L’Officiel magazine is feeling the effects of the massive shift in global advertising and consumption due to the coronavirus, but a group of former contributors claim issues with getting paid far predate the pandemic.
L’Officiel’s chief executive officer Benjamin Eymère insisted the company is financially sound overall, currently getting some financing from an unnamed European bank during a “complex time” and looking forward to a “strong second half of the year” buoyed by advertorial initiatives.
But the magazine is making some big changes.
First off, at least six titles of L’Officiel that Eymère’s family business Jalou Media operates directly, including those in the U.S., France and Italy (with another three editions planned for this year), are drastically reducing print frequency. While nearly all L’Officiel titles are currently published either eight or 10 times a year, Eymère said all women’s titles are going down to a quarterly schedule and all men’s titles to only twice a year.
“We’re aligning in all countries,” Eymère said.
That doesn’t include the roughly 25 titles operated by licensees, but the ceo said he’s “pushing them to reduce the amount of print,” while focusing more on social and digital content. That’s the plan for content of directly operated issues, and Eymère said he’s projecting an 80 percent increase in traffic this year and an increase to 40 million in total social media followers from a current 20 million.
“The idea is to keep the print collectible,” Eymère added, noting this is part of a new editorial strategy under Stefano Tonchi, who joined L’Officiel earlier this year in a global editorial role.
Eymère was happy to share audience projections, but declined to share any forecasts on revenue or cash flow for the year. He did allow that the company has some cash on hand because of a successful 2019 and an earlier round of funding in the U.S. The company is backed in the U.S. by Global Emerging Markets, or GEM, an investment group run and founded by Christopher Brown. L’Officiel in the U.S. operates out of the GEM offices in New York.
He also rejected claims that the publication has cut all of its freelancers in response to the coronavirus fallout, a move, along with furloughs and pay cuts, made by numerous other publications. But he admitted L’Officiel will be using far less freelance work given the reduction in print frequency. Eymère also said there have been “no layoffs to permanent staff” and that L’Officiel has even recently hired its first chief financial officer in France and Switzerland, Jean-Phillipe Amos.
It seems the company needs a chief financial officer as it’s dealing with numerous claims of unpaid work. Many previous L’Officiel freelancers in the U.S., France and Switzerland, and even a few who were effectively on staff for a time, say they are trying to get paid for work they did in 2019, and even the year before.
WWD has learned that at least 20 contributors, mainly writers and photographers whose work was published in late 2018 through late 2019, have gone unpaid, with multiple requests for payment to senior staff and executives going generally unheeded. Some of the contributors seeking payment were on the masthead for a time and others were treated as normal staff would be, working full-time hours and having to request days off. But all were only given 1099 tax forms to fill out, meaning they were employed as freelancers.
In all instances of nonpayment, initial assurances of payment, sometimes from as high up chief revenue officer Erica Bartman, turned into radio silence. In at least one instance in Europe, a staffer turned contributor last year filed a legal action in an effort to collect what he claims to be owed. It’s ongoing. In the U.S., a group of roughly a dozen freelancers has started to work with the National Writers Union in an effort to get paid. New York’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which covers labor policy, also confirmed that it’s received a number of complaints about L’Officiel over the last year regarding nonpayment, but attempts to contact the company and resolve the complaints have been so far unsuccessful.
“We’re taking another look to see if there are other options,” a deputy commissioner with the DCA wrote in a statement.
As a group, past L’Officiel contributors in the U.S. alone claim to be owed just under $30,000. Overall, contributors claiming they are owed money have outstanding invoices ranging from around $1,000 to upward of $5,000 and, in one instance, a former contributor is owed more than $10,000.
Of the half dozen contributors WWD spoke or e-mailed with (certain of whom were allowed to discuss the situations of other contributors also trying to get paid) their stories were largely the same. They were assigned work by L’Officiel editors which was published; a 60-or 90-day period passed (a typical time frame for freelance payment at any publication) in which they received no payment; they spent the next several months, up to the present, unsuccessfully contacting leadership in hopes of getting paid. In the U.S., editor in chief Joseph Akel left last fall. Some contributors said he tried to get people the money they were owed, but ultimately failed.
