To hear it from some "experts" in our industry all that matters is nailing down a job, assignment, project or purchase order for anything with a check attached, but the reality is that clients will let you work nearly for free, against your best interests, and on poor terms for as long as you want. And it probably won't be a long or happy tenure in the business as you must make enough money to turn a healthy profit (or why else be in the business?) and you must honestly enjoy what you do for your living. Right?
I've had two recent potential clients approach me, offer projects and request bids. One was a full day photographing people in a retail location and the second was a three part request that would have me shooting in industrial environments here in Austin and in northern Mexico, as well as acting as a supervisor or consultant for a second photographer in a different country.
After receiving the bid request from the industrial concern I did a little diggingand vetted them with a colleague who had worked in a freelance capacity for their company several years ago. He was less than rosy about his experience. Then I dived into the request for bid and it seemed like one of those situations where production quality would be decidedly secondary to getting the maximum number possible of images per day. The shot list was endless and there was a request for shots in and around our working locations that were specified as having to be done with drones. I knew I would not be happy or want to be responsible for the quality control of a remote photographer, I don't consider drones fun or highly creative and the overall presentation of the job came with the presumption that I would "sharpen my pencil" and give this client special consideration on price.
It all added up to remind me of jobs, presented like this, that I was inexperienced enough to accept back before a string of frustrating and unhappy experiences taught me some things about business that I won't disregard. To wit, if it doesn't feel like the job for you then you need to let it go.
How do you know it doesn't feel right? Hmmm. For starters any negotiation that begins with an "ask" for special pricing is probably a non-starter. Any job, the scope of which is out of proportion with the reward is something better left alone. A cautionary review by someone whose business has worked with the business in question is very much of a red flag. Finally, you can tell by reading a request for bid or request for proposal just how inexperienced or manipulative the requestor is and just how much hand-holding and explanation you'll be required to provide without having the option to bill for that time.
While eventually getting money is always a good thing you have to weigh the costs of doing a job that is chancy, will not generate work for your portfolio, falls outside the style you are comfortable with, and which creates the potential of having to spend days with people you might not like. Better to self-assign something that will move your career forward than to do unsatisfying work that's fraught with possible peril.
After reviewing the requesting documents I crafted an e-mail explaining that I was not the "right" photographer for the industrial project, thanking them for considering me and wishing them good luck.
The second project was a potentially good assignment that was killed by attorneys. I was working on an estimate request for a client who had selected me as their choice to photograph employees and models in a retail environment. I'd worked with the primary requestor at two different companies previously and had always enjoyed working with this person. All of our previous work together had been smooth and straightforward; a mutually satisfying working relationship.
I submitted the estimate and, at the client's request, crafted a letter of agreement. And that's when things started to slide off the plate. The company's legal department got hold of the letter and started adding clauses and demands that were unreasonable, moved to change payment terms and, ultimately wanted total control over how I would be able to use the images I would create.
I was honest with the original requestor. I don't have the bandwidth to engage in back and forth negotiations with a legal team for the better part of a working day just to secure....a working day. Rather than re-write and re-write a proposal and then settle for less than I deserve I declined to move forward with the assignment and apologized that I had not been more detailed in our preliminary conversation. Our e-mail exchanges were cordial and straightforward. We salvaged our personal relationship but I probably (almost certainly) won't be working for the present company.
Many companies are guilty of not understanding the limited time bandwidth of individual freelance artists. While the companies have salaried lawyers who can spend days or weeks crafting new ways to tip the value scales in the direction of their own companies (after all, they are paid salaries) the same is not true for artists. When I sit down to estimate a job I am entering into a speculative task. Sometimes I'll get the work and sometimes not. A good estimate on a multiple day job can take hours to complete and there is no guarantee that you'll make back the investment in time with a future payment.
If the estimate is for a smaller job and must go through a prolonged negotiation process it's conceivable that you could spend more time in the process that you will in billable hours on the actual job --- should you even get the at the end of the process.
While you are negotiating, waiting for a response and responding again you are in a holding pattern. You can't get much else done and, psychologically you become stuck waiting for a final resolution one way or another. If you compromise and compromise and then can't overcome something small like the need for an advance on a cost heavy project you end up losing the entire project after much time and emotional investment.
Better to know what is and isn't negotiable for you and to set tripwires that cue you to end the negotiations before they proceed down into a tar patch. Once you hit an impasse and butt heads with a client's legal team there is no "win" left for you. You might get the job but you'll probably resent it.
You might feel that capitulating on some aspect that's important to you is a necessary evil in this one instance to ensure you get the job but you'll find the next negotiation will be tougher and you'll probably lose more on each encounter. "I got the job! But I had to reduce my rate, hand over all rights, accept 90 day payment, give up the right to use any of the images in my portfolio and I had to stand on a chair and bark like a dog in order to get paid." I never want to be the guy who has to say that. Better to know when to walk away. Just try not to burn bridges with people who can't overrule the lawyers. It's probably not their fault.
A very wise photographer once told me, "You don't get rich with the clients you accept, you get rich by knowing which clients to fire." I would add that it's even better not to get into business with some businesses in the first place. Then there is the 80/20 rule which says that a vocal 20% of your clients end up getting 80% of your attention. Better to focus on the best clients and not spend your time putting out fires... Just a few mid-week thoughts....