Client Red Flags: How to spot the warning signs of a toxic creative relationship
From “We’re all family” to “This should just be a quick one”, we’ve put together a guide to client red flags that will help you avoid creative, financial and spiritual ruin.
We’ve all been there. You get a call or email from a potential client interested in working with you. Yes! You’re excited. You’re already thinking of the relevant ideas you can bring to life and the team you might work with. You’re eyeing up the Q2 budget hole the fee would fill or the long term contract the work might lead to. The first meeting goes well; everyone is on their best behaviour, you’re all on a high and kind of in love with each other and then… something happens.
You broach fees, processes, payment terms, teams, and deadlines that don’t seem quite right to you, and then in the distance, you see the hazy outline of a red flag slowly rising to half, then full mast. You try to ignore it, but you’ve been here before, and you know what it spells – creative, financial or spiritual disaster.
Perhaps you learned the hard way. Perhaps in the past, you noticed something that didn’t sit right, you saw the red flag fluttering in the distance, but you ignored your intuition and thought, “meh, it won’t be that bad.” Or maybe you didn’t see the red flag until you were enveloped in the all-consuming quagmire of a disastrous client situation. Because, just as in personal relationships, it’s often not the individual red flag incident that is the problem; it’s the deeper toxic processes or culture it represents that’s the issue, and it should be viewed as a warning to protect your time, energy and cash flow.
Well – mop that brow, relax that jaw and fear no more. We’re here to help you identify those tricky client red flags. We’ve put together a guide on what to look out for when you’re working with clients in the hope that this guide will help you avoid some of the red flag situations others* have experienced in the past.
Also, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a name and shame session. Clients aren’t the enemy. The creative process is never linear, and you’re often in the trenches together fighting fires and making things happen any way you can. I’ve worked with a lot of brilliant clients, some of whom have become friends, so it isn’t the client who is the problem per se, but that said, there are some behaviours and practices that stand out and that act as a warning sign of where things could go wrong if not handled very mindfully.
So, forge on reader. But, tread carefully, and remember, if you see a red flag fluttering in the distance, ignore it at your peril.
The question of unpaid pitches in the creative industry has been debated for a number of years, and at this stage, if a company is asking you to take part in an unpaid pitch, I’d say this is a classic red flag. In an age where studios and individuals can showcase their past work beautifully across various platforms, clients can easily get a flavour and insight into your work, processes, approach and aesthetic. If they ask for specific responses to a set brief or request your expertise and time in relation to their product or service, they should allocate a budget to compensate. This lazy and outdated practice speaks to a lack of respect for your time and creative ideas. Walk away.
The team you meet at the beginning of a project represent the wider company your work will front once it’s out in the world. If that team is all male or all white, the flag goes up! What kind of company culture has directed the recruitment process that resulted in the monoculture team sitting before you? What biases have gone unchecked? What blinkered decisions are being made within those teams and at the expense of who? If it’s all pale and all male – it’s stale.
Another red flag when it comes to teams is the dreaded – “We’re one big family.” In the words of a tweet by @pollen196, “if a job hire u and say welcome to the family, you bout to encounter multiple human rights violations.” Run!
Communication is key when it comes to client red flags. In an age when access to each other is blown open, this can be tricky to navigate. The warning signs can be raised at either end of the spectrum, either too much or not enough and depend heavily on what you’re personally comfortable with but let’s be honest, no one enjoys waking up to a stream of early morning WhatsApps from a client demanding last-minute changes to something they’ve already signed off. Likewise, no one enjoys sitting in back-to-back calls, “jumping on a quick call” (it’s never quick), nor the classic call that could have been an email.
There’s also zero enjoyment in being contacted across many different platforms. It creates confusion and makes keeping track of feedback or progress very difficult, especially for neurodivergent people. It can also mean that “receipts” are lost, making it hard to refer back to what was agreed or said when you need to.
Any of these excessive expectations around communications classify as red flags. It signals a lack of respect for your time, a breakdown of healthy boundaries, and poor time management on the client's part and should be managed with extreme caution.
In 2022 the phenomenon of ghosting isn’t the reserve of fuck bois and girls who don’t wash their sheets often enough. The practice of people cutting off communication whilst giving zero explanation has also found its way into the professional world, and in this instance, I say professional in the very loosest sense of the word.
In researching this feature, I spoke to at least five people who said this was one of their main client red flags. The familiar story goes that you’ll have a lot of initial contact with a potential client, typically calls or Zooms. They’re interested in how you can work together and ask for a deck to outline how you might take this forward – a selection of “top-line ideas” is usually the suggestion.
