December 19, 2012NDA not OK:
Are NDAs harming your freelance reputation?

Picture the scene… Five years ago, you showed up on a friend’s doorstep with a couple of suitcases, a broken heart, and no job. That friend happened to own a digital agency. Not only did he take you in, he gave you work — writing for some of his clients. As a journalist, you took to it quickly. But it just wasn’t the same.

You used to review restaurants and interview celebrities. Now you’re writing technical copy for plumbers, SEO copy for carpet cleaners, and sales copy for one man bands.

That’s the story of my life.

Now I’m not saying I’m not grateful — the work got me back on my feet, and it’s where I learned my trade. You think it’s tough working on an international product launch, convincing a million people to part with a tenner? Try cajoling a single overdue invoice out of a reticent shopkeeper. That’ll teach you everything you need to know about the art of persuasion.

More by luck than judgement, I turned out to be pretty good at my job.

My reputation grew as did my client list. I moved back to London. The clients got bigger and bigger and, to an extent, the money got better.

I have absolutely no regrets about where I started out – fighting tooth and claw with penny-a-word merchants to deliver copy to often appreciative, but sometimes indifferent, small businesses. And I’m still happy to work with the many small businesses (especially tech startups) who can afford me today.

But what I’m not happy about is the fact that I’ve written for some of – in fact, for many of – the world’s biggest brands, and I’m not allowed to tell you about it.

Nope, zip, not a peep.

My work has graced billboards and magazines, shop fronts and even the occasional tube station. Yet can I tell you about any of it? No. Because I did it all under NDA.

NDA, not OK.

I’d be lying to you if I told you that all these brands came to me, knowing my reputation, waving fistfuls of money. I wish they did. Only twice in my five year career has a “brand name” you might have heard of approached me directly.

In the last year, I have signed 12 NDAs – that’s one a month. Six of them are for “brand names” you will have heard of – but not with the brand directly, but with the agency I was working for.

Of course, there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the agency doesn’t want you running off and stealing their client, or their secrets. Fair enough.

A time to be so small

But moreover, more often, the agency is worried about looking small. They don’t want to admit that they outsource… so they slap you with an NDA that’s so tight it makes Ryan Giggs’ superinjunction look like a polite request to maybe not gossip so much, guys.

And believe me, if you break that NDA, once their lawyers are through screwing you, the NDA may still be tight – but your arse won’t be.

I accidentally “broke” an NDA earlier this year by recommending a very close friend for a job position that had come up within the agency I was working for. They were desperate for someone with his skill set, so I talked the agency up, and mentioned one of the projects – in passing, no details – I was working on. I got fired. All I was trying to do was do the agency a favour.

It’s not a mistake I’ll make again.

A certain type of agency is terrified of admitting they outsource.

Big agencies aren’t afraid of it. They hire in “big gun” copywriter / art director teams all the time, recruiting the best possible people for the job – and they’re happy to let you use their – correction – your – work in your portfolio.

But when a job with a big brand comes in, a lot of agencies don’t feel so secure. They want to look as big as the brand – not realising that a small, agile, creative shop is exactly what the brand is looking for – they want an agency that’s brimming with confidence, not packed full of middle managers and yes men.

Often these agencies are so small – say 30 people or so – they don’t even employ a full-time copywriter. That’s where I come in.

If you look very closely, you can easily spot this type of agency. Check out their account managers’ profiles, either on their websites or on LinkedIn. Often, they will say ‘account manager and copywriter’. But the fact is, you can’t be both.

Account managers make lousy copywriters.
  • Account managers are yes men. They get roped into writing copy because a) they’re “good with [spoken] words” and b) they know what the client wants.
  • However, these skills do not a copywriter make. It’s rare an account manager with a good “sales patter” can write convincing copy. And even when they can, they’re a yes man. They give the client what the client wants, not necessarily what the client needs.
  • Occasionally the agency realises this and hauls in a professional freelance copywriter – like me. But the damage is already done. The agency produces work that’s bland and isn’t challenging. And the brand never talks to them again.
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…

Last week I caught up with a friend who’s a copywriter at a very big agency. I said, in passing, that “me and him do the same thing”. He immediately interjected: “No, I work with international brands. You only do small businesses.”

