The Psychology Behind Photography Bids

The comparative vs competitive bid.

There are these magic times when you’ll get called to shoot a job because of who you are. Your style, your demeanor, and your ability to execute. The only question that remains is money. This is a comparative bid. You and the agency already like each other, and you want to work together, but you’re just trying to find common ground about costs. Oh, and by the way, there are probably two other photographers, equally as skilled as you, in contention. This type of bid is based on money and talent.

When you’re bidding a job like this, have a look at the boards and get creative with how you would shoot the ad. If it’s a shot of a runner on a trail, maybe you should suggest that it’s a trail in the rain forrest in Costa Rica. The agency is looking to you, as a creative person, to add some visual depth to their concept. Which is why it’s okay to be a little liberal with your fees.

These are the type of jobs where you need to embrace your self worth. You’ve been selected specifically because of your talent. If your fees are a little on the high side, you’re not going to be dismissed out of hand, you’ll be asked to “work” your budget.

The other type of bid is a competitive bid. The client or the agency is casting a wide net for reliable execution, at a price that fits their budget. You may be competing against a large field of photographers here. The best thing you can do is deliver a bid that you think that the client will buy while still making yourself some bucks.

If the client tells you the number they’re looking for, your job is to get as close to that number as you can while still making the gig worth your while to shoot. In this situation, start by compiling the production expenses (below the line) for the job. Pad things a bit, give yourself some room to screw up. When you have all your line items together, how much money is left over for you? Is this a number you can live with given the amount of effort required to pull off the job? If it’s not, how much more money would you need to make you happy? If the additional amount is within a 10 to 15 percent of the budget they gave you, add it in and see if it will fly. Sometimes when you’re given a budget number, it’s a pretty accurate number that includes a fair fee for you. But sometimes the budget number may be a bit on the arbitrary side. The art buyer may be trying to get a feel for how much the shoot is really going to cost in comparison to a number their client has out forth.

I know, it’s a bit voodoo-esque, and totally maddening. You’ll never get used to it. You’ll just start to think you’re clairvoyant when you start nailing a few jobs. Then, inexorably, you’ll miss, and you’ll think that you’ve lost your magic powers. Please pass the fairy dust.

Both types of bids will benefit from as much information as possible. This starts with asking yourself a key question. Why do you think they called you?

Be honest with yourself. The answer to this question has a lot to do with your strategy. If you made an impression on an art director, or art buyer at a social gathering, and they’re throwing you a break, you need to keep your fees modest. The priority here is to land the gig and prove yourself. But don’t short sell yourself. Bid too low in an obvious attempt to win the job reveals lack of confidence which is like a scarlet letter in this industry.

If you’ve done a lot of low budget jobs for the client in the past, you maybe getting called to do more of the same. It could be time to take one for the team. Bid a bit higher so you convey that your past experience with the client has made you more valuable. Which it has, by the way. The more you know a client and their quirks, the more efficient you are, which is money saved for the client.

These are two opposite scenarios, and believe me, there are a lot of variations in between. The secret here is not to over-analyze. If you do, you’ll send yourself into a whirling spiral of insecurity and self doubt. Just get a vague idea of where you stand before you try to decipher the answers to the following questions (which you can employ get a better idea of what the agency is willing to shell out for your services.)

What’s most important for you on this bid?

This a question you can use to figure out if the art buyer is looking for price, speed, or talent.

How many people are bidding this job?

If you’re one of twenty, the agency is on a fishing expedition for a low bidder.

Who’s going to be at the shoot? Is the client going to be on the shoot?

I always like asking these question under the guise of making sure there is enough food and craft service on the set. What it will reveal is how important the shoot is. If the client is going to be hanging on the set, then the shoot may have more significance than if it’s just you, your people, and the art director.

Once you have vague idea for the type of bid you need to create you can give it your best shot. One piece of advice. Get your bids in quickly. I don’t mean slop it together and hope it flies. Just don’t dwell on it. Agencies expect a very reasonable turn around after they’ve requested a bid.

How much am I worth?

Understanding what your worth as a photographer is an insanity provoking mind game that has no conclusion. I’ll wait while you reach for a cocktail.

What you’re worth is based on what your clients think you’re worth, which is in part based on what the market will bear, of which the value is set by how much a photographer like you gets paid, which is based on how much the clients in that market think photographers like you are worth.

Money, money, everywhere.

During the dot com era I was able to charge a lot more for corporate head shots than I am today. Which doesn’t make any sense. I’m years more experienced, and there is a reasonable expectation that my prices should go up. The big difference between now, and then, is that then there were a lot of very silly people in charge of enormous amounts of money.

My wonderfully savvy agent at the time took a huge gamble on pricing a bid to a dot com startup. She put my fees at close to three times what she would have normally considered a high fee. And then she waited for the phone to ring.

When the client called to freak out about the bid, my agent cited the fact that I just came back from a huge fashion run and that I was highly in demand and that I was being sought after by a lot of cutting edge startups. Somehow it worked and I got the gig. But now I had to think about delivering an experience that made the client feel fabulous about spending all that dough.

Most corporate head shot shoots consist of some kind of backdrop, natural or artificial light, cheese and crackers, an assistant, maybe a hair person – the basics. Most corporate head shot shoots are considered a necessary evil by the people who are having their picture taken.

