Times they are a-Changin’. This year perhaps more than any in recent living history (at least, my recent living history), the fundamental principles that we take for granted have been put up for grabs. The way we work, the way we socialise, what we expect from the societies we live in – all these ideas are changing.
And there’s one old business ideology that I personally can’t wait to see the back of – and the revolution has been in the pipeline for some time now: ‘Survival of the fittest’. ‘It’s a dog eat dog world’. ‘Zero sum game’.
There is frequently a perception in business – regardless of field or industry – that ‘competitive advantage’ can only be achieved by defeating those around you. The maths of this kind of makes sense; in theory, if you have a customer, then I can’t have that customer, right?
But today’s products, business systems and customer bases are far more complex and nuanced structures. Different ways of thinking mean that a customer isn’t necessarily a singular entity to be fought over like the last slice of cake.
Potentially, there’s enough cake for everyone.
It’s time to collaborate, not compete.
Collaboration and Creation
The creative industries make particular sense for collaboration because they exist in complimentary but not necessarily overlapping spheres. If you are a fashion designer, it makes perfect sense to enhance your own promotions with the works of complimentary jewellery designers – but you can go much further: interiors and furniture for your photo shoot, collaboration with copywriters and photographers who share your brand values and style.
There have been some major examples of this – particularly in the field of fashion; notably LVMH collaborating with Rhianna to create a distinct Maison called ‘Fenty’ and Kate Moss curating a range for TopShop. Examples abound from other fields too though: Annie Leibowitz collaborating with writer Susan Sontag to create a portfolio of powerful women, and Justin Bieber collaborating with… er, Schmidt’s Naturals deodorant range?
However, this new ‘mood’ of anti-competition doesn’t merely extend to cooperating with complementary companies. It can involve viewing people directly in your field – your actual competitors – as friends and allies.
We’re all in this together
What does this actually look like – collaborating with someone not just in a complimentary field, but actually in your market sector?
Well, collaboration can look like whatever you want it to: photographers joining to interpret a single project or idea together, investigative articles tackled by multiple writers, or design projects approached by two or more designers together.
There are a number of practical examples that are flourishing in the mainstream at the moment. H&M have delivered a number of ranges curated or designed by higher end fashion designers – notably Donatella Versace, Angel Chen and Giambattista Valli, whilst any number of London’s hottest pop-up restaurants are (or perhaps more accurately, were until recently…) spearheaded by chefs coming together to fuse styles and ideas.
Why would these people join with the enemy? Aren’t you cannibalising your own market when you share with someone else in the field?
When 1+1 equals more than 2
Creative purchases aren’t something that people have a singular budget for – like buying a new coffee machine. Creative purchases are motivated by impulse and desire. And impulse and desire are not finite things. In fact, they’re things that grow.
Music collaborations are perhaps the best demonstration of why nobody is at risk of losing a customer when they share their market with somebody else. Nobody (well, nearly nobody) says ‘I can only purchase one song this month’. So when, for instance, Jay-Z and Kanye collaborate on a track, Jay-Z is not risking that his fans will suddenly discover Kayne, prefer him and divert all their future purchases to his music exclusively. Instead, he is widening the exposure of his fans, and gaining the exposure of Kanye’s. Music isn’t a zero sum game of artists competing to secure one purchase – it’s a field where widening exposure multiplies the possibility of purchases.
And the same follows for the images and social media content we consume, the fashion we purchase, the blogs we read… The idea is that by raising up each other, we raise up everyone.
Making bigger changes, together
Moreover, collaboration doesn’t have to be about working on an actual product together – it can be about pooling resources and working together towards a common underlying goal. You don’t even necessarily need to announce a collaboration, though there are usually brand image and marketing benefits to be yielded from doing so.
Take for example the Fairtrade Foundation. The ability to promote ethical practice and corporate social responsibility as a core component of your business is increasingly key in communicating the right voice in today’s market. And marketing opportunities aside, it’s just the right thing to do.
The problem is, you may not have the clout or finances needed to make a real change in your supply chain or working environment. But if you group together with other collaborators in the field (as Fairtrade have), you now develop enough influence to make changes to how parts of your shared supply chain conduct business.
By working as a collective, you can exert the pressure needed to make real, meaningful change and gain tangible benefits for your own brand.
