Andi Best Freelance Designer

Probably My Worst Client Part 1

  • Published 23-10-2021
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Probably My Worst Client Part 1
Thankfully, owing to thousands of years of human existence, there are now plenty of knowns about the universe. For instance, it is known that if you walk headlong into the ocean you will get wet. It is known that if you move to a new geographical area your appearance will become unrecognisable to even yourself as your new local barber will have his own interpretation of the same haircut request you've been making all your life. It is also known that if you pursue a career as a freelancer you will encounter clients who despite commissioning work, collaborating on work and approving work, will choose to not pay for work.
Almost all of my working relationships are direct with my clients but there are a handful of agencies, marketers and creative teams who outsource to me on behalf of their own. Those collaborations are a little harder to manage overall as being one-step removed from the final decision makers inevitably adds a layer of complexity, however I'm fortunate to have an excellent rapport with each of the intermediaries I've dealt with to date, so those client relationships are also pretty solid by proxy.
There was one intermediary relationship however that failed to blossom into something beautiful, but rather something bewildering instead. In fact if you want to get straight into that, skip down the next six paragraphs. As absurd an experience as it was, it wasn't entirely without value as it served as a refresher course in identifying red flags - and the antagonist in this tale was decorated in them like a second-hand car garage forecourt.
It all started when a freelance graphic designer (let's call him Cecil, as it's a moderately ridiculous name and therefore befitting the chap in question - apologies to any actual Cecils reading this) reached out to me to take care of some donkey work he himself couldn't/wouldn't do for a minor IT business. He'd had developed a wealth of illustrated assets for the company by yet another freelancer and now needed some marketing collateral created which they would adorn. Business cards, leaflets, brochures - all the standard pulp-based media. In principle the work wasn't too taxing and the pay wasn't dreadful, so I agreed to squeeze the job in between my existing commitments. Less than a day after accepting the gig Cecil had found his way into my inbox again, looking to unload a second project onto me. The client was a large beverage brand looking to drive engagement with an online mini-game comprised of several uniquely illustrated assets that would animate when controlled by the player. Cecil would handle the game coding and animation, but needed me to illustrate all the moving components. The brief was patchy, rushed, and was bafflingly fixed to the same deadline as the other job he'd already commissioned. But the opportunity to produce artwork for a major brand materialising this easily is rare, so I agreed to take it on concurrently in the same timeframe, drawing the curtains on some pretty intrusive red flags that had curiously sprung up on my lawn.
I was pleased with how keen Cecil was to work with me, seemingly adopting me as his dependable go-to designer after just a short email exchange and before seeing a single project through to completion. This was clearly to be a high-trust relationship so it was paramount I didn't let him or his clients down. With professionalism firing on full thrusters I delivered both the marketing collateral and the game assets ahead of schedule. The collateral was honestly the best it was going to be from a brand aesthetic as pedestrian as it was, and the game assets were more developed than requested as there were some oversights in the brief I had to compensate for. That's thrusting professionalism for you.
Then the big moment - the client review; the only thing between me and sending for remuneration was word that the end clients were satisfied with my designs.
I let a week pass (which is my typical allowance before chasing anything up) to return focus to other projects initially slated for the timeframe Cecil's jobs had infringed. The eventual reply I got was unexpected but welcome; the IT firm were commissioning a second version of their brochure, requiring a new structure for the content and revised use of graphics. The project fee was adjusted, mutually agreed and the extended workload was soon underway. Nothing was mentioned about the drinks brand web game at this time.
Another week of silence and another follow up email dispensed. Having a mediator in this arrangement was beginning to take its toll.
Approaching week four and it was time to strap on my ugly face. I sent another email which sought to fairly but firmly assert my position - that the work had been carried out, the generous window for either feedback or sign off was closing and that I would soon be requesting payment. I don't often have to send emails like this but when I do they're usually the catalyst for closure. Usually.
"Hi Andi. The beverage brand web game isn't going ahead. The client didn't like the pitch. The IT company have signed off the collateral though."
I read that back a couple of times whilst climbing up off the floor, having been struck hard around the face by the largest red flag yet. I replied, taking my next swing in what would be a bizarre email rally.
"Hi Cecil. That's a shame about the web game. I hadn't realised that was speculative work to win a job. Sorry you didn't get it. I'll prepare invoices for both projects shortly and send over. Thanks for the opportunities."
"Hi Andi. No, the web game has been cancelled. You can't invoice for that, the client isn't taking that project forward. This is one of the things you'll learn about freelancing - sometimes you have to just swallow the projects that don't work out".
