2020 was many things, but boring was not one of them. Everyone knows what we’re talking about, so we won’t bother mentioning it. Instead, we thought it would be a good idea to look at some lessons we learned last year with a connection to The Situation® that could be described as tenuous, at best. Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy UK has often said that you should try to be good at two things. Thankfully, at least for our two niches – digital marketing and animation – the creative industry didn’t seem to be affected all that much, and this makes sense. A historically unprecedented situation has forced people to move online, and that includes their marketing efforts. Of course, some industries were particularly affected by this, not least commercial property, as companies who resisted the move to online over the years finally realized that they could, in fact, work from home. Other businesses, however, weren’t so lucky that they could work from home.

Thankfully, just as lockdowns hit, we were in the process of moving office, so could simply cancel our next lease.

Lessons learned the hard way

Even (and especially) during these trying times, tough calls need to be made, and we made several of them in 2020. We had to end things with two clients in particular because, in the end, it was the best thing for the company.

One ex-marketing client, who we will call Demanding, always had a problem with costs. This, even though our costs were clear from the outset and didn’t even increase over time. Regardless, we take dissatisfaction with our costs (and thus with our services) very seriously, and did in fact produce results that exceeded the previous year’s (and previous agency’s) efforts. We exercised extreme patience with the out-of-the-blue and after-hours calls demanding answers. At one point, Demanding even shouted at and cursed us over the phone because they didn’t get the answers they were looking for, which deteriorated the professional relationship beyond redemption. At the end this dissatisfaction reached a crescendo when they asked for penalties to our already-reduced fee – i.e. subtractions – if we didn’t reach certain KPI’s that they sucked from their thumbs.

Now here comes the lesson. We cordially ended things with them in January of 2020, to handover during the first half of February. Had we heeded the long string of red flags that led up to this point, we might have been spared from the ensuing battle to get what was owed to us. Characteristically, they refused to pay what we invoiced them, stating that they wanted to “recon” everything on their side first. We conceded, as this request was reasonable enough.

But then: radio silence. We tried to contact Demanding multiple times after that, through various methods, with no response. After months of attempts to contact them, we’d had enough, and had to get lawyers involved. Remember, mere months after January 2020, The Situation® kicked in. Only after our lawyers sent a letter did they finally respond with a lawyer’s letter of their own, explaining that their company had ceased operations due to The Situation® and would not be able to pay what was owed to us.

The lesson: if a client (or any other professional relationship) is bad, get out FAST. Don’t delay. We ended up only getting back around half of what was owed to us – an expensive lesson.

Get it in writing!

One animation client, who we will call Outof Scope, made a colossal blunder during the spec/scoping phase. This led to a massive misunderstanding of scope, which, spurred on by vague and incorrect usage of terms, remained undetected for far too long. The service they thought they were getting was nowhere near our realm of expertise, and wasn’t advertised anywhere, either (we thought the quote was extremely clear). Once the misunderstanding had finally come to light, we realized that they were in a bad spot in terms of finding someone else on time, and thus offered to cede our entire fee to someone else to get the project done.

This led to an ever-increasing burden on our part because, not only did we cede our entire fee for the project, we still worked on it to the extent that we could, actively working at a loss. After a few weeks of most of our team working into the early morning hours (we’re talking 3 / 4AM), we decided enough is enough and handed the project over entirely to the people we ceded the initial fee to. It turned out that the management at Outof Scope wasn’t aware of this monumental blunder on the part of the acquisitions team, and once we explained it to them (during an impromptu call at midnight), they were quite understanding.

The lesson here is two-fold: sign a SOLID agreement to determine the EXACT scope before even thinking of starting work on a project. If the client’s company structure is large and complex, make sure that the whole team understands the spec as well as you to avoid misunderstandings. Secondly, don’t work for free. Ever. Unless it’s a charity, in which case, you’re awesome.

It has to be said that situations like the ones laid out here are the absolute exception – with the overwhelming majority of our clients, partners and service providers, we maintain a professional and cordial relationship. The lessons we’ve learned will help us to avoid situations like these where both parties lose out. If these cautionary tales help even one person to avoid a similar situation in 2021 or after, we will be content. Now, as someone somewhere put it, go and put the “won” in 2021!

P.S. We were going to mention a bad experience with a service provider but decided that there’s enough negativity being flung around the zoo these days.