My friend Paul O’Mahony is a sharp cookie. The counter in his kitchen is where I get many valuable business lessons. Really, he should found a business school around that counter top. It would rival any in the world. The experience would be immersive, funny, enlightening and there would be excellent wine, coffee or tea. Last time there was home-baked fruit cake too.
Both Paul and I work as creatives. He and his business partner Jonathan Amm build brands (“Get your story straight”). I’m a storyteller (“Get your story told”). We are similar in how the marketplace perceives our value and our time. Often, they are rated at zero.
The world for a song
Recently, I was asked by a company what I would charge for photography that would express its corporate values. It was a sizable commission too. Lots of images. All told, in excess of three days’ work.
Moreover, The delivered images would front the business internationally for several years. As such, their value to the client was considerable.
I proposed a silly fee. It was far too little. But I know the local market and photography isn’t generally seen as essential. I quoted €2,500.
I received a one line email within five minutes of sending the estimate. My price was “way more” than the company was willing to spend.
What, I wondered, was the budget?
I was told: €400.
€400 for bespoke photography designed around the business’ core values.
€400 for images intended to carry the standard for the company on the international stage for the foreseeable future.
It gets worse. As Paul carved off three slices of the fruit cake, we mulled over the process of business acquisition. We traded stories about how we’re often asked to do work for no pay at all. Specifically, we both get asked to write proposals as part of the process of pitching for business. Paul wrote about how ludicrous that is here: Two Businessmen Playing Golf.
In recent months, I’ve produced a number of detailed proposals for clients that contain a chunk of creative work. This is quality work for no pay. It is quality work in two senses. First, it has cost me time. Time is the most valuable thing I have. Every day, I have a little less longer left. That makes time my most valuable asset. Second, (and I know this makes me sound arrogant) the creative concepts in the proposals were first rate.
Worse still, I’ve been invited to pointless face-to-face meetings by potential clients. The guise is exploration of possible synergies, possible work, get to know each other. Balderdash. Neither they nor I have benefited from these meetings. We just wasted time. No work was commissioned.
Who’s to blame?
Speak to the MAN
Paul offered a solution. An acronym comprising the first letters of three key words within pertinent questions to ask a potential client at first contact. He also told me the source of his insight. I regret that my memory has never been particularly robust and the name escapes me. I remember the acronym however. (See Paul’s comment below for the source).
Does the client have the Money?
Do they have the Authority to spend it?
Do they need your service Now?
If the answer is “No” to any of the above, you politely disengage*.
If I’d done this with the €400 company, I’d have saved myself the effort of going through their detailed website wireframe and producing a comprehensive quote. I would have spent an hour and a half of my life more wisely.
Only when a potential client can answer the MAN with “Yes” across the board are they invited into the next room. This room, though, contains a surprise for them. Entry costs money.
The meter is always running
Potential clients regularly ask creatives to draw up proposals. Often based on only a vague idea of their requirements. Moreover, they expect the proposal to be drawn up for free. The carrot is the promise of paid work if the proposal strikes a chord.
What a ridiculous way to go about your business. And when I say “you” I mean “me”. I’m as guilty as the next guy. Maybe more so. In fact, I know so. You’re wiser than I am. I’m a business disaster.
Paul suggested a better way. Get the client to write the proposal themselves. Sound crazy? Ask yourself this: would you ask an architect to design a house for you for free and if you liked their suggestion you’d pay for it? No. You’d have a good idea of what you wanted and would pay them to design your house to your specification.
If you are reading this thinking to yourself, “Overall, you’re an idiot. How have you managed to get this far without knowing this?”, I completely agree with you. I’ve been foolish. I live and learn.
Avoiding lazy clients
My goal now is to avoid lazy clients. To do this effectively, I need to make sure that they have ample opportunity to do the ground work before they engage with me. I must make it easy for them too.
Want to get to know me? Get a feel for my personality and my work? I must ensure that my business websites are clear. The same for my blogs. I have a size 14 social media footprint but I must ensure it is coherent.
I must be clear about my pricing. If you’re hiring me as an individual, photography is charged at €750 upwards. Video work is charged at €1,500 upwards. Those aren’t day rates by the way. That’s another mistake I’m not making again. If you’d like to engage Story Foundry, you’ll need a five-figure budget a least.
As soon as I have to engage my brain, the meter gets switched on. Just like when you visit your dentist or doctor.
Nor do I haggle. Just like you don’t at the supermarket. Everyone gets the same rate. That’s fair, isn’t it?
The creative backbone
Such an approach won’t resonate with some people. They’ll counsel a measure of Realpolitik:
- Drop your price to secure the business without reducing the deliverable.
- Charge a day rate like everyone else.
- Keep fees below your immediate competitors.
- Go to all and any face-to-face meeting that gets you in front of a prospective client, regardless of how ill-defined their needs are.
Creatives are especially sensitive to these arguments.
None of these sit well with me. That’s all I can say.
The trick is finding ways round them. Many of the solutions I need are gifted to me at the counter in Paul O’Mahony’s kitchen. Sometimes there’s cake too.
*This is my recollection of the acronym. My memory is porous, however. If it is wrong, it is likely the fault is with me rather than Paul. ADDENDUM: Turns out it was wrong. Chris Byrne has been in touch via Twitter: