Pay money, get art? If only!
January 3, 2011 11:25 AM   Subscribe

How can I best induce freelance artists to submit work to deadline?

To all the artists out there: what sort of commissioner do you always submit on-time work for? To all the bosses out there: what am I doing wrong?

I'm an indie flash game developer. I often hire artists to do art resources for my games. I like to use a variety of artists with a variety of art styles - in fact, I'll often get inspiration for a game from the style of a particular artist. There are a number of frustrating patterns that repeat themselves when I do this.

The process always starts the same way: I send the artist a message explaining who I am, and that I need such-and-such art resources. They accept. Over MSN, I explain that meeting deadlines is very important to me, because I need to base my schedule around art deliveries. I explain what I need and ask them how long they think it'll take for a sketch and final picture (I try to start with a small job). I take their estimates, extend them slightly, and make clear that this is a deadline. I usually agree that I'll pay half when I'm happy with the sketch, and half on completion.

A large amount of artists (about 40%) never submit anything. They ask for an extension when e-mailed, then go completely quiet. My feeling is that this is unavoidable - these guys are basically flakes, and I'm getting better at recognising them in advance.

More commonly, the artist misses the first deadline by about a day, then the next by about a week. If I use them again, these numbers are doubled. I don't normally use them again after this. I try and talk to them to find out what's happening, but they always say "it's taking longer than I thought".

My questions are:

1) What's happening? Am I not being naggy enough? Am I being too naggy? Should I be insisting on contracts? Should I insist on paying half in advance, even when the artist does not suggest it? I don't think the answer is "you are a pain to work with" but it could be - I'd be interested to know what "you are a pain to work with" would consist of. In my own freelance career, the worst commissioners give an unclear spec which they only clarify when you deliver - I try hard not to do this.

2) I have one artist - a Thai guy I found on deviantArt - to whom none of the above applies. He's also fantastically good, and I use him for all the art I absolutely without-fail need. Lately, he's just started slipping on deadlines by a few days, and I'm terrified that this will grow into a regular thing. When he completes his current (slightly late) batch, I was thinking of saying something like "It seems you are very busy - I'll give you a week to catch up things before the next commission". Would this likely be helpful or counterproductive?
posted by piato to Work & Money (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Money. Make 10% of their fee contingent on meeting the deadline. If they don't meet the deadline, they forfeit that 10% and only get paid 90% of the contracted price for the job. Really, nothing else is going to matter to them.
posted by decathecting at 11:32 AM on January 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

Work with professionals. In my years of freelancing, and in my years of hiring freelancers, I've never had a deadline missed. Are you just finding people via random sites? Some form of emailed contract rather then a chat would likely be helpful, too. Remember, you get what you pay for.
posted by monkey!knife!fight! at 11:33 AM on January 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Should I be insisting on contracts?


Seconding decathecting, too: make the deadline a part of the hire contract. It doesn't even have to be one you set—if you can come to a deadline agreement with the artist then just pop that in the deal before it's agreed upon, and ride a percentage of the pay on it.
posted by carsonb at 11:41 AM on January 3, 2011

I agree on working with pros. You shouldn't need to offer a financial bonus or threat just for doing the job. I'm a nice guy but have zero tolerance on deadlines, which is why I've never missed one either. It comes from a career in journalism. You don't get to make excuses. You just don't get hired again. It's not like the newspaper or radio program can be sent out with a big blank space in it.
posted by ecourbanist at 11:48 AM on January 3, 2011

Just an additional note on decathecting's suggestion: if you do change the contract to include a penalty for missing the deadline, then make sure to have that penalty increase as the project gets later (say, by 5% for each week late, or whatever seems realistic given the prices you're paying and the average lateness of the artists).

Otherwise, the implication for the artist may be that the slight initial discount somehow makes the lateness OK, and you may end up getting more late submissions, not fewer.
posted by Bardolph at 12:28 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

You really need to be better at sourcing your collaborators. Find a trusted provider, and stick with them - if deadlines are important to you, why do you go back to people who miss deadlines? Long-term relationships, not contracts or bonus/penalties are the only way to solve your problems.

Also, are you paying market rates in your segment? Or are you sourcing over the internet because it allows you to save costs on labour? Basically, if you are not paying market rates, then you are going to have to deal with flakes.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:37 PM on January 3, 2011

Best answer: 1) What's happening? Am I not being naggy enough?

Many inexperienced artists need minor check-ins more frequently, but they don't realize it yet. Are these the cheaper, less-experienced type?

Am I being too naggy?

Sounds like you could benefit from a contract framework that specifies milestones and clarifies how naggy you will be, in advance. On the other hand, doing that with each fresh new artist that you haven't worked with before might be a mistake -- you'll have to find a middle ground.

