Disruptive Alliances: Six Lessons from Antony and Cleopatra

With its highs and lows, the lessons from this 11-year union remain relevant to today’s increased focus on digital partnerships.

The recent Ides of March remind us of the assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome over 2,060 years ago. That event triggered one of the earliest examples of partnership: that between Marc Antony and Cleopatra.

What started as a successful and high profile alliance was ultimately disastrous for both parties. 

As Cleopatra and Marc Antony’s story demonstrates, alliances can thrive as well as fail. Co-creation and innovation, adequately deployed, can increase the chances of success, but not guarantee it. How partners enter, nurture and exit these relationships requires careful thought and regular injection of common sense…something often far too uncommon.

So, here are 3 Do’s and 3 Don’ts inspired by a true, if ancient, life story.

Do start with a bold and disruptive ambition

In the past

If Marc Antony had succeeded in winning sole control of Rome, with Cleopatra as his queen, he could have changed the course of the Roman Empire, making the world we live in today a different place. Fruitful and long-lasting partnerships have a vision at their core which includes, but transcends immediate commercial interests.

In the present

When GlaxoSmithKline and Alphabet-owned Verily Life Sciences announced in August 2016, the creation of Galvani Bioelectronics, a 55:45 joint venture to develop electronic medicines, their mission was to “change the face of medical science forever”.

Elon Musk, known for many bold visions changed the mission/vision of his car company Tesla from  "Tesla's mission is to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable transport" to "Tesla's mission is to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy" and made the patents to his battery technology open source to encourage partnership and "for the advancement of electric vehicle technology".

Do deliver value to each other

In 42 BC

Marc Antony needed Cleopatra’s troops and money to attack the Parthian empire. She needed his protection after the death of her previous lover, Julius Cesar. An early, tactical, win-win is a good start for any partnership.

In the present

The 2014 tie-in between Uber and Spotify (your favourite playlist welcomes you as you enter the hired car) provides added value, meaningful competitive advantage and exclusivity to both companies.

In the case of Galvani Bioelectronics, the value is crystallised in the two partners’ joint commitment to spend £540m on R&D in the first seven years, and their agreement to share existing IP rights.

Do co-create

In the past between 40 BC and 35 BC

The imperial couple had three children, a sign of mutual attachment and the assurance (although eventually thwarted) that successors would perpetuate their mission to change the face of the known world. Short of procreating, partners today should co-create.

In the present

  • Joint ventures: for example Avanade, the company founded by Microsoft and Accenture in 2000 as an almost equal marriage, with Andersen Consulting, as the consulting firm was then known, holding 51% of the business to Microsoft’s 49%.
  • Shared innovation centres: since 2011, AT&T and Amdocs jointly run one of the operator’s ‘Foundries’ near Tel Aviv in Israel, enabling fast innovation to be created and tested right in the heart of the Start-up Nation.
  • Common Go-to-Market plans: back in 2004, BT and HP created an ambitious, $1.5bn alliance, based on a balance-of-trade principle. BT committed to purchase much of the servers and storage equipment it needed from HP; HP, in return, buying a number of ICT and connectivity services from the carrier and together. Building on this foundation, the two companies set up a proactive sales programme targeting major multi-nationals: in 4 years, the alliance had secured $2.4bn of business from 70 customers

And now 3 things to avoid

Don’t break too many rules

In 37 BC

By marrying Cleopatra in Antioch, Marc Antony, who was already married to Octavian’s sister, managed to break the Roman law and to offend Octavian deeply. Suggesting to move the capital of the empire to Alexandria was a further faux-pas, turning most Romans against Marc Antony. Successful partners pay attention to their competitors and look after, not insult, their customers (or citizens). 

In the present

A recent example is the acquisition of LinkedIn by Microsoft. While itself a case of defensive M&A, keeping Salesforce.com off the professional social media asset coveted by the Redmond team, the transaction has generated concerns among users and commentators. Some, such as John Dvorak and Jeroen Olthof predict the ultimate failure of the deal; others observe that changes to the networking app are now released without so much as informing the 490+ million professionals using the service.

Don’t pull away in adversity

In 31 BC

In fear for the safety of her navy as the battle of Actium unfolded, Cleopatra ordered her ships to pull back. This withdrawal weakened Marc Antony’s fleet irremediably and led to their ensuing collective defeat against Octavian. When the going gets tough, true partners stick together.

In the present

In the Financial Services sector, Bitcoin, enabled by blockchain technology, has created a wave of disruption for established players. Rather than fighting each other as well as the battling the emerging platform, four global leaders decided to work in unison to embrace the change. In the summer of 2016, UBS, Deutsche Bank, Santander, and BNY Mellon formed a joint venture to co-create a new form of digital cash, the Utility Settlement Coin (or USC) offering an alternative to Bitcoin and the promise of increased efficiency in the current clearing and settlement process.

Don’t lie at exit time

In the past

Back in Alexandria after the Actium debacle, Cleopatra tried to re-align herself to the winner, Octavian. On receiving (fake) news of her suicide, Marc Antony fell on his sword. Fatally wounded, he is transported to where Cleopatra's body is supposed to be. He finds her alive, revealing her duplicitous plot, then dies. According to Plutarch’s narrative of the final drama, Cleopatra, captured by Octavian’s troops, finally commits suicide on 12 August 31 BC letting herself be bitten by a snake hidden in a bowl of figs. Truthful communication is usually a better option to terminate a partnership.

In the present

When the Fujitsu-Siemens hardware joint venture reached its 10-year term in 2009, for instance, the German company made its position clear. It wished to withdraw from the IT sector, which was no longer as core to its plans. Both partners agreed on a simple forward strategy – and importantly, a price. Fujitsu then bought the 50% that Siemens held, ensuring a sustainable future for the unit as it transitioned to a global leader in digital transformation. No fake news, no poisonous snake, no double-crossing – a robust but fair and transparent discussion providing a solid platform for a new chapter of growth.

Having been personally involved at BT with the HP alliance and at Fujitsu with the Siemens JV, I can vouch that common sense can be elusive, what with the heat of debate, the transaction, the personalities. Keeping a cool head, though, has kept me in good stead ever since in the advisory roles I have held since, working with some major organisations faced with similar partnering opportunities.

So, in summary: Nihil sub sole novum, as the ancient Romans loved to say... although of course, they plagiarised it!


Vincent Rousselet is Founder and MD of V.Rousselet & Associates, and has more than 20 years of strategic and operational marketing experience in IT and telecommunications


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