The day before the corporate gig I asked if I could swing by the offices for a location scout. I gave my assistant a clipboard, and I got a triple cappuccino. My assistant and I ran around those offices like two broadway producers. We settled on a gorgeous courtyard for our natural light location to shoot something like 20 or 30 people.

I showed up the next day with makeup, hair, wardrobe stylist, three assistants, a dedicated craft service person serving gourmet coffee and mimosas. We built a daylight studio out of 2 20×20 duvateens and had a clothes rack, make-up table, c-stands and power grid all exposed and taped down with gaffers tape. Lot’s of extra grip equipment lined up in formation waiting in the wings. By the time we were done I had converted the courtyard into a movie set.

It was unbelievably excessive for corporate head shots. But everyone was totally blown away by the set. They had a good time which translated really well in the camera. The images I captured were almost fashion like, which did a lot for the hip image that the company was trying to convey. It was a blast.

That company shut it doors sixteen months later when they ran out of money and couldn’t successfully close on another round of venture capital dollars. I was paid seven days after the shoot.

The reputation that I had earned around silicon valley had very little to do with my talent, but more with the experience I had delivered. Although I never saw a corporate head shot job that excessive again, I did have a great run during the dot com madness.

My headshot success at that time was a savvy utilization of a fat market, good hype, and a bold statement. It was also a large gamble. The wind could have blown the other way, and I could have been branded as a cocky douche-bag wannabe who charged too much. But my agent went with her gut on the bid, and I went with my gut on the delivery. Had either of us asked anyone’s advice we would have probably been dissuaded from our choices.

To make that shoot work I had to dip into my fees to deliver the extravaganza. I would normally advise against that, but my fees were already inflated, and I was looking to make a large splash in a wealthy marketplace. I considered it an investment in my future.

One thing I did not do is take company stock in lieu of cash money. Although it was on offer for some of the jobs. And it was tempting. Oh boy was it tempting. But, ultimately I decided that I was a photographer and not a day trader. I have to credit my father for the advice. He told me no one ever went broke from having too much cash in the bank.

A month after the crash, I saw a great TV ad for the San Jose Mercury news. It depicted a guy in his late twenties wearing jeans, t-shirt and zip up sweatshirt riding a bus. The voice over said “Yesterday you were a 28 year old millionaire…today you’re just 28.”

The most amazing thing of all, I get paid for doing this.

It took me a really long time to get my head around the fact that I was getting paid to to do what I love. And when I say long time, I’m talking about almost a decade. Yes, I got paid to do model tests, hair shows and things like that. But, most of what I was doing were low budget gigs. Getting to the point of asking for the fees that I was worth was a part of paying my dues that I spent way too much time on.

Six steps of self worth.

The following steps relate to advertising photography, not editorial, wedding, portrait etc. Those all have fairly obvious ways of ferreting out market values or, as in the case of editorial, the prices are now dictated by the magazine.

Step 1, Understanding you’re more than you think you are:

What you do for a living is fun, sexy, and has probably gotten you a few dates. Doesn’t it make sense that you should get paid for it too. You should. Your talent is worth money to a lot of people. The more experience you gain, the more valuable you become. Not only does your talent improve, but so does your ability to deal with clients and crises. All these things combined make you, as a package, worth more with each new experience.

Do not think of yourself with blinders on. Think about all your assets beyond the ability to shoot pictures. You’re pitching yourself, your talent, and your experience, not just a camera and an operator.

Step 2, Don’t undervalue yourself for too long:

There isn’t a single photographer alive that didn’t spend a lot of years getting paid too little for where they were in their career. If you ever listen to a veteran photographer talk as if they had it all figured out from day one, they didn’t. We all get arrogant after we reach a financial milestone. And then we delude ourselves into thinking that we had all this stuff sorted out the whole time. Puh-leeze!

The knee-jerk reaction when your starting out is to do anything for anyone at any price. A good policy when your hungry for experience. But, at some point you’re going to have to find the strength to turn a peasant wage down. Personally I waited too long to do this. I sort of meandered through the first ten years of my career getting underpaid. My big breakthrough came when a client offered me a nice fee to shoot a simple job. My advice is to not wait for that magical person.

Step 3, Taking a leap:

You are going to have to suck it up and ask for too much money every once in awhile. When all the interrogation methods I suggest above fail, and you have no inside information, you’re going to have to shoot blind. Don’t be an idiot and ask for some astronomical fee, but try asking for several thousand dollars more than you think you should and see what kind of response you get. Sometimes it’s the only way to move forward. It will cause you all kinds of anxiety, but often times it can be a great indicator of what the market thinks of you.

Step 4, Understand rejection:

Getting rejected doesn’t mean you suck. This is a profession of constant rejection. No matter how hard you try to understand why you didn’t get a gig, you never will. Never, never, never! It could be legitimate like you just weren’t the right person for the job. It could be nepotism, another photographer was already chosen, and the agency just needed to look like they were shopping around. Or it could be as random as a vegan art director taking offense to your cowhide portfolio. You’ll never know.

What you can do is not get prissy and burn a bridge. (I’m speaking from experience here.) What an agency didn’t like about you today, they may love about you tomorrow. Just grab your portfolio. Give the agency a big smooch and a “thank you” and go get a drink. Because tomorrow you’re going to find someplace else with an open door.

