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Is Your Client Taking Advantage Of You?

I’m pretty wary of jumping on the well-worn “disgruntled-with-clients-so-let-me-write-something-poignant-about-it” bandwagon, but it seems to be an area that our customers repeatedly struggle with. When you’ve been in business for a while, your gut kicks in and starts to tell you things. You should probably listen. If you have an inkling that you’re client is taking advantage of you, here are some of the warning signs you need to watch out for!

Warning Sign 1: They’re cramping your style

As a creative, you work a very particular way. And you need your space – for brainstorming, to let the creative process do its thing, to ideate, conceptualise, prototype and finally execute in a way that’s expressive and beautiful. But when you have a client who is 1) a control freak or 2) just really really enthusiastic about creativity, they tend to monitor the work so closely that you have no creative freedom. Zilch, zero, nada. You’re all for collaboration but the client is overstepping and injecting way too much feedback – often unnecessary comments in completely unrealistic timeframes.

Warning Sign 2: They’re always around

I mean, you knew they like your fancy office digs, but lately they’ve been hanging around a whole lot more. You get suspicious – are they trying to find out what other clients you’re working on? Looking for an excuse to catch you out on “bad behaviour”? You’re soon having to tiptoe around the project in fear and shame and it’s all very unconducive to productivity. This can’t go on, because you need to speak freely and venting about the project (in a good natured way of course) is all part of the process.

Warning Sign 3: They’re being increasingly difficult

More revisions, shorter timeframes, a lot of back and forth, added layers of bureaucracy (meaning proofs and artwork need to get signed off by at least 3-5 people, 4 of which you’ve never met) not to mention a whole heaps of last minute changes. If the word “difficult” could be personified, you’re pretty sure it would be an accurate embodiment of this client.

Warning Sign 4: They play the passive aggressive card

More commonly seen with bigger clients who feel they can throw their weight around and even bully/abuse you. You never quite know where you stand. They don’t ask – they demand. They’re moody, insistent and sometimes overwhelmingly negative, criticising the work and demanding a re-run. At other times they shower you with praise and adulation. It’s confusing to say the least, but it’s also interfering with your work as you never know what will generate what kind of reaction.

Warning Sign 5: They disregard your advice

There’s a reason you’re being brought on as the experts but it’s undermining and demeaning when they completely disregard the advice you give and go with something else substandard.

Warning Sign 6: They get a second opinion

Similar to above, this situation puts your entire relationship into question. It’s clear your client is having some serious trust issues and when they take your recommendation but get another opinion on it, it’s more than a betrayal – it’s a blow to all the effort you’ve put into the project.

Warning Sign 7: They (still) have another agency

This happens quite frequently, especially with bigger clients. For example, you might be their branding agency and they have another advertising agency for their comms, but neither agency listens to the other and it all becomes muddled up, confusing and extremely awkward.

Warning Sign 8: They ask for freebies all the time

First they wanted you to pitch for free, which you did because the project looked awesome and you wanted it really badly. But then when you won the job they started asking for little extras, pro-bono side projects – a quick website revamp, a logo for their mother-in-law’s nail salon in Lithuania and of course those beautiful wedding invites for their cousin. As the financial blogger so aptly puts it: just remember, the freeloader is the dark side of the free rider.

Warning Sign 9: They lavish praise all the time, unnecessarily and excessively

You turned up to the meeting on time – not even early, but on the dot – and they give you a massive pat on the back, they high five you every time they walk past but when you pass the coffee cup and they break into applause, you know something’s up. They want something.

Warning Sign 10: They use words like: “This is the last round”, they “promise” and it’s “just this once”

These words should get your suspicions up right away. They’re waffly words, full of hollow promises and usually a heck of a lot of work afterwards. Don’t be fooled!

Warning Sign 11:  They’re all talk but no follow-through

They keep promising more work after this project is complete, without anything to show for it – and when you probe further they fob you off with excuses.

Warning Sign 12: They’re getting a little too close

A close relationship with your clients can be a great thing – especially when friendships blossom outside of work over mutual interests, months of slogging over a project, shared frustrations, excitements, progress and results. But when they start calling at strange times of the night, insisting you meet over lunch, coffee and dinner, and wine starts making an appearance as does a bucketload of perfume...


It’s completely normal to be attracted to a someone you’re working with – smart, successful, well-groomed. But there’s a fine line between work and play, one we suggest keeping well clear of.

So, what can you do?

If you’re experiencing any of the above, it’s time to take action.

  • Before you begin ANY work you should have a signed contract, project plan and scope. Putting your agreements and terms into writing will help ensure there is protection for both sides and some measure of accountability.
  • Rather than agonising over email communication (did they see it, delete it, ignore it?), take a direct approach. Sit your clients down (a face to face meeting is always better if you can arrange it) for a heart to heart. They may not be aware of what they’re doing and open and honest communication can often fix a lot of problems.
  • Start scheduling meetings elsewhere, for example at cafes or at their office or  let them know that clients have access to a certain part of the agency only – not everywhere.
  • Put your foot down. If something doesn’t gel with you, you’re under no obligation to do it. You simply cannot run a business on “free”.

So there you have it. 12 common warning signs to watch out for which symbolise your client is taking advantage of you! Do you have any to add to the list, or have you experienced any of the above?

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Mallika Goel
Mallika Goel is the communications manager at WorkflowMax, fresh from the agency world. She brings with her four years of experience working with some of New Zealand’s largest brands as well as more boutique ones. She thinks life’s too short to do one thing, so she keeps herself busy pursuing her many interests: an obsessive love of writing/blogging, fitness, travelling and design.

Mallika Goel