I reeled off the names of just some of the brands I’ve worked with in the last year. He was blown away.

I charge clients more when I’m working under NDA – because it’s effectively a gap in my resume. But I’m slowly realising that I’m not charging enough.

This guy reckons an NDA is worth $10,000. I’m not sure I bring that much value to a brand yet.

But my career is suffering because I can’t tell anyone about all the brilliant work I’m doing.

And more money from the client / agency isn’t going to make up for that – because my career will be stuck in the mud until I can start showing off my best work.

Agencies shouldn’t be afraid to admit they employ freelancers. In fact, being able to ‘bag’ a freelancer with a serious reputation and make him want to work with your agency should be a sign that you’re big, and pulling your weight.

2008 saw me leave town and show up at a friend’s doorstep with only a couple of suitcases and a broken heart. 2012 sees me end the year as one of the most successful freelance copywriters in London. I don’t know what 2013 will bring, but I can tell you this: it will bring a lot fewer NDAs.

It’s not about the money any more. I want to show the world my work.

When a client makes you sign an NDA prohibiting you from discussing the work you’re doing, they’re actively harming your career – and while money may be a good substitute in the short term, in the long run, your foot is pressed to the gas while you’re going nowhere. NDAs often demonstrate a basic lack of respect for your position as a freelancer. Why should the agency get all the glory, when you’re doing a great deal of the work?

Think about it the next time you sign an NDA.

And if you’re an agency reading this, think about how small it makes you look – not about how big.

Freelancers don’t want to work with you if they can’t display the work they’ve done. Your agency may look bigger – but your ideas will be smaller.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 at 2:34 pm and is filed under Blog, Me and my business. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


  1. Great post, and one I can readily sympathise with. I haven’t worked with so many big brands, but I have been fortunate that my agency clients have commissioned me for some work that would add real depth and dimension to my portfolio – if only I was allowed to talk about it. That, for me, is the most frustrating thing – getting a break by being asked to write B2C or ads (both of which are rare for me), then being unable to show the work and ending up looking just as limited as before.

    Closely related problems are submitting great work that doesn’t get used, or having your stuff changed. However, lots of writers I know will just go ahead and show their version regardless, even though it was never sanctioned in that form by the brand.

  2. al says:

    Yup, it’s rare for me as well… most of my clients are still small business – but I work with someone bigger (via an agency) approximately every two months. This is by virtue of location as much as it is reputation. I’m in East London, a lot of East London agencies are looking for a copywriter with brand experience and a good rep.

    But I know for a fact if I could show off my best B2C / ad work, I’d be getting that kind of work in all the time – and charging more for it.

    Seriously considering no longer taking on this kind of work, if it’s NDAed, as small businesses are more easy going and are willing to pay more or less the same amount – why stress over “big” projects for little more money, and absolutely no more glory?

  3. Wow. I have to say that this is something I never come across. In my T&Cs I have a bit stating that I have the right to use any of my work on my portfolio, which I do and I’ve never had any complaints about it. I tend to say who I did the work for so ‘project x’ for ‘agency y’ and then a link to their website. Perhaps I’ve been lucky.
    But then the majority of my work comes from clients directly. May be worth pursuing more of that if working with the agencies is a hassle. And firing you for trying to find them a new member of the team? Who wants to work with a company like that? Awful.

  4. al says:

    I have those in my T&Cs too, but they’re often overridden by a chuff-tight NDA.

    What happens is a small creative agency, say 30 people, suddenly gets a call from a world’s top 20 brand – way out of their league.

    The first thing they do is brick their pants. The second thing they do is start counting the money. The third thing they do is try to figure out what the client wants. And they always get it wrong.

    Their first thought is that big clients only want to work with big agencies – when in actual fact the brand has called them because they’re sick of the glacially slow, uncreative process at bigger, more established shops.

    They’re so small they don’t even employ a full time copywriter – but they think they have to look “big” in front of the client, so they reel in a freelancer and slap an NDA on him.