The worse thing you can do is start mentally spinning. You know the feeling when you postulate a theory why something didn’t go your way and you start to obsess about it. Truth is there are no conspiracies against you. There aren’t a bunch of agency people hanging out by the espresso machine talking about you, with the intent emailing everyone they know about you, only to have your awful portfolio end up on CNN International so you’ll never get another job in this solar system ever again.

It just didn’t work out. That’s all.

Step 5, Standing tall:

There are times in your career that people are going to try and make you feel like crap. They’ll scream at you, patronize you, threaten you with lawsuits—basically try and intimidate you. Keep in mind there is either a psychotic or an agenda behind these threats.

One of the toughest things to do is maintain composure and hold your own during these disasters. But you have to. There is no reason for anyone to treat you like garbage. Most people in this industry maintain a certain level of professionalism. When you come across ones that don’t, you absolutely have to stand up.

The first time I ever got yelled at was during a model test. The agent had an insane melt down about the makeup in the shot, which just happened to be applied by my girlfriend. The modeling agent totally berated me in front of the entire agency. It was awful, and I didn’t do a thing to stand up for myself even though I thought that the image was pretty good. In retrospect, I realized that the agent was yelling for the sake of yelling. That’s an example of a psycho.

Years later, I shot a catalog for a clothing line for golfers. It was one of those negotiations where we couldn’t come to an agreement on the amount of the bid so I pulled out of the running. I had a bad feeling about the guy and his operation. I felt like it would be easier to be broke than to get involved.

Ultimately he came back and met my price, and my conditions which were, 50% up front, and the balance due on the last day of the shoot. Like I said, I just didn’t trust him. When we wrapped the shoot, I sent the client off with all the images. It looked like I was going to get away clean.

Two days later he came back to me and asked me to color correct and do re-touching on 200 images. I told him that I would work up a bid and get back to him by the end of the day. Oh, no, no, no. He wanted this as part of the price for the shoot. We went back and forth. Then he started making noises about suing me unless I would do the work.

I stood my ground and pointed out that there was nothing in our signed estimate that indicated any post production work or color correction. He countered with the fact that I wrote “color images” in my description and that he would able to convince a court that that meant “color corrected”. I told him he was out of his mind. He asked me to think about it and he would call me the following day.

I called my lawyer. The next day when he called, I told him that all future communication on the matter was to be handled through her. She wrote a letter confirming the fact and that was the last I heard about the lawsuit.

I came to learn that this guy had gone through eight photographers in six years. He used his lawsuit threats to get an unbelievable amount of free work from shooters that fell prey to his intimidation tactics. I also found out that he was running a sweatshop in downtown Los Angeles. A total scum bag.

Step 6, Bidding for bills:

There are times when funds are low and you’ll get asked to bid a job. Salvation you think. If you can get the gig, and get your advance check, you’ll make all your bills for the month. Try to avoid these situations. Bidding while desperate for money will cause you to make bad decisions. It puts you in a climate where you’ll devalue your talent for the sake of trying to low bid the field. This does nothing for you or your reputation. I know it seems like I’m speaking from some otherworldly utopian existence where no one has a bad month. Just keep it in mind as you move forward through your career. Being tight for money has a funky affect on your ego. Try to remember that your talent did not diminish, your funds did. Having a lean month doesn’t mean your not worth what you should ask for, it just means that you had a lean month.

Help With Pricing

In this industry, as you’re starting your business, trying to get someone to talk to you about pricing is sort of like trying to get a meeting with the Pope. Fortunately, there are resources. Your fees are based on a variety of things including how the photo is to be used, your expertise, length of time in the industry, and, of course, your popularity. There is no price fixing in photography, so there is no one definitive guide that will tell you exactly what your fees should be.

Bidding consultants.

Photographers consultants, or bidding consultants as they are sometimes called, are a brilliant resource if you don’t have an agent. The consultants will typically work with you in one of two ways. Behind the scenes or on the front line. If they are working behind the scenes, they will put your bid together and advise you as you negotiate the deal. If they are working on the front line, they will put the bid together as well as negotiate for you.

Working with these consultants has two very strong bonuses.

First, you’re working with someone who has been behind the scenes and understands what’s required to get a job awarded. They know what the agency and the clients are looking for in terms of actual line items as well as budget.

Second, you will learn an incredible amount of information about bidding so you can become less reliant on paying a consultant in the future.

If the job awards to you, you’ll be responsible for the bidding and negotiation fees and a small percentage of the fees that you are charging. (The above the line charges.) If the job does not award to you, then you’ll only be responsible for the bid creation and negotiation help. It’s a great arrangement that has an incentive built in for winning the job.

It’s bound to happen.

Nobody gets bidding right the first, second or twentieth time they do it. Bidding is a process that can only be honed by experience. As your talent grows as an artist so will your business acumen. Mistakes are inevitable and should never be seen as disasters. They’re just annoying things that ironically offer the best lessons. Repeatedly making the same mistake, is a disaster. If you’re prone to that type of behavior seek therapy.

Everyone undervalues themselves their first few years in the fray. It’s human nature and a part of being a creative person. After a few successful gigs, no matter how small, don’t be afraid to bump up your fees. See what happens. If the raise meets without resistance, bravo, well done, you owe me a cocktail.

