Writing for competitors -- copy ethics question

by EricMN
14 replies
Hello again WF copywriters!

It's been a while and feels like forever. I'm relieved to see familiar faces, and I wanted to ask some of those faces a question.

Have you ever come across a situation where you are writing for someone who may be a direct competitor of someone else?

This sounds silly because a lot of copywriters focus on a niche . . . so of course you're going to run into that sort of thing.

It's yet to happen to me. But as I begin to pick up more overflow from different agencies I find that the possibility I may be put to write for two competing companies side by side may become a reality.

Thoughts on whether it's ethical? Should you care? Should I care? At what point does it cross the line? Is it our business?

Love to hear some feedback.
#competitors #copy #ethics #question #writing
  • Profile picture of the author ejunkie
    That's a good question.

    And there are several sides to it.

    1. If you are under an agency's employment, not only you ... even your agency can't.

    2. If you are a freelancer and clients make you sign a contract or agreement wherein he/she has a clause that specially mentions that you can't work on a competing product/service... it can be time-bound etc. .... then you can't as well. However, most clients may or may not insist.

    3. If you are a freelancer and you do business without, say, signing any agreement with your clients with such a clause, and they pay you for the services rendered, and that's it ... then it is upto you. Nothing stops you from working on competitive products/services in such scenarios.

    And lastly, did you mention ethics?

    Things like ethics exist (esp in marketing) because of the fear & the long arm of the law.

    As long as your lawyer can out-argue the prosecution and turn the verdict around in your favor even if you did something unethical... you are ethical my friend!
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    • Profile picture of the author ejunkie
      Originally Posted by Dapplecreek View Post

      <Warning: religious comments follow; proceed if you wish. I honestly believe what I'm saying is true, and that my remarks address the question above (I'm NOT looking for converts here). I recognize that many don't agree with me, and many do not see any particular authority in the Bible. I also recognize my limited ability to interpret Scripture: I may be wrong, even if Scripture's authority is granted. But I'm writing this post out of a desire to address the original question. Moderators: I recognize this post may be deleted.>
      Hi Dapplecreek,

      I really welcome & completely respect your views.

      And I am glad that you were kind enough to highlight the importance of ethics from a moral standpoint which i believe is very important.

      Given the context, there is also a legal implication. Hence, I was approaching it more from the legal viewpoint.
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      • Profile picture of the author Dapplecreek
        Originally Posted by ejunkie View Post

        ...Given the context, there is also a legal implication. Hence, I was approaching it more from the legal viewpoint.
        ...and yours was good advice and very much needed!

        Especially in the grey areas in strict ethical discussions, one needs to understand which of the grey choices one makes might wind one up in legal trouble. For instance: Scripture addresses stealing a fellow's hammer, but not the words he uses. So there's nothing ethically wrong with copyright violation (except under the heading of obeying the law). But you can get more legal grief than you want if you're not cautious. So I'm really careful about keeping myself on the straight and narrow legally, in addition to biblical concerns. Why? Just as you described, out of my fear of the long arm of the law.
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  • Profile picture of the author Pusateri
    It's only unethical if you agreed not to, then did it anyway.

    If I were to hire you to write copy for my pigeon farm, I would never assume you would decline work from other pigeon farms, UNLESS I included a clause in our contract stating such.

    I would also expect to pay more for this exclusivity. And there should be a time limit. Expecting you to refrain from pigeon prose for the rest of your life because you made me a brochure is unreasonable.
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    • Profile picture of the author JakeDaly
      For those of you who have worked for clients that have included such a clause, is it understood that you'll be compensated well for having the clause included? In other words, if you agree to write copy and then they add such a clause, are you within your rights to begin negotiating a higher fee?

      Great question, Eric.. I hope you don't mind me expanding upon it.
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  • Profile picture of the author Steve Hill
    One important consideration to keep in mind if accepting work from a direct competitor of an existing client is that of trust. If one company has told you something that would otherwise be confidential, then there is an obligation to honor that trust. As a freelancer, being trustworthy is one of your greatest assets.

    Your confidential knowledge about one company may interfere with your ability to produce the best work possible for a competing company, unless that information can be shown to be publically available elsewhere. Even if so, using it can lead to distrust from the original company. Anything revealed in client discussions that is not made public otherwise should be considered confidential information.

