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Family - A Seattle Advertising Agency

How NDAs Ruined My Career


We were walking to the elevator through an anodyne office building on a corporate campus. Time stopped.

Without warning, my client turned into Charlie Sheen. Not the lovable rogue from the television sitcom, Two and a Half Men. But the meth-fueled psychopath, screaming tiger blood torpedoes of truth. #Winning! I looked from side to side. Who the hell was he screaming at? By the time we reached the elevator, I realized it was me.

The short version of his rant: Everyone must sign a 10-year non-disclosure agreement that includes millions of dollars in damages if they utter a fucking word about the project. That’s the PG version. I told him to draw up the papers and I’ll have my crew sign it. I sign more NDAs than the government signs checks. He never produced an NDA. The project stalled. I exited a few days later.

Non-disclosure agreements are important tools that protect companies. But after a few years, if you can’t talk about some of your best work or showcase it to attract new clients, it really starts hurting business.

The Neverending Story

Case in point: a project I directed about five years ago. My team worked on a handful of web videos under NDA. The client loved them so much they ordered more of the same. Next, they asked to have them all localized into seven different languages. I begged off the localization job, referring folks better suited to the task. No dice. I asked for more and more money. Nothing worked.

In essence, a six-month project became 18 months on virtually the same content. Easy on the bank account. Tough on the reel.

Pitching Old Reels

In the weeks that followed, we had a new business pitch. The potential client flat-out said they’d like to see something more recent – something done in the last couple of years. Cue the band. I started dancing a jig. In that time, the only work I was able to wedge into my schedule was unmentionable. One was another project under NDA and the other a very forgettable commercial shoot. So after two years, I had nothing to crow about. We didn’t sign that client.

Falling on Swords

A couple of years ago, we pitched a large tech company. So large, one hand didn’t know what the other was doing.

Halfway through our presentation, the client pointed out a big problem. We glossed over how we were technically going to execute the most complicated deliverable. I made a T with my hands and asked for a moment alone with my team.

A week earlier, I had wrapped a project with a different team at the same tech company. The next day, they were going to announce an app that would make the technical side of the deliverable a snap. But, you guessed it, I was under NDA.

If you give up someone’s secrets, you can’t be trusted.

So we decided to ask the client for a one-day extension to present our solution. No grace period allowed! I explained their company was about to introduce a new technology. But I couldn’t discuss the details until it was announced. We were shown the door.

Protecting Content Studios

Since then, I’ve worked with a lot of content studios.

And those assignments come with some of the most onerous NDAs of my life. Language drafted from the lips of Satan’s own attorneys. I think the last one I signed in blood. One wanted to fingerprint me. Not kidding about that.

They’ve got a lot to protect:

  • Intellectual property

  • Business strategies

  • Marketing strategies

  • Proprietary marketing strategies I’m developing for them

  • Proprietary tech I’m developing for them

  • Dysfunctional content teams

  • Inefficiencies in advertising

So I get it.

But good gravy, I’d love to put some of this work on my reel… before I die of old age.

Now, most folks will give written permission to showcase the work. Most folks. After the NDA expires. And good luck negotiating an exception through the legal labyrinth of Fortune 100 companies.

So keep in mind what you’re signing away when you sign a non-disclosure agreement. It’s more than keeping quiet. Sometimes it smothers your best marketing material. And possibly, your career.

Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike.


Want to know the big problems facing content studios? Read all about it.

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