were aware of a competitor that was also involved in the process. Several weeks later I received an email. It was from the same contact saying that they hoped if they didn’t win that we did.
This was a great lesson for me. I realised that in that one simple message I had a renewed respect for this person. They had taken the time to reach out and in doing so had given me greater confidence in our reputation amongst peers. It was further evidence that supporting competitors really does have its benefits.
Attracting the right attention
It is very difficult to hide in PR. Working with colleagues, journalists and brands everyday means that we communicate with a varied network of contacts. Each one of these people will make an assumption about us.
That can be an uncomfortable thought to process, but it doesn’t have to be.
If you want to attract the right attention, treat people the way you want to be treated. Let’s be honest, we all have bad days but managing them gets easier over time.
Recognising when our behaviour is impacting on others is a skill. It’s not easy to master and I’m still working on it, however I know that I have changed for the better over the years.
Taking this back to competitors, I had a meeting with a former colleague recently who has just launched as a freelance. The comment she made on leaving after coffee was that I hadn’t changed at all.
Far from being the case, I realised that what she meant as that I was still honest and willing to give my time to others. The truth is that in the ten years I hadn’t seen her I had changed a lot. I had just focused on addressing the things that held me back.
What I took from this exchange was that this person values my opinion and that means a great deal. Meeting for a coffee and sharing my experiences, warts and all, has helped her out. It was a win, win and further evidence of why supporting competitors isn’t as crazy as you think.
Living your values
We talk about values a lot at Open Comms. They are an important part of the business and the foundations from which we started nearly 12 years ago. A lot has changed in that time, not least the way the industry behaves.
When we started out, we made it clear we would be straight-talking. What you see is what you get, and we work hard for our clients. Delivering results was our focus and doing it the right way was the approach.
It worked and at a time when this was a relatively new concept.
Soon after our competitors started to use the same language. They do say that the biggest compliment is for people to copy or follow what you are doing. Whether this was the case or not, we were doing something right and it put us ahead of the curve.
What it also allowed us to do was to find other agencies that had the same values. Knowing that we were aligned in our approach meant we could confidently work with others. It also meant that we could extend our network and learn from other professionals.
Getting over yourself
What I really love about Open Comms is that we don’t have a massive ego. We have achieved a great deal, but we don’t go around bragging or needlessly inflating our success. I have worked for agencies where the opposite would be closer to the truth.
When you work for big brands, it is often expected that you will work with other agencies. They may specialise in something different, but you will come together to share ideas. These are often referred to as inter-agency sessions.
We have been in many of these situations and in the most part they work really well. That is because we have learnt that in order to get the best out of groups like this you need to get over yourself. What I mean is that we aren’t scared to learn.
Competitors or otherwise, the people around the table have ideas, suggestions, knowledge and experience that we need. Without it, we wouldn’t be doing our best work for our clients. Coming together encourages thought, creativity, difference of opinion and discussion. In an industry where things change every single day, this can only be a good thing and we really do embrace it.
Leaving a lasting legacy
When we started Open Comms, we wanted to earn a living. It was really that simple. It was about delivering PR in the right way to make a difference for the brands we worked with. What we hadn’t expect was that 12 years on, we would have expanded and would represent some of the largest organisations in the country.
As an agency that generates 90 per cent of its new business through referral, we know that our reputation is one of our biggest assets. Although much of this comes from clients, I am sure that there is also a benefit to knowing other industry professionals.
Open Comms was never a carbon copy. It was unique from the day we launched. Over the years we have learnt a huge amount and if there is one lesson that I will continue to put into practice it is that supporting competitors isn’t as crazy as you think.
In fact, post lockdown, I am going to make contact with a number of former colleagues for no other reason than to have a coffee and a chat. Hopefully, others will do the same and we can create a community of professionals that inspire, encourage and share.
There’s nothing wrong with healthy competition, as long as it’s done in the right way.