Ethics and Entrepreneurship
January 3, 2005 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Ethics and Entreprenuership. I've a lengthy question about being self-employed.

I'm a web designer.

In June 2004 I was approached by an advertising company. They're mid-sized and only do non-online stuff (mostly print). One of their clients wanted their absolutely dreadful web site redeisgned and the ad co. wanted to meet with me to discuss the possibility of working together. I would consult on web-stuff (designing for it as opposed to paper, etc) and then code the site once they'd designed it. I met with them for about 2-3 hours to see if we'd get along and I gave them a lot of information and a lot of ideas for what do with a web site for a client in that industry. They were pumped about working together. I gave them a ballpark figure for my future services and they then pitched the client and told me that that budget was approved no problem. They wanted the site live by mid-August and were going to start the redesigning.

Over the next week or so, I sent them some emails with suggestions and a couple flowcharts for site structure, etc. Then, their responses stopped cold. No word, no nothing. I tried to contact them a few times in the next month and never once did one of the two people I met with get back to me.

We had no contract so whatever, I'm not mad about not making the $ (though telling me it was off would have been nice). Anyway, I've been to their client's site and it (6 mos later) still has not been redesigned.

My question is: would it be unethical, illegal, or stupid of me to just approach the end-client and say, "Your web site needs to be redesigned. Here's my proposal..." and pitch them on my own without mentioning the ad agency?

Note: I DEFINITELY would not even know of the end-client (it's not a manufacturer I'm familiar with) without the ad agency telling me of them. However, had I ever stumbled on their site in its current incarnation of my own accord, they'd be ripe for a pitch.

How would you approach this situation?
posted by You Should See the Other Guy to Work & Money (15 answers total)
Response by poster: And actually, as I reread the question, I realize I have another, though it's tangential.

One of my clients is a large gov't agency and I occasionally go in there to train people on web stuff (I'll be going in there in January to train them on how to use the new CMS I just built them). Do I bill them for my time travelling to and from? Sometimes I go in there for 2 hours of training but it takes me 2 hours (there and back) of travelling.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 1:23 PM on January 3, 2005

You could charge for mileage at 36.5 cents/mile, which I believe is a standard value. This doesn't take into account time you spend stuck in traffic, but it's a good start.
posted by Coffeemate at 1:29 PM on January 3, 2005

Ethically I don't see any problem with this, they dropped the ball on their customer. I'd make sure that there aren't any contractual problems, and I'd make sure that the agency isn't going to be able to basically black-list you, but it sounds like they don't have it together and are irrelevant. So go after the client.

Oh, and mileage is now standard at 41 cents/mile in the federal govt (IRS), I believe.
posted by crazy finger at 1:42 PM on January 3, 2005

Yep, the 36.5 cents + tolls is what my company pays, and I'd absolutely bill them for it, at the very least. That's 2 unpaid hours that you could have been working (and billing) another client, plus gas, wear & tear on your personal vehicle.

As far as your first question, I've never been in a simalar situation myself, but personally, I don't think it's out of line that you go for it. If it hasn't been redesigned yet, the ad agency or client probably decided to drop it. Why shouldn't you be entitled to try to go for it? Even though you wouldn't have known about it otherwise, you do know about it, and that's all that matters, IMHO.

on preview: 41 cents! Aaaah! I am being screwed out of a nickel a mile! Or, no one realized yet.
posted by AlisonM at 1:43 PM on January 3, 2005

Never burn your bridges. If the agency is reliable enough to give you a decent amount of work, then don't approach the client in need. If the agency has fallen down on this and have also failed to kick you other projects then a polite "inquiry" is in order.
posted by stevis at 1:55 PM on January 3, 2005

There are any number of reasons that a job could get pushed to the back burner in an ad agency. It's crummy that they aren't returning your calls, but I agree with stevis, don't burn that bridge quite yet. The job might still come through, and even if it doesn't they could still send other work your way in the future. But not if you snipe their client.
posted by Jeff Howard at 2:06 PM on January 3, 2005

Response by poster: I take public transit to and from the client's office so biling for gas isn't an issue. It was mostly the time I was concerned about.

Thanks for all the other answers. I'm not concerned about the "burning bridges" aspect, I suppose, as that ad agency has never called me before or since. I don't expect to ever hear from them again and, to be honest, given their handling of this situation, I would turn down any work they offered on principal alone. If I had to guess (though doing so is probably stupid), I think their client turned sour on the whole idea and the ad agency people are simply embarassed to tell me about it after telling me that it was "Absolutely, positively a go."

