The Six Commandments of Contracting

I’ve been dealing with contract art for nearly fifteen years, and have been a full-time professional for over ten years. I’ve worked both as an artist and as a manager in a variety of settings. As an artist I’ve freelanced from home, in-house at an art studio, and in-house at a developer. As a manager, I’ve outsourced art at an art studio with internal and external artists, outsourced and managed entire art teams in-house at a developer, and now I’m a freelance art producer managing teams all across the world. And boy are my arms tired!

Suffice it to say, I’ve been through just about every contract art management position and relationship you can imagine. I’ve come to identify several habits and character traits that make me love working with certain contractors, and on the other side of that coin, I’ve identified a few that drive me up the wall thus ensuring that I will never work with them again. I feel the term “Dos and Don’ts” is cliched, and “Commit these acts at your own peril” is too Temple of Doom, so instead I’ll present Professional vs Amateur with relevant Manager Insights many may not realize.

This also applies directly to the way I approach freelancing now. I still have much to learn and I am far from perfect. In the past, I’ve made pretty much every mistake I list below. In a way, bringing them out in the open like this is a way to hold myself more accountable. I’m writing this just as much for my own benefit as I am for contractors. Everything I list here is something that I strive for daily so I can improve myself and be a better contractor for my own clients. Welcome to my catharsis!

The First Commandment: Thou shalt know the day and the hour.

Amateur: “I’ll have it done in two hours!” Delivers it in eight hours.

Professional: “I’ll have it done in eight hours.” Delivers it in six hours.

Manager Insight: If an artist blows his time estimates consistently, it erodes my trust in his ability to deliver at all. I always notice and remember. I don’t want to have to figure out “Amateur Artist Math” and do the conversions in my head: 2h = 8h, 4h = 12h, one day = two days. I am neither nanny nor mathematician. I have dates to hit!

I’ve been in a position where I’ve been stuck with an artist that won’t correct his behavior and that I can’t replace, so I actually have to lie about when it’s due just because I know he’ll be late if I give him the real due date. And obviously I can’t tell him I do that, because he’ll be onto me and will find another way to weasel out of it, once again leaving me in the dark on delivery dates. If you make me treat you like a child, no allowance for you. Sometimes that has been the only way to get the artist to deliver it on time, and this puts me in an odd and almost parental position.

What does it say about him, his competence and his skills as an artist if he consistently fails to understand how long a task takes? Is that someone you’d work with again?

I understand that sometimes you run into problems. That’s fine. But if you’re going to be late, tell me. Trust me, I know how awkward it can be to approach someone pre-emptively and tell them something unpleasant. But I’d rather know so I can plan for it being late than simply not hear from the artist and get a late delivery. I have a boss, too. I report to my boss, and telling my boss it’ll be done on a certain day and getting it later makes me look like I can’t manage my artists or stick to a schedule. No one wants to feel that way, and that affects you directly, too!

I appreciate honesty and giving advance notice that you will be late. I do not like being surprised by a late delivery with no warning. In fact, that always irritates me. If you make me look like an idiot to my boss because I trusted you, do you think I would ever trust you or want to work with you again? Of course not. I’d cut you loose without a second thought because it is in my direct, immediate interest to replace you. No matter how cool a person you are, this is still business. Be a Professional.

The Second Commandment: Thou shalt heed the teachings of the technical guidelines tablet.

Amateur: “Here’s the delivery!” File is a mess, textures are named incorrectly, texture file associations are aimed to random files and directories on his hard drive. Bonus points for weird or profane filenames. (note: Not actual bonus points.) Obviously, the directions and technical documentation I sent were either ignored or misunderstood.

Professional: “Here’s the delivery!” Files are properly named, textures are properly assigned, technical guidelines were met and I don’t have to fix anything because he paid attention to my instructions.