Should I insist on paying half in advance, even when the artist does not suggest it?

No. No way. But if they're not asking for any advance at all, it may be a sign of inexperience (= problems).

I don't think the answer is "you are a pain to work with" but it could be - I'd be interested to know what "you are a pain to work with" would consist of.

"You are a pain to work with" means one or more of the following:
  • You know very little about illustration or creative work and demonstrate it by using presumptive phrases like "can you make this quick fix for me?" rather than "I'd like to ask you what it would take to make this change"
  • Your "I'm getting ripped off" threshold is ridiculously low, and you consistently seem more concerned about process than result, even though you've never worked with this particular artist before.
  • Once you feel like you're getting ripped off, you go emotional/loud/etc. really fast, rather than being persuasive and logical about your point.
  • You don't pay well
  • You don't pay on time
  • You send messages that indicate that you are shopping based on value and have no interest in the final 5% of the quality of the work.
  • Your specifications are a disaster and you are always open to contract-free work.
  • You don't seem interested in the way this work might push the vendor/contractor forward with their own goals
  • .
That's a bit nitpicky, but you don't sound like a really bad client to me. You sound very professional, and my guess is that you are hiring people who are well below your own professional caliber. IMO that's usually a mistake -- you should be hiring and nurturing a team of experts. But that's your business.

In my own freelance career, the worst commissioners give an unclear spec which they only clarify when you deliver - I try hard not to do this.

Yes, absolutely. You are doing a great job here, trying to get clarity from 3rd parties...I'm sure you'll get exactly what you want with more experience.

2) I have one artist - a Thai guy I found on deviantArt - to whom none of the above applies. He's also fantastically good, and I use him for all the art I absolutely without-fail need. Lately, he's just started slipping on deadlines by a few days, and I'm terrified that this will grow into a regular thing.

OK, let him know how that made you feel.

When he completes his current (slightly late) batch, I was thinking of saying something like "It seems you are very busy - I'll give you a week to catch up things before the next commission". Would this likely be helpful or counterproductive?

Unhelpful in that your core message "I need you to be right on time, period, so let's work on that" might get lost in your actions.

I would look into getting referrals if you haven't already, but all roads point to more expensive, professional artists -- just because someone signs a contract doesn't mean they can keep the terms of that contract. You don't want your finely-polished contract language to be a waste of time when your artist disappears and you'll have tons of work to do just to locate them and make things right.
posted by circular at 12:49 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to manage a fleet of freelancers for a small tech company, and we dealt with quite a few flakes. The standard contract we used at first included a hefty penalty to the worker's fee if they didn't meet the deadline. We thought that would serve to prevent lateness, but it didn't actually solve the problem. Long story short, it turned out that our problem was that we weren't paying enough. If you pay the "going rate", then the freelancer has no incentive to finish work for you if he/she can find anything that pays even slightly more for the same amount. The solution ended up being to pay more than other contractors and to have an upfront zero-tolerance policy for missing deadlines. Cheap globally-sourced labor is appealing but you always get what you pay for.

But hey, that's just my experience, and I wasn't dealing with artists. As far as your specific questions, yes you should always have a contract and you should nag the living hell out of your freelancers for status updates. As far as your Thai guy, just tell him that you noticed his lateness and ask the reason. Let him know that you love working with him and it would be a shame to end your business relationship because he can't meet a deadline.
posted by Willie0248 at 1:01 PM on January 3, 2011

Best answer: I commission a fair bit of freelance work, but in business and technical research, for projects that last several weeks. I commission more than 100 pieces of work a year. People delivering things late is a recurring (but, thankfully diminishing) problem for me too. I don't have the complete answer, but some of the things that work for me:

1) Know that the world of freelancers splits broadly into two groups: people who freelance because they are so awesome they can pick and choose their jobs and those who freelance because for one reason or another they just aren't that employable. My point is: have a proper recruitment procedure. Sorting the wheat from the chaff early on will solve some of the problems. And trust your gut. Unless you have bad instincts, in which case get someone who does have good instincts to do your recruiting.

2) Retain the people that do what you want, and reuse them. I know this sounds obvious, but working with people that understand what you do and how you work, and who you know can deliver cuts the risk to what you do. If necessary, pay them more to retain them. Fund it by making a business case for the delays, rework etc that crap freelancers cause you. In fact, this may be a root cause - if you pay too little, you may be drawing your talent from the wrong pool. Pro tip: get your good people to recommend others.

3) You need to know what you want, and preferably how it is going to be done. If you don't you lose an element of control over the process, and your freelancer has to be good enough not only to do what you want, but to guess what you want. There is a fine line in being the asshole client that micromanages and the asshole client who says no when someone's busted their chops to deliver to spec, but in my experience freelancers prefer more intensive communication early on because their time is money, and helping them is saving them time.

