Gini Dietrich

Pay It Forward: How Working With Your Competition Is Better for Everyone

By: Gini Dietrich | September 7, 2009 | 

I just watched “Pay It Forward” for the 200th time and, of course, cried at the end. I don’t know why I do this. I think I’m going to make it through the end and then Helen Hunt crumbles and I lose it.

This time around, though, it got me thinking about business and competition.

When I started Arment Dietrich, the big, global firms sent business our way all the time. They had lots of companies contact them, who couldn’t afford them, but the leaders at the agencies wanted to be able to say, “Call this firm. We know they do great work.”

Now we do the same. If a prospective client can’t afford us or they don’t fit our niche, we refer business to a couple of freelancers and smaller firms that we know do really great work.

It’s the way our industry pays it forward – even though we compete against one another.

Competition Is Healthy

I belong to Counselors Academy, which is a Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) section for leaders of the PR firms. When I first learned about the organization, I remember thinking, “Why would I want to hang out with my direct competitors?”

Since joining, I’ve learned that we’re better together and some of my now closest friends I’ve met through this organization. But not just that, we share business practices, issues, and challenges and are able to find ways that we all benefit from the ideas and innovation in a way to better our industry.

But Not Just That

About 18 months ago, we decided to play pretty aggressively in the franchise market. We’ve always dabbled, having worked with some vendors and partners in the franchise industry. And I byline a monthly column for Franchise Times. But we’d never aggressively pursued it.

When we made the jump, the two PR firms who have the industry locked down were not happy. I heard, through the grapevine, all sorts of terrible things people were saying about us. In fact, one person said he wasn’t worried because we wouldn’t be working with any franchise clients in six months.

Much to his dismay, we do have franchise clients and our name is bounced around as often as the others. Now there are five firms (including the two that have serviced the industry for more than 20 years) that work in the industry and, with the exception of one, we’re all friends.  We share business challenges. We share client successes and failures. And we refer business back and forth when we have a conflict or it doesn’t fit our niche.

Plus the competition with one another is making the franchise industry better because we’re all working toward creating new services in order to further growth.

What’s the Moral of the Story?

Just like “Pay It Forward,” if you can change the way you interact with three competitors, and they do the same for three of their competitors, and so on, how quickly will everyone be working toward the same goal for the betterment of your industry?

It’s still important to compete, coming from one of the most competitive people you’ll meet, but what if we do it in a way to support our industries by always being innovative?

What if we do it in a way to help new businesses get off the ground, even if it means they’ll be playing in our backyard even sooner?

What if we do it in a way that we share business challenges and solutions so we’re all successful?

What if we pay it forward?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Mary Barber

    I only wish more people in our profession would understand this and work together. It’s so much healthier for everyone, and the fighting/secrecy makes us all look poorly. Thanks for this post, esp on Labor Day.

  • This is a great business practice; tried and true. And, absolutely, doing business with the “pay it forward” attitude will always pay off in the end. Really glad to see this post. It takes a village! 🙂

  • Arment Dietrich

    Thanks Mary and Rebecca! Let’s start our village now – we’re three strong!

  • Oops – forgot to log out of the company user name. That was Gini.

  • Fantastic Post!! There is a new model of collaboration that is evolving (though not fast enough), that is to break down walls between clients and competitive consulting firms. Client companies more often than not have multiple business problems that require Consultants to solve. Once clients and Consultants that there is benefit in both of their value streams to use the most appropriate resources to solve their business problems (even if they are from “Competitive” companies) in parallel, they will both benefit.

    Client increases the value of their business. Consultant though taking a smaller deal (5K instead of 10K) does world class work and delights their client, instead of failing on the parts of the project that they do not do well.

    Thanks again and continued success to you..

  • Thanks Scott! Your company, Ideas Evolving, works exactly into this philosophy. So the village is four strong now??

    BTW, LOVE that your team includes people AND process! Brilliant!

  • Hi Gini,

    Great article. Thanks for writing it. I find this attitude inconsistent across the board in my company’s industry. Some “competitors” won’t even extend a public thanks to me on twitter when I share positive feedback about their book, blog, etc. Are they that insecure about their relationship with their customers? I am actually happy to profile my “competition” on my website ( because I believe my customers deserve a choice and they are smart enough to research other options anyway. Kind of the Progessive Insurance model I suppose. I’m not looking to charge advertisement or listing fees of any kind (which others do). Funny how very few even bother to ask me about it.

    I am thankful one of the major corporate players in my marketplace is meeting me for lunch this week. They heard good things about IA from a shared major client. Hopefully, there is an opportunity to help each other and in turn, help those in need. I will keep your article in mind heading into this (I assume) friendly conversation. I hope my story will be like yours.


  • Brent – Unfortunately it’s not just your industry. But if we each pledge to pay it forward with three of our competitors, don’t you think we’ll eventually have a phenomenon on our hands? Perhaps, even, large and public corporations will pay attention and it won’t be just up to small business. Let’s see what happens!