Manager’s Insight: I don’t know if the Amateur just didn’t read the doc, or if he simply didn’t understand it. My three options in order from most desirable to least desirable are as follows:

  • a) Repeat myself. Tell him to reread the doc and hope he suddenly gets it. However, this could be another blown deliverable if he doesn’t. High risk, very little time spent.
  • b) Explain myself. Write up a detailed changelist and tell him exactly how to fix it. Medium risk, lots of time spent.
  • c) Do it myself. Low risk, excessive time spent.

Ideally, this will never happen. Practically speaking, it totally will.

When this sort of issue comes up, my ideal option is option A. I do NOT want option B because there is a 50/50 chance that the amount of time I’d spend re-explaining the task and what to do about it would take longer than doing it myself. That’s a slippery slope toward option C, which is the LAST thing I want. In option C, now I’m doing your work for you, and why should I have to? It’s obvious to my boss at this point that I’m wasting time and money, and that makes me look like a chump. This will ultimately affect you as well, because it’s not hard tracing the problem back to its source. (I’d like to point out that option C is a sign that I’m doing my job badly.)

Don’t make me do your job. I respect attention to detail and people that think of ways to do their job well, understand my bottom line, and try to save me time. It’s good customer service, good business and the Professional way to act. It’s the mint on the pillow.

Honestly, no one’s perfect. Sometimes I’ll have to rename a file here, tweak some verts there. That happens. If it’s just one or two issues small enough that it would be faster for me to fix them myself rather than telling you, I may just do that. It’s likely that a client may not even mention it. But if there are a lot of issues like this and it happens consistently, that’s more work for me, and it’s going to really irritate me over time. This is Amateur hour nonsense. It makes us both look bad, and will make me rethink working with you again. Your mom doesn’t work here. Clean up your own mess.

Be thorough, check your own work, pay attention to the directions I give you, and be a Professional. A manager may not mention this as being one of the reasons he continues to send you contract work, but trust me, it is a major factor.

The Third Commandment: Thou shalt heed thy client’s word to the letter.

Amateur: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Misses half of what I asked for and acts like nothing’s wrong. Clearly, he either didn’t read the feedback again, tried to remember all of it and failed, or just ignored half of it. All of this sucks equally.

Professional: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Nails every single point spot-on and (as a bonus!) verifies point-by-point what was fixed.

Manager’s Insight: This comes down to two points: 1) The Professional is showing me he pays attention to what I say, and 2) he’s focused on details and doing a good job. It’s easy for an Amateur to slack off, misread something, not double-check, or just let things slide and hope he’s not called on it because he doesn’t want to do the extra work. Maybe he doesn’t get called on it and it’s handled in-house. But just because a client may not bring it up doesn’t mean it wasn’t noticed and remembered. It absolutely should be brought up, but they may not have the time or desire to confront you.

Personally, I have no problem with confrontation, and I will be a bastard if I have to because I have a job to do. I don’t like doing that, and you don’t like being on the receiving end. Save us both the time and drama. Strive to be the Professional that makes a client think “Wow, he nailed it!” instead of the Amateur that makes the client think “Well, he completed items A, C and E but forgot B and D. Again. And now I have to either write it up or fix it myself when I have a mountain of other work to do. Splendid!”

One important point, however, that you may not realize: Sometimes — emphasis on sometimes — the sign of a job well done is the quiet, peaceful absence of problems. Everything flows smoothly, is exactly as expected, people are happy and there is no cause for complaint. Doing the job right simply may not bring open acknowledgement or kudos, but doing the job wrong is going to set off alarms that everyone notices. It took me many years to realize that, sometimes, lack of acknowledgement is something to take pride in. It’s not ideal and I try extremely hard to acknowledge and appreciate everything I can, but I have a lot to do and may not always be able to afford the time. Remembering this can keep you sane.

The Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt be mindful, for the End of Day is nigh.

Amateur: “I’ll have it ready for you by the end of the day!” Submits the deliverable at 3am, which is the end of HIS working day but is eight hours after I’ve left work and gone home.

Professional: “I’ll have it ready for you by the end of the day!” Submits the deliverable at 3pm, so I have another four hours to review it and write feedback.

