From Initial Client Call to (Almost) Shoot Day on a Commercial Photography Project: Part Two

From Initial Client Call to (Almost) Shoot Day on a Commercial Photography Project: Part Two

Today, I conclude my two part essay about a difficult two months of negotiation over a commercial photography shoot that may not have ultimately come to fruition, but taught very valuable lessons along the way.

Before starting, I'll remind the reader that today's essay is the second of a two part series regarding this project.  Be sure to read part one first so that you can get the backstory before delving into this episode where I'll pick up just after I have submitted a bid for a photography job that was five times larger than the customer's original stated budget.

As expected, the response from the client was slightly less than a full endorsement. It wasn’t so much of an angry reaction. Instead, it was just a handful of paragraphs that essentially added up to a big question mark. It wasn’t so much that they envisioned themselves to be trying to haggle with me when offering the original budget figure as it was that this is what they truly expected the project to cost. Just as I wasn’t trying to begin a fancy negotiation with them by submitting the elevated budget. I just wanted to establish what they project actually would cost.

So why such a disparity? Why had this advertising agency, operating on behalf of a major global brand, been under the impression that they could produce this major campaign with only 1/5 of the required budget to do so? 

I asked myself that question multiple times over the course of multiple sleepless nights. Estimating a budget is always more art than science, and even the most experienced photographer is prone to have second thoughts when submitting a bid. I was greatly buoyed in this case by my decision to bring on the production company to handle the estimating and budgeting process. I certainly could’ve generated those numbers on my own, but being able to rely on someone who has significantly more expertise in that area went miles towards my confidence in the accuracy of my quote. I knew that, while there is no such thing as a perfect estimate, between myself and the producer we would at least be in the right range. And, I knew that the client’s expectations in terms of budgets were nowhere near the necessary budget for their stated goals.

Like many conflicts in the world, I think the dispute over these particular sets of numbers found it’s basis in simple geography. The advertising agency which developed the project and the proposed budget was not based in the United States. Even further, they were not based in one of the US major markets. That is not to say that things are more valuable in big cities, or that photographers are more talented. That is to say, however, that things cost more. Higher costs of living mean crew members get paid more, rentals cost more, and especially in a city like Los Angeles, where every Tom, Dick, and Harry is used to renting his garage out for multimillion dollar movie productions, locations cost more. A lot more.

So the palatial beach estate requested in the original brief may sound nice in theory, but over the course of a four day shoot would cost the equivalent of ⅘ of your total budget. A professional agency model, even just those at the bottom of the roster, have an established rate for commercial work. If you want multiple professional models, it’s going to cost money. I have no idea what the rates are in the ad agency’s home country, but I do know what they cost in Los Angeles, and how far those rates can bend before they break. I suspect, I may be wrong about this, that the agency projected their budget based on local custom without a full understanding of how much it actually costs to shoot a project in a big city in the United States.

More importantly, as I soon learned, they had sold their client, the global brand, that they could produce the exact project laid out in the brief for that exact, greatly undercapitalized, budget. In short, they had backed themselves into a corner.

As a photographer, it is often my job to help clients find their way out of impossible situations. So, even with the insufficient budget, I didn’t write the client off completely. I submitted the true elevated budget so they would understand the real costs while being fully prepared to lose the bid based solely on the numbers. I truly wanted the business, but, as a businessman, I couldn’t lose money to produce a shoot for them no matter how prestigious the customer.

Fully expecting to never hear from them again once I submitted my bid, I was somewhat surprised a week later when the client continued to come back to me to see if there was a way to make the project work. Of course, while I was incredibly flattered at the continued level of interest in a collaboration, it still didn’t change the fact that math is math. In search of a solution that would make the best of a bad situation, I made my second major course decision which would propel me even further down the path of learning.

Having heard this tune from clients more than a few times, my producer was understandably growing weary of the project. After all, suicide missions aren’t usually the type of trips people willingly book tickets for, so it was more than understandable to have second thoughts.

Since my background is in independent filmmaking on shoestring budgets, I knew I could deliver “a” project for them at their budget number, just maybe not on the scale they had in mind. Wanting to preserve my relationship with the production company for future projects more in line with their skills, I dismissed the producer for this particular project knowing the only way to come even close to the budget would be if I wore both hats.  

Also, wanting to preserve my relationship with the client, if not for this, then potentially a future project, I then I offered the client what I thought to be one final olive branch.

