In Depth

Column: We’re All Frenemies Now

‘Collabotition’ Offers Rewards If Boundaries, Benefits Are Clear

Sleeping with the enemy is becoming a business necessity.

That was the theme of a panel I moderated at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival last week in Austin, Texas. Executives from MSN Video, MTV Networks, Digitas and social design firm 7 Robot joined me to discuss when companies should work with their competitors and when they should draw a line in the sand.

SXSW Interactive

This concept of “collabotition,” a new term marrying competition and cooperation, is more important in the recession. It’s also becoming de rigueur in a digital economy where programming is easily passed around on the Internet, said Sarah Szalavitz, CEO of 7 Robot.

Collabotition is based on transparency, the idea that the world is flatter and the reality that everyone is getting into each other’s business.

But when should you partner with a competitor and when should you shut your door, wrap your arms around all that is yours and protect your ideas and businesses like Bilbo Baggins would? (“It’s mine!”)

Companies should work with competitors only when the partnership is complementary for each and the business objectives are clear, said David Gale, executive VP of new media at MTV Networks.

As an example, MTV is talking to MySpace about striking a deal for MTV’s online programming to be carried on the social networking site, Mr. Gale said. Those conversations started nearly two years ago with the site Jackassworld.com for MTV’s “Jackass” franchise. “We could have used that support with their traffic, so we are talking to them to see what’s practical,” he said.

MTV also is working with competitors to help grow the potential audience for its new show “Five Dollar Cover” about the Memphis music scene. The programmer partnered with the local Memphis tourism bureau, film commission and newspaper to produce and promote the show.

While not direct competitors, the paper in particular competes for viewers’ time, Mr. Gale pointed out. But working together provides more benefits, he explained: “It gives us access to a local community we don’t have access to.”

Remember also that a rising tide can lift all boats, said Christine Beardsell, VP and creative director of the Third Act, the branded-content division at Digitas. Her company is hosting a branded-content think tank in June in New York and will invite competitive advertising agencies to participate.

It’s a bold move to let the competition in, but it’s also a sign of the changing digital times as companies start doing business with their competitors. Bringing competitors into the fold can help spread the digital gospel to brands working with other agencies, which in turns helps Digitas, she said.

How, if at all, are you working with your competitors? Do you want to? Do you need to? And what lines do you draw?