Understanding Usage Licenses

“Usage License” is one of those phrases that gets bandied about without a complete understanding about what it is, and how critical it is for you as a photographer, illustrator or any other commercial creative artist. It is the legal language that defines the parameters of how, when and where your creative work can be used. This applies to work that you’ve been hired to create, as well as any existing work that is solicited for use. A usage license is the agent of your copyright. To bring some clarity as well as dispelling misinformation about usage licenses and copyright we’ve created this list of frequently asked questions.

Who owns the copyright to an original photograph, literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work?
The copyright belongs solely to the creator at the time of creation and stays with the creator until he or she transfers it someone else, or until 70 years after their death. In the case of joint authorship as in a collaboration, the 70 year period runs from the end of the year in which the last surviving author passes away.

If I own the copyright to my work how can a client that pays me to shoot, write or otherwise create an artistic work for an advertising campaign use my creation?

That’s where the usage license comes in. In a usage license you grant specific rights to your client to use your work in specific geographic locations, for a set amount of time, in specific media.

Even though I’m getting paid to create the work?

Yes, even though your client pays you, you still own the copyright, and you still have to grant the specific permissions or usages for the work.

What does a usage license look like?

This license is strictly limited to the terms and conditions below, and governed by the Copyright laws of the United States, as specified in Title 17 of the United States Code:
Licensee: The Groovy Agency
Licensor: Blinkbid
Date: 9/4/2014
Duration: 2 years
Region: The United States
Exclusivity: Exclusive
Media: Advertising All Print Publications, Advertising Out Of Home
Quantity Rights: Unlimited
Credit: Blinkbid

Wow, a usage license looks complicated and I’m no lawyer.

You can also define your own usage license by remembering the following: who, what, where and where, how long.

Who can use your license – to whom are you extending the usage license, or who is paying you.
What can be used – meaning what art, music or literature are you licensing. Also keep in mind to define what can be used from a set of multiples, like a photographic shoot, all the images or just the delivered images.
Where can it be used – meaning the geographic locations. Anywhere from a city to the world.
Where can it appear – this defines the media it can appear in from magazine print to the internet to outdoor billboards.
How long can it be used – the length of time it can be used, days, weeks, months, years – it’s whatever the deal calls for.

I don’t know, it still looks tough is there any other way to build a usage license?
You can use software like Blinkbid that has a built in tool to build you a usage license.

What happens when a usage license expires?
All the rights revert back to you.

How do magazine publication usage licenses work?

Magazines typically buy a one time only publishing usage for the specific publication. This is usually followed by an embargo period.

Embargo period?

If you shoot a cover of the September issue of Vanity Fair magazine, the magazine will have an exclusive right to your image for the month of September plus an embargo period of three to six months. During the embargo period you can’t do anything with your image even though the magazine is off the newsstands. This protects value of the publication for a reasonable time period until it loses its current event value on its own.

I heard something about sending my work to myself?

This is called a “poor man’s copyright.” It does nothing for you, save yourself the cost of the postage.

Should I register my work with the copyright office?

It depends. Even though the law recognizes you as the copyright owner of your work, a certificate of registration is incredibly difficult to refute legally, so registering your work will give you solid ammunition if you have to go after someone legally. However, the task of registering your work can be a bit of a pain, so it depends on the value you place on the work and the likelihood of someone using the work illegally.

If a blog grabs one of my photographs, literary, music or artistic work from my web site and uses it, am I gonna be rich?

Probably not. Your first course of action is to send a “cease and desist” letter to the person or blog using your work illegally. The law assumes a certain level of benefit of doubt and allows room for a copyright infringer to fix the issue. Also if a blog is talking about the work specifically, there’s something called “fair use exception” in which the constitutional tenet of free speech trumps copyright law allowing a citizen to reference your work if they are talking about it.

Okay, but how about if I see one of my photographs, literary, music or artistic work used in an advertising campaign?

Now it’s time to call your lawyer. When somebody uses your creative work without permission as a way to make money, the law is very clear that that is illegal.

This public information service is brought to you by Blinkbid Software, estimating, producing and invoicing software for creative professionals.

Blinkbid’s 3 Nevers of Photo Business

Effective bidding is a game of subtlety, Blinkbid helps keep your bidding balanced by starting you off on solid footing.

Never struggle with formatting a spreadsheet, or word processing document again.

Blinkbid arranges your numbers in an easy to read format that ad agencies and design firms love. Your time is valuable, we want you to have more of it while also effectively communicating with your client.

Never forget an item in your budget.

Blinkbid has an extensive list of line items that sit quietly to the right of your bid. Easy to glance at and easy to click on to add to your bid. Our customers love that our catalog of line items is a gentle reminder of the myriad of things necessary for a successful shoot. With Blinkbid, you’ll never go over budget because you forgot to consider a key component for your job.

Never compromise your copyright, and other legal rights.

Blinkbid has a built in, easy to use usage license builder to define your copyright usage. We also include Terms & Conditions, and estimate and invoice terms that, once set up, automatically become a part of each new job.

With a robust production budget management tool, epic customer service, a single database to store all your jobs, and a host of additional useful features, Blinkbid is the definitive business tool that will empower the business side of your photography.

The Players and the Wackadoo Process of an Advertising Campaign

I was at lunch with my friend Annie Ross. Annie had been an art buyer for 27 years and had earned an amazing reputation as being highly effective while also being one of the nicest people you’ll ever encounter. We were trying to conjure a word that we could use to describe our industry to the brave photographers venturing into advertising. Wackadoo is all we could come up with.