Sasha Frere-Jones is one of the former L’Officiel contributors to have gone unpaid for work he did early last year. He started to contribute to the publication in 2018 under Akel, and had no trouble getting paid until 2019.
“I’ve worked for a lot of people, including people who I don’t like or even respect, and they pay their people,” Frere-Jones said. “This situation is not normal.”
After getting the NWU involved late last year, L’Officiel leadership is said to have initially agreed to a payment schedule for owed U.S. contributors, meaning the publisher would pay off its debt to them in installments because it couldn’t do so upfront. The agreement was revoked as soon as the coronavirus took hold, with the company citing related financial disruptions.
Eymère did not deny at any point that L’Officiel contributors have gone unpaid, but he claimed the situation at hand was not unusual, even after being pushed on the notion that the situation was still “being addressed” as people who worked for his company have waited a year or more to get paid. Even as he said L’Officiel on the whole is “properly financed and has great profit potential in the future.”
“In any business, there’s often a delay in payment for an invoice, it also depends on the reality of the execution of the job,” Eymère said. “This is a normal process you know, and we’re addressing every invoice we have. With corona[virus], sometimes it’s taking more time to address.”
Frere-Jones strongly disagreed with the idea that this should be accepted as normal practice. “The idea that this is OK, that this is the normal course of business, it’s not.”
Indeed, in other instances of publications not paying contributors well past the date they were owed, it’s been a sign of severe financial straits. As previously noted, Eymère stressed repeatedly that this is not the case at L’Officiel, saying the company has money coming in and a positive outlook.
Frere-Jones’ goal in fighting for payment is not about the money at this point, as he admits he’s owed less than many other people that have worked for L’Officiel.
“At this point, I’ve actually given up on seeing the money I’m owed,” Frere-Jones said. “I just don’t want this to keep happening to other people.”
Another contributor owed money for more than a year struck a similar tone. The contributor had actually given up trying to get paid, but after realizing there were so many others in the same position decided to get on board again.
“For me, it’s less about getting paid and more that I don’t want anyone in my industry to work with them and have to go through what I’ve gone through,” the former contributor said.
The contributor noted that there is the possibility of a class-action lawsuit through the NWU, should L’Officiel continue holding out payment. But the likelihood of people actually walking away from that with what they’re owed is almost nonexistent, the contributor noted.
As for what recourse former contributors have to get paid for past due invoices, Eymère’s advice is to make sure they have a “validated invoice,” so the company can be sure they’re seeking payment for the work assigned. Then they should contact senior editorial staff with their past invoices. All those seeking payment say they have invoices and have contacted senior staff and executives about nonpayment, repeatedly. Eymère did not deny that some people have waited a year to be paid, but said in these instances “It may be a case of proper commission being discussed.”
“This is the normal course of business, but we’re addressing each invoice,” Eymère said.
Under the Freelance Isn’t Free law, adopted in 2017 in New York City, where L’Officiel U.S. is based, freelancers are entitled to payment, in full, within a contractually agreed upon period. If there was no specifically agreed upon time frame for payment, a publisher has 30 days to pay. No former L’Officiel contributors who WWD spoke to agreed to wait an indefinite period for payment.
In explaining his position, Eymère mentioned the difficulties in keeping track of magazine operations in 30 countries, which — until the recent decision to limit print and related freelance work — averaged 1,500 freelance assignments a year. That equals about four freelance assignments per issue, per month.
He also pointed to changes in staff over the last year, leaving newer hires to have to start rectifying invoices for work they didn’t assign. This was also part of the reasoning the NWU group is said to have gotten initially from the company on why freelancers had had so much trouble getting paid.
“We’re trying to reconcile the old and new staff,” Eymère said. “But the board of the company, shareholders and management are very clear on the fact that everything that is not paid will be addressed in a timely manner.”
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