Suddenly Dropped

by Doreen Simmons

What do we do when we are suddenly given the cold shoulder by a client or told that we aren’t needed after a long and mutually beneficial relationship? It can be infuriating or deeply traumatic. It helps to know that there is more than meets the eye, and not to lose faith in ourselves. Kindly Aunt Eva has mostly outlived her enemies, but as always, she plumbs the depths of her own experience to help us keep our balance.

Dear Aunt Eva:

We’re a small copywriting and graphic design agency. Comparing our work with that of others, we seem to be pretty good at what we do: we’re trained abroad, experienced here and abroad; we belong to a variety of professional organizations here and abroad, and we update our skills regularly. In other words, we’re not just a bunch of hacks with a Mac. Recently, though, we heard through the grapevine that a director at a client company, a very large and well-known Japanese corporation, declared the work we did for them on a recent advertising project “unacceptable.”  He was reported as being not happy with the “writing”—whatever that may mean. The project was creative and to spec when it left this office, but we believe the grapevine has accurately reported the comment to us. Is there anything that can be done to defend or rebuild our reputation?

Hugh Dunnet-Toomey

Aunt Eva answers:

Oh, you poor dear! Unspecified dissatisfaction is so difficult to deal with, isn’t it? Unfortunately, mind reading is not one of your dear aunt’s talents, so the best she can do is to wander along the fluffy paths of memory and see if she can pick up any suitable pieces of lint.

There are two main possibilities: the director really believes the product is unsatisfactory, or he is making excuses so that he can give the work to his own nominee.

But these two really overlap. The director may indeed have such a high regard for his own talents in the English language that he assumes they are superior to those of younger native speakers (“who don’t even know a gerund”). But this in itself is not enough to dry up the flow of work. Look for the warning signs that he has a replacement company already in mind. Or that he has a protégé (his brother’s company, his niece who has just returned from a study course in the United States, or his English teacher) and is determined to find a position under his wing—which means emptying the nest of the existing occupant. Aunt Eva recalls the highly placed official who ordered in-house English conversation lessons for the junior staff.  Deeply impressed by a woman who was teaching English classes at a respected university, he insisted on hiring her for the job. The lady was a dignified blue-eyed blonde of uncertain age, and had British nationality—but spoke with a noticeable Teutonic accent. Since she was unable to find a suitable textbook and was unable to teach without one, she was eventually replaced—but only when her protector retired several years later.

Ah, the memories come flooding back. Many years ago, a writer friend who had laboriously built up his own connections was most generous in introducing a talented newcomer to some of his publishers. Gradually it dawned on him, however, that the supply of jobs was drying up; cautious enquiries revealed that the snake had approached all his clients privately and offered to do the work cheaper. Some had accepted. What of the day when Aunt Eva herself returned early from lunch to hear an underemployed freelance journalist loudly announcing that he could do her job a lot better? If the attempt had been made more subtly, and by a person who could manage without a spelling checker, who knows what might have been the result?

A Japanese employer once virtually invited Aunt Eva to agree that the freelancer she was replacing had been unsatisfactory. (He was somewhat younger and of a different nationality.) Recalling the Chinese amah story, Aunt Eva replied prudently that her predecessor’s work was highly professional, though she trusted that she could do as well. There was an almost imperceptible cooling of the air. Had she failed to provide justification for a change of hiring policy?

The “Chinese amah phenomenon” was well-known to those who lived East of Suez in the days when domestic service was available right down the social scale. A new Chinese maid routinely cleaned the house out to the last corner and then observed self-righteously to the mem that her predecessor was a no-good woman who had left the place in a disgusting state. In one case, there had been no servant for several months, and the lady of the house had herself spent three days scouring to ensure that there was not a speck of dirt to greet the new amah.
Likewise, when a new “native” (translator, rewriter, whatever) starts work there is a temptation to find fault with everything that has gone before.

Now, how about some practical advice? One has to be cautious here, since the cause of your own problem is unclear. The first thing that comes to mind is the grapevine: if it’s as well informed as you believe, can it also find out who is now getting the work? It won’t retrieve the situation for you, but at least it will resolve the niggling doubts.

The other way, not necessarily an ‘either/or’ deal, is to go to the fountainhead.  You have nothing to lose. Without rancor, bitterness or reproach, write a letter to the director saying that it has come to your notice that he has expressed dissatisfaction with your Job #00. As a professional company eager to maintain its existing good reputation, you will be glad to do the job over if he will kindly indicate his area of dissatisfaction, or depute someone to go over the work with you to indicate any changes in the requirements. 

Finally, in your shoes Aunt Eva would make sure that a copy of this letter is sent to the person who recommended you to the corporation,  or to the director’s predecessor if this is relevant. Good luck.

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 80 (April 1998)