Two years ago I shared something called The Client Blog. It was started by Andy Baker, Group Creative Director for the National Geographic channels. Andy has been writing, editing, producing and Creative Directing promos and print ads for the last 21 years. Andy decided to start the blog as more of a personal creative project and it's been going strong the past two years. He's grouped his ten favorite takeaways he's learned from being on both sides of the table.
It's been so amazing being able to watch all the behind the scene's happenings and little things that go on with NatGeo just because Andy has been so inviting and open about it on The Client Blog.
I started this blog two years ago as a way to open up the dialogue about Clients and Agencies/Creatives with a new perspective that nobody else was writing about – the Client’s. What started out as a small personal project has grown into something bigger and more fun than I could have ever hoped for, honestly. I get so much great feedback from people in the industry, which is very satisfying and gratifying to hear. What I have tried to do with the blog is to continue to deliver on that initial goal of the Client perspective, while also going in-depth on some other topics like going behind-the-scenes on a big project, pitching your work or your business, and managing your own team. I love what I do so much, and the team I work with, and I am a huge believer in sharing work, sharing learnings, and sharing my experience in this industry that we all love so much. Hopefully the content I’ve written about has been helpful or inspiring in some way to those in the creative community – and if one less person thinks that all Clients are “from hell” after reading the blog, then I guess I’ve accomplished my mission! -Andy Baker, NatGeo
Here's some of Andy's favorite points condensed from his recent post.
10. LESS IS MORE.
Letting the viewer fill in those blanks in their own imagination can sometimes be more powerful than when you, as the writer, fill in the blanks for them with too much copy. Sketch the story, but let the viewer color it. Edit your words, then edit them some more, and then look at each and every word in your story and make sure they’re all working as hard as they possibly can. Be critical and question every turn of phrase and tense. When you can tell a story in just a few words, it allows the audience to push themselves forward rather than you dragging them through it. The less-is-more mantra also applies to design – don’t overly clutter things, make sure that every part of your design is intentional and isn’t filling space just to fill it. Be reductive, and simple. That’s generally a good rule of thumb in general. After all, nobody ever says “wow, I love the really cluttered look of your house!” – right?
9. BE A SLAVE TO YOUR CONCEPT.
Music, language, edit, shot selection – everything should tie back to that idea and make sure it’s serving it. Don’t introduce new ideas just because they’re cool or clever if they don’t make the concept stand up even more. Don’t needlessly complicate things, keep the concept at the center of it all. YOU may be sick of the concept or fully see it by the end of a long production window, but that doesn’t mean your audience gets it. Of course, this requires that you HAVE a great concept, and if you do, it’s not going to sell itself. The viewer may not be paying close attention, or might only catch part of your :30 story, so making sure you never leave the concept and do everything to make sure it’s clear and compelling. Place yourself in their shoes – is it clear? Does everything support it? You may think “am I over-thinking this?” along the way, which is possible, but sometimes you HAVE to over-think things to ensure that you’re looking critically at your idea to ensure it comes through as clearly as you want it to.
Photo by Joey L.
8. SOMETIMES THAT FIRST IDEA IS THE BEST.
As a college history major specializing in the Civil War, the campaign for “Killing Lincoln” was near to Andy's heart, and very early on in the process he had an idea of a stark, unsettling image of Lincoln and his assassin John Wilkes Booth staring right at the camera lens at the moment right before the murder. He had visualized it in his head head, and couldn’t shake it. During the course of the project they shot many other images and came up with some other ideas, but this initial idea never really left his mind. In the end, it totally didn’t work for the TV side of things – it did feel a little forced and it broke the 4th wall a bit, but for our key art it was the exact right way to sell the show. It felt new, unique and unlike anything we’d seen before for a story that was all too familiar. Photographer Joey L. perfectly captured the image of Abe and Booth exactly as Andy had seen it in his mind. Sometimes that first idea you get is the best – so don’t put it aside just because it’s the first thing that pops into your head.
