Copycat clients and an Account Manager's Dilemma

How to Talk Your Client Out of a Tree and Other Unsavory Tasks


As an advertising and design professional, I’ve struggled with many different types of difficult client situations over the years. Here’s two from my sample of Greatest Hits:

There’s Bob, the client that hasn’t paid you his required deposit up front, or signed his contract but who, nevertheless, keeps calling to know “what kind of progress have you made on our web site?”

Or there’s Mary who, after having been given a list of required base materials for a project, including photography requirements, copy documents, corporate timelines, etc — keeps calling and wondering “what’s holding this project up?”

Advertising professionals know the pain of working through these difficulties. Financial and “project management” issues, though, are actually some of the easier problems to address. Bob needs to be reminded to pay his bill and Mary needs to be reminded that the agency needs further base resources in order to proceed.

Some of the thornier issues to address are issues related to a client’s questionable taste of lack of good critical thinking about their brand identity. In my next series of blog article, I’m going to be addressing a number of these difficult client situations. This week we’re starting with one of my favorites, The Copycat Client.

We’ve all had them. The client that seeks you out, with a printout from a web site they’ve seen and like and exclaims, “We’d like you to design our site so that it looks like this… we LOVE this…”

Within the spectrum of Copycat Clients, there are different gradations of challenges. In a “not so bad” situation, the client has studied another web site and their reasons to use it for inspiration are well-founded. If, for instance, the site makes visual sense for the identity of the client’s brand and the site isn’t from a direct competitor, it might make sense to use it as inspiration. Borrowing heavily from a competitor in one’s industry sector, though is bound to lead to brand confusion.

More often, unfortunately, the source of the client’s desire to duplicate someone else’s work stems from either an insecurity in their own ability to create a unique brand presence for their product of an insecurity in the designer’s skill to do the same. So, what does a competent design professional do when faced with a Copycat Client? Do what you’d do with any jittery kitty:

Talk them out of the tree they’ve trapped themselves in.

I usually begin by having a frank discussion about what it is they like about the site they’ve brought to our attention. Sometimes, you’ll find that they actually don’t want the entire look of the site duplicated, rather they’re fixated on a couple of “likes” which are pretty easy to duplicate in a new, unique web presence. Other times, I go straight to the heart of the matter and express my concerns that, in duplicating the work of (especially) a competitor, the client is really weakening their own brand through lack of differentiation. And, finally, if I detect some insecurity in our ability to create a unique web site for them, I basically restart the sales process. I ask them why they came to us in the first place and take the time to review with them portfolio projects which I know will appeal. I basically try to reestablish the trust that is necessary to successfully move forward.

Copycat clients can be a challenge but, if you understand that, at the root of their insistence on “borrowing” from others’ work is a sense of insecurity, you can help talk them through that insecurity and move them to a place where they feel more comfortable letting you do what you know you do best: designing unique, well-positioned and functional web sites for them.

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