4) Break the work down into parts. The freelancers you have that don't deliver don't do it for two reasons: 1) they can't do it 2) they haven't allocated enough time to doing it. By having a strong kick off and an interim meeting (and preferably some rough deliverable) you can check not only that your freelancer knows what they are doing, but also that they are actually doing the work. HELP THEM PLAN THEIR TIME AND ASK THEM HOW LONG THEY PLAN TO DEVOTE TO DOING THE WORK. A massive red flag is people who refuse to hit the interim deliverable/meeting. I know you ask for a sketch, but perhaps you just need to make a call before then, because you are losing 40% of your artists before the sketch stage. In my experience, missing the interim deliverable correlates 1:1 with late delivery (even if only by a day or two).

5) You know this too: going quiet is a red flag. Have a checklist of red flags. If someone starts hitting one red flag after the other then you know that, short of a miracle, you aren't going to get what you want when you want it.

6) Know when to switch to plan B. This is when you navigate between gentle coaxing and overt or implicit threats or just walk away. If you don't get an interim reassurance - something tangible, then I can tell you that coaxing will ultimately just prolong the inevitable in most cases. You have two options: a) can the project b) agree a new deadline. a) is your nuclear option, and you use it when someone can't give you a satisfactory interim assurance and you know they will miss their deadline. The justification is that you are saving everyone's time. b) requires more discipline, but you need to be firm. You set the time. If you're moving the deadline back they have to show to you, as often as necessary, they are on track. They need to know this.

So - contracts. For sure, you want to weight payment on satisfactory delivery. It's not clear how long your projects are, but unless the projects are very short, you probably can't weight payment 10:90 or 20:80 (commissioning:delivery) because you will hose your freelancers' cash flow. It will also increase your freelancer drop out rate. Have a strong contract that enables you to reclaim any upfront payments quickly and easily if the deliverables are late or substandard. I have wrestled for some time with late delivery penalties. I've not implemented them. Neither have I implemented an on-time delivery "bonus". My personal experience is that there are better ways to project manage deliveries (as I've outlined above).

To repeat what others have said - if someone is unacceptably late or crap, don't use them again. I have never had a leopard change their spots.

Finally, your Thai chap: My bet is he's taking on other work and he's good enough to get it done but your stuff is getting pushed back. But ask him. Add time onto the deadlines you need without telling him and crack on. I had one guy who delivered first rate work, but it got later and later. We spoke frankly about being more realistic on deadlines and that partly solved it, but the underlying issue was simply that we were moving down the pecking order of clients because he'd found a rich seam of more interesting (to him) work elsewhere.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:28 PM on January 3, 2011

I'm quite shocked by this as I'm a freelancer myself (editing and writing, so some of it is creative and doing the work does depend on mood etc, to an extent... but, TO AN EXTENT! If I need to do it, I do it!). I try to exceed expectations and get good recommendations by coming in before deadline if I possibly can.

I suggest looking for recommendations too - I get most of my work that way. How else are you finding these people? Are they legitimate freelancers with an invoicing and time management system, or people whose art you like and you ask them to do something for you? That might make a difference.

However, it might just mean that a certain percentage of freelancers are just flaky. I know some of my clients have been more amazed than I expected that I have delivered what they wanted, before time and under/in budget - they think I'm awesome for doing that, when I consider it to be my JOB to do that! It reminds me of when I was a temp worker, and I got a really good reputation, just by turning up, being tidy and polite and doing the job.

In essence:
- get recommendations
- talk to the decent guy and say you want to use him again BUT
- arrange contracts with the ones you do use

Good luck!
posted by LyzzyBee at 1:54 PM on January 3, 2011

Simply put: This is the main difference between professionals and regular very gifted people (be they as good as they may at what they do). I have little experience with artists specifically, but the mechanism you describe applies to freelancers of any profession. Unfortunately, I am a prime example of what your problem looks like from the other end. The last ten years or so have been spent getting my act together (as it were) and adding a mediocum of professionalism to my act. And I can tell you, for some people it's darn hard sticking to a schedule, a budget, or any other "limits" to their "freedom of expression" (or whatever). Silly, I know, but there are far more people out there who can't wrap their heads around the concept of self-disciplin than can. And in order to end up working with reliable people, you will have to bite the bullet and find someone who adds the requisite overhead to their asking price, who has a positive track record, and who spends maybe 50% of their total effort just making sure that things will *work*, and not just inspiration and their heaven-sent talent. You need someone who will deliver, even if they are out of ideas right now, even if your requirements don't excite the socks off them - and that's the relatively rare pro. Artistically, they're probably no better that any other freelancer, but they're in it for the long haul, and they've adjusted to the idea of having to do their housework. For all the others, it's a lost cause. Don't waste your time on them, keep looking - and be prepared to pay not just for the art, but as much again for the ability to deliver.
posted by labberdasher at 2:05 PM on January 3, 2011

Hire professionals, because I have never missed a deadline no matter what I had to do to deliver. If you are looking for talent on places like DeviantArt then you are probably hiring amateurs who have no experience doing business. You will almost definitely have to pay professionals more, but then you will not miss your production deadlines and have to deal with flakes.

