Tip of the day: Defusing the indecision of art directors and clients.

Kinky Friedman. Writer, Musician, Perennial candidate for Texas Gov.

You are thrilled. You are a professional photographer and you've booked a good assignment to make some images for an advertising agency and their client. They asked you to bid on one final image with three models on a location. You figured out the time required, how they'll end up using the image and all the details and, miraculously, they approved your bid without much haggling. 

So now you are on the location, your lights are set up and the camera is on the tripod just waiting to take some incredible shots. The talent is professional, fresh and ready to work. You're already patting yourself on the back for the incredible job you and your team are going to accomplish today. The make-up person is ahead of schedule (fantasy) and the stylist has a rack of good clothing choices so the client and art director have the best combination of wardrobe to choose from. You're waiting for the client and art director to come to a consensus with the stylist over what the models will wear and you are having a cup of that wonderful Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee your assistant picked up as part of the craft service. Life can be so good...

And then it happens. The client says, "I can't make up my mind about Jeremy's shirt." Jeremy is one of the three models.  The client continues, "I like the blue shirt with the strips but I also like that yellow, retro shirt. And I think we need to shoot a conservative version with one of those button downs. Maybe a white one and a blue one. Can we just try all four?"

And that's how it starts. You know it won't stop there because there are two other models to dress and there are choices to be made (or not made) for each of them as well. My math skills are no longer amazing but if you shot all the permutations you'd have something like 64 basic combinations and something like thousands distinctly different variations. And that doesn't take into consideration selecting shoes and pants. Or accessories. 

All of a sudden the half day you thought would be a generous amount of time to shoot in is looking like a small part of a two or three day shoot. Or at least a one day shoot that goes really long.

Even shooting three or four variations total puts a serious dent in the post processing budget, not to mention the extra time on set and the possible overtime for models and crew. What's a photographer to do?

Here are my three basic tips for getting the job done and still making a profit:

1. My favorite argument goes like this:  Pull the art director aside and say, "Really good models are like top athletes. They have one or two really good performances in them. Those are the performances where you can really tell they are connecting with the camera and with the audience. We really need to take advantage of that great energy and make sure not to shoot them when they've already peaked. Changing costumes is going to sap the energy out of them and you don't want to end up with the right wardrobe but a shot of them run down and looking bored after they've peaked. The best option is that blue shirt with the stripes! It'll go perfectly with the other models' outfits."

If they don't buy this (real) argument we can move on to my second tip, bringing up the money.

2. Pull the agency person aside and explain to them that this shoot was bid, discussed and approved as a "prix fix" meal. One set up, one wardrobe selection and the post processing required to fulfill just those shots. Let them know you'd be happy to shoot variations but each additional variation will cost 1/3X the original budget. Pull out your "job modification agreement form" and make it seem all very business like. You need to let them know they ordered the steak but they don't also get a free pork chop, a free salmon fillet and all you can eat caviar with every project. Especially on one with a conservative budget. If they can't decide at least you'll be charging them for each change...

If these don't work you can go for the nuclear option. 

3. Pull the agency person aside and say, as nicely as you can, "Look. This is not what we talked about and I can't keep shooting stuff over and over again. You hired me because I know how to make decisions. We hired the stylist because she's an expert in making these kinds of choices. If you don't trust our decisions then we're not the right team for you and we should stop right now, send everyone home and let you and the client have the opportunity to hire a crew that's more inline with your way of handling these things. The blue shirt works. And the other shirts work. There is no "ultimate" shirt.  
Now, we can go back into the shoot and make a decision or we can shut it down and you can start over with someone else. I'll leave it up to you..."

If you go with number 3 you probably will never work for that art director again for the rest of your career. But would you really want to? Sometimes saying "no" is the best business decision you'll be able to make in a situation. This all presumes that you covered these issues during the bidding process. An ounce of prevention sometimes gets sucked dry by the best of intentions, or hammered into the ground by the amazing sense of entitlement some clients bring to the set. Managing unrealistic expectations is part of the job. The steps above are workable escalations.  But you always have to be prepared to walk away.


Paul said...

Nice to see your portrait of the Kinkster again. It is my favourite.

Anonymous said...

This one of your most important posts ...something every young creative needs to know. You always should to be in control and if that means firing the client, so be it.


Jim Simmons said...

My fave advice about agencies: "Don't get mad at clients. Educate them."