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Thursday, July 26, 2007

In negotiations, consider Career Development

Today, I want to return to a particularly important issue facing emerging photographers: a reminder that career development is a multi-faceted animal, and it should be part of all business thinking.

For example, I got the following email recently:

I am in negotiations with a travel company based in Tanzania. I'm asking that they provide me with a 3 week package to go on a Safari, hike Kilimanjaro, and a trip to Zanzibar plus $2000. In return I will give them photos (which they desperately need) of the travel experience, portraits of their workers (~12 people), architectural photos of their facilities, etc. External expenses such as airfare will be covered by myself. Do you think I'm pricing this fairly, to myself or them?

The problem facing most photographers who face this dilemma is that they don't have the empirical experience of multiple sales and sales contexts to know what might be an appropriate fee. So they rely on others for guidance. This is intuitive, but is fraught with all sorts of problems.

Namely, what may be a good deal for one photographer may not be for another because a "deal" usually involves more issues than just the simple exchange of money. There are actually two factors involved: the money, but also the objective of "career development." It turns out that both tie to the same thing when you're just starting out. When it comes to negotiation, you have to evaluate the total value of what what you get from the deal, not just the money involved. Similarly, the other party does the same thing. If both sides perceive a balanced weighting between what is given up and what is received, then "fair" has been accomplished.

Career Development is most important in negotiation
When you're a new photographer, it's important to identify what your longer term goals are, and understand what you need to do to get there. This will help you establish what you perceive to be valuable, which itself evolves as your career does. For example, consider these intangible benefits that most photographers don't factor into the negotiation process: (I am paraphrasing from my chapter on "business sense" from my first book on the photography business which you can see here).

  1. Is it the kind of trip that can yield photos with stock potential?
  2. Is this a long-term business relationship? or a new one? Might this be the kind of client that you may work with for a long time? Or is it just a one-off opportunity?
  3. Would this trip give you good and new experiences at the business of being a travel photographer? That is, would it give you credibility that, without it, you lack?
  4. If you could afford to pay for it yourself, and if you felt that there was value in the photos, would this be a trip you would go to your own expense to cover? (Hence, it's "value.")

These are the questions you ask yourself to determine the inherent value of the trip as it pertains to your longer-term career objectives. Obviously, you want to optimize your financial gain in any negotiation; no sense in leaving money on the table if you don't have to. But at least having a sense of the value of the other things I just listed gives you a broader perspective on just how high or low you're willing to go to get the gig.

My experience with Kilimanjaro and the safari in general is that it's great stock footage, so speaking strictly from a financial point of view, it's a trip that yields long term financial returns, especially if you're trying to spread your photo assets across many subjects.

Another thing about Kilimanjaro is that it's very expensive for a tour operator to send a photographer, so if you have it under your belt, it's a good sign for other (future) clients that you've been deemed trustworthy by at least someone else for such an expense. This is often a door-opener for many photographers to new clients. So, again, there's a lot of value to that.

Similarly, the fact that you've been there "on assignment" gives you tangible experience working with clients and staff together. This not only has inherent value in itself, but you can be more articulate about the business to future clients, giving a stronger sense of your worth.

The question is back to whether they would pay you in addition to sending you, and if so, how much. Here's where it comes to your thinking on this: do you risk losing it all by bidding a price they wouldn't accept, or should you leave potential money on the table (amount unknown, of course) just to assure you get the gig?

Foot in the door
Speaking from personal experience, when I was getting started, I was more than happy to take this kind of trip and shoot it for free (though, they would pay all expenses). I would not only have the value of the trip I just listed, but I established a relationship that could lead to more work that is paid. And sure enough, that's exactly what happened.

Some in the industry vigorously respond, "but you just underbid another, hard-working photographer, stealing his business." First, if that were truly the case, chances are more likely that the client hired me because the other guy was deemed not to be worth what he was charging. Even then it's not that simple--taking a risk by hiring an unknown photographer has its downsides as well. Thus, the assumption that it's just about money is naive. In the travel business, the "cost" of sending a photographer has multiple line items: trips themselves are substantial, often far exceeding whatever his day rate is, but there's also the good will with the clients, which a "green" photographer can damage pretty quickly. (And the cost of that is priceless.) Finding a good, worthy photographer who gets good images is easy. The hard part is finding someone that actually contributes to the trip--knowing how to interact with clients, acting as a virtual "leader." Finding such a person is hard enough--you don't just let go a good one just because some unknown photographer came by and offered to shoot a trip for free. That'd be stupid.

So, why shoot for free if you don't have to? Foot in the door. Much the same way people will use discount cards to try a new restaurant they might not otherwise choose. Or two-for-one coupons to try a new product they might not otherwise try. Discounts are used everywhere throughout every aspect of every industry. If you're trying to penetrate a new market against competition, discounting is usually an effective way. And if you don't have anything else to offer--like experience and a portfolio of high-end clients--then this is often your only option.

Just as I know there are other photographers try to unseat my current position with that client by offering to shoot trips for free, my client knows that my value is a known quantity, and it's not worth risking whatever my day rate may be for a given trip, just to get an unknown to screw it up. In short, I'm not just a hired guy to take photos--I represent the company when I go.