Manager’s Insight: End of Day means the end of MY day, not the end of YOUR day, night owl. Plan for this. I need time to review the assets and generate feedback. If my workday ends at 7pm and I get it long after I’ve gone home, that doesn’t do me a lot of good, does it? Especially if I have an imminent deadline.

This all comes down to this timeless adage: Under-promise and over-deliver. The earlier in the day I get a delivery you’ve promised, the happier I am. But if you dramatically overestimate when I’ll get the asset and I get it uselessly late, what good is that to me? I can either stay late at work — guess how much I like that? — or put it off until tomorrow morning.

Remember: You are not the end of the pipeline. You’re an important part of the process, yes. However, other people are lined up after you take your finished product to the next stage of production and finalize it. This takes time, and issues like this pile up and affect a lot of other people down the chain. Do not be the cholesterol in the artery of my project.

The Fifth Commandment: Honor thy customer and thy reputation.

Amateur: “I’m just this guy that makes art. What’s customer service? If I make good art, that’s all that matters because that’s all they really want.”

Professional: “I’m a service provider and I take customer service seriously. I am an artist, but my success in that depends on creating art to my client’s exact specifications.”

Manager’s Insight: You are in the customer service business. A lot of artists coming from a studio environment don’t really have to worry about doing much else besides showing up and doing what’s asked of them. It’s usually hard for people to get fired for unsatisfactory performance, so a lot of annoying little habits and behaviors can get glossed over. (note: Everyone notices even if they don’t bring it up.)

It’s a lot like dating. You work out, dress well and try to get in “dating shape” so you can look as attractive as possible for potential mates. [Insert charming romantic comedy “how they met” story here, possibly starring Gerard Butler and Jennifer Lopez.] Then when you’re in a relationship, you let a few things slide because you’re safe. Contractors do this. Contractors should not do this.

This is the difference between being a contractor versus being employed full-time at a studio. As a contractor, you are ALWAYS dating. You are ALWAYS selling. You ALWAYS have to keep that standard of careful attention to detail, composure, and will to go the extra mile to make your client happy so you’ll keep working with them long-term. And even clients like flowers from time to time. (note: Please do not actually send clients flowers.)

The Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not mock the client with feeble protestations.

Amateur: “My dog ate my stylus!”

Professional: “I dropped the ball on this, and I will do my best to correct it.”

Manager’s Insight: I’ve heard every excuse in the book. Weird technical issues that are magically resolved when I try to step in to help, you never got that email you had actually already replied to, your wife\girlfriend DEMANDED that you nap through this deadline (true story!), and the list goes on. For my part, when I make a mistake, I own up to it. It sucks, it’s awkward, and I feel bad. But making lame excuses makes me look irresponsible, sloppy, and insults my client’s intelligence.

There is definitely a difference between an excuse and a valid reason. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. But if enough of those stack up, that’s a red flag. It’s easy to think to yourself “These are all perfectly valid reasons! If they’re reasonable, they’ll totally understand and forgive me.” Sure, but the more mistakes there are the less I’ll ultimately trust you, valid or not. If I hear one more “It was an Act of God!” story…

Don’t be a mistake factory. But if you make one, just fix it. I don’t always really need to know the details of why, just that a mistake was made and that you’re on top of it now. Honestly, I just want results and honesty so I can understand the situation, troubleshoot as needed, adjust the schedule and allocate resources to keep production moving.

Conclusion

Overall, these are pretty basic guidelines that may seem obvious at first glance, but so much more thought than you realize goes into dealing with issues stemming from not heeding them. I hope that this list and the Manager’s Insights prove to be useful to contractors that really care about being a Professional and want to be at the top of their game!

Artists, managers and clients: Is there anything you’d add to this list? I’d love to hear from you!

2 thoughts on “The Six Commandments of Contracting

  1. Here, here! Nice one Jon, solid points and a very entertaining read :: while Audio is a little different from Art, these commandments definitely apply.

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