Contrary to what some people might make you believe, you do not need to be endowed with a miraculous photographic gift to make it in the advertising industry. What you do need is real talent, a high tolerance for rejection, a knack for politics, and a suspension of disbelief. I mention the last item because your wildest nightmares will never come close to giving you a glimpse of some of the absurdity you’ll have to accommodate to make the agency and clients happy.

Advertising photography is like no other genre of photography. It combines all the craziest elements of a creative industry; money, ego, legal paranoia, great expense account dinners, fabulous set adventures, assistants, producers, travel, insane deadlines all centered around a photograph. Wackadoo!

In order to understand wackadoo you need to understand a little bit about the roles of the people at the agency. You will primarily be dealing with the art buyer, account executive and art director. But understanding that there are more levels of approval and politics beyond these folks will give you an appreciation for what goes into getting an ad shot. It will also, hopefully, help you understand that all the drama you’ll have to deal with is not because of anything you did – well at least some of it won’t be. Also keep in mind you’ll be interacting with a lot of different personalities. Most of which are totally cool, some of which will drive you crazy.

The Client

To launch the Windows 8 operating system Microsoft reportedly spent over a billion dollars on advertising. Putting that kind of money into the creative industry can employ a lot of freelancers. Unfortunately that money has to trickle down a long way before we photographers can start dreaming about buying our first Porsche.

This is it. The beginning of the journey. Microsoft has a product and they need to tell the world about. So as the product is developed, meetings are held, and somewhere in Redmond, Washington a decision is made on how much money should be spent on advertising the new software.

But, before anyone starts writing any checks, Windows 8 needs an ad campaign. So they start looking for an agency to handle the creation, production and dissemination of the campaign. It’s now up to a select group of ad agencies to win the business of handling the advertising needs of the Microsoft.

At it’s core, the process an ad agency goes through to get this new business is not that dissimilar from the way we get our jobs as photographers. They have to present their work and hope that the client likes what they see. The difference is, we may spend thousands of dollars on our portfolios and web sites, but ad agencies will spend upwards of a million dollars on their pitch to win the new business.

The process of winning the business is essentially creating ad campaigns that the agency thinks will work for the client. As a photographer you may get called upon to be a part of this process by being asked to shoot a pitch campaign. The money is nothing to sneeze at, and the shoots are a lot of fun. When the pitch campaign is finished, the presentation to the client by the ad agency is stunning and lavish. The financial risk is enormous, but when you consider some of the numbers that I cite above, you can understand why so much cash and effort goes into trying to win the account. The agencies that win can be financially set for years, the losers usually start laying people off.

The Agency

Last year the global advertising industry spent over 500 billion dollars. So if you’re sitting in the waiting room of ad agency and wondering if you could buy a house in the midwest for the money they spent on the decorating the entry area, you could.

Ad agencies create a brand identity for a client’s product through targeted campaigns. The campaigns have to be customized for the different markets and then ultimately exposed to those markets through strategic placement. The campaigns get created, approved, produced and then placed in the appropriate media. Campaigns will include ads for television, print, outdoor, collateral brochures, direct mail, point of purchase, internet, social media…you get the idea. The creation, management and placement of all these ads is a monumental task. When it’s done right it is incredibly profitable for the agency and, hopefully, for the client with a rise in sales. When things don’t go so well, the catastrophe ends up in the trade publications as a gaffe. This will trigger a review by the client, at which point the agency will have to scramble to keep the business.

Agencies are are divided into two camps; creative and accounting. As photographers we’re initially concerned with the creative side. Ultimately we’ll have to pretend to like the accounting people as well. If it sounds like there is a bit of a rivalry between the creative folks and the accounting folks, there is. But don’t be too ready to take sides. While you’ll identify with one side more readily, the other is equally as important for you to make a living.

The Creative Director

The only real adult on the creative side of an agency is the creative director. It’s not because there is such a significant difference in maturity between the creative director and the rest of the department. It’s just that the job just has an enormous amount of responsibility.

Their job starts with looking at their dominion of talent so they can choose which writing/art directing team will be right for which project. Once the assignments are handed out the writing/art directing teams will come back to the creative director and present a slew of concepts. It’s up to the creative director to pare down the myriad of concepts down to a few that will get presented to the client who will ultimately choose one.

When the art director and writer are presenting their ideas to the client, the creative director will also be in the meeting to support his or her people. A good creative director will make sure to reign in the client when they start asking for the ridiculous. But they will also listen to the clients needs and make sure that those needs are addressed as the concepts progress to ads.

As a photographer you may not have a lot of direct involvement with a creative director, but if you happen to meet one in a dark hallway, be nice and offer to buy them a drink. You’ll be schmoozing with one of the most powerful people in agency.

The Art Directors

There are two distinctly different types of art directors. Those that are confident and know exactly what they want, and those that are insecure and are searching for the way that they are going to illustrate the concept they sold to the client. You must be friends with both. In the long chain of agency people involved with producing an ad campaign, the art director is your most direct client.

