It’s one of the clear and present professional dangers, whether you’re someone seeking a position with a new employer, or a firm of any kind seeking to convince a potential client that you, and only you, are the right person for the job.
WHEN TRUST IS NO LONGER PART OF THE EQUATION.
This is all about trust, the lack thereof, those who are little more than spies seeking to steal your knowledge, individuals and possible clients that walk into every conversation with not one single thought about hiring you. Or anyone else for that matter. All they want is as much as they can get from you, free of charge. After that, they’ll put it to work themselves hiring someone far cheaper than you, or hand it off to someone already in their organization.
Will the work be as good as it would have been were you at the helm? Of course not. They don’t care. They’ll take it at a less professional level and at a far less cost than if they were to hire you.
These are the knowledge vampire suckers of our era. They are the most devious of those seeking to use your knowledge without paying, without giving you the credit you’ve earned, and if you’re looking for a new gig or trying to stay in your current one, this poses a difficult question.
How much do you tell them?
Having been in the media industry since Marconi was an embryo, at least it certainly feels that way every now and then, I’ve seen it all and, sad to note, been on the receiving end of more than my fair share of con artists and informational thieves. Being able to tell them apart from those who are sincerely interested in you and your services is the toughest first part of the ride. The second is knowing when you’ve been handed a free pass for the ride, ushered into your seat, and trying to get out without being noticed or suffering figurative injury.
FIRST SIGN YOU’RE BEING TAKEN: WORKING FOR FREE.
First thing out of the box, whether your dealing with and seeking to impress a client in the profit or non-profit world, make it as clear as possible you don’t work for free. Period. End of line. Dead stop. The first time someone brings up in conversation how they would prefer you worked on a “larger commission than you could make on a mere salary”, stand up, shake their hand, say thank you and walk out. If on the phone. no need to stand and there is that inability for human contact, but same thing.
You’re out. Don’t massage it. Don’t negotiate. They’ve shown you their hand. They will now and forever take greater advantage of you at every turn.
Consider this. Once you’ve worked for free, how do then set a competitive and fair rate for your services? It’s impossible. Never happen. Where once you were free, you are now daring to consider being paid. That fire has consumed any chance of being paid fairly, if at all, for your efforts.
SADLY, A WORLD WHERE ‘NON-PROFIT” IS USED BY MANY AS A CON.
As for the intellectual theft part of this, one of my first rides on the con artist carnival involved a very high-level non-profit “think tank”. A friend introduced me to the person in charge, so I came into the meeting with a good sense of confidence.
Here in America, thousands of organizations seek to pass themselves off as “non-profits”, and are little more than money laundering schemes. Let’s be straight up here. The majority of non-profits are here to do something really special, positive acts for those who need the help. Checking out the new ones and finding out about them is an easy task, thanks to the Internet. My advice is do that homework. Thoroughly. Not only that, but if you’re in the dancing phase with them as a potential client and they have nothing to hide, there is nothing wrong with asking for background information to verify who they say they are.
The honest groups will have no issue providing the numbers, as they have nothing to hide. Should they protest, walk away. No questions asked.
My friend and contact for this group was certainly in my corner, but could only go so far, not in a position of real authority. The person on lead was, and I later found out to my chagrin this individual has a reputation of using their title to drain more than a few people and groups who have honorable intentions.
We had about an hour conversation where I laid it all out in their needs for media, marketing, production, strategy and promotion. Tossed in a few new wrinkles. Nailed that interview without a single question and was asked to provide a proposal, which I happily and eagerly did. A few pages brimming with knowledge and ideas that would take what was, at the time, a struggling, rudderless organization, and put them smack on the media map, nationally and internationally.
Six months later, still not a return call. No response to texts or emails. I, of course, tried to be the understanding one in the early process. These things take time, and patience does in deed remain a virtue.
Until you see what happens to the virtuous.
DROPPING THE SILENT HAMMER.
Over a span of a few months, I watched as their website changed. More media was added. Their social media stepped up. Production values were better. Not nearly as good as I would have provided, but when they started at three levels below the ground floor, anything was an improvement.
Every single suggestion I made, every single line of my proposal, was being put to work. Top to bottom.
I had been robbed, plain and simple. Nothing I could do about it, of course. It was all in the proposal stage, where one has to stand out in order to book the client. But I knew I had been taken by a con artist. I vowed it would never happen again.
Would that life and lessons were so simple.
THE EXPERT AND DUE DILIGENCE.
Forward on the timeline to a chance meeting with one of the top people in their field, someone who had enjoyed a level of broadcast success and wanted more. This person was highly paid, but under the thumb of a massive organization that controlled every single facet of the marketing, promotion, visibility and PR. The potential couldn’t stand it, and along with a number of colleagues personally voiced to me what a, quote, “massive piece of shit” the marketing efforts of this group had proven to be.
Along I come, offering Entourage Management LLC as his personal agent. Take care of media bookings, oversee all the media production, get him back into the national limelight. For us, seriously, a piece of cake. Put in the time and over the years, you’ve got the connections. Before I even left our first meeting and we shook hands on a deal, I had 3 production companies in my pocket ready to produce a show with their new expert host.
It wasn’t a signed piece of paper, but we shook hands on the arrangement. Where I come from, that still means something.
It used to.
