The popular sports adage “a champion team will always beat a team of champions” is drummed into anyone who has ever played any type of team sport. I remember hearing it bellowed out by numerous coaches, whether they were at the helm of football, cricket, hockey or other sporting teams.

The saying proclaims that a team of good players who have played together, bonded and share a common team goal will defeat a team of assembled superstar players who prioritise their individual goals over those of the team. This concept is applicable in a myriad of broader, non-sporting landscapes and I wish to focus on just one example which I have encountered in recent years.
As urban economists, we spend significant amounts of time researching the economics of everyday life with data and people. While data provides us with many lessons and understandings, it is the insights gleaned from people that I find particularly fascinating. I was recently involved in a project which necessitated high levels of stakeholder consultation in order to provide recommendations on how to improve the functionality of a town centre in a regional area. It quickly became apparent that the town’s 40 or so retail operators held vastly divided opinions of what their common goal was as a town.

No less than three retail traders associations were operating concurrently. All groups were divided not only in their thinking, but by their respective resources and lobbying capabilities. Our discussions with Council indicated that they yearned for a common, single voice to represent the town, but the divisions had become so ingrained that the various and often contrasting messages were simply being lost. The small town had effectively been placed in the ‘too hard’ basket by Council.

Amongst those consulted was the operator of a rail service which carried approximately 100 tourists to the town four times a week. The train arrived at 10am on each of those days and the train operator was constantly inundated with complaints from passengers that many of the shops in the town were closed at that time – despite the 9am opening time displayed on each of the shop windows. Discussions with shop owners revealed that, while many were aware of the train’s arrival time, they preferred to frame opening hours according to their own day-to-day convenience. Recommendation number one of our report was fairly straightforward.

During consultation several other competitive quirks were revealed which further painted the picture of a town which did not present themselves as a champion team. After many years of the same customer offer, one of the three pubs had taken the initiative and advertised their Tuesday nights as ‘Parma Night’, Wednesday nights as ‘Steak Night’ and Thursday night as ‘Burger Night’. Rather than capitalising on the opportunity to diversify the specials for locals and visitors, the other two pubs chose to simply replicate the promotion of the first pub. The three pubs subsequently engaged in a price war that ultimately saw the price of chicken parmigiana drop to unsustainable levels on a Monday night.

Furthermore, as the town was not represented by a single retail traders association, the marketing of the town was not undertaken in a co-ordinated manner. It was left to traders to market themselves individually, rather than as a collective. This lack of integration meant retailers were unable to leverage the marketing benefits that come with a consolidated advertising campaign and the resulting brand recognition of the town. Of course, these marketing efficiencies are something that shopping centres around the world capitalise on.

In contrast, we met community representatives from a thriving small town in relative proximity. We discussed their journey over the last decade and it became immediately apparent that their successful town had a clear sense of direction and a widely shared vision. Discussions with Council bolstered the view that genuine engagement with communities and leadership existed across many levels. Creative ideas at a town-wide level were encouraged and exchanged freely between community representatives, traders, residents and local government. This clarity enabled Council to act effectively, efficiently and confidently on the town’s behalf.

These two towns, with contrasting fortunes, presented very clear examples of a team of champions and a champion team. Representatives of the champion team were able to recognise and embrace the need to think holistically and creatively about their town as a unit to reach shared goals, whereas representatives of the team of champions seemed unable to think beyond the sign on their doors which incorrectly advertised they were open by 10am on train days.

This article was originally written for Planning News October 2016 edition by Geof Snell, Associate, HillPDA Melbourne. For more information contact