I took a meeting with an art director name Hambis. No last name, just Hambis. He was a stocky fellow from England who wore flannel shirts, jeans, boots and drove a motorcycle. In front of me were the boards (an art director’s sketches of an ad campaign) for a jeans campaign that I was booked to shoot for Hambis and his agency. No matter how hard I squinted I couldn’t get past the fact that the boards looked like Rorschach tests with stick figures. Trouble was that Hambis had a reputation as an incredible art director. So I was sure I was looking at something brilliant. But what was it? I focused and re-focused my eyes looking for something intelligent to ask when I heard his booming voice come up behind me. “What d’ya think mate? Great right? Where d’ya think we should shoot this thing.”

I responded as anyone should when faced with upsetting the person who is responsible for your rent that month. Vaguely. This bought me another 30 seconds of deciphering time as well as little more information from the man himself. He pointed at a black blob that was hanging off one of the stick figure. “A good butt mate. Makes any pair of jeans look great. So where d’ya think we should shoot this?”

After squinting at the drawings long enough I began to see some familiar shapes and offered a long straight road in the high desert. The girls could be hammering a poster for the Rodeo up on telephone pole. He looked at me and smiled. “Oy, I like that better than the side of this barn.” I smiled nervously as Hambis slapped me on the back. As we walked away, I took one last look at the sketch. I desperately wanted to see a barn.

A few months later, the Rodeo campaign, that took two days to shoot, was out. It was fantastic! All the images told their own story, but, also fit together to complete a larger story. Hambis was brilliant. He may not have been the best sketch artist, but his dexterity with computer tools and his ability to conceive visual stories was amazing. Best of all he wasn’t a control freak. Aside from some comments about detail, he let me and my crew do what we do.

Working with an art director is a collaboration. The reason you’re being sought out is because of the way you shoot pictures. When you are close to getting a job in which you’re asked to look at the boards so that you can work up a bid, you’ll be taking a meeting, or, more likely, a phone call with the art director. This is when you’ll brainstorm over your ideas on how to execute the ad. The most important thing to remember is the word “execute.” You are not being hired to re-create a brand new ad. You are getting hired to execute the existing ad. This means that you take the idea that they have and tell them how you envision it being shot.

My propensity to get overly excited about a shot, combined with my big fat mouth has put off more than one art director. As matter of fact, had it not been for the honesty of an art director that became a friend of mine, I’d probably still be annoying people right out of giving me a gig.

In some of the darker moments of my career. I’ve taken meetings with art directors that weren’t so sure about their ideas. The brainstorming session would typically be centered around a vague board that consisted of color scan of a photograph from a magazine and some text placement. If during a conversation it sounds like an art director is on a fishing expedition in your brain, they are. Don’t storm out of the office or anything like that. Just don’t go throwing your best stuff out on the table unless you have a deal to shoot the ad.

My worst experience was when an art director called me in to chat about a board that had one of the images from my web site in it. By the time I was done I had given him the location and all kinds of other ideas. I was sure that the gig was in the bag. Sadly, the only thing that was in the bag was all information I had given him. This is an extreme example to be sure, and certainly doesn’t speak to the norm for the industry, but it is out there, and you need to be aware of it.

Which brings up a topic worth mentioning. There is much controversy over the use of a photographer’s work in an ad mock ups. Technically this is an illegal use of the your photo. The American Photographic Artists has mounted several campaigns against this practice. Many of my photographer friends are divided on the issue. Personally (and this where I get a bunch of nasty emails) I don’t mind if someone uses the my work in that very limited capacity. There is a distinct line between inspiration and theft. I feel that art directors know that line. If you were to take issue with an agency for using your work in a mock up, you would get little more than having your image removed from the board and a lot of ill will. I look at the box of fashion tear sheets that I used to collect when I was starting as a photographer and figure that I did kind of the same thing when I was trying to find my own style. It’s just one of those things.

When your shooting, an art director’s job is to scrutinize the crap out of the test images. What we think is just fine, will never be close to what the art director thinks is perfect. Too much room, not enough room, what’s that spec, why are the eyes like that—etcetera, etcetera. Don’t take this personally. You don’t suck as a photographer. You just don’t have fifteen bosses you have to show the picture to when the shoot wraps. The art director does. Rather than make the mistake of getting defensive, which will screw up your ability to be creative. Just go with the flow and keep that paycheck on your mind, it will make the time go faster.

The Art Buyer

I love all art buyers. The most immaculate, wonderful people in the business.

Many of you may read this and think that I’m blatantly kissing the collective asses of a select group of people because they’re directly responsible for hiring me.


My favorite offices in any ad agency are the ones belonging to art buyers. On the walls of the office are their favorite photography promos. As you look at all the breathtaking work one phrase will repeat over and over in your head. “Whatever…I could do that.”

Art buyers are the most important people in the ad agency for us shooters. They are the ones that find the photographers for a specific job. The first contact you get for a job will be from an art buyer. They will be the person to whom you send your portfolio. They are also the ones that you submit your estimate to when you’ve been selected to bid on a job. Consider all the jobs that are being produced at any one time at an ad agency, and you’ll come to realize that art buyers are professional chaos managers.

Because of the amount of work that needs the artistic talents of photographers and illustrators, art buying is its own department run by the Senior Art Buyer or Art Services Manager. Under them they have a team of art buyers, one of whom you’ll be dealing with.

