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Can you work for your clients’ competitors?

August 8th, 2013 by Bob Bly

LW writes: “Would appreciate your thoughts about the ethics of working for your clients’ competitors simultaneously — and if not, your thoughts about the allowable recommended space of time between competitor-clients?”

He adds: “As a copywriter develops more expertise in a particular field, he wants to build on this. And it’s quite natural to use that expertise in the service of others in his clients’ same type of business. But at what cost?”

Here are some guidelines for when it’s OK for you as a copywriter to work for multiple clients in the same field. Note: these are guidelines only, not the final word:

1—Clients in some large copywriting niche markets – e.g., financial publishing, alternative health, business opportunity, information marketing – expect you to have multiple clients in these niches and in fact hope that you do, so that your expertise in selling those kinds of products is that much greater.

2—Small local businesses want exclusivity: If you write copy for one of the two chiropractors in your town, he expects that you are not working for his competitor down the block.

3—Business-to-business marketers, especially those selling technology products, may ask whether you are working for any of their direct competitors. If you are not, and they hire you, they may insist that you not work for their competitors while you are working for them.

It’s a Catch-22, isn’t it? Clients want you to have experience in their product or service. But they don’t want you to be working for any of their competitors as long as you are working for them.

4—A company with one product is very likely not going to want you to work with other companies marketing the same product – especially if it is also that competitor’s only product. A company with many product offerings is much less likely to be bothered by you working with another company that sells one or another of those products.

5–If a client does not raise the issue of whether you are working for any other clients in their niche, then you don’t have to raise it, either. But if they do ask, you must tell.

6—Another factor is whether client A’s success in selling his product diminishes client B’s sales of the same product.

In the investment newsletter area, for instance, I handle multiple clients because a consumer who buys client A’s newsletter may still buy client B’s newsletter; many readers in this field take multiple newsletters.

On the other hand, if my copy helps Auto Dealer A sell Consumer X a Toyota, the consumer has made his car purchase and is highly unlikely to buy another Toyota from Auto Dealer B next week.

Some clients may ask you to sign a noncompete agreement that forbids you from working for any of their competitors while you are working for them now and for a specified period of time thereafter.

Whether you sign such an agreement is up to you. Obviously it makes more sense to agree to a noncompete clause when (a) you really want to write for that client, (b) the project is lucrative, or (c) the client offers the potential for multiple, ongoing assignments.

Two things to look for in a noncompete agreement before you sign it:

First, as the vendor, prefer a short-term to a long-term noncompete period following termination of services; i.e., 6 months is better than 2 years.

Second, narrow the definition of what a competitor is. For example, I won’t sign any noncompete agreement in the “software” field, because so many companies have software products.

But I may sign a noncompete agreement specifying “enterprise single sign-on (ESSO) software,” because it only minimally restricts what new clients I can take on.

Besides, if I have an ESSO client (as I have in the past), I am not looking to simultaneously work with the handful of other ESSO companies out there. I would see that as a conflict of interest.


This entry was posted on Thursday, August 8th, 2013 at 10:32 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

73 responses about “Can you work for your clients’ competitors?”

  1. Filip Br?cha said:

    I definitely agree that you should not work for two local companies operating in the same business. On the other side that´s also the reason why the noncompete agreement even exist.

  2. Kyle Whitford said:

    I think this comes up a lot due to the nature of business folks being so self conscious rather than self aware.

    If Barry Manilow sings my jingle that’s great. If he sings one for Bob Bly– no problem at all.

    Play them back to back on the radio and then what? Will people know who the singer is?

    Or is the jingle just a small part of a bigger campaign? So many factors go into these decisions.

  3. Robinsh Kumar said:

    What I think working for the client’s competitor would invite trouble for me only and that’s because it would always be the better decision to stay away from them.

  4. William Reynolds said:

    Each business is unique, or at least it should present itself as unique, especially if it’s fighting for its niche within a crowded market. I have no problem writing for two competing companies because in each case I make it my business to communicate that business’s unique value proposition. For instance, I’ve written for several realtors in the same city. Technically, they’re competitors — but actually, each focuses on a particular market demographic and/or emphasizes his or her own special qualities (background, experience, community connections, etc.). I do the best job I can to make ALL of them shine; after that…well, may the best business win!

  5. Shirley de Rose said:

    Fortunately our SEM clients are all “local” businesses, although the Caterer (Crave Catering) does cater all the way from Portland to the Pacific Coast. We have had a policy of not accepting competitors within a marketing “territory” however it does give us the freedom to take a client in a different area. For instance, San Diego is currently a target market for our SEM services for caterers.

    Thanks for giving us your thoughts on the topic!

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    I know of battlefield surgeons who have operated on enemy soldiers and they do that today.

    But talk about a possible conflict of interest–one has to be extremely honest to even try to separate the two clients’ interests. It can be done, but what a difficult effort explaining this to either client. Most would not allow it and would expect a non-disclosure statement be signed and adhered to.

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