What Do You Do When You Don’t Get Paid For Freelance Work?

Okay, here’s an open question for all of you.
I did some freelance work for an ad agency late last year. Two separate jobs for $900 apiece. I was paid for one, but not the other. I have the agency’s PO issued for the unpaid job, dated January of this year. I have been steadily (once every two weeks or so) inquiring and emailing to the accounting department (and occasionally to an account person who deals with this client) of this agency and it’s always “we’re looking into it.” But I’ve been blown off completely for the last month or so. I’ve been told that the agency has a policy of not paying freelancers until they themselves have been paid by the client, but I have no idea whether they’ve been paid or not.
What’s my next move?
I have never had this much of a problem getting paid for freelance work. And oh, it’s not exactly my style, but I’m SO tempted to name these guys right here on AdPulp as a warning for all potential people who deal with them, but they will go unnamed.
Is this type of thing more common in the ad biz than I thought it was?

About Dan Goldgeier

Blogging on AdPulp since 2005, Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. In addition, he is a regular columnist for TalentZoo.com. Dan published the best of his TalentZoo.com columns in a book entitled View From The Cheap Seats: A Broader Look at Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Global Politics, Office Politics, Sexual Politics, and Getting Drunk During a Job Interview. Look for it on Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


  1. I feel for you, Danny.
    But avoid the temptation to call them out. The last thing you want is to use that freelance money to get a defense attorney.

  2. I’ve only been stiffed once in seven years as a freelancer — sued the agency and they eventually declared bankruptcy. In your case, perhaps go right to the head of the agency. Better yet, if you really don’t care about future work from the agency, go to their client. When clients find out that agencies aren’t paying (or can’t pay) their bills, they get nervous, rumors start flying and some tough questions get asked.

  3. Don’t go to the client.
    First step: Call the creative director or head account guy that you worked with. Explain the situation. Tell them you’ve had no luck with accounting. Chances are they’ll be sympathetic and try and help. IMPORTANT: While you are on the phone, get the name of the CFO – you will want to CC the CFO on any emails/letters you send.
    Second step: Do you have any friends or relations who work as lawyers that you can call on for a favor? Write a letter (and have them put it on their letterhead) explaining the situation, being very polite and sort of-kind-of implying it might have been an oversight. But lay out the facts: it’s been six months, Mr. X has been in touch with the accounting department several times, etc., you have a PO from the agency, etc. Send it to the CFO but cc both the CEO and the CD you worked with
    Letters from lawyers often get agencies to take action quickly. Especially when the amount in question in less than whatever it would cost them to pay their lawyer to defend.
    Clearly you do not want to work for this agency again.
    Also: unless I have a personal connection at a shop I always ask for some money up front. You’re not doing charity work, right?

  4. Toad makes good points. Another future consideration is to always discuss the payment process upfront (i.e., how long does it take to get a check?)—then write it into your contract agreement. Any agency that says it even takes up to 30 days is suspect, in my opinion. I’ve been freelancing people for at least three agencies in the past few years, and my agencies usually paid within two weeks. Waiting for the client to pay first is nonsense—and certainly should not be a freelancer’s problem. If you find a lawyer to do you a favor, consider threatening to charge interest. Remember, freelancing is all about charging for your time. At this point, the delinquent agency is making you spend time that could be applied toward a paying client. And if nothing comes of these efforts, go ahead and post the agency name. Although it’s likely that everyone already knows they’re deadbeats.

  5. To clarify, going to the client isn’t about asking them to pay. It’s about supplying a little information to them, which in turn might result in you gaining a measure of revenge on an agency that obviously doesn’t give two shits about the service you provided. If they felt otherwise, the account person would have more or less demanded that you be paid. I mean, come on, 900 bucks?

  6. Thanks for all the tips, y’all. I think it’s just a matter of something falling through the cracks at an agency that’s been a long-distance assignment for me. And they’re not rude or nasty, so there’s no need for me to be. I’m not into anything drastic.

  7. Danny: After 6 months you need to be assertive, not nasty. The steps I mentioned won’t put you in anyone’s bad graces. A note from a lawyer is perfectly justified at this point. Stop blaming the victim 😉
    TD: Going to the client is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. First and foremost, the client is likely to regard you as a bother and nutjob– not the agency. And since marketing managers change jobs a lot, your bad reputation will follow.

  8. I can’t believe Roadhouse is the one source I turn to at a time like this, but like Patrick Swayze said, be nice–until it’s time to not be nice. Ask the CDs and account dept. one final time just so you know, and if after that you still get the runaround, time to not be nice.
    I feel for you. I’ve been burned by a few places. Usually after resolving the situation, I don’t go back. Good points all around here. I’d say first, how bad do you wanna continue with them? If not at all, then while not being an asshole sounds like an option, hj is right: be firm and constantly on their radar.
    Some places are just bad when it comes to paying prompt, either deliberately or because they payable/receivable dept. is overworked. The deliberate ones are the evil ones.
    For the busy places who aren’t trying to screw you, my friend forwards the exact same invoice he originally sent every two days once past 30 days. No message, just the forwarded email. It works for him.
    Small amount like $900 can also be filed in small claims court. (I believe max is $1,500 and filing fee is minimal. That you have an agency PO is a bonus for you as far as he said-she said.)
    In my experience, the ones who deliberately screw you aren’t scared by lawyers or letterheads. Chances are, they know what they can get away with since you’re probably not the first. But if you do go the legal route, document everything, Cc: the world and CYA from this point.
    I also have an agency who owes me way more than that an I am actually thinking of the public shame thing followed by going to their clients, and publishing all his private info related to the project. I could care if I work for him ever again, so screw him.
    But then I like to think what goes around…

  9. Just thought I’d update this thread—I got my check today. When I made this post, I decided to bug them constantly but politely (every day) until I could get something resolved.
    Thanks everyone for all the suggestions.