The series of events that leads up to you getting a job goes something like this; Having received approval for an ad campaign an art director will give a short list of photographers that they like for the job to the art buyer. The art buyer will draw upon their own resources and experience and add to that list. Then they’ll call all the photographers and have them send their portfolios. This is known as calling in the books. Once all the portfolios arrive the art buyer and art director will go through all them and choose a select group of photographers to be considered for the job. These photographers will then get presented to the client with the recommendations of the art director and the art buyer. Once everyone agrees on a set of photographers to be considered, the art buyer will then contact the selected photographers, send them a copy of the boards and have them estimate the job. A bid will be selected and the job will be awarded to the photographer. Once the job is awarded, the photographer will deal with the art buyer for the advance and the final invoice.

You have to keep in mind that the paragraph above is a very basic version of what happens. Their are dozens of variations. Sometimes an art director will fight hard to have a photographer they know get the job. And sometimes an art buyer will do the same. A client may give a strong recommendation that the agency go with a photographer that they’ve worked with in the past. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what the process is, as long as you’re the one they call at the end of it.

The Writers

The writers are the other half of the creative team. They’re the ones that come up with all those words that get in the way of your photography. I’ve never met a writer I didn’t like. A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that they they’re not too involved with the shoot. They’ve already written the copy and are waiting for you get your shot done, or they haven’t written the copy because they are waiting for you to get your shot done. Either way writers are the ones that are the most chill on the set.

The Account Executive

There are a few major clues that will help you identify an account executive on a photography set. They are usually dressed a bit more formally than the rest of us. They talk on their cell phones more than anyone else. And they’re ever far from the client.

There has always been an unwritten rivalry between the account people and the creative people. A lot of it stems from the account executives position. They manage the budget for the ad campaign. They are advocates for the client, but work for the agency. They look good if they save the client money and treat the client well (fabulous lunches and dinners etc.). And they are usually the ones to veto the idea of shooting a job in Barbados because of budgetary concerns.

I’ll be honest, some account people are extraordinary. They do an incredible job at being a diplomatic liaison between the agency and the client.

And then some are total nightmares. Politically selfish with their own agenda about how the budget for the gig should be used. In 22 years, two of my top five worst experiences in the business had to do with an account executive.

At the core, account executives are politicians with budgets. They are the person that goes between the agency and the client. They have the unenviable job of keeping the client happy and the creative team on budget and on time. You will deal with the account executive for a variety of different reasons, all of which will be different with each new job. I’ve shot jobs where I met the account person once, said “hi” to them across the dinner table and then gave them a hug when the job was done. And then I’ve worked with others that were on the phone with me or my producer five times a day making sure that everything was on point.

When dealing with account people I ask you to understand their position, but also stand up for yourself if you need to. Ultimately your boss is always, the client and the art director.

The Ad Campaign

Much in the same way that we photographers present our creative work to ad agencies in the hopes of getting a gig – ad agencies present their creative work to the companies they represent in the hopes of selling a campaign. The amount of work and process that goes on before you even get called to submit your portfolio is staggering.

Knowing that process will go a long way to help you understand all the politics and other nonsense that you get exposed to when you’re shooting an ad.

It starts with looking for the messenger.

There are consulting firms like Ark Advisors, that match ad firms with companies that need to do some marketing. Ark Advisors will suggest several advertising firms after doing an assessment of needs and budgets etc. Then the company will have chemistry meetings with the suggested ad agencies.

Desperately important things are considered at the chemistry meetings. How do the art directors dress? Do they smell funny? What kind of coffee do they serve in the ad agency kitchen? But there are also serious considerations like, does the ad agency understand what the company is trying to sell. Does it understand the brand, and the customers. For example if you were a company selling automobiles, you might not be a good fit for an ad agency whose biggest client is an organic iguana food producer.

Next, the ad agencies that are under consideration will get a brief from the company. In the brief is all kinds of information about the products they want to sell. They will also give the agencies under consideration some seed money to put together a pitch. The seed money is not a lot, it’s more like a stipend to demonstrate that the company is serious in its consideration of the agency. The agency will typically spend a pile of its own money on the pitch in the hopes of winning the business.

In advertising, the creative is only a small part of the overall campaign. There are things like media planning (where the ads are going to get placed), strategy planning (who do we want to reach, how do we reach them, what time do we go to lunch), and budget planning (how will the company’s money be spent. The nitty gritty of all the different planning departments is actually interesting. You would be astounded at all the things that money is spent on. But the creative department is by far the coolest, so I’m going to focus on that.

I dunno, what do you think?

Once the ad agency has it’s seed money from their potential client, they figure out different advertising strategies. The creative director starts by doling out assignments to his writer/art director teams. And they go off to brew up little cups of genius ideas to be considered to be presented to the potential client.

As a photographer you should pay special attention. During this phase of winning a new client, art directors are going to be looking for photographers to shoot spec ads. This is good because you can make a couple of bucks in an environment that is super fun, and much more open to creative interpretations. It’s also an opportunity to prove yourself to an art director. So if you get called in to shoot a spec ad, bring your absolute best game. The art director is looking for creative input, not just a technician. If you have some groovy ideas about how the ad should be shot, throw them down on the table. This is your time to be impressive in a room that is open to change, which is not the case when you’re brought in to shoot a formal ad campaign.

Also, keep in mind that the spec ad that you shoot is probably never going to get produced into an actual print campaign. The public will probably never see it, but it will sure look good in your portfolio.