    I don't know if you are talking about major projects or just small jobs, but it's certainly necessary to reveal any potential conflicts of interest. The competing company may still hire you, but they may be more selective in what they reveal.

    As long as existing potential business conflicts of interest are disclosed, confidential information stays confidential, and there are no existing contractual restrictions, then ethically you should be ok.
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  • Profile picture of the author recoverycherleen
    Some clients ask writers to sign the non-compete clause agreement to make sure that the writer, although freelance, will not work for its direct competitors. If you did sign an agreement with your client, it is just proper and ethical that you do not work for his competitor, especially the direct ones.
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  • Profile picture of the author angiecolee
    I agree - non-compete and NDAs definitely are prohibitive to working for a competitor. However, if you're not bound by contract, it's not unethical to take on those competitor projects.

    Where it gets fuzzy in the right/wrong sense is - are you using your inherently more detailed insider knowledge of your original client to help their competitors do better? If you're ripping apart client 1 to help sell client 2, then that's a pretty crappy thing to do, even if it's unintentional.


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    • Profile picture of the author Mark Andrews

      There is no need to bring religion or scripture into the discussion full stop.

      Not everyone here is a Christian. The Warrior Forum is open to everyone regardless of their religious background or non-belief in religion as the case may be.

      Please stick to business only.


      Mark Andrews
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      • Profile picture of the author Dapplecreek
        Originally Posted by Mark Andrews View Post


        There is no need to bring religion or scripture into the discussion full stop.

        Not everyone here is a Christian. The Warrior Forum is open to everyone regardless of their religious background or non-belief in religion as the case may be.

        Please stick to business only.


        Mark Andrews
        In no way do I assume that everyone is a Christian or even is interested in such views. I am delighted to have the input of all here, and recognize the common goal regardless of biases. I'm sorry I gave the wrong impression.

        Business only? He asked about the ethics of a course of action, not the color of a headline. But that said...

        Please accept my apologies: I thought the nature of the question really DID invite a 'right-and-wrong' response, which I tried to support rather than just toss in my opinion. I hoped my disclaimers might be sufficient to turn away those who weren't interested in my thoughts. I see that they were not.

        My plan for the future such threads, should I choose to respond, is to ask the original poster if he or she is interested in my 'take' by PM, and respond by PM if asked to do so.

        Seriously, I really did think an ethics question warranted my response. I was wrong, and apologize for stepping on toes.
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  • Profile picture of the author JamesCx
    It genuinely comes down to how you feel about providing services for two direct competitors, assuming no contracts or agreements have been drawn up which prevent you from this.

    I personally think if the services you provide are improving and benefiting the client, then it's perfectly acceptable, so long as you aren't using 'inside knowledge' gained from a previous job. If it's just general knowledge about the niche you've picked up on the way - you aren't doing anything unethical.

    You should look at it as if you haven't been previously hired by someone in the same niche and carry out the work as you would any other job.
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  • Profile picture of the author EricMN
    Thanks to those who gave me some insightful feedback. Much appreciated!

    I didn't read any of the content that wasn't relevant, so if something got lost in there I'm sure someone else covered it.

    I haven't actually been in the situation, but I am in a niche where there are only a few select competitors in their area. As it stands, I wouldn't dream of turning my back on my current clients for their competitors -- I strike great, long lasting relationships with the people I work with. I want them to succeed and not just pay my bills.

    Thanks again.
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  • Profile picture of the author erin.banister
    Even if you're not bound by a do-not-compete clause, you must ask yourself how you're using the information...

    For example, you do a set of research for client 1, and write the sales letter. Then with client 2, you do another set of research. Do you use the research used from client 1 for client 2's materials? Do you position client 2 as a better product than client 1, even unconsciously, because you know the points from the first sales letter?

    This sort of thing is a slippery slope. While it may not be wrong for everyone, you must personally set your own boundaries and know where your comfort zone lies. I personally have a set amount of time before I will agree to write a sales letter for a similar product. I must give myself enough time to purge my recent memory of the original sales letter so I don't use that information in the second letter.

    Best to you,

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  • Profile picture of the author vickydz
    I really welcome & completely respect your views.
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