So, you put together a “deck” (everyone loves a deck) outlining some info on you or your company, you develop some top-line ideas, supply a budget, a timeline and suggested next steps. Then, you send it off to the client and wait…
The next stage involves sending as many checking in/circling back/moving forward emails as you can stomach before accepting that the dormant Anonymous Aardvark in your google slides presentation just isn’t going to respond.
There might be a number of reasons for this. They might have found your ideas lacking, they might be super busy, or they might have been sacked (the only acceptable reason). Some may eventually circle back around full of apologies with explanations of “being slammed” and “having no budget at this point”, but ultimately it comes down to major red flag behaviour, and it’s time to move on.
The briefing/input/feedback loop can also be a fertile ground for the biggest, juiciest red flags you’ve ever seen. Let’s start at the beginning – the brief.
There isn’t an industry standard when it comes to a briefing, and they can vary wildly from a couple of sentences to a 40-page pdf with a detailed appendix. Red flags sprout up in my mind whenever there are pages of someone else’s work, and all the client wants you to do is replicate and repeat. No, why not hire that person whose work you want to rip off so badly?
At this stage, it can also become very apparent which clients have a handle on reality and which ones don’t. Bad briefs can tell you whether a client knows what they want and if they understand their product or their audience. If they don’t, their expectations won’t align with the results of any work you create, and you’ll be the one to blame, or they’ll change their mind halfway through the project, and for a couple of painful weeks/months, your life will become very shit indeed. RED FLAG!
Another banger is anytime someone says, “our founder likes to be very involved”, which means you’re about to come into contact with someone who likes to sift through ideas on a microbial level, and conversely, any feedback as vague and asinine as, “This is pretty” electrifies neon red flags throughout my brain, as does the sentence, “can we just make a few quick changes?” when the round of work has already been signed off.
Money is a fraught area where red flags appear more often than an 18-hole golf course at Mar A Lago. Across each stage, from negotiating fees and budgets to the money finally hitting your account, the terrain is rocky. Some of the big hitter money red flags include the now iconic, “There’s no budget for this, but a lot of people will see it” – a 2022 revamp on the very tired, “you’ll get lots of exposure.” Or there’s the other stone-cold classic, “the budget has been cut, but the ambition for the project remains the same.” The message is different, but the meaning is the same; you’re about to get financially shafted.
A round-up of the other financial red flags includes: payment terms that are anything longer than 30 days. RED FLAG. Clients who don’t pay 50 per cent of production ahead of a job. RED FLAG. Trying to save on budget by not hiring a full team such as a stylist, set designer, or hand model because Mary in accounts has “lovely hands”. RED FLAG.
Another more low-key but equally tedious red flag involves filling out an insane amount of paperwork just to be processed on the client’s payment system. This always raises alarms as it means multiple departments are involved, and the chances of your details remaining incomplete on the system are very high. I’d highly recommend following up with all parties and asking for confirmation that you’re fully uploaded onto their payment system as soon as possible.
Lastly, anyone who sends out a brief or project outline including deadlines and next steps without mentioning fees or budget immediately raises a red flag in my mind. This usually means they’re going to circle back to the first point in this section – that there’s no budget.
I don’t know if the increase in digital communication over physical meetings has led to a decrease in general manners or if some clients just fall into a kind of warped master/servant mentality the minute they write “brand manager” into their email signature, but something is amiss, and I encourage you all to watch out for the subtle but very real red flags associated with a lack of basic manners.
Often the erosion of manners happens over time when a client begins to feel the dreaded “I’m paying for this” vibe taking over their being. Perhaps there have been some creative differences, maybe production has fallen behind schedule, or a desired venue/talent/supplier isn’t available. Tension arises, and nerves are frayed. However, no matter how far the project is perceived to be veering off course, there is no excuse for a lack of manners. If a client cannot say please and thank you or speak in a civil manner when things get complicated, then it’s a RED FLAG from me.
The mad, bad and the very sad
Asking for a rationale document on what toilet roll the client should use in a new facility.
Requesting a file with a 15-minute window as the client was boarding a flight to the Bahamas.
12-hour day as standard (often on shoots).
When they describe anything as sexy.
Any company that puts out, “We want to celebrate all the lovely ladies on IWD!” messaging.
When they want everyone to know about the office dog – that absolutely stinks.
Clients asking for raw files or extra images for free.
Contracts that are impenetrable and use difficult language to claim global rights over your work FOREVER.
*Thank you to everyone who contributed their red flags to this piece and went through hell so others don’t have to.