Photo by Joey L.
7. IF YOU DON’T HAVE THAT IDEA, BUILD THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT TO CREATE IT.
In the case of “Killing Lincoln” Andy knew what he wanted to do from day 1 – but of course that doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes it’s all about putting yourself in the right situation for creative success. Thanks to that one-on-one interaction between photographer and subject (along with the perfect music played on-set) the mood was perfect to capture the perfect image. Both moments were shot beautifully by the photographers and that image went from good to great because we allowed all of the creative power we had harnessed to breathe and come alive in the room…it just took their talents to bring it to the image. Comedy Director Jordan Brady has said before that his role as a Director on-set is often to simply create a comfortable space where great creative things can happen, whether funny or dramatic. Build the right energy on-set, and good things will happen.
6. GET YOUR WORK SEEN: DO PERSONAL PROJECTS.
Photographers and creatives always want to know how they can get their work seen more often. And there are many ways to do it – but Andy's favorite is about personal projects. You should always take time to do personal projects – things that are entirely done for yourself. They are perfect for clients to view because it shows the client what your passions are, and your own personal aesthetic and sensibility. A client didn’t ask you to put that font on screen, or change out your favorite shot – it’s 100% YOURS. And the beauty is, you did it solely for the love of the craft, yet it can often (at least in the case at Nat Geo) lead to other paid gigs. So in some ways, personal gigs can pay for themselves over time because it allows you to showcase your greatest creative strengths. And even if you never get work from your personal projects, do it as a creative outlet just for you. The key part to personal projects of course is how to get them seen by those clients – clearly the standard methods are Vimeo, You Tube and encouraging those in your network to share it (assuming they like it of course). And don’t be afraid to put it front and center on your own site. Clients don’t necessarily ONLY want to see other client-based work when they go to your page.
5. BE PRE-PREPARED.
The Client blog has covered production on “Wicked Tuna” three times – and what Andy learned on the second post was the critical value of exhaustive pre-production to the process. What we found was that all those weeks of planning allowed for us to discover things we never would have imagined creatively. Sure, they had a few bumps in the road but if they hadn’t have done all of that planning in advance, things could have really gone badly. They had tons of reference videos for how they wanted to pull it all off, and were all on the exact same page creatively – for those monster gigs like that, there is literally no such thing as too much communication. Add in the insane technology on that shoot and you simply can’t plan enough…because the single most important investment you can give to a project is TIME. It cannot be said enough, and there is often a direct correlation between time spent in planning a project and final quality of that product.
4. DON’T BE AFRAID TO SAY SOMETHING CLIENT-Y. (OR, HOW TO LISTEN TO YOUR CLIENT’S NOTES WITHOUT ROLLING YOUR EYES)
On this project, they set out to capture portraits of Sue Aikens for the show “Life Below Zero.” Like the previous takeaway about preparing, they had numerous calls and discussions about creative goals and ideas for this shoot. Now, they had every confidence in the world that they’d get world class stuff, but they still wanted to make sure that nothing was lost in translation since they would literally be on the other side of the world shooting. They knew every detail of how they wanted the photos to look, and that while they had picked Joey as our photographer because he’d done some similar snowy portraits, it was key that we didn’t make (and Andy quotes) the snow “feel too snow-globe-y”. Meaning, they didn’t want big, fat, slowly drifting snowflakes in the image. Sometimes even the dumbest client-y sounding notes can be helpful, if you just dig in a little deeper and try to understand what they are trying to communicate and what their concerns are. Cut the Client a little slack – and listen to the spirit of their comment. It’s possible that there’s something deeper at play that could help the creative be even better.
Photo by Joey L.
