After a lengthy and involved negotiation for a large commercial project came to an unfortunate conclusion, I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned that may help you in your future business.
First, before I start, I should point out that this will be a particularly long story. Like, very long. Mostly because it’s a true story that happened to have dragged on for a long time, as you'll see. But, I think for those of you engaged in or pursuing a career in commercial photography, this type of first-hand account may be beneficial in helping you understand the business, the obstacles, and ways to avoid certain pitfalls. With that in mind, I have split the story into two parts today being part one, while the second half will conclude with next week's column. But first, the background.
Michael Jordan has a saying. Okay, maybe he has a lot of sayings. But one in particular has stuck out at me lately. Asked about the most difficult defeats of his career, he responded simply that, in all his years of playing basketball, he never lost. He either won or he learned. Simply put, every opportunity to compete is not only a chance for success, but also a chance to better yourself for the next challenge. You learn just as much, if not more, from the seasons that don’t end in championships as you do from the ones that do.
As a photographer, I’ve found this to be invaluable advice. So part of my regular process, win or loss, is to do a postmortem of sorts for all my projects. What did I do right? What did I do wrong? How can I improve the process so that next time, I increase not only the customer’s satisfaction, but my own efficiency as well? I do this for every project, but one recent nearmiss was particularly useful in helping me improve my business.
I am a commercial photographer specializing in lifestyle, fitness, and activewear brands. My clients are predominately large brands and the advertising agencies that represent them.
Many of you reading this are likely in a similar field. For those who are not, it’s worth briefly describing the commercial photography sales process. Unlike a retail business where a customer walking into the store is already likely well advanced in their decision to buy, a great many of the emails/calls a commercial photographer receives are likely to be invitations to bid on a job as opposed to confirmations of employment. Most ad agencies are encouraged if not required to triple-bid every project, so you have a roughly 33 percent chance of bringing home the bacon. In other words, they like your work. They are intrigued by the prospect of working with you. But there are still a large number of hurdles to clear between that initial contact and the first day of the shoot.
There are the low hurdles like availability and interest. There are far more complicated hurdles such as usage fees and budget. There’s the hurdle that looks simple from a distance, but only seems to grow in stature the closer you get to it, called your day rate. Unlike something more straightforward (actor's headshots, for instance), where your price is X for everyone and all clients get the same package or slight preset variations, commercial photography rates vary wildly from state to state, from photographer to photographer, even sometimes within the same photographer depending on the assignment. You have to take into account who the client is, how the images will be used, how long the images will be used, and exactly what kind of images they need. You have to put all of that into a pot with the expenses related to obtaining those images. Then you have to package all of those numbers together with the creative elements that make you the right man or woman for job, and present it all in a way that removes all doubt and prompts the client to choose you over the competition.
If that all sounds a bit maddening, that’s because it is. But it’s also the most crucial part of running a successful commercial photography business. Taking a great photograph is one thing. Being able to manage a six-figure production budget and small battalion of creatives is another thing entirely. Which all brings me to a phone call I received two months ago.
I don’t usually pick up the phone while I’m on set. There is far too much going on for me to be putzing around with personal calls or text messages. The only reason I stopped mid-session this time around was that I was awaiting the arrival of one of my models, and I imagined her to be the source of the buzzing on my hip.
When I picked up the phone, however, I was immediately greeted with an unfamiliar accent. Taking a fresh glance at the caller ID, I noticed that the call was originating from a foreign country. While years of picking up the phone only to be greeted by the omnipresent and annoying sound of a robocall have jaded to me to the point that my thumb seems to permanently hover over the red circle to quickly hang up, it didn’t take long to ascertain that this call was going to be worth the interruption.
A foreign-based advertising agency was calling on behalf of a well-known global brand about a new campaign. While I work with a number of large brands, I had not worked with this particular brand and my ears were unquestionably perked. Of course, large client or not, I was currently on another assignment, so after a quick initial chat I suggested the client send the brief to me via email and that we schedule a creative call over the next couple of days to further discuss the project.
With the day’s shoot now complete, I went home to have a deeper look at the brief. I was immediately on board. It was a large-scale shoot with a lot of moving parts. Right up my alley. I was to produce a still gallery, several short films, as well as motion elements for social media. I'd be making use of multiple skills sets, just the way I like it. There was also a fairly decently sized budget. Perhaps not nearly enough to cover everything laid out in the brief, but then again, the exact details would be further clarified during the creative call.
For those who don’t know, a creative call is a chance for the photographer and client to get together on a conference call and hash out exactly what it is that the client wishes to get from a project. It’s also a chance for the photographer to express his or her excitement for the project and further sell themselves as the right choice for the client.
