Sunday, May 25, 2008

I work for myself. Who do you work for?

The subjects of work and economy have been issues of considerable conversation recently, both with people I know here in Vietnam and my email friends back in the US and UK. Inflation rates globally are at 7% with over 4% in the US and UK and 20% here in Vietnam – and
Carlson communications, Asshole, FDI Vietnam, Jerk Boss,Vietnam Advertising Association, ARTI,  Leona, Marketing, Paul Graham, Philip Kotlersalaries are not keeping pace, anywhere – there is truly no place to run. China's not the answer that's for sure. Just read The New York Times story on the problems with construction of the Olympic facilities and realize the headaches of the international architects and low commissions they've accepted – yes, arguably, to build some of the finest examples of contemporary architecture this century has yet to offer – because the opportunity and low labor costs make comparable buildings impossibly unfeasible in any developed economy. Nobody's making any money in China right now but they are just working because that's where the work is. And that beats not working at all.

In Vietnam things are no different. For all the massive construction projects and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) it's hard to see the trickle-down theory in practice aside from providing plenty of jobs for labourers. Conversely milk has gone from 12,000 dong to 18,000 in just six months, affecting every mother in the country, and my rent jumped by 20% in March. As far as employment, things seem to be treading in reverse as well. I spent an hour last Monday at the largest headhunter in Vietnam and was told that only possibly thAsshole, FDI Vietnam, Jerk Boss,Vietnam Advertising Association, ARTI,  Leona, Marketing, Paul Graham, Philip Kotlerree jobs at my level were placed in the last two years. Honestly, I don't think this person had ever placed an experienced marketing person before – or knew what to do with one. An hour later at Ho Chi Minh Economic University the interviewer just looked at my CV and had a similar reaction – as if there were an elephant in the office and the main job was to figure out how to get rid of it. In terms of marketing, Vietnam has just no history and doesn't understand the values of marketing, branding or advertising. Even the universities have just recently started adding classes. (You can learn about a new "Institute" for advertising here, partially supported by the Vietnamese Advertising Association). What tends to happen currently is that clients come in, demand certain things and the agencies have only the capability of working in a reactionary fashion. There don't seem to be any concepts of pro-activity or market analysis or planning. What history there will be is currently being written. Do you think there might be some work there? I do.

Asshole, FDI Vietnam, Jerk Boss,Vietnam Advertising Association, ARTI,  Leona, Marketing, Paul Graham, Philip KotlerSo for my entire time in Vietnam I've focused mainly on client direct work. I supplement that with teaching jobs to pay the rent but just have much more fun and challenge with the mazes and creative metrics of marketing. The challenge then becomes deciding which deals one should take and which deals one should avoid. I read recently a story in Ad Age about "How To Avoid Working For A Jerk" and that really drove home the point:

"Who do I work for?", I asked myself and the answer was oh, so very clear.
"I work for myself"
, I answered. And I realized that that has always been the case. From my first full-time employment at my first agency after university up through today, my ultimate responsibility has always been to myself. If I don't like the way the boss treat
s me, or have issues with company policies, it is truly up to me to make the necessary changes – either by employing creative disobedience in relation to inane company or client directives, or by finding other, better work. It is really that simple.

The blimp job this year was a prime example – "Blimps Go Boom". This particular client had an idea to bring a blimp into Vietnam on which to sell advertising space but they had no business plan whatsoever. I gave them a fee for writing that plan, and Asshole, FDI Vietnam, Jerk Boss,Vietnam Advertising Association, ARTI,  Leona, Marketing, Paul Graham, Philip Kotlera good solid outline, and that became the end of that job. If a client doesn't want to pay for planning then it's a good bet you're never going to find a way to get paid for anything.

