Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Freelance Rules #11 - Trust your gut

I'm in the very nice position at the moment of having a number of projects to juggle - that's great after a tough couple of years but throws up its own challenges of prioritising, keeping clients happy and generally having enough hours in the day to take part in the meetings and deliver the work.

I recently had the chance to cut the stress by focusing on one project for one client for a year. Okay, the pay wasn't going to be fantastic, but the project sounded great. The spec was to support the internal and external comms needs of a new CEO in an industry I enjoy for one of its biggest organisations - and one that was both new to me and would be a very good name to have on the CV. Stakeholders would be in the UK and International and would cut across the private and public sectors and include considerable government liaison. The call was to create a new strategy and then be a key player in implementing it.

There was a pretty time-consuming procurement process - which saw me spend the day I went on holiday writing a speech among other activities - but it looked like a project worth getting on board.

At the first selection meeting, I didn't meet the guy I'd be supporting. That rang an alarm bell, Instead, I was asked to do some more pre-work (which was never mentioned again!) and then grilled by a panel of four. One actually said nothing; two I took to, but the other managed to come across in turn as unctuous, officious, pompous and overly alpha-maleish. My answers didn't seem to be ringing his bells, and I left the room really not expecting to be asked back to sell-in my services - and not sure I wanted to return anyway.

Within 24 hours, as other client worked buzzed about me, I was asked back - and they wanted to see me pretty much immediately. My gut said let it go - but their obvious (though slightly surprising)interest in me probably flattered my ego a little too much. The lack of chemistry in the first meeting; their forensic interest in what seemed to me not so important issues; and a certain friction when I outlined my preferred way of working should have alerted me that this was not going to end happily. But, it's nice to be flattered and I shifted a couple of appointments and headed for this potential new client.

Again, I didn't get to see the person I'd actually be working for and was faced instead with the gang of four. They drilled into my preference for effective over efficient communication (they seemed to want things the other way round) and pointed to their CEO as being the 'expert' whom I should take my cue from without challenge.

At that point, I was seriously thinking: 'why have a dog and bark yourself?' My gut was telling me to get out of there - but that's not what we do in pitch meetings. Too often we sit there giving the answers we think the other side wants rather than what we actually believe to be true.

By now, Mr. Unctuous had turned particularly pompous. He was virtually going line by line through some other client work I'd been asked to provide to demonstrate the breadth of my work. I didn't take to his school master tones and finally woke up to what my gut was telling me.

These people didn't want a creative, challenging communication partner - they simply wanted a speechwriting powerpoint jockey who wouldn't rock the boat. The package they were selling bore little resemblance to the pretty picture on the box.

Politely but firmly I piped up: "You know what, I don't think I want to take this any further. I obviously don't fit what you're looking for and don't think I need to take up any more of your time."

It would be an understatement to say they were shocked. I think I shocked myself. But I honestly could not see any point in going through the polite rituals for another hour when I knew that there really was no meeting of minds. A few coughs, splutters and uncomfortable minutes later I was walking back to the car.

I should never have gone to the second meeting. It merely confirmed my concerns and wasted the time of five people - and I never did get to see the head honcho......probably a sign in itself.

I feel I dodged a bullet. Myself and Mr. Unctuous would never have got on. But I also feel that potential clients should be more honest in their project specs. If you advertise for a creative challenger and set a process that plays to those strengths, that's what you'll get. If you really want a skilled packager, make that clear on your tender.

Anyway, my gut has stopped rumbling. Since that slightly painful hour in the Midlands, two clients have come by with new work and the pipeline's looking particularly perky.

I'm very far from perfect, but on this occasion I felt vindicated in walking away from a poor, over-engineered process. Chemistry matters, honesty matters and respect matters in project negotiations. When any of those factors is out of kilter, it can leave a particularly painful - and long-term - gut ache.

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