Engaged in Corporate Espionage?

IStock_000005845392XSmallThis is an open letter to my competitors.

Just so you know, if one of my clients or prospects were to offer me your materials (proposals, brochures, etc.), I would happily accept the offer. 

I compete with you.  By beating you, I get to put food on the table; put my kids through college; buy that dream chalet in the mountains.  By beating you, I provide that same opportunity to SHIFT’s 100+ hard-working employees. 

It’s important to beat you.  I take pride in it, because it’s never guaranteed – it is always, always hard, you cagey and talented SOBs!   

So if you have better ideas than me, a better presentation, etc., I want to learn from you.  So I can improve.  So I can beat you next time.

I assume you feel the same way.  I hope you do.

So, are you reading my best-of posts?  Are you reading Brian’s blog?  And Dave’s?  And Geoff’s?  And Mike’s?  And Maggie’s?  And Steve’s?

I read their blogs.  Not just because I like them and support their work (which I do).  Make no mistake: at some level, we are competing for clients.  So I read their blogs religiously to see if I can “steal” their ideas and share them with my staff.

Except, it’s not stealing.  They offer up some of their smartest ideas – for free.  In the hopes that prospective clients will be impressed, sure, but just as importantly as a karmic service to the industry – including their competitors.

By reading your competitors’ finest thinking, by incorporating their proven strategies and cutting-edge concepts into your own agencies’ DNA, you have a golden opportunity to kick their butt in the next RFP.

But, are you?

Posted on: November 11, 2008 at 9:45 am By Todd Defren
24 Responses to “Engaged in Corporate Espionage?”


  • If a person, so wonderful like you beats me, I would like to offer him first round without any resistance. As a compliment, appreciation and my support. You deseve all that Todd!
    2- Yes, I use all sorts of tricks to attain what I need. So far I am winning it’s successful PR, but if you are going to win and I tie up with you, is it still.
    It’s better to get beaten. Better than being defeated and crushed to death. Sometimes later it will be my turn..
    Bless you..

  • maggiefox says:

    @Todd of course I did not mean to imply that it was! Simply that in most cases, sharing the documents you describe can break existing agreements (NDAs or employment contracts, if your competitor is thorough), just curious how that factors in to any decision to look at them.

    And I’ll admit it, too – if a client chose to share proposals received from our competitors, I would feel a slight frisson of guilt, but I would get over it (as long as doing so would not break any existing agreement).

  • And so it goes. Where’s the ROI in social media a CMO might ask? It’s right here and all of the other places where intelligent people write their ideas for you to ponder.

    So the next time Mr. CMO you are calculating the ROI of social media, include the thousands of dollars of advice in these and similar pages. In fact, you might even decide to participate by asking a few specific questions and then all this networking will really be worth it.

    Just make sure you don’t give your business to the lowest bidder, execution of ideas has its price.

  • Don’t look at me. I run a pirate ship. : )

    I got an email the other day intended to be an “atta boy,” from someone inside a rather large PR firm. Turns out a few of my blog posts are now training material for parts of the new PR.

    Briefly – very – I was steamed, thinking about how I could’ve turned a few dollars for training that information directly.

    In the end? I’m custom, I’m me, and I’m going to give away everything because where I really shine is in what I do NEXT.

    So rock on, you bad motha. I’m glad you’re out there competing. (By the way, I might have some trad/hybrid business to throw your way soon, so don’t be a stranger). : )

  • Kami Huyse says:

    Let me say that I did not exactly say that I only share “old news.” What I really said was that it would be old news within three months and that is is my job to stay on top of the curve. ;-) I think you are pretty much the same Todd, though I have to say that as a competitor you are always gracious in my experience.

  • Todd Defren says:

    @Maggie – “breaking the law” ain’t my bag.

  • maggiefox says:

    Hey Todd – great post, and Shel asked a very good question indeed. But I’d like to take a it a little further. In most cases, employees have NDA clauses in their employment agreements that sharing a document would breach (during or after their employment). What’s your comfort level with encouraging someone to breach a contract (essentially breaking their word) in order to obtain competitive advantage?

    Aside from that – thanks for the nod, and I think that Isaac Newton put it best, noting that if he had seen further, it was because he had the luck to “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

  • Clay S says:

    Great post! I know I take these words to heart on so many levels from following competitor blogs and proposals to watching the Title tags and SEO targets of our closest competitor websites.

