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Taking Control of Your Billings

From The Creative COW Magazine

Creative COW Magazine presents Taking Control of Your Billings

Mark SuszkoMark Suszko
Springfield Illinois, USA

©2007 Mark Suszko and All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
5 rules for getting paid for your creativity. The relationship between client and professional is wrought with pitfalls, frustrations and miscommunications. Save yourself from many common business problems by taking these five rules and putting them in your arsenal of business wisdom from Bessie and Mark Suszko.

It's not always hard. I get assignments where the clients just give me a cursory brief and then turn me loose. Sometimes it's because we have such a well-established working relationship and mutual trust, they say, "I know you can handle this. Just use your own judgment and call me when you get to the approval stage."

Other times, it's a very inexperienced client with no clue at all. I prefer in those cases that they pretty much abandon the work in my lap and leave things up to me.

If you come across a client like that, you know that they're looking for outside stimulation. Actually, I find it quite exciting working this way if the stakes aren't too high. I usually come back at them with rough comp pitches for 2-3 ways I'd like to go, and let them pick from those.

If they like some design of yours, they'll likely as not wag the dog to make it conform to the tail you've shown them. Whatever direction you inspire in them can only help.

As for trying to drag clients into more professional creative behavior, well, some folks you can educate, and some you can't. Don't beat yourself up over the ones that just don't "get it." Save your energy and best efforts for the ones that make the work worth it.


"Worth it" assumes that you're going to get paid. I recently got a question about pricing a spot for a local car dealership, which brought up a number of issues around creativity and getting paid.

First, I'm shocked that this guy had a chance to work for "Faustian Motors, Home of Hellishly Good Dealz" at all. Usually the local cable company grinds spots out at a shockingly low fee nobody else can match, maybe even free if the customer agree to buy the ad package from the cable company.

The good news for you is that their "free" productions usually look like what they cost. Now the customer comes to you, ready to pay, as long as you follow some simple rules.

RULE 1: NEVER do the job for a flat fee, ever.

You can charge a day rate, but don't charge halfdays. In practice, a half day is never half a day, so it's virtually impossible to do two half-day shoots in a single day.

Hourly rates are critical because completion times are always an estimate. As in car repair, it may take longer, and you'll have to charge accordingly if it does.

Always get at least a partial deposit in advance. Many folks like working in thirds: a third up front, a third after the shoot or first rough cut screening, and the final third paid in full upon delivery of the approved final master. Pay your own expenses and any rentals or crew costs out of the up-front money. Adjust the amount of the first "third" to make sure this can happen.

And don't start a second project for a client before the first one is all paid for. Set this in stone and tell the client in advance. You're not a finance company! Send them to a bank if they want to work with the interest from somebody else's money,

RULE 2: Discounts never die.

Never believe the proposition that if you do the one or two, or however many projects, at a discount, you'll get a lot more future business at a higher rate.

My own personal rule is to walk away from clients that ever mention this proposition. Any time they suggest a price "adjustment" for volume, suggest they have it happen on the "back end." That is, no, you won't drop your rate on these first spots, but if "we" establish a good working relationship now, you'll start cutting them a volume deal on spot number five and after that.

Repeat this mantra: "I am not a finance company."

RULE 3: Get it in writing.

Spell it all out: what you're doing, at what rate. Specify the deadlines for your work and the client's payments. What happens if the deal is canceled? What format and how many copies are you responsible for delivering?

Who owns the tapes that were shot and the shots once done? Will you be able to include these spots in a demo reel? Will the client provide any stock footage, logos, or other elements?

All these agreements need to be in writing, or they never happened.

Don't forget to write out who pays for errors and changes. How many changes are allowed before a new deal must be arranged? My rule of thumb is, one set of free changes after the rough cut screening or the first time they see the edited master. I interpret this pretty liberally as long as the changes don't require new elements. Mistakes they make, like spelling, they pay for; mistakes I make, I eat.

After a second screening, any more changes are billed as a new job.

RULE 4: It costs what it costs.

The original question was about pricing a spot for a car dealer, so here's the answer in terms they can understand. If they complain about the extra charge for undercoating the back side of all your luma keys, tell them they do that at the factory and you can't take that off -- but you'll go talk to your manager and see if you can make an "adjustment."

Seriously, build a reasonable profit into your rate. Only you know what that means. Divide the time you spend, into the money you hope to make after expenses. Otherwise, you risk working for a wage that qualifies you for your own plastic name tag and spatula.

So work out your true costs of doing business and your profit. Then add some margin on top for safety. See if you're somewhere at least in the upper middle range of competitor's rates for similar work, then reevaluate after the first job.

While it's right to pay attention to what others charge, don't let that figure rule you: they can be lowballing, or have some other reason they can afford to charge too low. If you lowball the first time out, it's hell trying to raise your rate later when it becomes apparent to you that you haven't been charging enough.

And never agree to work at a too-low rate because it's "good for your portfolio/demo reel." Charge business clients a business rate. If you need "free" work for your reel, do pro bono work for your favorite charity instead. It saves you from the pain of trying to raise your rates to the proper level later, and it's better karmically.

RULE 5: Run it by Bessie.

Visit Creative Cow's Business & Marketing forum any time your spider-sense starts tingling or if you just don't know for sure. These guys are very smart and eager to let you benefit from their vast experience and help you avoid mistakes they've made. You have a huge resource and support team here working for you: use it!

It's not just about getting paid

You got into this business to be creative. So what do you when the juices just aren't flowing?

Spend 30 minutes trying to make as many different things with a can of playdough or stack of sugar cubes as possible. Take out a box of crayons or colored pencils and try to sketch something.

Go to the magazine rack in a Barnes & Noble or Borders. Grab a huge stack of magazines you've never read before, particularly in the arts section, but really any genre. Flip through them rapidly, getting fast little impressions. Do the same thing as you wander through library stacks: pull out random things and flip through them.

Go to a museum, any museum, but an art exhibit is particularly good.

Do random Google image searches using obscure and esoteric keyword combinations.

Play some music you haven't listened to for years. Find new music using some of the "if you like this, you might also like" features at iTunes, emusic, Amazon, etc.

Take a walk downtown and look at random things using a little cardboard frame or a 35mm slide frame. Or walk downtown with a digital camera and a fat, empty memory card, and randomly hit the shutter on the beat while listening to some music on headphones, without ever looking in the viewfinder. Examine the results later.

Take the five best shots into Photoshop and start randomly applying every filter you've got to them. Keep a notepad or save out occasional serendipitous results.

Take your public transportation bus line or train all the way to the end of some line and back. Take it someplace new, and get out and walk around.

Browse an ethic food store to find things you've never seen before.

Sit in some public place like a park or terminal. Spend an hour watching the people and making up their life stories in your head based just on what you see.

In other words, play with chaos every once in a while.

Mark SuszkoMark Suszko
Springfield, Illinois USA

Mark Suszko has close to 30 years of experience as a writer/producer/director/editor/anything else, most of it working in government video production for the State of Illinois, as well as a private freelance production and teleprompter rental business. Mark has long history in the Creative COW website and is one of the most prolific posters and contributors in the COW's Business & Marketing forum.

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