Love can be blind, not the love for work. A tough lesson learnt
The difference between a good leader and a great leader is the ability to hold their ground. Holding one’s ground is way different from decision-making. In fact, it’s more to do with sticking to the decision that’s made. There will be numerous situations where your endurance will go through excruciating tests. But one has to fare well in every single test. As leaders, we will always have to face those forces that put us down, or write us off, or exploit us. But you’ve got to face these forces with all the confidence, and not leave your ground, at the fear of being judged; especially, by those who never held theirs.
Unfortunately, for most, business is not about good or bad. It’s not even about fair or unfair. It’s purely about profit or loss. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s the definition of profit and loss that differs from leader to leader. For some, profit is only the positive numbers they see in the books. It doesn't matter to them if these numbers were accumulated using unethical practices. For others, it’s about striking mutually-beneficial associations that go a long way. But when we have the option to make easy money, associations tend to go off the window. And that’s when the real test to hold one’s ground comes to play. It’s in those few moments of distress you ought to prove why you are where you are.
No business is bigger than the other. Every entrepreneur wants to grow his business by x percentage or y times. The concerns, challenges and issues might be different for different entrepreneurs. But the ratio is almost similar. And it is these challenges that place us on a similar line. We all have to fight our own battles. I’ve had my share of battles too but there’s one that’s distinct in my memory.
In 2013, we got locked in a battle that put our mettle to test. We had taken up a new project for a web portal that focussed on foreign trade. The portal offered subscription based e-magazines, and a project-based hand-holding to businesses in India to explore world markets. The company was focussing on small and medium-sized industries that had not moved beyond their territory. It was a key project for us. That's because their expansion plans were quite comprehensive. The project was interesting yet difficult because of two key reasons – the client’s expectations, and the industry that the brand belonged to. However, we were more than happy to partner with them. As an advertising agency, we did our share of research, and started working on the project. We had to move out of our comfort zone, and perform. But at the end of the day, who was going to judge our performance? The client? Well, yes. But should it be only the client’s territory to pass or fail a piece of work? Not really.
I still remember that the first time we were all set to meet the client, and understand their expectations. As we walked into their swanky office, we saw that there was space for hundreds of people to work, but it was highly underutilised, and there were only a couple of dozen employees working in the office. On questioning the CEO’s subordinate, he replied, “We have just started operations. We are hiring people, and we’ll soon be full.” It seemed like a valid explanation.
While chatting, we also got to know that they were looking at a highly ambitious business model. We could sense a strong stench of over-confidence though. The client, in fact, dropped quite a few hints of wrong intent in the very first interaction, but our focus was only on our workand we forgot that sometimes too much focus on something blurs our vision about other equally crucial things. This was, however, the beginning of the end of this association.
Nevertheless, things moved ahead. There were three key people from our team, and around eight from theirs. We showcased our company profile, gave a brief introduction about our history, and got the ball rolling. The meeting went on for a couple of hours. After some difficult questions thrown at us from different corners, we decided to move ahead with each other, and called for a second meeting. This one was scheduled for a week later.
So far, we had had our first round of meeting with the client, shared our profile, evaluated their expectations, finished some initial research, documented the discussion, worked out mutual timelines, and noted the next steps. Things seemed to be in flowing in the right direction.
The second meeting was at the same place, with a smaller team from their end, and only a single representative from our end. We were told that the client was ready to work with us, and we could move ahead with the contract and other formalities. The only thing that changed was the approach in terms of the how the job should be phased. It was an advertising campaign to launch the brand in eight key cities in the country. The primary media was OOH (Out Of Home or OOH comprise billboards, road medians, et al, and are focussed on marketing to consumers when they are in transit or waiting at public places). We were informed that instead of sharing a completed job, they would prefer a concept note. Once the approach was approved, we could initiate the execution. We obliged, and finished the formalities over the next 3-4 days.
In-depth research was underway. And one of our key teams began working on rough sketches and notes to meet the objective of the client, which was to work around two keywords – trade and exports. Though it’s a relatively dry subject, our aim was to make it sound interesting, and gain optimum mileage. We came up with two routes. There were clear rationales mentioned about why a route was chosen, and how it could help the brand meet its objective. Both options were presented to the client in our next meeting. The client was mighty impressed with what we shared, and gave us an approval to execute one of the presented routes. We were delighted to see a positive reaction. The team began work on executing these concept notes into visual communication. We were ready in the next few days, and we called for a meeting.
