by Dennis Daniel
I recently received a letter from Debbie Parmley, the Production Director at KLLL in Lubbock, Texas. She writes: "I continue to enjoy your column in R.A.P. and would like to pass along one of the biggest complaints I have about this market. Agencies often times send copy to us to produce (gratis). Sometimes they even request I write it (free of charge), and when they DO HIRE US to do a voice-over, they pay only when the client pays them. One local production house owes me $250.00 from 1990 because of clients who stiffed them. Is this common? Should I quit grabbing my ankles? Call me 'Agency-Weary in Lubbock.'"
Is it common? Hoooooo Boy, is it ever! In my eleven years in the radio biz, I have seen and heard just about every excuse there is for non-payment after v.o. work has been completed. I'll deal with that subject in a moment. First, let's talk about this "writing free spots for agencies" crap!
If any agency is receiving a commission for handling an account, in my informed opinion, it is up to them to furnish a completed spot, be it on reel or copy. If you're asked to write a spot for an ad agency, you're being asked to do their job, plain and simple. The only time this theory doesn't apply is if the agency is a time buying service. Most of them exist only to get better rates for clients and, more often than not, they don't have an in-house copywriter. I'm not saying I condone this policy. Not by a long shot! It's just an unavoidable reality sometimes. (I do know some time buying services that write their own copy, so the possibility does exist.)
Okay, let's talk ad agency.
You would be hard pressed to find a more ruthless, dog eat dog, hooray for me and screw you kind of business than the ad agency business! We're talking major clashes of egos, unsavory tactics, get rich quick gimmicks, and out and out lying! The bigger the agency, the more cold blooded they are! I worked for one for two years, and I've been dealing with all kinds of agencies, big and small, ever since! I know! "Kneel for the meal" is the phrase of the day when you work for an ad agency. They're always out there trying to drum up business, blow out the competition, and make fast big bucks. You are a mere cog in their big wheel.
Ad agencies kill creative people. They gobble them up and spit them out like yesterday's Kibbles and Bits. Jeez, I shiver just thinking about it! (Have I made my point that I'm not a big ad agency fan?)
If some ad agency, who I KNOW is making a commission, has the unmitigated audacity to ask ME to write copy for their client, my response is always the same: "Why?" Try it. Ask them why. Ask them, "Are you handling this account for free? Is this your brother-in-law or something?" Get real, people! Unless this is a really amazing account and your GM tells you to write the copy and keep your mouth shut, there's no reason to write spots for ad agencies. (Besides, if it IS a really amazing account, chances are they have lots of money, no? It's even more of a reason not to get a bonejob from the agency!) The only thing that can get in your way in situations like this are -- God, how I hate this word -- "politics." Some GM's and SM's will do anything to "get the deal in the house." An agency can say, "Look Bubba, I know plenty of stations that would write my copy for me and kiss my butt on Times Square for this buy. Tough titties if you don't want to write our spots."
I've got two words for ad people like that.
Ooohhhh! How I hate ad agencies!
Sorry, I digressed. Back to the matter at hand.
If it's at all avoidable, don't write copy for ad agencies unless they're willing to cough up some bucks for your time and talent. Speak to your higher ups about this situation and get their opinion. To me, the Production Director is responsible for writing, producing, and voicing spots for in-house clients represented by agencies. (Hell, isn't that the point? We cut out the middle man! We'll produce your spot for free! All you pay for is the air time. No production costs. No ad agency commissions. No staggering fees. It's what radio is all about! As a station, we have our own in-house ad genius: the Production Director.) Oh sure, we'll produce donuts and tags, even entire spots that have been submitted by ad agencies, AS LONG AS THEY'RE WRITTEN ALREADY!
Oh, and another thing....
If we don't produce the copy an agency has written exactly to their liking, tough boogies! Straight reads, donuts and tags are pretty basic, but if I receive a Steven Spielberg epic to produce, and an agency feels I didn't pull it off to their specific liking, hey, go out and hire a production house to do it for ya buddy! I'm busy enough producing my own epics!
If you're going to do free-lance work for production houses, ad agencies, and individual clients, you are inevitably going to get hosed on payments once in a while. Through the years, I've weeded out the clients that give me a hassle, and I maintain a pretty consistent bunch of folks who are cool on payment for the most part. It all seems to depend on how much they need and respect you as well as how much of a chance you're willing to take. In most cases, I ask for payment after the work is completed. I'll take cash. I'll take a check. Just pay me, Holmes! The work is done. Divvy up! If you've worked up a relationship over the years, it's usually no problem.
If I'm working for someone for the first time, I try to get my way. Most of the time, I do. Sometimes, however, I'll take a chance. "You'll pay me within the next month? Okay." Once again, the odds have been in my favor.
Here are two situations you should try to avoid:
1. "I'LL PAY YOU WHEN THEY PAY ME." Find out beforehand if this is going to be the case and make the judgment value for yourself. Personally, I don't go for this.
2. "IF YOU DO THIS FOR ME NOW ON SPEC (OR FOR A SMALLER FEE), I'M SURE IT WILL LEAD TO A LOT MORE WORK FOR YOU IN THE FUTURE WITH THIS CLIENT." If I had a nickel for every time someone handed me this line! Again, it's up to the individual. If you want to take a gamble, go ahead! Life is risk.
All in all, I've been ripped off for about $1,000.00 in my whole career, which is pretty low. Just keep in mind that you are obviously a valuable commodity to these people or they wouldn't want to use you. (Hell, if you're just another voice or talent, why would they even bother?!) Stick up for yourself, and, if you do get ripped off, take heart in the fact that we all have to eat one once in a while. Learn from your mistakes.