    Just today, by following a competitor CEO on Twitter, I discovered a technique he was using on the side to generate business to his main company. It’s a great idea and gave me some ideas, but I would never have come across it without keeping this “enemy” a little closer than my friends.

  • Mark O'Toole says:

    Todd, if you have a copy of Shift’s client list and contacts lying around, I’m happy to review for you.

  • Mark O'Toole says:

    Todd, if you have a copy of Shift’s client list and contacts lying around, I’m happy to review for you.

  • That’s why we’re here, no? I don’t follow competitors if I don’t think they are savvy.

    Interesting post. Dying to know what the trigger for it was.

  • zoe says:

    Great post Todd; we all love a bit of healthy competition.

    However, I wonder how much people really do share on their blogs. Not to say that we don’t offer up our knowledge and expertise for free, but at what stage?

    During the PRSA conference, presenter Kami Huyse answered the question – “How can you afford to share all of this information with us?”

    Her answer was simple – this stuff is old news. It’s her job to stay ahead of the game, in order to be competitive.

    I feel pretty confident that no one shows their cards unless they’ve already started moving on to the next game.


  • Matt says:

    it has always been my thought that one of the greatest benefits of reading blogs and participating in social media communities is the avalanche of great information provided for free.

    you HAVE to look at what your competitors are doing and you HAVE to get to know them, if only in a professional setting.

  • Tim Marklein says:

    This is just a sly technique to smoke out the competitors who are reading your blog, right? Nice try, Todd. Of course none of us do…

  • Ya know what I think? Ultimately, this isn’t about competition… it’s about having fun, telling good stories, and surrounding ourselves with interesting people. Sometimes we’re on different sides, but ultimately, we’re all in the mix together.

    Oh, and check out my blog too while you’re at it. :)


  • Shel Holtz says:

    Thanks for that answer, Todd; perfect.

    I remember waiting in a room with two competitors outside the room where we were all presenting to the prospect. When the first presenter finished and left, the second went in to make their pitch and accidentally left a copy of their proposal behind. We did not open it, but returned it to them when they came out. Yeah, it was their own mistake, but none of us felt it was ethical to take that kind of advantage.

    But if the client had given it to us, well, that would have been a different story.

  • Todd Defren says:

    @Shel – Curse you and your tough questions. ;)

    No, I would not accept a proposal from a disgruntled employee who still worked at a competitor.

    If a CURRENT employee had some old examples from their former employee (i.e., that they had created), yea, I’d likely take a peek.

  • Shel Holtz says:

    Just for the sake of argument, would you accept that same proposal from an unhappy employee of the competing agency looking to jump ship to yours?

    I agree with what you’ve written here; I’m just curious where you’d draw the line.

  • sawinkler says:

    Karma is great, but the tangible benefit of giving away ideas for free is that you and the others you mention are helping evolution of the industry, as a whole. the more PR evolves and shows success, the more clients will want to engage, thus growing the industry.

    There are only a limited number of clients any one entity can take on (granted, Edelman can take on more than most, but there’s still a limit), so why not share knowledge? This is anti-capitalist, I suppose, but I think competition spurs innovation.

    If the leaders aren’t worried about the pack chasing them, they’ll slow down. Kudos for having the courage to throw some meat behind you to keep the pack in the hunt.

  • Matt Searles says:

    lol, I’m not even in PR and I’m given to read them.. Imagine that!

  • Honored to be linked in this article as a competitor. Thank you.

  • Meg Roberts says:

    Hi Todd,

    Glad to see this post, especially since I recently finished an internship at a big PR agency where I worked on numerous RFPs. Of course, we won some and lost others, and I always wondered what happened to ideas we presented that clients seemed to love despite not winning the business.

    I’ve read a lot of posts recently where people look down on what you call corporate espionage, but I liked how you presented it as a learning process. It’s a great paradigm shift that I’ll be more conscious of now.


  • Tom Lee says:

    Hey Todd -

    I follow you on Twitter & read your blog regularly! I happily engage in espionage! Keep posting good intel. Hopefully I’ll be able to return the favor.



  • Todd…

    Right on! Couldn’t have said it better. Famed golfer Lanny Wadkins said when he was a kid in competition, his Dad would tell him: On the golf course, the opponent is not your friend. You are there to beat them anyway you can within the rules. Once the competition is over, then you can be friends.

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