Negotiation Culture Redux: Lying Makes Sammy Run

There’s nothing new about lying during negotiations. Almost sixty years ago, Budd Schulberg wrote What Makes Sammy Run, a novel about an agent who lies to get ahead in the movie business. There have been a number of other works published or produced on the subject as well. More recently, I wrote about it here.

Then as now, negotiating is nothing less than a confrontational (and largely, animal instinct-driven) struggle for limited resources. There’s only so much pie to go around and a rep wants the client’s slice to be as big as possible; not just for the deal on the table but to set precedent or the quote for other deals down the road. These precedents greatly influence, if not become the floor to subsequent negotiations, taking into account the project’s budget and vintage of the quote. Agents, managers and sometimes, lawyers have an added incentive since their fees are based on a percentage of what the client makes on a particular project.

It’s only natural then that some reps feel that they have an absolute obligation to their clients (and to their law firms or agencies) to maximize their slice-to-total-pie ratio even if it means lying to the other side about a material term.

I suspect it was that desire that recklessly drove one particular rep to repeatedly lie to me about his client’s quote during negotiations; the first time by more than double the actual quote.

The rep stalled over days when I asked for documentary backup to the quote (a pro forma request usually provided on demand or verbally confirmed by the studio or network business affairs exec who initially put the quoted deal together). And when the days of stalling turned into weeks, I suspected the worst and only pressed harder. He ultimately confessed that he had misquoted the figure and that his client’s quote was really [a number that was about a third more than the actual figure].

I was furious. When I insisted on seeing the prior deal, the rep had the gall to blame me for drawing negotiations out.

The rep’s actions were particularly dumb since a quote is one of the easiest things to verify. When I told the story to R, a manager, former agent and friend, he laughed and said cynically, “he should have only lied to you about things you couldn’t check.”

Ultimately, the debacle left my client with substantially more leverage and the moral high ground to close the deal on more favorable terms.

“So why am I still angry?” I asked.

“Because you caught him lying and had to do something about it.” R said.

This business is based on trusted relationships meticulously built over time. Like deals drafted on a napkin over lunch back in the day, a rep’s integrity and reputation can still go a long way to closing deals faster and on better terms today.

In contrast, lying makes deal making harder; can polarize the parties; and makes the negotiations feel more like protracted litigation. Lying can kill a deal and, even in the best of outcomes, slow things down.

In this instance, we were lucky. The rep’s lies (not to mention the endless delays caused by his stalling) ended up costing our clients only time and money. It cost the rep much, much more.

  • Interesting post– thx.

    Q — I agree with and believe you when you say “this business is based on trusted relationships,” but that then confuses me even more when I pause to consider the stupefyingly DUMMM stunts some major players pull. Kinda like the agent you were dealing with, it seems a self-defeating course to lie to supposed peers… especially about the small stuff which is so easily and indisputably checked. WHAT do you think is the problem with these sorts– the ones who insist on making problems where problems didn’t have to exist?

  • Interesting post– thx.

    Q — I agree with and believe you when you say “this business is based on trusted relationships,” but that then confuses me even more when I pause to consider the stupefyingly DUMMM stunts some major players pull. Kinda like the agent you were dealing with, it seems a self-defeating course to lie to supposed peers… especially about the small stuff which is so easily and indisputably checked. WHAT do you think is the problem with these sorts– the ones who insist on making problems where problems didn’t have to exist?

  • hey thanks for sharing.interesting thing.

  • hey thanks for sharing.interesting thing.