The Freakiest, scariest, nail biting-ist time of the year for Freelance anybodies: December 15th through to the Super Bowl. Ouch.

From a  Zach Theatre Performance of "Peter and the Starcatcher."

Hey! It's a brand new year. Are you young and enthusiastic? Always wanted to be a professional advertising or corporate photographer? Ready to jump into a big, crazy market with both feet? Got your gear ready to go? Been to the workshops and got yourself all fired up at an industry tradeshow? Already picked out the Porsche you plan to buy with the amazing profits you'll surely earn snapping images of half-naked super models on pristine beaches? All optimism and no business plan?

Then you'll want to skip this particular post. Because today we discuss a reality of the business that often gets glossed over as every practitioner who's still standing tries to put a brave face on the monetary/schedule reality of the business. 

I'm sure everyone whose photo job revolves around snapping photos of children on Santa's lap in the mall, or taking images of wonderful, suburban families in their homes, gardens and local parks had a pretty decent month in December and they've stayed pretty busy in January making sure everyone got their prints and their files. They probably even got to send out invoices and collect checks and credit card information. But you know all those guys and girls who mostly dress in black, hang out around ad agencies and stay in touch with the corporate mar com people? The ones who always have a large cup of Starbuck's coffee in one hand.  Well, the end of the fleeting year and beginning of new years generally sucks for them. And here's why.

If you aren't working for retail clients every other type of B2B client tends to have all their budgets spent and their projects done by the second week of December. They have to. They can't depend on enough people showing up for work at the same time to even create half a committee, much less a full committee with enough people to approve, disapprove or change advertising projects. Everyone goes on vacation. They go to see daughter, Tiffany, dance in her dance school's rendition of The Nutcracker. All of a sudden parents have to deal with the fact that schools are closing up for the holidays and community standards frown on leaving pre-teens and younger to fend for themselves all day long. Someone has to be home to make sure they aren't getting into trouble. Or the liquor cabinet.

Right after the week of realizing the burden of raising children during times of no school comes everyone's favorite thing to do: Holiday Travel. That will take days out of your typical work schedule and possibly years off your life (Really? You really want to head up to Des Moines to visit your spouse's family? Even the ones in prison? Are you really going to eat that?).

Then there's the dreaded period between Christmas and New Years Eve when anyone with budget or approval authority is gone. Out of the office. Out of the state. Maybe out of their minds. Long story short, no one can sign a P.O., much less approve an invoice that might get the ball rolling and  authorize the taking of yet another image of that family of servers that may or may not make the inventory cut when the inevitable start of the year downsizing starts.

After the holidays our clients still have a week left to stabilize their families and get the kids ready for re-entry into school. The process is generally made more difficult since that's the week the flu and other winter illnesses kick in and start ravaging the populace. By this point corporate workers and their ad agency counterparts have already burned through the first full week January. The next week allows them to slide back into their comfortable workflow like an old man easing himself into a bathtub full of hot water. This is the week of budget meetings. Staff rearrangements. The wholesale firing of ad agencies from some accounts the the equally wholesale hiring of the newer, shinier, better ad agencies for other accounts. Which then starts a new round of creative proposals. Which then goes through the approval processes and meetings. Then there are the meetings about the meetings and finally the committee consensus that we'd better get busy on SOMETHING or we'll lose whatever budget we don't take advantage of in the first quarter. Chop. Chop. 

So, somewhere in or around the third or fourth week of January the phones ring ( or chime or play dreadful ringtones ), the e-mails start flowing and the projects start being presented to the creative class of content makers so that bids, estimates, quotes, pricing, budgets and procedures can start being discussed. If you are lucky you'll start nailing down bids and project assignments by the end of January or the first week of February which will be shot some time in February and then billed, and hopefully the first round will end up being paid for in the late March time frame. That's a long time to go with no cash flow! 

My advice to the people who are ready to get started in advertising photography or corporate imaging work is this: Start saving up now so you can make the jump at the end of this year and into next year. You'll need a big stack of money. Remember, the end of the year, when you stop working is also the single most expensive part of the year: Gifts to buy, dinner parties to host, travel to pay for, entertainment, and it seems to be the time of the year when CPAs come alive and share with you the idea (threat?) that you'll need to add a few more (tens of) thousands of dollars to your meager IRS contributions for the past year. And you also need to cough up a bunch of cash to toss into a tax deferred retirement account (you do want to retire someday, right?). 

Well, after paying all the regular stuff ( income tax, property tax, business tax, self employment tax, mortgage, retirement fund, donations to the governor's defense fund) and the swim club dues for the year, plus the annual premiums for a couple of life insurance policies and a disability insurance policy and the above mentioned, CPA recommended, wallet clearing exercises, and another round of college expenses (and air fare to and from) I'm just about tapped out. Like clockwork, clients have roused from their slumber and begun the requesting rituals. With a little luck we'll just about make the spread. But I have been researching places in town that will pay for plasma...

It's the same story I hear from everyone I know in the business; be they freelance writers, photographers, videographers or designers. I'm thinking we could create an entire lobbying campaign around asking for the whole holiday break to be shortened. Whatever happened to productivity as a buzzword?

One more thing that always strikes me as a bit ironic. I'll have a great 4th quarter and, anticipating more of the same to come (freelance is Latin for optimistic) I'll decide to buy some new gear. Fun stuff. Like the D610, the D810 and a raft of lenses. And as surely as I do that the equipment karma teams up with corporate holiday lag and leaves me sitting here in the studio surrounded by really cool gear and nothing to stick in front of it. Next year I'm going on vacation somewhere really cool for half of December and the whole month of January. I'll figure out how to pay for it in March.....


Anonymous said...

Need a bridge loan to go with that bridge camera?

Dave Jenkins said...

Just a sober look at the realities of the freelance life.

Kirk Tuck said...

Dave, Same thing every year for as long as I can remember. A lot of newbies hit the wall right about now...