Honesty, Success and Karma in Business

As you already know if you’ve read any of my “work” stories, film and photo production often beats a “real job.”  And if you’ve read some of my life stories, you can probably tell that I’m pretty open and honest, often to a fault!  Whether it’s business or personal (and the two overlapped for me to a huge degree), the most important quality one can have is honesty, both with oneself and with others.  As I said in my story about “How I Learned Honesty from My Mom” (via spanking!), honesty is an essential component of trust, and without trust you really don’t have a valuable relationship with anyone.  Oh sure, it could be potentially “valuable” in the short term to lie about money in a business relationship or something else in a personal relationship, but it’s my firm belief that dishonesty can only generate short-term rewards and will not provide any long-term success or meaning in one’s life. 

Having been self-employed my entire adult life, I know the value of honesty better than most by working with all types of people from all over the world.  In my film and photo advertising career I did over 900 projects with about 500 different clients and their producers/account reps, etc.  Having to negotiate the terms of all those projects from scratch, I’ve seen the entire range of humanity in terms of those who were 100% honest and trustworthy to those I wouldn’t trust for a split second if my back were turned.  And if I accepted 900 projects, that means I turned down over 2,000 of them because they weren’t willing to pay my crew and I a fair amount of money or wanted me to participate in some other dishonesty to cut corners in some way or another. 

I made kind of a serious joke to my friend Rob when he bought my company that 70% of the calls you get won’t be “real jobs” that you can accept.  He looked surprised at that high percentage, but the fact is that about half of the 70% simply don’t know what they’re doing and are asking for the impossible (I referred to them as “crack smokers” because they would have to be really high to think what they were proposing were even remotely possible either logistically or for their very short money—Hahahaha!!), and the other half of the 70% know damned well they’re bullshitting you about money (and likely a lot of other details as well!) and are just looking for a sucker who will agree to their bad deal initially and find out later what a bad deal it really was.  (And I had many names for them as well…)

Fortunately, I learned this lesson early on, and here are a couple of examples.  Back in my early days (probably around 1994 or so), my partner Marc and I had a 36′ Dodge Allegro production motorhome that we would rent out and drive to shoots for use as a production office in the front half, and a hair, makeup and wardrobe space in the back.  That thing was a beast to drive, but we customized it fairly well so that it was quite functional for film and photo shoots.  We had about $20K and a lot of sweat equity invested in it, and we rented it out for the princely sum of $325/day, and that included one of us driving it.  A standard day in our industry varied depending on your job, but the motorhome standard was 10 hours, and after that the driver got paid overtime.  The driver’s rate was also a princely sum–$125/10-hour day, and I don’t think it was too much to ask for time-and-a-half based on that blue collar rate!

This particular job was a Nissan commercial featuring Arie Lyundeyk the Indy car race driver.  In 1993 any car commercial was a big, expensive proposition with a large crew, and having a real race car driver made it even bigger.  My good friend Denise was the local production manager, but this was a big shoot so she had to answer to a couple of other producers above her on the food chain.  She was getting pressure from them to save money anywhere she could because the client and ad agency were trying to pay for this somewhat over-the-top shindig any way they could.  Hell, Arie’s agent probably charged them six figures for two days’ work just to say three lines and drive the Nissan around for a minute! 

At one point just before the shoot, Denise told me to expect very long shoot days and ask if I would work on a 12-hour day instead of a 10-hour day based on the lie she was told that “the shoot was on a really tight budget.”  (I was a relative newbie at the time and hadn’t yet learned that there was really no such thing as a “low-budget” car shoot in 1993!)  I scowled a bit I’m sure, but since Denise was my friend I agreed as a favor to her.  I showed up on the shoot day at zero-dark-thirty as usual to get things set up in my motorhome, and a few hours later the Japanese clients came cruising onto the location in two or three large passenger vans.  Now normally a big shoot like this might have anywhere from 3-6 people on the client side, but Nissan literally sent about 20 people all the way from Japan for this one!  For me this was a huge red flag that we were being lied to by the main producers in terms of the project having a so-called “tight budget.” 

I casually asked Denise where all these undoubtedly “essential-to-the-shoot” Nissan clients were staying while they were here on their “tight budget” project, and when Denise replied, “Oh, they’re at the Biltmore” (one of the most posh and expensive resorts in Phoenix!) I think steam came out of my ears as I told her we were back on a 10-hour day.  We went back and forth a little more on it, but I stuck to my guns and told Denise that if any of those lying SOBs had a problem with Eric the motorhome peon being fairly paid while a bunch of Japanese dudes got an all-expense paid vacation to Arizona in high season, they could talk to me directly.  I never heard another word and I was paid based on a 10-hour day.