Don’t count your chickens…

Okay here’s the plain truth. I shot a decent number of spec ads in my time. I had a good time, made friends with art directors, and went to bed and dreamt about shooting the actual ad campaign. This turned into a constant fantasy when I learned the agency I did the spec for for had won the client. Then, luck shined, I was asked to bid the job. So I started talking big at the bar. “Yeah, I already got the job in the bag. Shot the spec you know. This bid stuff is so the agency can look like it’s doing its job, but I expect to have that gig awarded any day. The drinks are on me!”

It my early years of advertising, I almost never got the gig. Man oh man would I get depressed. I would launch into a massive bout of self loathing combined with an obsessive recounting of the entire spec process to attempt to figure out where I went wrong. The mental spiral got even more dramatic when I had to shoot some actor’s head shots to pay the credit card bill I ran up buying everyone drinks.

What happened? It took a few years of going through this a couple of times, but I came to understand that it wasn’t my fault. It won’t be your fault either. But you’ll still take the rejection personally, just like I still do. It’s who we are as artists. Honestly, even after all the years that I’ve been shooting, if a suburban house wife were to tell me at the last minute that I couldn’t shoot her six year old kid’s birthday party because my work was too intense—it would still mess with my head.

All that said, if you do get approached to shoot a spec, hop on it. Get creative and bring your ideas openly to the art director. The experience is never a bad thing. It’s a lot of fun and if you do get called back to do the ad, it’s the real deal. For all the times I got looked over, I had one time that I didn’t. And that turned into a lucrative campaign that I got to shoot twice in a row.

Okay, now what do you really think?

When the agency has won the client, the creative process becomes more formalized. The creative teams will sit in on the big product meetings that include the ad agency, as well as all the people on the client side that produce the product.

The product gets talked about in minutia. As boring as this hyper deconstruction of the product may seem, the creative teams pay close attention. They never know from where they’re going to derive the next idea and selling point. So they keep a very broad mind.

Then the creative teams get to work on ideas for ad campaigns. A team may come up with, no exaggeration, hundreds of concepts. These ideas will be discussed with the creative director. The writer, art director and creative director will also be in close contact with the account executive. The account executive is a liaison between the ad agency and the client. They also have their eye on the budget and the timing of when the ad needs to get finalized.

From the hundreds of ideas the list will get culled down to around thirty for presentation to the client. These ideas are presented with full boards and scripts. At the presentation meeting the creative team is hoping the client will buy or approve one of their campaigns.

Celebrate immediately.

A good friend who is a major art director in Los Angeles told me that when a client approves an ad campaign the best thing to do is shut up, pack up, leave and celebrate immediately. You absolutely do not want to give the client any room to change their mind.

Are your ears burning?

With the ad approved, and the celebration hangover fading, the search for the right photographers starts. Art directors will usually hand the art buyer a short list of photographers that they’d like to work with for the ad. The art buyer will take that list and determine if the folks on the list are appropriate for the budget. By that I mean, the art buyer is not going to call Mario Testino’s people to shoot a regional flyer for a labor day sale at a local clothing store.

The art buyers will also consult their own resources to find other photographers to be considered. These resources include their own file folders filled with promos that they’ve been collecting for years. They may also ask friends, and do some digging on the internet.

Now that you know how powerful the art buyers are to getting photographers work, you’ll understand why I always like to say, “Art buyers are lovely, amazing, beautiful people.”

The initial onslaught of portfolios that are called in to the agency get scrutinized by the art buyer, art director, creative director, client, and even the account executive. After much discussion and discussing of favorites with the client, the contenders emerge. This is when the “how much to shoot the gig” phone calls go out the photographers selected to bid on the job. It’s a call that you as a photographer should love and hate at the same time. Love it because it’s work. Dread it because no one except for the seriously deranged likes to put a bid together.

The bottom line.

Art buyers will scrutinize the line items of your bid. They’re looking for really stupid mistakes, gross exaggerations, or blatant decadence like an on set masseuse.

Art buyers are cool people. They are not the enemy. Say it with me. “art buyers are your friend.” While they may not readily give the budget available for the shoot, they will not hate you for asking questions. If you are a rookie, the art buyer knows this, so don’t try to pretend that you know what you’re doing. Ask the art buyer silly questions, they will happily tell you the answers. They want your bid in competitive shape as much as you do. You’re not going to get dinged for getting a complete understanding of the bid. Keep in mind that if your bid sucks, the art buyer is going to have to get in touch with you to make it better any way. So forget about your preconceived notions of perception, you and the art buyer are friends. If you ask a question that the art buyer can’t answer, they’ll tell you so—and that will be the end of it.

Celebrate immediately part 2.

There are a significant number of people involved in producing an ad. If you think about the personalities and the politics, you can understand why things can move real smooth or real rough. The shoots that are nightmares, and you will have several, will by their definition keep you up nights. You will always survive them. The abolute best thing to do in these disasters is maintain your integrity. If someone on your crew makes a huge mistake, it’s your responsibility, don’t throw your people under the bus unless they do something criminal. Remember, the best way to correct a mistake is to already be thinking of a solution.

The best shoots are the ones that have a little chaos, with a group of calm experienced people working on it. You get to learn the most, and have the a lot of fun with a bunch of talented people who are all trying to achieve a common goal. It is on those shoots that you will make your life long friends.

Always remember, the completion of any job deserves some sort of celebration. It is the only way that you can prepare to throw yourself back into the circus again.