Our plagiarism horror story

One girl copying another

Our plagiarism horror story





Our plagiarism horror story


Tony Hallett
Managing director

Tony set up Collective Content in 2011 so brands can more easily become publishers and tell stories. This built on 15 years in media, from reporter to publishing director at Silicon Media Group, CNET Networks and CBS Interactive.

Stories about plagiarism can be scary. Some high-profile cases even get made into films. Plagiarism itself – defined as the act of taking a person’s original work and presenting it as if it was your own – is even scarier. In journalism, it opens you up to civil legal action and trashes reputations. In business, it can trash a whole brand.

There’s a simple answer, I hear you say: don’t plagiarise.

That’s a given. But that’s not what this post is about.

Let me tell you about the time a client accused us of plagiarising their competitor’s assets. When I heard that allegation – I really was scared. Frozen-in-my-tracks scared.

First of all, I was scared that someone on our team had done such a thing. We only employ the right kind of people – either very experienced, so with no question of doing it, or when team members are nearer the start of their careers, we instil in them why it’s a big no-no in the content world.

Early spoiler: it turned out that no one on our team had plagiarised anything.

What happened? We had a client that had been with us for a number of years. We’d created a lot of different content for them, working with a number of subject matter experts in-house – people who are called SMEs in our world.

Another agency had come to their CMO and pointed out that some of this company’s assets had parts lifted from a key competitor’s website and e-books. The CMO came to us, as we had created those assets, and pointed an accusing finger.

We were naturally worried for us and our sizeable account. But at that point our client was also exposed, if anyone else saw the similarities. Imagine how their competitor could have run with this revelation.

So we got forensic. A small internal team set about comparing a few hundred historic documents. We wanted to know exactly what happened. To help, we got to know plagiarism engines well – typically programs used by colleges and universities, where students have been known to fail to properly cite other people’s work.

We narrowed down the rogue assets to maybe 10–15 content items. What did they all have in common? A leading SME, one of the top team at the company, had regularly briefed us on a certain subject. As with many clients, we used a briefing template, for times when we didn’t speak with the SME on the phone or in person, which we also did regularly. This SME had been cutting and pasting a competitor’s work and not thinking twice about presenting it as original thinking.

This blew us away.

Perhaps most practically: never do this, whether you’re a SME creating content or anyone else, for any reason.

Within about a week of identifying the cause of the problem, we had rewritten all the offending content. It felt like we were holding a ticking bomb the whole time. But we were very happy with our troubleshooting in the end (though the word ‘troubleshooting’ doesn’t really do this justice).

I don’t believe our client ever acknowledged that we weren’t the source of the problem.

We retired the account not long after.

The CMO who accused us was moved on relatively quickly, we heard.

The SME, as far as we know, is still there. We have no idea if anyone ever told them to stop doing what they did/do.

As for us, we are careful to include plagiarism sections in our employee contracts – it’s a straight-up sackable offence.

The bigger lesson? We also include disclaimers in our paperwork with clients. They state that we won’t accept liability for a client doing this in their briefings to us.

We emerged more street smart. And while the intention here is to prevent this from happening to others, I still can’t believe this ever happened. Scary.

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