Basically, you get what you pay for.
posted by bradbane at 2:12 PM on January 3, 2011

Go through an illustration agent where they're all pros and it's in the agents best interest to keep on top of them to make sure they deliver on time and to spec. I'm a creative in advertising and this is what we do. Hitting our deadlines is critical, I would never take a chance on a random sourced from a website unless they came highly recommended by someone I trusted. In which case they are not that random! Creating beautiful art is only part of it, they also have to be able to deliver art that's on brief, on time and be open to making revisions if need be whilst being professional and keeping in budget. These things are hard to find in professionals, damn near impossible in amateurs.
posted by Jubey at 3:37 PM on January 3, 2011

Best answer: I have one artist - a Thai guy I found on deviantArt - to whom none of the above applies. He's also fantastically good, and I use him for all the art I absolutely without-fail need. Lately, he's just started slipping on deadlines by a few days, and I'm terrified that this will grow into a regular thing.

You want to keep this guy. Hopefully he wants to keep you as a customer. (If you are unsure about the latter, you might need to increase what you pay him).

So next time you are arranging work for him, you need to tell him straight up, "Hey, I use you for everything I can right now, because you are the one person I have found who is absolutely reliable when it comes to deadlines. While I love your work, your ability to work to deadline is the number one difference between you and your competitors. Please keep this in mind, because the deadline is especially important for this project."

This should scare him into being more careful :) It would have me, when I used to freelance. I wasn't always great about deadlines - but the times I didn't meet them were when one of the following occurred:

- I had been paid late by the employer the previous time I worked for them. (I wasn't late with the work in retaliation, but I also had little incentive to finish fast, and I felt like deadlines weren't important to THEM).

- I had requested stuff from the employer (e.g. extra information, specifications), and they had been flaky getting it to me. If I had a window of opportunity to work on their project from the 20-29th of the month, and they didn't get me the specs in time, I lost that window of opportunity and had more trouble fitting their project around others.

- I got the general impression that the deadline was not important to them. E.g. at the first meeting, I asked when they wanted the project done by, and they said something vague, or let me pick a random date, or I suggested a date and they said, "Sure, or a month after that would be fine too."

- They were paying shit and treating me badly, and I felt all "Fuck you" about it.
posted by lollusc at 3:49 PM on January 3, 2011

As an artist who's been freelancing for many years and never missed a deadline - nthing that it's likely a pay problem. Yes, you need a contract with your artists, and that contract should have stages of deliverables as a matter of course, but contracts are words on paper in the end, and nagging artists is only going to frustrate you. If you're having this much trouble getting reliable people, you are almost certainly going to need to up your offered pay and recruit from better places. Try forums like in place of deviantart, make sure your artists have worked with similar companies previously, and ask around for referrals.

Be upfront with your favorite artist. Ask him what's going on, instead of delicately beating around the bush; it's likely that he's taken on better paying work and you've dropped in priority to him. Tell him that you're concerned and want to keep your working relationship. Consider offering him a bonus for completion *ahead* of deadline; that way if he doesn't meet it and is still a few days late, you aren't out anything, but most people will go for that carrot, particularly if you have the stick of pay reductions for lateness in the contract as well.

Based on what you've said, you sound like a reasonable professional, but I'll take another stab at the "you are a pain to work with" from the artist point of view.
Difficult clients:
-Chronically did not communicate in a timely fashion but demanded rapid turnarounds from me
-Did not allow me to talk to the person with final say, resulting in revision "telephone" of "Well, I think they want..."
-Demanded that I be available by phone/chat constantly
-Repeatedly did not pay on time and needed invoice reminders
-Endeavored to get everything as cheaply as possible
-Had multiple avoidable revisions/sent feedback that was very vague

Those guys still had their deadlines met, but I'm infinitely more motivated to get my favorite, low-stress clients their work early and rebook them into my schedule.
posted by tautological at 12:32 PM on January 4, 2011

Call up various magazines that use illustrators, ask to talk to their art director, ask them for freelancers who deliver on time and are good. You will walk away with a list of websites. Use these folks, but they will be pricier than DeviantArt people.
posted by Sully at 8:10 PM on January 4, 2011

« Older What is the best Anti-virus and firewall apps for...   |   Boots gone bad Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.