I guess I was more concerned with whether if they found out I approached the client and told *other* people what I did, would those people not care (ie, be on my side, that the ad co dropped the ball) or would that ruin my rep? Also, I wouldn't be after the client's print biz, which is what the ad co has. I don't do any print stuff.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 2:29 PM on January 3, 2005

Bill for the travel. You cannot work for another client while your traveling to their location so you are in affect working for them during that time. There isn't anything wrong with billing for that. The 36 cents a mile thing isn't for billing a client. It isn't like everyone's time is worth 36 cents a mile, a ER doctor and a truck driver alike. The 36 cent figure is to compensate you for wear and tear on the car and in no way to compensate you for your time. If you're taking the bus than you don't have to worry about it.
posted by pwb503 at 2:42 PM on January 3, 2005

in answer to your second question - bill to the client only if you discussed this with the client while you were signing your agreement with them.

it's not about money, it's about communication and expectations.

how much time does it take you now, to go to the government agency to meet with them (developing your CMS). do you charge them now for time travelled to meetings, etc? if yes, then charging the two hours for training travel may be acceptable. otherwise, if you are telling them that training will take 2 hours (and their staff tell your supervisor that you took 2 hours) and you bill for 4, this will raise eyebrows.

there is nothing that will ruin your reputation more, than charging for time that does not directly benefit the client - esp when the client does not expect it. a former client loved to tell the story about a short-term contractor who billed 30 minutes every two weeks...for filling out his invoice. this happened years ago, but he still talks about it.
posted by seawallrunner at 3:12 PM on January 3, 2005

re your first question, "we had no contract so whatever", did you have a non-compete? if not, then go ahead and contact the company. they might be already in talks with some other advertising agency, but it's worth a shot.
posted by seawallrunner at 3:16 PM on January 3, 2005

First question: If you did not sign a non-compete agreement with the ad agency, you are in the clear to try to pitch an idea to the client. Nothing unethical in that scenario.

Second question: I use travel time as prep time for meetings. If I'm driving, I use the time to mentally organize and prepare for issues that are likely to come up in the meeting. Or I work on some of the bigger architectural design issues for the given project. So I generally bill for travel time if it is productive for the client.

However, I explain to clients beforehand that as much as two-thirds of the software development cycle may be in planning and testing. And I don't bill for travel if I wasn't productively working on the project while en route.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 3:38 PM on January 3, 2005

I wouldn't end-run the ad agency. Even if they dropped the ball. I would proceed as if they were an integral part of the process, even if they're not. They found you the client. They should get their due.
posted by crunchland at 5:28 PM on January 3, 2005

Capitalism is a big fat pig ready to be taken advantage of. The ad agency didn't give you, to be blunt, a reach around. Back in my web design days (ugh, pre dot-com) I had several people I was suppose to work with on various issues and they totally dropped me. I'd meet and consult with them on what they'd need and I was lead to believe that most of the time they were seeking a second opinion to back their first one up.

Nevermind that, how important to you is this ad agency? If they're a behemoth company that can be your cash cow, don't screw them over. That is if you believe they'll start communicating again. What sounds like to me is you have someone somewhere in the company you're sending e-mails to, who instead of doing the polite thing ("Sorry, this didn't go through, we'd love to use you if we need your services in the future, etc.") they decided they were too important to contact you.

So it's a real judgement call that really falls upon whether you believe you will benefit from the relationship with the ad agency moreso than the client. A number of things could have happened, including the client being an asshole. If the ad agency put it on backburner they should have contacted you, to me that would signal them being not fun to work with and I'd cut off contact. I do not, however, work in this industry anymore so I do not know how general business is conducted. My opinion is to be a risk taker, contact the company that needs a redesign and see if they're interested. The worst they can say is no. The ad agency had their chance with you and decided to just leave you by the wayside. There's a remote possibility that this was put on the backburner, in which case you should have been notified anyway.
posted by geoff. at 6:44 PM on January 3, 2005

As someone who's been screwed over before by the no-contract, no-problem method of business, I would contact the client directly.

Why does the ad agency deserve their due, when it sounds like you'd be the one doing all the work? From an ethical standpoint, you have already done work for them, and should be compensated for your efforts. But it sounds like you won't be. However, like geoff said, if the agency is a big player in your area, don't fuck with future earning potential.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:08 PM on January 3, 2005

Mileage reimbursement is now 40.5 cents/mile. It is common in government to be reimbursed for mileage. It just got raised on 1/1/05.

Oh, and I don't really think approaching them directly is going to really lead to anything positive, so I wouldn't bother.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:09 PM on January 3, 2005

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