It is also a chance to get a more realistic view of the production resources which will be required to pull off that specific project. While you may be used to producing shoots yourself, as the budgets increase, so does the likelihood that you will want to engage the services of a production company. Just like you spend every waking moment adding to your ever-expanding knowledge of apertures and lighting techniques, a good producer’s head is a virtual minefield of figures, costs, production crew references, and other minutiae related to shepherding a shoot to completion. Yes, you are more than capable of handling many of these things yourself, but as the budgets increase, so do the details, and having a separate entity present just to handle those details can be the key to a successful shoot and positive client experience.
With all that in mind, it is always a good practice to have your producer on the creative call with you. They know to ask certain questions that may not immediately occur to you, such as “will the client be requiring a seamstress on set?” They will take on the role of creating the projected budget for the shoot (the production expense side at least). And, perhaps most importantly, having a separate production company provides someone else besides the photographer to shoulder some of the liability related to large-scale production. A production company typically will carry the necessary insurance policies to protect the production in case of unforeseen circumstances. They also have a Rolodex full of potential crew members that, try as I might, I may not already have on speed dial. See the aforementioned seamstress as an example.
So, with producer in tow, we commenced our creative call the following week with the greatest of expectations. Warm greetings were followed by gratitude for the consideration. The client then took us through the rather extensive brief in great detail, explaining their needs and expectations for the project. I asked follow-up questions of the creative director to get a better handle on what they were seeing visually. My producer asked a number of questions of the agency’s art producer to get a handle on production expectations. How many models would we need? How long would the finished videos be? In terms of production value with regards to the videos, are we talking about short clips shot with a DSLR or a full production with an Arri Alexa? Where would the final gallery of stills exist? How many days of production did they have in mind?
To each of these questions, the client provided the answers which offered my producer and me a greater insight into the client's needs. They had reference images for locations, reference videos for the motion elements, and plenty of helpful source material. Unfortunately, one more fact also became incredibly clear. The client’s proposed budget, while not insignificant, was woefully inadequate for the level of production they were expecting to receive in return.
That, in itself, is nothing new. Everyone tries to get the most they can for the least amount of money, and big companies are no different. But, in this case, the budget and expectations were not even close. While you can make things work with a slightly insufficient budget, maybe even half the necessary budget, the client in this case literally had only one fifth of the required funds. I’d like to say that is an exaggeration, but looking at the estimated budget drawn up by my producer following the shoot and the overall budget stated by the client, I am sorry to say that they literally only had one fifth of the required budget.
Now, I am without question a pretty cheap bastard. I have no problem making feature films on used car prices. But even if one were to look at the producer’s proposed budget and cut it by half, that still left the client’s project dreadfully underfunded. And that is not to say the producer’s budget was inaccurate, either. Quite the contrary, he’d done a great job. His numbers were on point. Sure, there was some necessary cushion, but nothing that would account for an 80-percent spike.
While on the call, my producer lightly joked if their production budget was intended as a per-day expenditure or meant to encompass the entire project. This elicited the intended laughter from the client, however was also meant as a way of easing the inevitable blow to come once they saw that the joke was not so far from the truth. The expenses required for talent and location rental alone would consume the client's entire budget in just one day. That was before any other production expense from equipment to crew were even considered. Oh, and on a personal note, this is also leaving out the fact that we haven't even yet addressed the fact that I too needed to be paid. This is one project I could be sure that my own fee would not be the determiner. The client would go way over budget before the creative fee even came into play.
Once the creative call wrapped, my producer and I held a sidebar to discuss our options. Clearly, there was no way we would be able, in good conscience, to propose an estimate that included everything they wanted at the budget number they projected. Yes, it’s important to try to help the client reach their target, but it’s equally important not to lie to them. Promising the moon when the client only has the resources for the stars is a good way to lead to inevitable disappointment in the end product. So, I made a choice. It ended up being a rather fateful choice and would have ramifications for the next two months of my waking (and often sleepless) life.
Rather than submit an unrealistic estimate that I knew would be bogus and unobtainable, I instead instructed my producer to generate an honest budget. Disregarding for a moment the number initially stated by the client, I wanted to get an honest look at exactly what it would cost to produce the assets required. It was at this point that I received the estimate that was five times the original client projection. The accurate estimate.
I knew there was no way the client would we able to increase their budget by that amount. My gamble was that, upon seeing the real costs, they would then have a better understanding of exactly what it would cost to provide the resources they required. That knowledge would then give us a fresh starting point so that we could take another look at what was really necessary and what was just desired. In order to even get within double the original budget, we would need to make some hard choices up front. And I decided that the best approach would be to start with actual costs based on expectations and try to work backwards with the client to get to the essentials, even if it meant adjusting expectations.
I created a full treatment based on the creative call. I attached the producer’s true estimate as a pdf. And then I hit "send."
This story will continue in next week's column, From Initial Client Call To (Almost) Shoot Day On A Commercial Photography Project: Part Two.