Knowing they couldn’t get exactly what they wanted for the amount they had to spend, I instead offered a counter proposal. The number of final assets would be the same. Stills, motion, gifs, etc. So they would be able to fulfill their contractual obligation with the brand. But certain things would have to go. No more palatial estate. They would need to reduce the number of models by half, if not more. Some of the overall larger categories in the brief, six in total, would need to be collapsed and focuses on just two or three. We could touch on all six elements, but we didn’t have resources to dedicate full shoot days to each one. Speaking of which, production days would need to be greatly reduced as well. Having just one day with multiple talents and an expensive location was going to eat up the entire budget. There’s no way we would be able to sustain that over a five day shoot.

I wrote up this counter proposal along with the budget details of how I proposed we could get there and sent it off. Again, I was fully expecting this to be the end of it. Again, the client came back. But, again, the client was unwilling to reduce the original variants. The most they were willing to budge was to accept a slightly smaller beach villa as opposed to an estate. But they still required the same number of models. They still required a full scale commercial video production similar to the one in the reference video. They wanted ten of finished videos, as a matter of fact. I should probably mention at this point that the reference videos they sent me could conservatively be estimated to have cost twice this project’s total budget individually. And the client wanted ten of them. At the same production value. Again, I’m no mathematician, but it seems to me something had to give.

Now, a smart person at this point probably would have simply walked away. It was a prestigious project but one without adequate funding. Even making a merely adequate version of what they wanted was going to require wearing multiple hats, calling in a lot of favors, cutting every corner susceptible to a hacksaw, and still being a long shot for success.

Yet, I still hung on. Perhaps it was the challenge. I’m not the sort to accept the word “impossible” regardless of its accuracy. Whether it be optimism or pure arrogance, I always figure there has to be some way to make things happen. Or maybe it was just vanity. This project, as written in the brief at least, would have been prestigious, impressive, and the type of project I could reference for the next decade in meetings with art producers and creative directors. No matter the temporary pain, pulling it off would have helped me sell my business for years to come.

Whatever the reason, these negotiations between what the client wanted and how much they could afford went on for another two months. The usual flow of conversation followed a predictable pattern. I would suggest to the client they could hit their budget number if they were willing to change A or B. They would respond that they’d already promised both A and B and wouldn’t be able to make a change. I would submit additional estimates based on proposed changes, but they would still be well over their original project budget. I would then fully expect the project to be dead, only to be contacted a couple weeks later with a minor concession, but likely another expensive ask added out of the blue that wouldn't only not reduce the budget but often increase it again.

Eventually, we got to the point of setting a date. I can’t even remember clearly what details were actually in the final estimate. There were so many versions by that point, that I didn’t know much more than that I was going to find some way to make it work. Somehow. Someway. I picked out a set of dates that my motley crew of a creative team, mostly working at greatly discounted rates just for me, would be available. I sent it to the client who needed to arrange travel for themselves, their team at the ad agency, as well as the client’s creative team so they could come out to witness my attempt to thread the needle.

This was put off on a couple of occasions. First, due to scheduling conflicts on my end with other shoots. Then due to travel restrictions due to visa requirements for the client coming into the United States. As all these weeks kept dragging on, this project had grown to be a bit of my own personal white whale. It was just out there, hanging over everything else. I worked on a number of other projects. More bids came and went along the way. But still, I found myself awaiting the conclusion of this particular soap opera like a senior in high school awaiting his final graduation.

So, it was with mixed feelings that I read the email I received last week saying that, after all of that, the project would not go forward. After all the negotiations. After all the 2 am conference calls to account for the time difference. After all the favors called in and IOUs extended, the whole thing would eventually fall apart due to the technicalities of the US Department of State.  

Apparently, in order to come to the US for the shoot, the client would first have to obtain visas. Apparently, in order to obtain a visa, they first needed to have an interview/appointment with the responsible agency. Apparently, the first available appointment would not be for another two months. This would take the shoot well past the original deadline set by the global brand, and, as a result, they would need to do the shoot in another country. Thus, after all the hoops successfully jumped through, the shoot would not end up happening, and all would be for naught.

Well, not exactly. While it is true that I won’t be shooting that particular project I still feel as though I got something far more valuable: knowledge. And as an added benefit, I got the rare chance to acquire that knowledge, even making several mistakes along the way, without really incurring any major financial injury. No, I didn’t get the creative fee associated with the project. No, I don’t get to put that brand logo in my portfolio. Not yet, at least.

