David can beat Goliath without a lawyer

In Atom, Clients, General by Rory MccGwire0 Comments

I’ve run Atom Content Marketing for 22 years. In that time we have had only two proper legal disputes, both with big organisations that thought they could ride roughshod over us. We won both fights and I’m happy to share how we did it.

The first incident took place soon after I had started up, when I only had one employee plus myself. It was in the pre-internet era and we licensed customised publications to Training and Enterprise Councils.

A business contact called up and said he’d just received something from a TEC that was remarkably similar to one of our publications. He sent it to me. In fact it wasn’t similar: it was identical. Whole sections had been copied and pasted, with the sort of minor adjustments that cheating schoolchildren make when copying a friend’s homework.

The copyright belonged to a TEC that I had presented our publications to six months previously. They had turned us down on the basis that the £1,000 price tag was unaffordable.

But I wasn’t angry. The TEC’s performance each year was partly judged on how ‘innovative’ they were. Licensing a publication was not innovative. Spending ten times as much money to create their own (much smaller) publication would be judged as innovative. That’s the way that things worked. The TEC would have put the work out to a management consultant, who then took the short-cut of plagiarising our publications, without the TEC’s knowledge.

So I wrote a formal letter to the TEC’s CEO, with all the black-and-white evidence painstakingly set out, and asked her what she planned to do about it. I was summoned to a meeting with her at which I was asked to explain myself, but she said almost nothing.

I suppose she sensed an easy victory. I duly received a strongly worded letter from a very expensive firm of solicitors on behalf of the TEC, threatening my tiny business with a defamation lawsuit if I did not cease libelling the TEC.

I briefly consulted an equally expensive law firm about my legal rights. They confirmed that, while I was 100% in the right, in the real world of the law the TEC would be able to drag such a case out for years and so could bankrupt me long before the case was completed — so it would be wise to back off.

But I also called up the Department of Employment, which funded the TECs, and asked what on earth I was meant to do in a situation like this and who I should write to without going to the press. The civil servant who I ended up speaking to was superb. We quickly came up with a plan.

I wrote to the chairman of the TEC’s board of directors, sending him the same plagiarism dossier but adding in the TEC’s threatening letter. I was not the least bit threatening myself, I simply asked him what he would do in my shoes.

Immediately, everything changed. The TEC’s CEO could not settle fast enough. The threat was withdrawn. The plagiarised publication was withdrawn and destroyed. And my £800 of legal costs was paid. We were no better off than before the dispute, but I was delighted. These things are rarely about the money. They are about sticking to your principles and standing up for yourself.

The second dispute was equally outrageous. A global company had bought £50,000 of sponsorship through what was a perfectly normal contract with us at that time. The months passed and we had fulfilled 100% of what we needed to deliver. That point, and the existence of the signed contract was not in dispute. But clearly the company suddenly needed to claw back a lot of money from that particular budget. The manager who had signed the contract had been made redundant and we were simply told that the invoice would not be paid because the manager had never had authority to place the order. In other words, like the TEC, they thought that our company was small enough to ignore. We had 20 employees by then, but they had 600,000.

So I wrote to the Finance Director and asked him what he thought about signing contracts, getting the value, and then refusing to pay up. Only the week before I had been reading in the newspapers about this FD’s ‘fat cat’ pay packet, which dwarfed our £50,000, and I mentioned that too.

Bingo. The phone rang the next day. I remember the call well, because my sales director had asked me to keep count of how many times I could get the word ‘grubby’ into the conversation, but I soon lost count. Well, you have to admit, not paying a small supplier was a very grubby way for them to make money. They paid up immediately, on the basis that we would pursue the matter no further.

If we had tried to go down the legal route it would have been a very different outcome — I doubt we could have survived the expense and I dread to think of the stress involved. The point here is that there is usually someone, somewhere, who you can use as a lever in these matters. It can be quick and simple, and provided that all you are doing is telling the provable truth, it’s a fast-track way to getting justice.

David 2, Goliath 0.