  10. I was
    hired for straightforward case of web design; this person approved of
    the work; she discussed ongoing maintenance and requested that I
    upload the site and supplied the account info in order for me to do
    so. The agreement to maintain the site was made on my part only in
    exchange for the unused disk space on the server, and free of charge;
    basically an act of good will and the best intentions on my part; she
    also requested to pay half at that point, half after upload; here is
    when things got interesting. Although my policy is work first, pay
    later, upload last; on the assumption that I would be maintaining the
    site I foolishly thought I could trust the her.
    This person never paid half first but I went ahead and uploaded the
    site. Agh. A few days later she informed me that the site was “funky”
    and had reverted seemingly by itself to its previous state, which was
    a generic template that she had made using the template builder
    provided with the web host. Hmm. This time she made a $50 payment,
    which was 1/2 of the ‘half first’ or 1/4 of the total payment;
    requesting me to again upload the site, and informing of the new
    password to the account, which had inexplicably been changed. Ok-? In
    an effort to be helpful I stated the obvious in asking this person
    whether she had used the template builder, which still had the old
    copy of the template stored, which the client denied as if being
    accused of something.
    It was only a few days later when no further payment or instructions
    appeared from the client that I realized what was happening. Ms.
    Menage had waited for me to upload the site, then promptly changed the
    password to shut me out. The client then stupidly attempted to use the
    template builder to modify the new website, inadvertently reinstating
    the old one by mistake. I sent a two-page email, which went
    unanswered, patiently explaining the differences between the template
    editor and alternative means to edit the site, something I had
    contacted her about two weeks earlier, requesting to set a time when
    we could put our heads together to implement a customized solution; a
    request that also had gone unanswered. I then wrote another two emails
    over the course of two days patiently explaining my position in our
    agreement, all the things I had done and were willing to do for the
    benefit of her website, and explaining that the agreed upon fee for
    the site was more than $50.
    After a few days this person responded. This time I had apparently
    crossed the line and been irrevocably disrespectful in some way with
    my ‘smart comments’; and no further pay would be forthcoming. Two
    separate conversations are presented below.
    Sadly, it is apparent that THIS CLIENT NEVER INTENDED TO PAY ME. It is
    unfortunate that so many take advantage of Craigslist’s open market
    system to cheat and connive their way through the system. Thank you
    for taking the time to listen.
    On 2/17/08, I wrote: (this is a small part of a 2-page letter)
    Okay. Please don’t confuse content management with that Globuild
    template builder they have got up on there. Templates are very limited
    in that they can only allow you to change pictures and stuff around
    within the look and style of a premade layout.
    ——————————— (etc.) ————————-
    Because this is kind of starting to drag on and it seems we haven’t
    been communicating very well and time has been getting wasted. I have
    been trying to do everything you wanted me to do but when I asked you
    a couple of weeks ago if we could set up a time to hook you up with
    the content management you never got back to me; then last week you
    On 2/17/08, Tanisha Clayton wrote: (apparently replying to a
    completely different conversation)
    > no. Any what else is new with this?
    On 2/17/08, I wrote:
    What part of what I said are you saying no to? I don’t know what else
    is new with this because I don’t know what you are expecting me to do.
    On 2/19/08, Tanisha Clayton wrote:
    I dont even remember what this email was about. What’s with the bad
    attitude? I spoke with Danielle and she says that you are very rude.
    On 2/18/08, I wrote:
    > Please complete payment for the site this week. You have my ongoing full support for minor issues such as technical problems with Globat, in addition to the number of pages in the Cover section, ad placement, and anything else relating to content management; in exchange for the extra space on the server I will be here to continuously support and update the site. But this is dragging on for too long and I really don’t know what more you expect from me. Please don’t dole out payments at me $50 at a time like that. This is a business and I am worth more than that.
    On 2/19/08, Tanisha Clayton wrote:
    I know that and I really don’t need all the smart comments. For all
    that you can keep the $50 and take down the site. you and I both know
    why I asked to only pay $50 and further you saw for your self that
    something was funky with the site. Now that it’s up I have no problem
    paying the remainder balance. The problem that I have is the smart
    attitude further irritating me is the fact that I just got my email up
    and running only to see emails like the one below.

  11. If you have exhausted all you resources, the client, the supervisor, the controller, owner. Keep in mind one does not want to burn bridges. Call the Labor Board, there are laws to protect contractors and freelancers. Check what the laws are, then call your client and tell them if they don’t want to pay you will call the labor board or for that matter you will report them to the Attorney General or BBB. It is up to you how far you want to take it and btw, these are all free services.