March 2008 - Rick Petry

Stirred, Not Shaken

“I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!” rages Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant and disturbing film, “There Will Be Blood.” It’s a catch phrase that threatens to join “Say hello to my little friend!” and “Hasta la vista, baby!” in a T-shirt tagline, machismo-fueled society that favors the upper hand delivered with an irony-clad backhand. And while Plainview uses the words to describe how, as if with a straw, he has siphoned off oil that a rival erroneously believes he controls, it could just as easily be describing a certain breed of competition that pervades our direct marketing industry.

It should come as no surprise that in an environment where scarcity mentality is regularly leveraged to get folks to buy things, spurned by the fear of lost opportunity, there would be some who can’t be happy unless they have all the marbles, though I suspect contentment will always elude them. Their actions echo another of Plainview’s musings: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.” And yet, the Darwinist consequences of a free market dictate that such sentiment will be part of the swirl, as well it should, because it forces competitors to be better-though we pay a stiff price in the bargain.

As our industry matures, merger and acquisition activity has become a matter of course, as early entrepreneurs cash in and consolidation creates new life forms out of the primordial soup. Too often, such mash-ups are characterized in terms of winners and losers-as one organization assumes dominance and the other seemingly dissolves. It’s not unlike the current U.S. political discourse, where differences are exploited at the expense of commonalities. And it isn’t just jobs that are siphoned off, as the proud employees who served the heads of companies that were paid multiples for the uniqueness of their culture, together watch paralyzed as those very qualities that made them special are sucked away.

The decisions that contribute to such realities are driven by egos as much as they are by sound business practices. And while a lot of money is getting socked away in the process, entire legacies are being deposited in another sort of bank-the memory bank, where they are destined to depreciate over time. Such reflections may cause one to consider how a legacy should be defined in a world where the accumulation of wealth and power is generally revered above striking a balance between work, family and friends. But-as colleagues we assumed would be among us for decades pass on-we confront our own mortality, and in the process such questions become inescapable.

It is within this climate that members of ERA, including a good many competitors who might otherwise clash, come together amid common ground. This affords us a chance to make a different set of inquiries: In a world dominated by survival of the fittest, is there room for fairness? Can we draw straws without succumbing to the impulse to measure them? When future generations take measure of us, will it be our humanity they count?

Rick Petry is the immediate past chair of ERA and a freelance writer and consultant. He can be reached at (503) 740-9065, or via e-mail at [email protected].


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