All my own work (I wish)

April 9, 2014

Rip Off

I recently wrote a post, Caveat Emptor – hire copywriter with caution, warning that there is a tendency among some copywriters to exaggerate their experience.  This led to a discussion on LinkedIn where several experienced practitioners shared stories of how their work had popped up in the portfolios of people passing it off as their own.

I’ve never been aware of anyone liking my work so much that they decided to “curate” it (is that the current word?).  But that all changed yesterday.

Double take 

At the Business Showcase exhibition in Bristol’s Colston Hall I met a copywriter who had taken a stand.  We got chatting and they asked what clients I worked on.  I mentioned Red Carnation Hotels, who I have been writing for over about the last six years.  They then replied, “Oh, we’ve worked for Red Carnation too…”

Despite the fact I write for Red Carnation every week I wasn’t that surprised, as I know they do use other writers.  However, out the corner of my eye I saw that there was a laptop on the stand.  The pages were on a loop and I saw a Red Carnations Hotels web page pop up.  As I spend part of every day on one or more of their sites (they have about sixteen in all), and regularly update those pages, the recognition was instant.

Leaning forward I looked at the page more closely.  It was a current page, and one that I had worked on.  I then turned back to the owner of the laptop and asked when they had worked for Red Carnation.  The reply was vague, along the lines of “my husband did some work for them a while back”.

Stretching the truth – how far is too far? 

I then moved on.  But driving home I experienced a feeling of unease.  I realised it was delayed shock at seeing my work being displayed on someone else’s stand.  Getting home I checked their website.  There was no mention of Red Carnation Hotels, and no examples of work done for that client.

I don’t doubt that they did some work for Red Carnation in the past.  But why not show it? I guess it just didn’t look as good as the web page they picked instead – and they needed something nice and visual for their stand.

I’ve got some pretty good names on my CV – clients I worked on at Saatchi & Saatchi and Young & Rubicam.  I did a couple of radio commercials with Dame Judy Dench on voice-over for Heinz Spaghetti, but that doesn’t mean I can pass off a few of their TV commercials as my own work.  I did a poster campaign for British Gas about 20 years ago but that doesn’t mean I can lay claim their current stuff.

Food for thought

What should I do about this?  I decided to do nothing.  Apart from write this post highlighting the issue.

What should you do about it?  If you are a copywriter consult your conscience.  And if you ever hire a copywriter be sure to go through their examples of work carefully then interrogate them closely.

Maybe I’m being picky, but I’ve spent 30 years working hard to get good at what I do.  It pisses me off to see people taking shortcuts by claiming my work as their own.


Picture credit superk8


  1. Bill Maslen April 11, 2014 Reply

    Wow, I think you're being amazingly nice about it. That's perfectly outrageous behaviour! I would be absolutely furious if I found our work being claimed by another agency - because there are multiple implications. First, they're lying about their own competence (especially if they don't feel confident enough to present their own work). Second, they're damaging your reputation and effectively accusing you of lying (by claiming your work as their own - how are prospective clients or even existing clients going to know that you're the one who really did it?). Third and more insidiously, they're implying that you worked for them, or in some kind of subcontractual relationship with them - again, damaging to your reputation for similar reasons.

    I'd (very) strongly suggest that you tackle them on this, especially as it appears they're currently a small company ('my husband') that should be put back on the straight and narrow as quickly as possible, ideally before they become a big company... ;-)

    • Jim April 11, 2014 Reply

      Hi Bill,
      It was a pleasure to meet you the other night up in Bristol. I'm delighted you've been reading my blog, and thanks for taking the time to reply.

      It all happened so fast. I saw the page come up on the slideshow and, looking more closely, realised it was a current page from a Red Carnation website (they have about 15 different sites, each with about 100+ pages - I write many of them, but staff in hotels do some pages themselves and I have to review them regularly for bad grammar, spelling, typos etc. I'm sure no other copywriter is providing this content, apart from their 3 hotels in South Africa, where they insist on using a copywriter from that country rather than a UK one). I then turned back to the lady on the stand and said something like "You have some Red Carnation pages here, when did you work for them?" This led to her vague reply about her husband doing work for them years ago (see above).

