All hail the recent rise of frenemies
A view from Anna Vogt

All hail the recent rise of frenemies

What happens when, all of a sudden, the whole world is fighting the same enemy?

Up until a few weeks ago, a large part of our job consisted of pointing out differences.

Yorkshire Tea vs PG Tips
Persil vs Ariel
British Airways vs easyJet
Coca-Cola vs Pepsi

Having an enemy has long been considered great strategic arsenal. I remember hearing Jonathan Warburton speak years ago and he pointed out how having an enemy in Hovis was one of his key motivators. He went as far as to replace the number six on his kitchen clock with the Hovis logo to remind himself twice a day that he must stay on top of things. 

And it makes total sense. We work in a hyper-competitive industry. With ultra-competitive clients. They create the differences. We get paid to point them out and bring them to life. To dramatise superiority. A distinctive point of view. And often to create foes.

But what happens when, all of a sudden, the whole world is fighting the same enemy? When, almost overnight, we find ourselves united towards a common goal? When we come together and start making friends and allies?

Strange and wonderful things can occur.

It all started on 19 March. The government published the relaxation of competition laws, allowing supermarkets to work together on their coronavirus response. This enabled them to share data with each other on stock levels and share distribution depots and delivery vans to serve as many customers as possible. Having spent more than one-and-a-half hours in Ocado’s virtual queue with 142,367 customers ahead of me, one can see why this step wasn’t just a nice gesture but a necessity. 

Then came the sharing of staff. Not between supermarkets, but between sectors. When McDonald’s had to shut down all of its restaurants, its German staff were encouraged to work at Aldi in order to help the supermarket cope with the surge in demand and serve the public. 

An even greater lateral move came when Virgin Atlantic and easyJet contacted about 4,000 of their CPR-trained staff, who have been grounded during this pandemic, and encouraged them to volunteer at the NHS Nightingale hospital. 

And then there is production. What airplanes were to World War II, ventilators are to our battle against Covid-19. As Sir James Dyson put it: "The race is on." While it doesn’t seem a massive stretch for Dyson to produce ventilators, its ability to do so in just 10 days was impressive.  

A much less likely marriage came in the form of French sportswear manufacturer Decathlon, which, in partnership with Isinnova research institute, created "Easybreath" by adapting underwater snorkelling masks into breathing masks. 

But perhaps most impressive is "Project Pitstop" – a collaboration between University College London, Mercedes Formula One and their respective technology arms, co-ordinating a response to the UK government’s call for assistance with the manufacture of medical devices. 

Pooling the resources and capabilities of their member teams, they doubled down on the core skills of the F1 industry: rapid design, prototype manufacture, test and skilled assembly.

Considering how closely guarded the technology and engineering around F1 teams is, and the competitive advantages they present, it’s no small feat to put that to one side for a moment and work as one team. It took a mere 100 hours from first being briefed to producing the first device, which is now NHS-approved.

There are many morals that can be taken from these stories.

Don’t waste a crisis. Use your skills for good. Innovate and diversify.

While commendable and entirely valid, these may just be short-term strategies. I doubt BrewDog and LVMH will continue to make antibacterial gel in the years to come. I also think it unlikely that Zara or H&M will continue to produce face masks and protective gear. 

But the one thing that should endure beyond the next few months are these unlikely, new friendships – between brands, across categories and borders. 

For an industry that is obsessed with purpose, this is a good opportunity to start acting more purposefully and sustainably. By sharing resources. Knowledge. People. And ambitions. 

So if we really want to be disruptive, let’s look for friends instead of enemies. Similarities instead of differences. This would be a genuinely useful outcome and behaviour to carry into life post-crisis and will, as we have seen, yield more surprising and more effective work than operating alone.

Anna Vogt is chief strategy officer at TBWA\London