But, in the endless two months of negotiations, I’ve been forced to form new partnerships. I’ve added to my roster of producers, cinematographers, prop stylists and the like who I may not have ultimately have had a chance to work with on this project, but are now in place to be my first call when the next opportunity comes along. Working with my producer on the accurate budget reminded me of several considerations it would not have occurred to me to include in a budget but make complete sense and will become part of my working process going forward.

I learned valuable lessons. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I reinforced certain messages, like always work with a producer when possible, stand firm on your pricing because once your drop an inch the client will try and take a mile, and we are all only as good as the team around us. Heck, I even got a crash course in the appropriate way to find a caterer for your projects and what not to say to a prop stylist.

Truth be told, when I finally got word that my two month pursuit of the white whale had come to an unsuccessful conclusion, my most genuine emotion was relief. While I know I could have done a great job with the project, the mismatch of budget and expectation was going to make the whole thing into a high wire act. I’m still confident I could’ve produced something of value, but there’s no question that it would have been threading a very fine needle. I may not have gotten the ultimate payoff, but I may also have just dodged a speeding bullet.

In the end, I am weary of even saying I “lost” this particular job. Clearly, I had won the client’s trust. Clearly, there was mutual interest in working together. And I don’t see it as being altogether unlikely that we will work together in the future (hopefully with a proper budget). But one thing is for sure. I’ve learned more over these last couple months on a project that didn’t go through than on multiple projects over the same time span that did. These lessons will hopefully put me in a better position to serve my clients in the future and improve my business going forward.

As Michael Jordan said, you never really lose, “Either you win, or you improve.” I definitely feel better off than when I started. Looking forward to applying those skills when the next opportunity comes along.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Great perspective from the inside of the sausage factory.

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.

Yeah great read!
Its funny how we know that photography is a two-way relationship between the client and the service provider. Both have to get their fare benefit out of the relationship. But more than often I find myself trying to cut corners, squeeze in unplanned shoots etc. And I think its not only empathy or trying to please the client - its a kind of a kick to see if I'm actually capable of pulling it off. Raising the bar and learning as I go.

I think that we've all had similar experiences, although it sounds like your pain has been worse than mine. My estimates seem to be limited to a couple emails or phone calls so I'm not as invested. Although, I've been doing this dance with a potential new client that is just now ready to move forward after six months. If only there was a way to establish a PreProduction fee to cover the time spent on their behalf. Perhaps comping the first revision and then starting the meter.

"... the whole thing would eventually fall apart due to the technicalities of the US Department of State."

Nope. It fell apart because your had a clueless potential client.

You know that people come to LA everyday from all over the world to shoot. But those folks planned ahead and did followed the rules - unlike the folks who contacted you.

Speaking of clueless, when I worked at a rental house in LA a crew came from France with an ATM card that only worked in Europe. They had no access to $ for a couple days... We rented them $1000. LoL

An issue of geography? Yep, even within the USA. Businesses in smaller markets (US) can be very similar to your description of your foreign client that based their budget on local customs and expectations. Every client brief, request for proposal, and ensuing negotiations always provide a learning opportunity, no matter how it works out. Every project, no matter the industry, involves a triad of factors: quality, time, and cost. A client must prioritize and choose 2 - it is impossible to combine and control all 3 - which is what your client promised the global brand. The later probably set the deadline (time), and quality (the palatial estate and numerous models), but your client estimated the budget (cost) based on their local market. If a local photog could have provided the quality demanded by the global brand, then they would have went with a local. Since they could not find a local talent to produce the necessary quality, they reached out to you. Unfortunately your client was expecting you to "Hollywood" your production of "Mission Impossible" (toss in some Wizard of Oz too) on the budget of the price of a single theater ticket and a tub of popcorn.

Just a nod here: thank you for taking the time to provide this article!! It is a great read - transparent, insightful and thoughtful in detail for the audience.

We need more experienced photographers like you sharing these types of stories so the friends 'coming up' in the craft know:
a) this larger world exists and this is what it looks like 'in process'
b) even as seasoned pros, we still get excited/anxious about the whales and lose sleep
c) even as seasoned pros, we still wonder, second-guess, and make concessions we know we shouldn't to get what we think we really want
d) clients from big brands, agencies, and big productions have the same budget struggles to offer as the clients from local brands and small productions!

I remember the first time in my career a HUGE global brand didn't have budget for my services and canceled. I was like, "wait, what?" Enough experiences with small brands who value our craft and big brands who don't, and you start to see the lesson: pitch what you offer to all prospects equally - at the price where you can thrive + provide value - and let the ink on the contract define who is the right fit for your studio!