If I could choose to, I wouldn’t pay a single cent.

I once commissioned an opening film for an event. The usual creative meetings were held – budgets, concepts, treatments, and shoot schedules were all locked. The film included scenes like “candid live-action shoots at various locations including Delhi train station with actors wearing masks”. I had never worked with the agency before but, they had a reputation and had consistently produced good work. I entrusted them with the project – didn’t plan to be at the shoots, and in fact, didn’t plan to direct any part of the project. Isn’t that the whole point of getting good people to work on projects – people who know what they are doing and getting things done? 

After the shoots were supposed to take place, and after an ample time has gone by to do the first cuts, I started asking to review the film. Messages took time to be replied, usually in an apologetic tone – “Sorry, in London now. We have been developing it and it is taking more time. Will set up a time to take you through it soon.” Followed by radio silence after that. The event was now 2.5 weeks away, and I still hadn’t seen anything. Another reply came “Sorry, in New York. Will be back in town soon. Will be showing you a cut very soon”. Followed by another few days of silence. 

It is now 1.5 weeks left before the event. After numerous rounds of chasing, I finally received the first cut. “I’m sure your audience would like it.”

There was no live-action; no actors wearing beautifully designed masks appear at various locations across India. Instead, I got a film with London and New York footage, and 3D animals being imposed on street scenes. It’s now 1.5 weeks before the event and obviously, nothing more can be done. Except for making sure logos are correct and no typo errors.

Did the audience like it? It didn’t matter to me – I was the client and we agreed upon something which wasn’t delivered. 

A few weeks later a mail came – “We’re back in India now, so thought I’d share the invoice with you. It’s attached here.”

Should I pay?

When I engage freelancers/studios/agencies for projects, I do my best to filter and do background checks before officially commissioning the work. Most of the time these collaborations work out really well, and the collaborators become good friends at the end of the project and which leads to many more projects in the future. Sometimes, things do turn really sour.

An ex-agency senior art director was hired for campaign work. He pretty much took the lines, and Google / Pinterest searched images (a mix of clip-arts, illustrations and stock), patched together a layout and presented a campaign visual route. Frankly, quite a shocking output, for an experienced advertising art director. His defence? “I have to use available images to help us construct the visual ideas. Once the client has approved the visual ideas, the actual visual/illustration will be redesigned via photography or purchase of the relevant stock images”. He did get full marks for curating a bank of visual ideas, but what about art direction? An assortment of ideas does not make a well-thought art-directed campaign. To him, he considered his part of the deal to be done and wanted his payment.

A studio was hired to do a film and promised the first cut on Wednesday. The studio missed the deadlines not just for Wednesday, but also for Thursday and Friday. We did build a buffer for internal reviews and promised the anxious client the first cut on Friday, but had to postpone it to the following Monday. What made the situation worse was the lack of updates from the studio. We were always asking the question of “when?” “You will get it on Thursday morning.” “When?” “Sorry, you will get it after lunch.” By now, I had already made a plan B – by immediately engaging another studio at a higher cost (more than the usual cost because the one-week production work has been shortened to 2 days) to finish the film. I asked to cancel the job but the studio made assurances that the problems will be fixed by Saturday morning. On Saturday evening, I got a decent cut from the second studio and had absolute silence from the first (which, by then, we have stopped chasing). On Sunday noon, I finally received the first cut from the first studio, and by then, the second studio has started working on revisions, so that we could send it off to the client that evening itself.

In one of the rare situations, the first studio didn’t accept any payment for the work they did. “We overestimated our capabilities and messed up on timelines. It’s our fault.” This is rare, for people are usually adamant about getting paid for the work they have done, regardless of whether it is of any useful value to the buyer. If the studio had asked for payment, I wouldn’t want to, but I would have paid. 

Fortunately, there are not too many stories to tell about how collaboration failed. The confession here is – there are times, when I, as the buyer, have been tempted by the thought of not paying for whatever work was done. In the first case, a film that I didn’t even sanction and cannot reject. The second, an art director who justified that his work is done, and I see no value in a mood-board of ideas instead of a campaign; and the third, when I had to spend extra to get a second studio to do fire-fighting in order to maintain my relationship with a paying client.

Recently, there was an outcry on social media to “cancel” an agency for refusing to pay an illustrator. Some friends reached out to me to ask for my take.

While I don’t know the exact details as I don’t know both parties, I read the situation as – an illustrator who had managed the project timelines badly, and an agency that sounded furious about missed deadlines and probably faced a lot of awkward embarrassing situations in front of a client. Perhaps, they had even spent the extra money to execute a Plan B, because Plan A was going nowhere.

Should they have paid? Of course. It was a deal gone bad. One would have had the experience of going to a restaurant, ordering their recommended dish and realising it is the worst possible meal of their life (because the kitchen was having a bad day or because “I just don’t like it”). One just can’t say “Hey, Mr Gordon Ramsey, your lobster pizza sucks today. I’m not paying because I’m not going to finish the dish”. 

After all, it was a choice that one made to step into his restaurant – to order his food, from his menu. It is now entirely up to Mr Ramsey to decide what he wants to do next. He could waive off the bill because his kitchen delivered sub-par food. He could decide to substitute the dish with another. He could give you vouchers so that you will return again – to give him another chance. But it is entirely his decision, and if he just wants the customer to pay up, the customer has no other choice.

Just swipe the card, and make the decision of “no more next time”, and if this makes one happy – vengefully leave a bad review on social media. 

Then move on, however unwillingly.

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