  • Our agency has a personality, skill set and methodology that isn’t the right fit for every client. And there are some clients that aren’t a good fit for us. In these instances and when we have an industry conflict, I am happy to refer these clients to someone else. Of course the better I know my “competition,” the better my referrals.

    This also brings to mind something that my dad reminded me of when I was involved in community theatre in my 20s: Broadway caliber talent (onstage and backstage) is always striving to improve; community theatre players often believe they’re at the top of their game.

    You’re right, Gini. We’re better together. It helps us grow as individuals and as an industry.

  • I’m in! I’ll keep trying no matter what. It is funny (actually sad) when small businesses act like large businesses.

  • I wish this is something more students knew about. I think we know the importance of networking but we don’t network and build relationships with each other. At national and regional conferences, it seems the students are more worried with getting in line to meet the speakers and talk to the recruiters than network with the peers.

    Nice post, as usual!

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  • The worst part about folks not working with their competition is the isolation. All the new psych data says that the more social groups you connect with, the healthier you are. The same is true of businesses. Connect with more organizations and you get more inputs that drive you to reflect, improve, and do more creative work.

  • What a fabulous post, Gini! Paying It Forward is a sign of a true leader.

    When we are confident in who we are and in our abilities, we give without keeping score. It always comes back, anyway — even if not directly from the people we have helped.

    Today,with social media, it’s called “Social Capital” — as described in Chris Brogan’s book, “Trust Agents.” But Paying It Forward sounds more pure. As a solopreneur, I’ve found great joy in referring work to other Creative Directors/Copywriters. It’s nice to do a good turn for someone else. And often we’re able to commiserate — and gain insights — into issues I thought were mine alone. What it really requires is trust that what goes around, comes around. 20+ years in business tells me it works!

    (BTW, I call my coaching practice “Play It Forward” — tapping into what brings you joy to create forward movement in your life. Seems to resonate! 🙂

  • Karma. Karma is good. Nice post.

  • Another great post, Gini! This is one of my personal philosophies–not just in business, but in life. I find great joy in connecting people with one another, whether it’s a referral to a competitor or a hair stylist. We’re lucky to have a super close-knit PR community here in Atlanta.

  • Hi Gini,

    Like you, I’m a huge fan of the movie “Pay it Forward” as well as the whole concept. Check out Chuck Hester of iContact, by the way, for the physical embodiment of the idea (@chuckhester on Twitter) I especially love, though, that its essentially a turbo-charged pro-active way of just helping people out, which we’re all apparently told to do as kids, right? At least that’s the idea!

    For those still fearful of such an approach, all one needs to do is keep in mind that “everyone” does not equal a properly qualified client. If you remember that principle, this sort of give-and-take between “competing” firms makes perfect sense. So this way, when we can’t help a client, we can still leave a positive impression by demonstrating our value as a resource for that firm, while also sending business (and good mojo!) along to someone else. Not a bad deal, eh?

    Here’s a little technique I learned early on using a similar approach: Build your A,B and C teams. It’s a Real Estate concept that can work in just about any industry. Real Estate pros have extended networks of professionals they work with (contractors, title folks, builders, etc.), but who aren’t always available when a project comes together. So, these pros build “teams,” with first dibs going to the A team, then B, then C, depending on their availability and desire to do the work. The same concept works in our world.

    So, if you’re the start-up, or your firm doesn’t possess a certain skill-set some clients might need, call up the big firms ahead of time to let them know you’re in the market for solid referral partners (your “teams!”). When they understand you’re interested in sending THEM business, they’ll be much more likely to entertain your call. Works every time, and that way, when you’re too small to handle the big projects, you can pass those leads on to the big players. Then, rinse, later and repeat for continued success as those big players start returning the favor.

    Way to spread the word, Gini!


  • Speaking as one who’s trying to get off the ground, I know that I appreciate every bit of help I receive. The names of people who’ve helped me are the first to roll off my tongue when a friend, client, or prospect who needs services I can’t provide needs a referral.

    Personally, I would rather not just say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.” (click) I prefer, “I’m happy to help you with X and Y, but you also need Z. Company will do an excellent job of serving you Z.”

    None of us should feel like we’re not in a position to help. Every link, tweet, mention, or outright referral has value.

  • Amen Sister! There is much to be gained from “playing nice in the sandbox” with everyone. I would include the freelancers and independents out there as well. There is plenty of work for all of us.

    Here’s a link to a blog post on a similar theme.

  • I know I talk about Vistage a lot, but Jon brings up a good point. Not only do I belong to PRSA and Counselors Academy (where I can bounce industry ideas, challenges, and solutions), but I also belong to Vistage where I get leadership and running/growing business advice.

    They say it’s lonely at the top, but the more you innovate and create with others, the happier you’ll be in the long run.

  • Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful Gini! Now THIS is what professionalism and good business practices are all about! I love you for what you’ve written (and for many more reasons, of course).

    Love it—great job and great philosophy my friend!

  • Love that you wrote this Gini! So on the same page with you. It’s awesome to be able to help other businesses and to look out for the little guy. Kudos to you 🙂

  • When we work together we are pooling our strengths which allows us to overcome our weaknesses. The universe just works better that way!

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