Learning to share
The benefits of collaboration are pretty clear. But sharing can be easier said than done, as any parent of two siblings will quickly attest to.
We’ve identified that collaboration can provide you benefit. But for a true collaboration, there needs to be mutual benefit.
Collaboration is not about trying to get the services of a professional for free, just because you can’t be bothered to pay. It’s not about riding the coattails of someone else’s success. It isn’t a ‘collaboration’ if you – as a fashion designer, for instance – ask a photographer to shoot for you for free because it’ll give them much needed ‘exposure’. (Indeed, anybody who is still playing the amateur game of ‘exposure exploitation’ rather than proper business collaboration is marking themselves as very 2000s, and should be rightly mocked).
Editor’s Note: There are times when it is massively beneficial to work with those who have more experience and industry clout than you. And sometimes, this might be unpaid – with the benefits stemming from the knowledge and experience you gain, or the prestige of the role on your CV. But it’s slightly disingenuous to call these ‘collaborations’. The ethics of internships are a debate for another article, but whatever relationship you enter into, it is key that you give and are given respect, and that the benefit gained is proportionate to the value asked of you.
So, when you’re considering what constitutes an appropriate collaboration, both parties need to be asking themselves a couple of things. These are some good questions to be going on with:
Is the status of both parties one of equals?
As we said just above, collaborations will generally be a partnership of equals, and other terms tend to cover relationships where the work/benefit ratio differs.
How do you assess whether you are in fact equals? In today’s social-media based world, one might look instinctually to online status/exposure as a measure of influence: followers, likes, reach, etc.
But of course there were ways of measuring the value or success of a brand long before Instagram likes existed (who knew, eh?): your turnover and publication exposure are other potential metrics to consider.
Ultimately, the main thing is that both parties feel equal: that no one feels beholden to the other, or on the flip side, that they are performing some amazing act of charity merely by being seen in the same room as their collaborator. Respect is key.
Will the efforts being put in by both parties be roughly comparable, and do both parties stand to gain the same amount?
Both the duties and expectations of each party need to be set out at the start. These aren’t necessarily going to be put down on paper in a legally binding format, but clarity at the beginning can avoid upset and resentment at the end.
From a creative point of view, are the visions and ideas of the two people compatible?
This is a question that’s important for two reasons. The first is logistical and relates to how smooth the process of working together will be. Is there any point reaching out to a photographer who is known for their black and white style, when your designs are based on showcasing bold colour? Pointless arguments and negotiations are going to occur if you aren’t vaguely on the same page about how to move forward in terms of vision.
But in addition, there needs to be a level of creative compatibility that actually makes sense to the audience. Sure, left-field unexpected mash-ups might have some impact value (Aerosmith and Run DMC anybody!?), But in general, you want some congruence in brand aesthetic/ideals that makes it easy for audiences to transfer their attention – and purchase desire – between the two.
Are the workstyles of the two collaborators compatible?
Us creatives are sometimes known for being a little sensitive. Understandably so – for many in the creative industries, we straddle a line that sits between art and commerce, and the outputs we create are an expression of self. Nobody wants that to be compromised or messed with – which can often lead to a fairly controlling mindset. It takes real critical reflection to know if you are the kind of person that can relinquish enough control to make things work, and feel comfortable sharing the limelight.
Practically, how are you going to work together? Are you the kind of person who sits and waits for inspiration to hit, which frequently sees you madly scribbling at 3am on a Saturday, whilst your collab partner keeps a disciplined weekday 9-5? Do you prefer virtual or physical meet-ups (like you have a choice at the moment…). These logistics elements also need to be considered.
Collaboration isn’t necessarily easy, but it does have the potential to yield huge benefits; it increases your market exposure, has the potential to improve elements of your supply chain and process, and also facilitates your own creative growth and exposure to ideas.
In a world that is increasingly recognising the importance of working together and lifting each other up – a world that wants to take responsibility, make a difference and sustain lasting change – collaboration can be a huge first big step.
After graduating in Law (and engaging in brief forays as a Chef and Mechanic), Jess McMurray settled down to freelance writing a decade ago; starting as an academic ghostwriter before transitioning to 'Digital Nomad' related content, with a particular focus on marketing and communications. She splits her time between the UK, Italy and Thailand.