This meeting seemed to be completely in contrast with whatever had happened so far. And it gave us our first jolt in this association. On seeing the visual execution of the concepts that were previously shared, the client expressed disappointment stating that the execution was good, but it missed the 'wow' factor. We took this reaction in our stride, and took more notes to understand what didn’t go well in the visual execution. This time around, we got some new pieces of information. Asking the right questions is a key skill any leader should possess. And that’s exactly what I did. But I failed in fully evaluating the answers that I got for these questions. The answers pointed towards the unclear vision of the client. But again, we couldn’t really gauge the signs completely. We promised to come back with another set of ads.
I was still trying to maintain the initial enthusiasm of my team. As a leader, that’s the most important thing to do. I am not really sure how far I was successful in doing that. But I made efforts. The team got back to the drawing table, burnt the midnight oil to meet tight deadlines, and came up with an all-new advertising campaign. This was a complete set of ads. This time around we were sure that we nailed it. We met the client on the scheduled date. On presenting the new set, we got an encore – the reaction from the previous meeting was repeated. This was the second jolt in a span of three weeks. We checked all our notes and the brief that the client had initially shared. We critically reviewed all our work to see where was the gap. But everything seemed to be in sync. The reaction of the client, however, was the only thing that seemed to be out of sync.
We took the whole episode in the right spirit again, and felt that maybe it was a lot more challenging to crack this one. But we wanted to take up it up nevertheless. It was more like we were in the middle of a tunnel, and we wanted to cross it to see what was there on the other side. We didn’t want to assume. After some heavy-duty discussion, we set another date to meet with some new work, again.
This was a little discouraging, but we had to put ourselves together to fight this, and prove our mettle. We began working on fresh ideas. Soon, we were ready with another set of creative communication. But we felt that there was something fishy about these meetings. So we decided to invested some time in investigating. When we checked their website, we were shocked to see that the client had already used the creative communication we had shared in our first presentation. It was now evident that they were trying to exploit us to get more concepts at the same cost. The unethical intent was clearly visible. But we felt great! Why? That’s because the most positive thing about this episode, so far, was the fact that we’d cracked the client’s brief in the first attempt.
Later, we got this foul play to the notice of the CEO of that company, thinking that maybe he was not involved in this episode. But instead of making an attempt to save the credibility of his company, he said, “I can use the concepts as per my will as we have already paid for the same. And the work belongs to us now. In fact, the intellectual property (IP) rights have transferred hands, and are mine now.” He also added that he would not pay the remaining 50 percent of the final payment as agreed to under the contract.
At this stage we reminded the CEO that there were two loopholes in his argument – (1) unfairly criticising our work and claiming not to use it, when the work was used without our knowledge; and (2) IP rights cannot be transferred until they pay in full, as stated in the work contract. Incidentally, the work contract we had signed had a 50:50 payment clause; i.e., 50 percent upfront on sign-off, and 50 percent once the work is submitted. The client, however, had only paid the initially advance of 50 percent with the remaining 50 percent due. As the full amount was not settled, the contract had not concluded.
When the client refused to pay the remaining 50 percent, we decided to take them to the court to ensure fair play. To get into a legal battle with a company of their size is something most companies of our size would avoid. But it was more about holding our ground. We had to fight for our rights. The complete process was heavily taxing and cumbersome. We had to invest a lot of time and money to bring this episode to a fair closure. But we didn’t bend in front of the so-called bigger forces. We held our belief in the judicial system.
After a few hearings, the court ruled in our favour. The key aspects of the judgment were – (1) It was clearly established that the client liked our work and used it without informing us, which was a breach of trust and contract; and (2) The client had made only a part payment for the work, hence the client was bound to pay in full, as the work had already been used.
The order was a big boost for us, and a huge shock for the client. They promptly paid us the remaining fees, along with other damages and expenses, as per our claims, and the matter was closed.
Even today their website continues to use our concepts. It gives me great pride to see this but also reminds me of how tough and complex sometimes working with the wrong people can be. To pursue the matter legally was not an easy decision to make. That's because the ruling could have gone either way. But being morally and ethically right was the biggest reason for me, as a leader, to take this case up.
Nevertheless, this episode taught us one of the best lessons we've learnt so far - Our passion for work should never influence our judgement of those we are working with - internally or externally.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)