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.