I hailed a taxi and drove back to my office an hour later having been cast through the roof by that last gargantuan red flag and landing several miles away.
I read his email several more times on the journey and tried to decide which part was more obscene - that Cecil was point-blank refusing to pay me for the work or that he'd somehow presumed I was new to freelancing (I'd been running the business for seven years at this point) and could be bullied through naivety.
"Hi Cecil, unfortunately I'm unable to waive charging you for the web game assets as I delivered the completed work that was briefed, and so my time and effort there require remuneration, as agreed. Please may I have your business address so that I can generate your invoices - I'm looking again at our agreement documents and your address is not cited there."
(A little retrospective bonus red flag thrown in there; through the haste of commencing this multi-faceted tight-deadline work I'd fallen short in my due diligence and not satisfactorily researched information about Cecil's company.)
His reply to that last email was museum-worthy:
"Andi, I'm not going to give you my address. You might come round and attack me for all I know."
Cecil's judgement of character was all over the map here and it was becoming clear I was dealing with a person of questionable stability. In a single exchange he'd pegged me as both a milquetoast junior freelancer and an unruly, brutal debt-collecting mobster. It was spectacularly unique behaviour.
Luckily for me the government publishes a public directory of every registered business on their Companies House website, so now with Cecil's address in hand I could formally request what was owed and/or travel to his house and punch his lights out. I issued both invoices and, ever the professional, allocated them my standard 30 day payment window even despite the hardship endured to this point (I also - ever the professional - did not physically assault him).
It came as a surprise to precisely no one that at the conclusion of those 30 days my bank account still had no idea who Cecil was, which meant the time had come to embark along the weary path leading to Small Claims Court.
Or had it?
An idea struck me; perhaps there was another way out of this without involving a legal party.
I navigated to the IT company's website and expectedly, splashed all over the homepage, was the new myopic branding design Cecil had come up with. Digging a little further into the site I discovered the brochures I'd designed were embedded for download in PDF format. Being as the debt for those brochures was outstanding the transference of their ownership hadn't occurred, meaning they were technically still mine and utilising them like this was a breach of copyright.
The key now was to circumvent Cecil, disrupting the relationship dynamic, and email the IT company directly issuing a take-down notice. It was a bold move but it paid off. The client was suitably perturbed and forwarded my email to Cecil, merely heading it "what the fuck is this?" Cecil, facing a substantial loss of credibility with his client, was incensed by my subterfuge and emailed me for the first time in nearly two months with another missive befitting a gallery wall:
"Here's your bloody money! But just know you'll never get anywhere in this business with such a mercenary attitude!"
On the contrary, my actions (that I were forced to take due to the position he himself had put me in) did get me somewhere. They got me precisely what I wanted in fact; all the money he initially agreed to pay me. My bank balance confirmed it.
Remarkably, even at this stage he was still professing superiority over me, denouncing my many years in business and belittling my supposed inexperience. The only inexperience I have is in devising plots to shame my clients into holding up their end of the agreement, as oddly the need to so doesn't come up very often.
His use of the term mercenary as a criticism has stayed with me for years; his pathetic last ditch attempt to twist the knife. I find it such a peculiar stance to sleight a person and then chastise them for not simply accepting it.
Very shortly after this episode Cecil's website disappeared and I later found that he'd launched another under a new name and branding. He'd also enlisted himself on several of those hideous freelancing race-to-the-bottom websites like People Per Hour and Bark, where some of his recent customer reviews are far from glowing.
Writing all this would have been in vain if I hadn't learnt a lesson from the experience, and thankfully I have.
One of the greatest benefits of being on your own is that rules aren't indoctrinated by a hierarchy of leaders and managers. The ever-expanding ruleset a freelancer must devise for himself is an organic process moulded entirely by experience and gut instinct. Best practice is largely common sense, so foresight is of little help or availability. The regulation Cecil helped forge into being is to never accept rush or tight-turnaround work from a prospect with whom I have no prior history. Engaging with clients is about more than just the financial endpoint and the specifics of the project in hand. It's also about the fit. The relationship that we strike up as we perform our professional rituals before each other, particularly at the very beginning where lengthy project scoping, telephone consultation and document sharing occur, is important groundwork for assuring confidence and assessing personality. With first-time rush jobs we skip over that part of the initiation and lose a lot of the value in outlaying the relationship, relegating gut feelings to the sidelines in favour of a rocky road. Rush work will always be a part of freelance life, but I've come to be much more selective about who I shoulder that burden for.
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