3. TIPS FOR YOUR NEXT BUSINESS PITCH.
Know what you’re good at – what makes you unique and special in the market, and lean into that. So many times, prospective companies tell us that they can “do anything!” – edit, design, music, shooting, you name it. And sometimes we might hire them, but more often than not, we don’t – because they’d rather hire a master of one or two things than a jack of all trades but master of none. Not all companies can do everything excellently – they just can’t. Those that recognize that and sell themselves based on their greatest strengths have a greater chance of client loyalty and repeat business. I’ve mentioned Variable a few times and they’re a great example – they are amazing cinematographers and filmmakers. So we hire them for that, and consistently do amazing work for us and with us. And we keep coming back, time and time again. They don’t try to sell themselves as designers and editors. Yes, they CAN do that, but that’s not their primary expertise. So, know your strengths, what makes you stand out – lean into that. And – assuming you are great – watch the clients keep coming back.
2. BE HONEST AND TRANSPARENT.
This past year was a huge amount of fun for the NatGeo team in part for one big reason – the talent ID campaign they created to showcase the different stars of their shows talking about adventure, and their lives. It gave Andy a great opportunity to tell some cool stories, hone interviewing skills, and do some more hands-on Directing. It was hugely exciting, but he couldn’t have done it without the amazing team. In one case, they shot a group of IDs in LA with a whole new crew, yet he needed DP Khalid Mohtaseb’s help to give his new DP and crew some insight on how he’d shot some previous IDs. Andy wanted to match them in look and tone and he was honest and transparent with him. They had such a collaborative and honest working relationship, what could have been awkward or strange (asking one DP to tell another what he’d done before) was totally no big deal. Andy really strives to treat the teams he works with the way he’d want to be treated – fairly and honestly. The budget dictated that we hire an LA DP, and Khalid was so invested in the project and such a good friend, he was happy to help in whatever way he could. It speaks to the power of forming tight relationships with your Creative partners – look out for them, and they’ll look out for you. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do. Clients can’t always go out of house, and when they do, they often look to work with people they enjoy working with – and can have open and honest dialogues with along the way.
1. CLIENTS HAVE CLIENTS, TOO.
Andy started this blog about 2 years ago with a pretty simple goal – to start to change the conversation around and about Clients – they’re not all bumbling idiots, or wannabe creatives without any real contribution to make to the creative process. Rather, they can be huge assets in the process – they know their brand better than anyone, they know their audience, their target, and in many cases, they know exactly what they want creatively. All too often, Clients are an easy target, especially for frustrated creatives. Part of the issue is just that most people don’t truly understand their Client, or what the Client faces on THEIR side of the dynamic. Your client probably has a boss (or 2 or 3) and those bosses have bosses, and so on. In many cases, your Client has to pitch idea to THEIR Client, (for numerous ideas and projects, not just yours) and they have many more voices to answer to. Your Client’s Client’s request may be why they ask you to make a change you don’t agree with, or why they take a little longer to get feedback to you – who knows. But next time it happens, don’t just go to the default “my client is an idiot” setting and put yourself in their shoes. Sure, some Clients are idiots, of course. But they’re not ALL idiots, we promise you. Take a step back, and realize that the Client might be making your life a little more difficult now, but you’re still making a living (presumably) doing what you love in a creative field. And that’s pretty frickin’ awesome. It’s easy to get frustrated with your Client, (and certainly convenient) but speaking from that side of the table, the more understanding you are of their perspective, and their experiences, the more they will appreciate working with you. (And possibly hire you again) And hey, you know what? If your Client is a jerk, don’t work with them. “Easy for you to say”, yeah I know, but life is too short to work with assholes (whether they’re a client or an agency). Complaining about it certainly won’t make the situation any better, and it won’t help you get better, either. Move on.
There's so many things in this post that strike a light bulb for me, and hopefully they do for you too. Andy has opened his rather rare world, to allow us to see into everything. It means that we can learn and grow long before we might be on the level to enter it. It enables us to master our craft and be ready for those possible interactions. I suggest you go through The Client Blog and absorb everything Andy has written. It's an amazing level of openness and behind the scenes information to the commercial workings at NatGeo and all their partners. He also posts regularly on his twitter with behind the scenes Periscopes and photos.