    I’ve done this half a dozen times in the last year and it’s completely the wrong approach. Not to brag but I have a _personal_ rep in the industry and it should reassure the client that the agency is good enough to ‘bag’ me and my work.

    But more importantly, the brand can smell it a mile off – it reeks of a lack of confidence and starts the relationship off on a lie, a lie that often gets found out (e.g. if the client googles the copywriter’s name).

    Big brands come to small agencies looking for bold ideas, and they don’t care how they get them, so long as they get results.

    NDAs hold that process back because it makes freelancers not want to work with those agencies.

    It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped.

  5. I always try to get more money if I’m under an NDA.

    Whether I’m getting paid more or not, I don’t just pretend like the work never happened. I’m more than happy to say ‘I have done work for a leading car manufacturer’ and other vague statements like that.

    Yeah, it would be better if I could say ‘Hey, I do all the copy for Sony’ (which isn’t true).

    But to be honest, most clients are only going to take my word for it anyway, so just giving a suggestion of who the NDA clients could be helps, or seems to have worked so far.

    Maybe that counts as a breach? Uh oh. Sue me.

    The only NDA that has really, really offended me is when one agency wanted me to get on the phone with their client and actively claim that I worked for the agency in-house. That’s not a good sign, is it?

  6. al says:

    Yup. That’s exactly the situation I have found myself in recently.

    Agencies who want to appear “bigger” by pretending you’re an employee, thus prohibiting you from talking about your work.

    I’ve done tons of work I can never tell anyone about – and I’m only now realising how sorely I undercharged for it.

    I got sacked for even telling a work colleague the name of the brand I was working on this year, just to try to get him interested in a job vacancy the agency was having trouble filling. And got fired for it. That’s what it’s like.

    The only value of one job is to get me to the next job. NDAs prevent that – and sooner or later that’s going to harm agencies as well as freelancers because we’ll simply stop working with those agencies. I don’t think I’ll be doing much more work under NDA unless it’s for a squillion dollars.

    What really brought it home for me was the fact a friend and fellow copywriter (at a big agency) actually laughed at my “work” – even though I have four years more experience than him – until I told him in private who I’d been working for this year.

    Fact is you only get respect if you work with the big guys. And if you don’t get enough respect, you don’t get enough money, and you don’t get enough jobs.

  7. I wrote about the accursed NDA a while back. Thus breaching clauses 8, 17 and 29(b), no doubt.

  8. Grant says:

    Hi, interesting article and I can see your point. As an employer and networker here is my view;

    1. Of course businesses will insist on an NDA, it is a no brainer. Most people in business have been screwed by people they trust so an NDA prevents a lot of future stress for everyone.

    2. As an avid networker I meet many people who like to boast about working for the big boys – they seem to think they deserve more kudos and respect if they say they worked for XYZ. This is generally rubbish. It is one thing to say you were State Manager for XYZ and increased sales from abc to efg, OR you project managed a national advertising campaign for XYZ. It is another to say ‘XYZ’ is one of your clients when all you did was layout an annual report – sure you may have done great work but is it any different to the same job you did for the company down the road nobody has heard of? People try to associate themselves with a big company to steal some of their kudos so I don’t blame the big companies for having NDA’s

    3. Character – lots of people contract to the big boys, lots and lots. They come in and change the paper towels, empty the garbage, clean the windows, fix the PC’s, type reports etc etc. The big companies don’t want these thousands and thousands of contractors bandying around their name as though they represent their brand. If an employee of the company makes inappropriate remarks etc that reflect poorly on the company they can take action – they have no influence over a contractor (freelancer) who may intentionally/unintentionally bring disrepute to the brand. These companies have spent years and millions of dollars building their brand, they won’t risk it with freelancers.

    If you got the job, did it well and were paid then be happy. If not avoid corporates, I know many who do because of these reasons and often they are held hostage over payments as there are thousands of other desperate freelancers eager to get a piece of the corporate pie.


  9. Saying “Do not disclose any information about this project prior to publication” – Fine.
    Saying “Do not disclose any sensitive business information after this project is published” – Fine
    Saying “You are forbidden from ever claiming involvement in this project or credit for the work you did, in perpetuity” – not fine, not ever.

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