That valuable lesson and a few others early in my career paid off in spades as I got more experience and became a producer myself and started my own production company with my ex-wife Sandy.  We figured out pretty quickly that I had a pretty good nose for bullshit, so I was the default project estimator and negotiator pretty much from the start of our company in 1994.  (And I had a nice deep voice on the phone that said: “Don’t fuck with this guy”—Hahahaha!!)  Sandy was much too nice and sweet, which made me want to marry her, but I did not want her on the phone with a lot of New York City liars (even if she was from New York!) 

We’ve all heard the expression “shit flows downhill,” and I was actually told this more than once by an arrogant client, producer, or other brainwashed idiot over the years.  But I had a great response that went pretty much like this: “Shit may flow downhill, but if it hits me I’ll pick it up and fling it right back up in your face.”  Yes, I actually said exactly that more than once, and it tended to shut the arrogant liars up pretty quickly.  I definitely never viewed my business or industry as a “ladder” with the client on top and various levels underneath, each of whom was required to follow the orders of those above them in some imaginary “food chain.”  Of course it was my goal (and my job!) to do the best work I could for the client to make them happy (and want to work with me again!), but I viewed the production process as a wheel with me the producer as the hub of the wheel rather than a ladder with me somewhere in the middle trying desperately not to be knocked off and sent flying! 

It was my job to organize the client, crew, talent, location owners, vendors, etc. (the spokes of the wheel) and keep kicking them all in the ass so they would be in sync and the wheel would keep moving forward!  Our industry had very tight deadlines, so a “ladder” model didn’t work nearly as well as a “wheel” in rolling out a project in record time.  And I was always honest with everyone so they understood why I needed decisions made now and shit done immediately afterward.  And that honesty made for much easier and successful shoots, so I got lots of repeat business and referrals based on the idea that I could be trusted to tell the truth to everyone and get the job done smoothly and without undue stress on anyone. 

We did a lot of fashion catalogs in the 1990s, and they were notorious for sending out their own very inexperienced “producers” (fashion catalog production was considered an entry level job in NYC back then), yet they conveniently didn’t put any money in their budget (or so they told me) for us to be paid for most of our local production work that was actually necessary to make the shoot go smoothly.  Their hope was that they could rent our motorhome, have us set up their shooting locations, hook them up with our best local people, and then turn them loose on our town for a week or two even though they had never been here before without charging them another dime for the entire shoot!  Their “logic” was that once everything was set up during the 2-3 prep days they paid us for, they had us “on call” for a week or two to work for free on any last-minute changes the client or photographer might dream up!  And believe me, there were almost always lots of questions, changes, last-minute requests, ad infinitum to keep us busy throughout the entire shoot.

After a couple of shoots like this I learned my lesson and was honest right upfront and said that this business arrangement was unacceptable.  We needed at least a few thousand more dollars to cover the inevitable shit that was going to hit the fan when the crack-smokin’ creatives hit town, and it was simply an inevitable part of the “creative process” that shit was constantly changing with the majority of clients.  I got some “how dare you who is below us on the business ladder presume to dictate terms to us,” but I quickly pointed out that I ran my own business and would gladly turn the job down if I weren’t being paid enough for the work.  In 90% of the cases, they would begrudgingly pay up because they knew I was telling the truth and that earned me a certain amount of respect for not being a dumb schmuck from the desert as the New York fashionistas sometimes viewed us! 

I could cite a few hundred other examples of client and fellow producer BS, but I essentially learned the high value of honesty in business by observing the chaos and bullshit that was often the result of the dishonest people running the show.  I was on some of their shoots as a location scout/manager, and even though I made sure my department was run honestly (despite the best efforts of the lying sacks to lie to me and get me to lie to others for them!), and that resulted in less stress on my location owners and I, and most importantly led to me being invited back, which had HUGE value at the end of the day.  My reputation for honesty meant that I had literally dozens of homeowners (and probably hundreds of other location owners) who would turn me and my crew loose in their million-dollar homes for the entire day based solely on the fact that they trusted me and could take me at my word.  I would tell the property owner up front if a given client were likely to be a pain in the ass and would give the them a chance to say no to a project even if that isn’t the answer I wanted.  But what was interesting was that 95% of the time they said yes to one of my more pain-in-the-ass clients BECAUSE I was honest and they kind of felt bad for me and wanted to help me out for being honest with them.  Karma definitely exists in the business world, and honesty breeds good karma which in turn breeds trust and success.

