They say you shouldn’t take business dealings personally. It’s been at least a decade since a client has tried to skip out on my bill. But I also know it often goes on. Because some companies put entrepreneurs, especially those in creative professions, at the bottom of the payables pile.
I’ve seen voice-over pros go for many months without getting paid for work that’s already being used. And it upsets me on their behalf. Landlords and hydro companies won’t wait for payment. Try getting a groceries without paying for them or running a tab at the gas station. It’s just not fair.
When you work for yourself and your pay isn’t steady or guaranteed, it’s tempting to tread softly. Pushing a client, especially a big one, feels risky in case they decide you’re annoying and won’t hire you again. To that I say, who cares? They’re not paying you! That makes them terrible to work with and I’d argue they’re not even a client. A client pays for work.
My former husband got taken (through no fault of his own) by two major “clients”. One of them was quickly imprisoned on counterfeiting charges. The other one, a much-loved former Toronto radio programming consultant, lives on a boat. They both got away with thousands of dollars of free work. I vowed it would never happen again.
Football Hero? My Zero
When I did talk radio in Hamilton I was approached by a woman looking for voice-overs for a cable channel. The company was owned, or co-owned, by Mike “Pinball” Clemons. Happy for extra cash, I started recording commercials, sometimes several a day. At first, they paid immediately. Then payments came more slowly until they finally trickled to a stop. Much later, I learned this was their pattern as the company worked its way through the city’s radio announcers.
One fellow show host advised me to just let it go. He reasoned that there was no way to fight a celebrity football player even though the company owed me more than a thousand dollars. “Oh yeah?” I thought. I gathered the necessary paperwork and filed against one Michael Clemons in small claims court.
When the court date finally arrived, I was unopposed. I presented all of my hard evidence and was awarded the fees, interest, the cost of filing, and a few other bits and pieces of financial penalties. Victory is just the first step in small claims court, though. The other part is collecting.
By the time I received a cheque from the Toronto Argonauts on behalf of Clemons, I was working at Toronto’s 680 News and anchoring morning news on CHFI. I remember proudly showing the payment to 680 News Sports Director Peter Gross. “Oh that’s gonna hurt him”, Peter said. “Taking that much out of one paycheck will be painful.”
Good, I thought. If it’s painful enough he won’t do it again.
Not My Cup of Tea
Years later while I was co-anchoring the morning show on 680 News, a marketing company from London, England reached out. They needed a host. They were coming to Toronto to interview a couple of major clients, fund managers in the financial district. And they wanted to shoot all around the city to make a video proving their international reach. The compensation was terrific and the opportunity – although exhausting – would be good for my media profile.
It occurred to me that I probably wasn’t first on their list. But I needed the money and went for it.
For two days, after the draining 680 News morning show, I skipped going home for a nap. Instead, I went out with the British camera crew all over Toronto. They put me on the lakeshore with the city skyline in the background. Basically, I did a sentence or two about the company in front of anything that was familiar to Europeans. And I conducted several interviews with fund managers in their offices.
It was exhausting but I had my eye on the prize: my payment.
After the crew went home the promised couriered cheque never arrived. Weeks passed and I inquired several times. Then my messages stopped getting responses. It was clear that they were stiffing me.
Not on my watch. Not paying me was playing dirty so I decided to use the only leverage I had.
I called one of the financial advisors I had interviewed. He snorted with dismissiveness over the amount I was owed. It was nothing to him but definitely something to me. Still, he called the company in England and shamed them into paying me. I had the cheque within a couple of days.
Obviously, I also needed to examine what I could have done better. I’ve changed the way I do things over the years. Now, I take a deposit. My terms are clearly stated as due on completion of work. And if someone’s payments begin slowing to a trickle, my work comes to an abrupt stop.
But that’s not always possible for everybody. No judgment here. But not wanting to “be a pain” is the part I advise against. THEY are the pain. They’re not keeping up their end of the bargain. Bug them. So often, it’s the big companies that take the longest. I pay my freelancers immediately because I know what it’s like to have to wait.
Working with corporations has another side to it, though. I recorded a couple of lines for a TV spot that, unfortunately, never aired because of the pandemic. It was for a giant brand and meant to run across North America. The corporation accidentally paid me twice. When I contacted my liaison at the company and tried to return the money, he couldn’t figure out how to do it in their complex software system. He attempted to find out how and eventually just said, keep it. He marked it as a bonus. A win for me!
The one that got away about ten years ago was brought to me by a pal. I wrote media releases for him and got him a couple of high value interviews. And then he bailed on me. My pal shrugged his shoulders when I asked for personal contact info. Live and learn. And choose your pals wisely.