A few weeks after that I was contacted by an educational service on behalf of an Australian university. The job was 13 weeks at five hours a week but included 3 student evaluations of my performance, 2 from admin by the local service and one by the university, all over the course of thirteen weeks. That's an an evaluation every two weeks! A review of the evaluation criteria and contract revealed that it was essentially designed to provide a plethora of loopholes for the institution to claim the work I was doing was "not good" as was the language in the contract. Schools in Vietnam are notorious for structuring programs that are based on what the students enjoy anAsshole, FDI Vietnam, Jerk Boss,Vietnam Advertising Association, ARTI,  Leona, Marketing, Paul Graham, Philip Kotlerd not necessarily what needs to be taught because they want to maintain the highest possible enrollment and hence profit. So in escense, students are allowed to vote for their teachers. Translation? If you want students to be happy, make it as easy as possible. But this is simply not possible in a number of marketing and business disciplines. Teaching Philip Kotler's "Principles of Marketing" is no easy course for western kids and becomes doubly difficult when you realize they won't be familiar with half the case study companies and have a significant language barrier added in. So I passed on that opportunity. One clause in the contract stated quite clearly that the school "reserved the right to give the professor three days notice" and release him/her if the performance was deemed "not good". That was probably the biggest red flag in the whole deal.

Next up and finally, was the Japanese internet company that wanted me to provide three 200 word stories per week on marketing trends in Vietnam for an industry audience. Now that's slightly easier than sneaking a blimp into the country but bears it's own hurdles and challenges. It really all comes down to price. Information in Vietnam is not only hard to come by because of theAsshole, FDI Vietnam, Jerk Boss,Vietnam Advertising Association, ARTI,  Leona, Marketing, Paul Graham, Philip Kotler language difference but also because very little is published. The hidden research quotient in this job was about as large as that blimp – but undeterred by a little hard work I carried on a six week discussion with the Japanese company in search of a workable agreement. To give you an idea of writer's rates for this kind of work the Writer's Market gives a good overall breakdown for everything from advertising writing to various journalistic rates including trade journals. Their average rate for trade journal columns is 78 cents per word with a high of $1.25 and a low of 58 cents. Further checking with a writer friend here who has reported for a Hong Kong trade journal revealed that 45 cents per word would be an acceptable rate in Vietnam. The Japanese offer was 15 cents per word – pretty much a huge red flag and a no-go on that deal. I should put them in touch with the blimp people. They could start a business together! Neither one seems to have any money.

The whole point of this is that the one advantage that each of us has over potentially asshole-ish people and bad deals is choice. We get to choose what we do for a living. As the old story goes about the patient who complained to the doctor that "his feet hurt when he jumped up and down" , the doctors response was just blindly logical. "Then stop jumping up and down.", he told the patient.

We all have the ability to stop jumping up and down if that is what is causing us pain. And I don't suggest that we should be lazy or stop working but do suggest that we be more selective in the work we choose to do and make sure that Quality of Life is appropriately accounted for in our negotiations with employers and clients. We don't have to take a bad deal if we can smell it up front. The trick then becomes in our olfactory senses towards business. And that is what I find myself doing more and more of these days; deciding which jobs not to take.

And so my life is blimp-less and Yen-less but not necessarily less in terms of what I am prepared to do for my future. There's an old salesmen's adage that fit's well here –

"Every time a customer turns me away I say Thank You. Thank you for putting me one step closer to a sale."

Once we accept the fact that we are our own ultimate boss, it becomes a lot easier to bear the obstacles that will inevitably come along.

For some more interesting reading on this subject, take a look at this essay from Paul Graham entitled,
"You Weren't Meant To Have A Boss".


  1. Did you have the feeling of working as "a sole proprietor" already at young age?

    I listened to an audiobook by Brian Tracy on how your life changes when you start to take responsibility for all that is happening in your day-to-day life.

    I am happy I ran into this blog of yours.

    I cant find as accurate descriptions of Vietnam business/marketing environment as your blog provides.

  2. I was a "sole proprieter" at the age of 15. I painted signs for people. I went to work for a professional signpainter, learned the trade, and by 16 was able to take on jobs myself, lettering everything from pickup trucks to billboards. Guess it starts early. I also had a lemonade stand when I was 10.


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