Obviously, I no longer need to shoot trips for free, but that doesn't mean that I don't continually weigh the cost-benefits for any new client. Even at this stage of my career, it's not just about money. It's never just about money. Anyone just starting in the business should thinking about money last. All the other factors associated with "building a career" should come first. Yes, do what you can to optimize your financial return, but negotiation is the hardest thing to do in this business, and doing so from a position of inexperience is the worst position to be in.

Going too far
On the other extreme, you can go too far: I've seen people pay for the trip themselves, and still give the images to the client in hopes of getting more work. That doesn't work so well simply because the same thing can be accomplished by not giving them the final images, but by merely showing them to the client. In fact, this is how I got my very first assignment. I was a regular paying client for a company, and I shot for fun. I would show them photos I took on each trip, till they asked me to shoot for them.

The lesson here is: don't give away for free what doesn't get you anything in return. Remember, there should be an sense of equal value for what you exchange. Granted, that analysis isn't easy--and people make mistakes all the time. (Experience is the result of having learned from your mistakes.) As such, some people will simply never succeed as photographers, or in many other professions, simply because they don't have a good sense for this sort of thing. That said, you don't get better at it by asking other photographers for advice--their needs and experiences are too different from yours, and you need to think intuitively on your own. Never look at a single assignment and be concerned about what to do about it. Think about longer-term objectives, and consider those issues that contribute to it. The chapter in my book that deals with "business sense" outlines the kind of questions posed at the beginning of this article for how to do that analysis yourself.

There is no such thing as a "base rate" or any kind of formula that one can identify as "fair" that spans across the industry, or among individuals, It's all subject to where people are in their careers, and their self-recognition of these factors.

Still, there are methods
Now, with all that said, there are some tricks to negotiation that can help minimize damage. For example, never initiate an offer to shoot for free--you look desperate and, worse, too inexperienced (at maturity, not just the photo business). It's always important to gauge what their perceived need is in the first place. Trying to convince a company that their photos are bad and that you can do better for them is starting from a very weak position. If they aren't aware of the value of photography in their marketing materials, then you'll have as much luck as asking someone out on a date that doesn't find you attractive in the first place. It's best to move on.

If they're teetering on the fence, it may not be a great long-term client (because it's so much better to have clients who themselves have good business sense), but it may be worth getting a free trip and some experience under your belt.

And then there's the client that knows the value of photography in their business, and is eager to find a new candidate to work with. This may not only be a good long-term client, but if you're good at sensing their need, you may be able to capitalize on it by having them propose a "rate" to you, rather than you to them. whatever it is, chances you are that you take it because you've already found a potential long-term partner, and you don't want to appear "difficult." In fact, I've been in weird circumstances where it was to my advantage to just say, "pay me whatever you think is fair--I'll take it." This reverse psychology can yield interesting results... and even if they offer you nothing, if you come away having done a good job, you'll have some tokens on your side that will be much easier to cash in later.

If they haven't done this a lot either, then they may be as unsure about it as you are, putting the question of "day rate" back to you. Rather than each eying the other, this could be another opportunity to work on longer-term goals: offer to shoot two trips over the course of a year, and then come up with a number if the relationship is to continue. by that time, you'll have learned a lot, and it'll be much easier. When two parties get along, such questions work themselves out.

You can almost always tell what kind of company you're dealing with by looking at their existing marketing materials--from their website to their printed matter--as well as where they advertise, and other things. You can tell how seriously they take photography.

If you're dealing with a company that appeals to the budget traveler, don't even consider convincing them of paying you money on top of the cost to send you on the trip. If they are an up-and-coming high-end business, they may not be able to afford to pay you a per-diem day rate now, but they will later, in which case (again) the real value is the long term relationship. In fact, I once told a company I would shoot the trip for free if they guaranteed a follow-on trip at my normal day rate. If they chose not to, they'd pay me for the initial trip and we'll call it square. They accepted the proposal and loved my pictures, but in this case, I opted not to work with them because they were excessively high maintenance in other ways. (Asking me for help in the photo department that I had no time or incentive to offer.)

Again, the retort to "free" or "discounted rates": there are undoubtedly photographers who will respond with, "if you let them take advantage of you now, you'll never get paid a fair rate." Or that "you lose respect by shooting for free." That is not only over-simplistic nonsense that has no basis in economic principles, but it begins a relationship on an adversarial tone. "Being tough" only works if you have the knowledge and experience that people can sense. If you're green and naive, you can't possibly mask it, so your best bet is to allow it to work to your advantage.

Yet, the original premise still exists: everything has weightings, and you factor into the bigger picture whether any given assignment (or client) is worthwhile. If you shoot for a client for free to get your foot in the door, and they never want to pay you more because you've already established your lower rate, you move on to the next client. Armed with more photos and experience and wherewithal, your "entry" doesn't have to be free. In fact, jumping ship to a new client for more money is a well-practiced tradition in many industries (in the United States at least).

Even for those rare clients that would "take advantage," They are easy to spot as business people before you get very far. But even a bad client can provide good opportunities--a free trip to Kilimanjaro?! Who's taking advantage of whom?

In summary, consider long-term career goals when entering the photo business. Putting too much value on the "money" aspect is not just short-sightedness that will never serve you well, but you'll also fail to adopt better methods of negotiation that can only come from seeing how broader issues tie together to lead to more beneficial conditions.

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