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When Rivals Become Business Partners

Gabrey Means, the former marketing director at Gap, and Cassie Hughes, the former head of PR at Levi's, were each other's biggest competition--until they founded a company together.
Gabrey Means (left) and Cassie Hughes (right) outside their office building in San Francisco.
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Today, Cassie Hughes and Gabrey Means--or Laverne and Shirley, as they playfully call themselves--are not only business partners, but also best friends. That wasn’t always the case, however. For many years, when Means was experiential marketing director at the Gap and Hughes was presence marketing and publicity director at Levi Strauss & Co., the two were each other’s greatest competition. Each would watch the other's moves, jumping at any opportunity to outdo and one-up her rival.

Neither Hughes nor Means would have ever predicted that they would eventually start a company together. But in 2001 the duo founded Grow Marketing after they both exited the corporate world and were introduced by a mutual friend. Now Hughes is the strategy director and Means is the creative director of Grow. The 12-year-old company sports a client list that includes big names like Pepsi, Dockers, Glenlivet, Got Milk, and their old employers Levi’s and Gap. With 75 employees, the San Francisco-based engagement marketing company has also received numerous awards. Most recently Grow was named to the 2013 Event Marketer “It List” of the industry’s top 100 agencies and was the silver winner of the 2013 Stevie Award for Women in Business for Management Team of the Year. 

Hughes and Means spoke with Inc. about the genesis of their partnership and how the two have moved past their former rivalry and used it to their advantage in business. 

In San Francisco, Gap and Levi’s are these iconic companies with a rich history and a complicated relationship. What effect did the relationship between the two brands have on the relationship between the two of you? 

Gabrey Means: There is just a natural synergy but [also] competitiveness between Gap and Levi’s--and everyone knows it. It just naturally happens because they are both in the same world. We always laugh. Cass was actually my biggest competitor down the road at Levi’s. At the same time this was when the whole world of experiential marketing started blowing up so we were all doing kind of bigger, sexier stunts and happenings. We were trying to outdo each other without really having known each other. But for both of us there was this other woman at the other brand. 

Cassie Hughes: The truth of the matter is I don’t think we were actually in the same room together until we actually left Levi’s and the Gap and were introduced by a friend. But we always knew of each other.

So, what was that first meeting like and how did it impact your decision to start a company together?  

GM: When we sat down, instead of digging into work, we just really started talking about all of the things that were important to us outside of work--things that have actually really shaped the culture at Grow. From that very first meeting we realized that we had complementary skills but more importantly, we had the same values. I just felt so lucky because from the beginning we knew our cultural guardrails and what we were marching toward. We had a shared vision from the start with that first meeting. 

CH: Exactly. Life is too short to do anything you aren’t passionate about. Gabrey and I have made a really conscious choice to stay an independent agency so that we can make choices on not only the brands and companies we support, but the type of people that we work with. I think that’s what keeps us excited every day when we walk into work. 

In what ways do you think your past as rivals has impacted your business? 

GM: I always knew what Cass was doing down the road when I was at Gap and now whenever we are building a pitch or building a program for a current client, it is part of our culture to always look at best-in-class examples that we can learn from. We are always keeping an eye on what is happening and trying to be in the know. I think that was part of our competitive spirit when we used to keep tabs on each other and it has kind of permeated into Grow. 

I have never really thought about it until now, but that competitive spirit was something that attracted us to each other and that was a dynamic in our relationship even when we didn’t know each other. That is an energy force. We just evolved it and turned it into this amazing creative, strategic energy. 

CH: And you know what, we are in the agency world of marketing. There is so much competition out there. We have each other’s backs and there isn’t anyone else I would rather have watching mine. 

Has it ever been difficult to keep your past in the past? 

GM: From the minute we said we were doing this together, we put all that competitiveness aside. What we found in each other was what made each other great when we were at our careers at Levi’s and Gap. We basically took what fueled our competition and we used it to fuel Grow. We have always thought that with us one plus one equals three. 

CH: Yes, in that moment it went from competition to inspiration. I think to be true business partners you can’t have that same competition with one another. You can’t be successful with that. There has to be a ‘we’ or it’s not going to work. It has always felt really easy. I don’t think we have ever, ever had a power struggle. 

In what other ways have your previous careers with Gap and Levi’s impacted Grow? 

GM: When we were with Gap and Levi’s we were the ones hiring marketing agencies from around the country. I think we basically started Grow as an outpost of not being able to find an agency who could deliver to the level that we wanted. From the beginning as a result of having served those roles at Gap and Levi’s we said that we wanted Grow to be all things to our clients. 

CH: When we started the company we didn’t want to have politics. We didn’t want to have a lot of layers. Here everyone’s biggest competitor is really himself or herself. No one is pointing fingers. Everyone is on his or her own trajectory and we purposely made it that way.

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Dec 11, 2013

ABIGAIL TRACY

Abigail Tracy is a staff reporter for Inc. magazine. Previously, she worked for Seattle Metropolitan magazine and Chicago magazine.




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