      I should have watched the slideshow to see if more Red Carnation webpages came up, but I didn't. I made a mental note to check their website when I got home. I did that, but there was no Red Carnation work to be seen. They had other work on their site with a disclaimer that "the client never used this work, but we liked it" - I suspect their work for Red Carnation may have fallen into this category and have been done years ago.

      If the work was on their website I would definitely have called them up and challenged them. But the proof I have is a bit fleeting.

      Regarding the danger that people think I may be lying about working for Red Carnation I have so much evidence that it would be very easy to prove I'm telling the truth, and not in some kind of subcontract arrangement with this other firm. I must have something like 500+ completed Red Carnation jobs on my computer that I can produce, I can get references from everyone in their marketing dept (plus I'm still in touch with people from that team I worked with but who have moved on), and many of the key people in the hotels themselves know me.

      The other copywriting company has a website that looks like it was created by someone in primary school about 20 years ago, while everything for Red Carnation is visually very sophisticated - it's hard to imagine that anyone with two eyes and half a brain would be fooled into thinking the Red Carnation work came from these guys.

      Re the other copywriting firm ever becoming big in the industry - I think, looking at the work on their website, and the rest of their pages, that there's zero possibility of this happening.

      So, that's why I'm pretty relaxed about it on a personal level - I don't feel my reputation is under serious threat, I'm just a bit peeved and shocked. And there are bigger things out there that peeve and shock me (like banks and many financial service providers...).

      However, I'm hearing more of these stories and I think the industry is rife with people exaggerating their experience and bigging up their portfolios. I have another client who interviews and recruits a lot of young designers. She was telling me that it's amazing how much of the work in portfolios can be traced to a quite different source by means of a quick Google search.

      I'm now getting a bit paranoid about where else my work is appearing...

      • Jim April 11, 2014 Reply


        writing comment above prompted me to do deeper research on their site. In the News section (latest item of news posted was Oct 2008) I found a reference to them writing the room descriptions for Red Carnation Hotels in May 2008 (content that is about 1% of total on each hotel site).

        All the websites were redone about 2 years ago so those room descriptions are probably somewhat different now. And the page I saw was not the room description page from those older sites but a general accommodation landing page from the current site, something they definitely didn't write.

        Their news page is littered with photos of well known brands (like Yeo Valley Yogurt) but there are no news stories that relate to them (!). So they are liberally giving the impression of working for big brands but giving no evidence to substantiate that suggestion.

        So, not exactly outright lies but very misleading suggestions that might fool those who don't bother to look closely.

        Sorry, this is all getting a bit boring. Time to get back to work!

  2. Sam April 28, 2014 Reply

    I feel your pain Jim and admire your restraint but appreciate that it would be hard to prove any illegality ( plagiarism or passing off ) of such actions when there is no tangible evidence one might acquire to support a case.

    The case is quite different with physical products where there are organisations such as A©ID ( Anti Copying In Design ) who will take measures on your behalf ( if you are a member ) to have such material removed from an exhibition stand on your behalf.

    • Jim April 28, 2014 Reply

      Hi Sam,

      Yes it's all a bit woolly and hard to prove. But a reminder to us all to be vigilant - it was a jaw-dropping moment for me and I found myself lost for words at the moment I should have said something.



  3. Dario Canale May 2, 2014 Reply

    Hi Jim

    Maybe it's something to do with your copy.

    We did a presentation once to a company we had never met before, and the client kept quizzing us about some specific work we had just shown them. They kept going on about which bits we had done and which were done by another agency. Had we produced the artwork from existing creative perhaps? I kept telling them we had done the lot, including the copy (yours!). Anyway, it turned out that the agency before us had showed them the exact same stuff. Not one, but two campaigns we had done for BOSS.

    Anyway, we didn't win the work, and neither did the 'curators' – I guess the client didn't know who to trust. I wish I could remember who the agency was, but it was quite a while ago and I don't want to get it wrong now. I do remember that it was a big agency though, much bigger than us. I did set them straight, just verbally, no broken bones involved.

  4. Stephen Spicer May 11, 2014 Reply

    I had similar moment quite a few years ago when I was working for an Apple Dealer. I was sent on-site to troubleshoot an issue that they had. When I booted up one of the errant applications I saw it was registered to me...

    • Jim May 12, 2014 Reply


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