As offered and requested, I provided him with a detailed proposal within 48 hours. This was a lock down, can’t miss, “the guy is one of the best there is at what he does so there must be a level of honesty and integrity here” moment. We were stoked and ready to roll.
Hands up from those who saw it coming.
No contact for a month. No replies. Not even from his assistant of more than 25 years, who promised me there would be plenty of communication between us as we made this happen.
Made a last ditch attempt to contact. Within 24 hours got an email from an organization rep warning me about contacting their contracted individual for “personal representation”. No legal teeth whatsoever, just a slap because they could.
I did a little digging and uncovered what really happened.
The potential was bitching to anyone who would listen internally about the organization’s ham-handed, antiquated marketing efforts. The group did nothing and shoved it off. They had a rock solid deal and the guy was powerless.
The potential took my proposal to the group and demanded they undertake this level of marketing and PR. They took it, brushed him off again, then took my ideas and internally circulated them to their marketing peeps with a “why aren’t we doing this?” admonition. Members of the internal staff fired back “because we only spend money on generic TV ads and billboards”.
In the end, the potential simply vanished from my radar screen. Despite what I thought was a developing personal relationship, not a peep. I had been used and tossed. My proposal was for personal services, outside of any contract. In the end, it was all about wanting, and getting, a level of my knowledge for free.
Add in the fact the marketing department at this group has a long history of bungling the PR for their contracted employees. I knew we would run circles around their marketing without even catching a deep breath. They put their experts on television and in the media without any preparation whatsoever, and it shows. The experts don’t like it, but they’re being pressed to do it or incur the organization’s sizeable contractual wrath.
In the end, I may have given them ideas. But I’m confident it’s the same as giving a scalpel to a gibbon. They may figure out what it is, but they’ll never have the knowledge how to use it.
EXPECT TO BE USED EVERY SINGLE TIME & YOU WONT BE DISAPPOINTED.
Yes, that’s a terrible thing to put into print. I’m not comfortable even writing it. But it’s true.
The lower your expectations, the less chance there is of being let down. It’s a truly sad commentary, but one that has been proven over generations. Expect nothing. When you get something back, it’s a surprising bonus.
Makes no difference what profession you’re in. Whether you’re employed or working free-lance. The chances are excellent that a good 75% of the people you come into contact with as potential clients or bosses are looking to do nothing more than use you for your knowledge and expertise. In essence, that’s what every job is about. We each bring a particular skill set to a position, and we are asked to share it for the common good for which we should be well rewarded.
However, for some reason, the current hiring model often leans much more towards “what can I get out of this person, how fast can I get it, how cheaply can I get it, and how fast can I jettison them after I’ve sucked them into little more than a dried out husk of a human being?”
ADMIT WHEN YOU MISSED THE WARNING SIGNS. I DID.
These were early lessons. I’ll be honest, they’ve come back around a few times in my career, and I wasn’t as hard-boiled as I should have been. I still believe in trust. At least, I like to think I do.
We get excited about the prospect of working in a certain arena. We are confident that we are the best there is at what we do, and we will drive high level results. We see exactly where our skills come into play. Let’s be honest, we also see a nice payday. That’s not about being greedy. That’s about being a realist. Last time I checked, the power company and my mortgage lender doesn’t give one single damn about where the money comes from, and they sure as Hell aren’t about to give anyone a break if they’ve been had by professional con artists.
Read this carefully. There are reputable, professional, excellent people and organizations of character to work with and work for. They are out there and you can become part of their organization with a level of confidence you are valued.
You have to be smart to find them. You have to be prepared to run across more than a fair share of con artists. You have to be ready to not allow yourself to be put in a tight squeeze.
However, the greater issue here that I and so many others are guilty of is, we trust far too much. We want to take in the positive side of human nature at the beginning of every meeting. With the think tank, I was convinced the person in charge was honorable and wanted my help. With the potential, same thing. I trusted both individuals, and I was wrong.
That’s the dividing line we must seek out every time. The one where we decide which side of trust the potential client and employer sits on. It’s a feeling that comes from the gut, and in both of these cases, I allowed something other than my gut to make the calls.
Here’s hoping I’ve learned my lesson. Again. Here’s hoping you learn a lesson from these instances and what I’m certain are your own moments of realization.
YOUR EXPERIENCE & KNOWLEDGE IS PRICELESS. NEVER FORGET IT.
So next time you’re involved in a pitch, carry some figurative garlic and a little Holy water. Expose and use liberally when you feel those eyes upon your neck as easy prey.
Steve Jobs was a genius. Talk to anyone he worked with and they’ll tell you he was also a boorish prick to almost everyone. But he did coin the most used phrase in current human existence about employees.
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”.
Learn the difference between those who value what you know, and those who want to steal it.
Give them only enough for a taste. If they want more, tell them that’s what a contract is for. You will be pleased to proved them with a proposal. but make it one page. Seek a refundable consulting fee up front. Make it a 2-3 hour billable proposal, a “roadmap”, if you will. If they sign with you, the cost comes out of their agreement price. If they don’t contract with you, then they have a perfectly good starting point for which to approach someone else.
And you still were paid for your knowledge and experience.
But you don’t work for free. You are not here to hand them your knowledge without being compensated.
Have a figurative stake and hammer ready at all times. Don’t be afraid to use it.