Got money left in this year’s comms budget? Spend it wisely.

Tales from the front — or, rather, the back — of the budget year.

Tips on how to spend your remaining budget wisely

Autumn is the sweetest season. Weather turns pleasant, trees change to beautiful and Ragan Consulting fields requests from comms directors eager to pay today for projects tomorrow. We’re happy to oblige. We all know what happens to unspent budgets.

I’m a graphic design consultant who’s worked with Ragan Consulting for 10 years. I was on my own for several decades before that. I often had clients who’ve paid upfront. On a couple occasions, though, things got downright weird. These are my tales from the front — or, rather, the back — of the budget year.

Missing Persons

In October 2004, a VP at an information services company called me on the phone (when people still did that). I’d worked with him for a couple years on employee communications. Got to know him well enough that I designed a logo for his son’s hockey team for free. On the call, he said he had a project for me that would start in January and cost $10,000. Could I please invoice him for the entire amount within the hour?

Why, certainly! The check arrived in late November.

I called in January to follow up. He didn’t answer. I left a message. No response. I called the next week. Again, silence. A week after that, I called his admin. She whispered that he’d left the company. And the country, too — so she’d heard. She claimed to have no record of my invoice. She didn’t ask for the money back. What would she say to her manager? Something like, “It’s money we dumped last quarter so you wouldn’t cut our budget.”

I waited two weeks and sent the admin an email offering to do a project — any project. A written note seemed respectful — and provided evidence that I tried to do the work. In the meantime, she had been promoted to vice president. She vowed to call me when they decided to go forward.

Months and months passed. Never heard back. Never heard from the former VP either. Never did any work. Did spend the money. And spent the next several years checking Caller ID every time the phone rang to confirm it wasn’t the information services company.

Future project

The second occasion involved a venerable mineral company. I often partner with other consultants. They work directly with a client doing the strategy and writing. I edit their scribblings and create the visual elements and structure.

A consultant and I had been working for months in the late 2000s completely overhauling the employee communications of the mineral company. The president was personally involved.  His primary focus: Changing the company’s beloved, iconic and trademarked logo. The consultant witnessed the president spend an hour-long meeting attempting to revise it himself. Getting frustrated, the president posted it on the internet as a crowdsourcing project, hoping some designer somewhere could divine what he wanted for $50. My job: Sorting through the hundreds of submissions — all of which violated the company’s brand standards — then comparing them to the president’s stick figure drawings.

Meanwhile, the pace of other components of the engagement accelerated. More of them. More complex. More demanding. Less definition of goals. Less clarity of messages. Unknown names appearing in approval loops. Familiar names vanishing. Haphazardly solicited feedback from employees indicating they were confused, frustrated and angry.

In late autumn, the consultant asked me to bill the company for $80,000. Fifty percent for a half dozen projects we were close to finishing. The rest for a single, undefined “future project.” The check arrived within days. I taped it to the bottom of my computer screen, touching it occasionally to confirm it was real, shivering at what the “future project” might require. Cashed it a week later.

Turns out, it was for a PowerPoint. I received a six-page, triple-spaced outline. I lavished attention on it, spending 15 hours to stretch it to 20 slides. Submitted the initial draft with a lot of questions. No response.

In early December, news broke that the mineral company was being sold to a group of investors. My services were no longer needed.

Twelve years later, the deck remains unfinished.

Would any manager do this stuff in the current climate of tighter accounting controls and better internal auditing? Maybe. We hope you won’t. If, however, you want a consulting group that combines expert analysis with empathy and experience, contact We’ll happily book consulting work for 2023.

And we’ll do the work, too.

Bob Zeni is an affiliate consultant for Ragan Consulting Group. He has 30-plus years in editing and design for publications and organizations and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Schedule a call with Kristin Hart to learn how we can help you improve your communications effort with training, consulting and strategic counsel. Follow RCG on LinkedIn and subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

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