Forget the vicissitudes of the stock market or Sir Martin Sorrell’s enigmatic pronouncements on the state of the communications industry. There’s a far more accurate measure of how design businesses are faring at the moment. It’s the speed at which they pay their suppliers. And, I can officially report from the sharp end, things are far from rosy in the design garden.
In the old days it all used to be so simple. You’d be commissioned. Bear forth the fruits of your creative intellect. Get a hearty pat on the back from your client. Then, just few short weeks later, the beaming postie would arrive bearing a crisp, countersigned cheque. How times have changed. Many larger clients and design groups have now instituted ‘payments systems’ – another name for making it as difficult as humanly possible to get hold of the money you have honestly earned from them.
The first hurdle to overcome is securing the elusive Purchase Order Number. Many companies won’t accept an invoice unless it bears one. I used to think these carefully coded characters were just a means to differentiate one project from another. But clearly there’s more to them than that. Perhaps, like truffles, they’re rare and hard to come by – sometimes they can even take six weeks to find. Or maybe there is some latter-day Enigma code master at a secret location in Hertfordshire composing these complex ciphers. He’s grafting away day and night, but just can’t keep up with demand.
Invoicing has become as tactical as a game of chess. You’re rarely invited to submit an invoice any more, but held off for as long as possible by any number of ruses. Jobs are never finite, there are always a few more tweaks. The work you’ve sweated over and submitted will inevitably disappear into a black hole for weeks. Finally, you’ll be asked to make a single minor adjustment before it does another endless round of approvals. It’s like the Greek myth of Penelope, who worked on her embroidery by day, but unravelled it at night, so that it would never be finished.
Sign-off is predictably tortuous. There’s always one more person who needs to see it who just happens to be on holiday in Lapland until Thursday week. And just to eke out a bit more time, the job suddenly develops several extra stages – ‘ah yes, it has been printed, but the ink hasn’t dried yet, then we’ll be adding the spot varnish next’. Pity the poor souls who work in new media – where the ink never dries and a website is forever evolving – in theory they might never get paid for their efforts.
After you have finally been given permission to invoice, 30 days will pass and then 60, when you brace yourself for an encounter with the dreaded accounts department. Typically, they are located as far away as possible from the people who commission the work, perhaps in another city (sometimes even country), so that they are impossibly difficult to get hold of, and can plead complete ignorance of anything their colleagues have expedited.
Eventually, when you do get hold of someone with an unfamiliar accent, your invoice has been either mislaid, wrongly assigned or credited to someone else. Whether this is incompetence or policy, you’ll never know. But you’ll have to reinvoice. Which is the equivalent of missing your motorway turn off – driving in the wrong direction for miles to get back to where you were in the first place. Or you may be placated with ‘the cheque’s been raised, but I need to get two directors signatures on it before I can send it – the trouble is, these directors are like Bruce Banner and the Hulk, never to be seen at the same place at the same time. Even accounts people can’t deliver the classic ‘cheque’s in the post’ line with a straight face any more.
The reality is that everyone is being squeezed, and passing their cashflow problems down the line. Ironically, it’s the smaller design groups that tend to pay more promptly and treat their suppliers with respect. They know their writers, illustrators and photographers as people, with bills to pay and families to feed. Despite the lip service in their CSR reports, larger companies feel they can act with all the high-handedness of a playground bully, making the weaker kids play to their self-interested rules.
Imagine telling a decorator who has done a superb job painting your house that you are having a few issues with your bank account and won’t be able to pay them for a while. You’d be liable to end up with a paintbrush where the sun doesn’t shine.
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