Choosing Your Killer Story

I was sourcing designers for a client project and looking for a very particular esthetic.

Through referral, I connected with the very sort of talent I was seeking. His work was clean and elegant with a dash of verve that perfectly captured the spirit of the brand I was building.

Our first exchange—via email—was a tad worrisome. He seemed a little bent out of shape that he hadn’t been in on developing the brand strategy. But we worked it through and moved to a phone call.

That’s when it went off the rails. This brilliant, talented designer decided he would pitch me with how he always stands by his designs, no matter what. Curious opener, but I kept listening. And then he told me his killer story. The one he trots out over and over again to convince prospects to hire him.

It went like this. A very high-profile client (Mistake #1: yes, he used the name) hired him for a high visibility project to design the visual identity for a new company. The client “chose the wrong option” (Mistake #2: never show a client an option you’re not prepared to live with) and the designer was beside himself. How dare the client make such an error? All of his appeals fell on deaf ears—the client loved what was supposed to be a throw-away design.

So, without telling the client, he substituted his preferred design in the pivotal meeting unveiling the company identity to its key investors. (Mistake #3). As he tells it, the investors loved his perfect design and extolled its virtues to the client. Who (in this version) eventually forgave him and now tells the story himself.

I was stunned.

Pulling an intentional, very public sabotage of your own client? And bragging on it?

I knew in a heartbeat that I could not trust him and would never introduce him to a client.

But what made him tell me that story? It wasn’t an accident—he led with that story and was clearly proud of it. Had it won him other assignments with those who wanted a cowboy to ride with?

I suppose we could argue that it is a killer story for him. It encapsulates the experience of working with him and gave me an instant, compellingly clear decision.


Client sabotage isn’t a fence-sitting issue. It’s just wrong.

A truly killer story demonstrates that you can accomplish something great together—or take away pain points. Instead, he showed me a pathway to doubt and trouble .

Uh, no thanks.

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  • I almost never sabotage my clients. 😉

  • Rochelle

    Thank goodness that’s more the norm than this, eh?

  • I sure hope after you heard the story, you chose not to do business with this person. After reading the story again; I did not feel better about it the second time either.
    Here is an interesting sidebar: Three couples went out to dinner Saturday evening. These couples all knew one another for many years. The wife in couple #3 is talking about her recent big ticket purchases. She ends the story with this “all salesman are liars”. Unfortunately, two of the three men at the table have been reputable and successful salesmen all their working years. One of the two (me) took serious offense to it and voiced my displeasure. She said “Of course I did not mean you”. The evening ended ok but she knew she made a serious mistake. Yes, I took it as an affront to all respectable sales people.

  • A wise, sage who mentors me on the political (candidate) projects I consider and take on, and who I prefer to use turn my concepts into reality (handouts, posters and mailings, etc.), advocates never arguing with a client over changing in design and concept. If I feel strongly what a client wants in media or in a proposed actions turns against the client’s interest, I will get them in a quiet secluded place — one time a stairwell — to explain why my advice makes more sense.
    Where my practice can get dicey involves the participation of other consultants, but I follow the rule that my fiduciary responsibility goes to who engaged me.
    My signature story — oh how I wish I got it on tape but never expected it — involved the outgoing NYC Mayor blaming yours truly — calling me out by name and pointing to me standing across the street — for the defeat of his plan to impose tolls (he called it “congestion pricing” — we called it the “congestion tax” over the four free East River crossings from Manhattan to Queens and Brooklyn) in Q&A at a new conference announcing a pilot (another client of mine opposed) van service to replace bus service cuts.

  • Oh. Wow.
    I can’t imagine anyone being amused by that story – let alone impressed enough to hire him.

    There are two Killer Stories from my career that I’m proud to share – one that best captures my grace under pressure, and another that reminds people to not jump to conclusions about how good of a negotiator I am just because I’m young(ish) and female.

    Loved the post – valuable lesson

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