The same thing was definitely true on the crew and vendor side of the equation as well.  Even though the crew and vendors who technically below me on the hypothetical “food chain” because I was paying them (which wasn’t my philosophy as I mentioned above), I was always brutally honest with them about the project and the pain-in-the-ass level of a particular crack-smokin’ creative upfront.  It was important to me that everyone knew what they were getting into from the start because realistic expectations all around meant that the shoot would run as smoothly as possible with the least possible “attitude” from everyone on the proverbial “production wheel.” 

Another important karmic effect of being brutally honest with my crew and vendors was that the best people would always want to work with me.  Not only was this essential for long-term business success, but it made my business life much less stressful.  Honesty all around and the resulting trust meant that I could explain what was needed once and turn everyone loose knowing that they would give it 100% effort and be honest with me if there were any issues or problems that needed to be worked out.  And going right back to the beginning of the story about the lying clients and producers who claim to have “no money” or a “low budget,” I always made sure I demanded and budgeted enough money from the start to make sure my crew could do a good job and be fairly compensated for their hard work. 

In my production world, I took good care to make sure there was as little “shit” as humanly possible, and I would never let it “flow downhill” onto my crew and I. I always considered it part of my job to fling that shit right back upstairs before it hit my crew. And I’m eternally grateful for the good karma and financial success that was the end result.  As crappy as my health issues are right now, I can’t even imagine what they would be like without so many good friends looking out for me, many from work, and I feel really bad for anyone trying to navigate a nasty illness like this without having any money to take care of things.  I’m beyond grateful for the fact that I have an abundance of friends and money to take care of myself the best I can and find as much peace as possible.  Life really is connected in a lot of ways we don’t expect, and Karma can be either a bitch or a sweetheart, depending on how you treat her! 

2 thoughts on “Honesty, Success and Karma in Business”

  1. I think what I learned was that honesty had to go along with something I had to learn, “tactfulness”. It never meant lying to a location, we always had to be even more upfront than they might have wanted, certainly more than our clients wanted. However, with the client, I went from total honesty to being somewhat car-salesmanship-like, i.e. “Let’s see what we can do.”

    Towards the end, particularly when I could read an advance call and had a clear idea of the 10 THINGS EVERY SHOOT SEEMED TO WANT, I started being brutally honest(no, Monument Valley is 4.5 hours away and nothing is like it an hour from town)and also extremely helpful, i.e. “You can send me out for 2-3 days but my experience says you’re going to pick Location C so why don’t I email it to you, pay me and I’ll give you the details”.

    I find it hard explaining to artists who get jazzed about a big-name client that you can’t eat their brand, you need their money to eat, so a job is a job. Some of the best jobs were from small creative clients or of course, and let’s say in unison, THE CANADIANS. The Canadians and the Japanese were my favorite clients and there were some excellent Germans here and there. In 20 years location scouting and managing I can think of maybe 10 US-based clients that I absolutely enjoyed and looked forward to their return. Maybe less if I thought hard enough, but when the work was good and the locations interesting, you could ignore the drama. I think Mike and I were the first to ever do contracts with companies. When they went full time-carded we did less of that.

    Anyway, enjoying memory lane.

    1. Hey Steve–Yeah, as I said in my first piece about work “it beats a ‘real job,” and memory lane is always fun! Like you, I enjoyed the Canadians–I’m from Wisconsin and it was almost like working with my homies unless they were from Toronto–They were more like Canadian New Yorkers! But I have to disagree about the Gunters and the Japs! I always found them to be the most insanely demanding of any clients and obsessed with trivial shit.
      I totally agree with you about figuring out how to “cut to the chase” after a few years in the biz. I started recommending that Day 1 of scouting be a file pull day once we entered the digital era. I could show them a week’s worth of shit online and then we could talk about why there was no place in the Phoenix metro area that looked like Sedona, and that I would never be able to “scout it out” after living here for a few decades–Hahaha!! I had one German client who insisted that our local “desert” had to have sand dunes, and that if I scouted hard enough I would find them. Seriously…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.