Advice on Estimating: How and When to Negotiate with Agencies About Budgets

July 12, 2017

By Ian Spanier

© F Scott Schafer

From a shoot for Tru TV - Adam Ruins Everything

© Marco Grob

From a shoot with Marvel - Captain America Civil War

© Thomas Prior

From a shoot with Under Armour

© Magdalena Wosinska

From a shoot with Urban Outfitters - Wranglers

Whether working with a budget that’s big or small, getting the job done is of the utmost importance for both you and your client. Therefore, it’s essential that you make sure you have what you need from the budget beforehand. However, navigating the delicate waters of how to speak with clients and set expectations is a challenge even for the most experienced among us.

As a photographer, the position of being the creative voice/negotiator is precarious. When it comes to keeping yourself out of the muck and focusing on the creative, working with a producer can be invaluable. That’s why I decided to speak with one of the best in the business: Deborah Burch, producer and owner of Snog Productions Inc. (You can also find her on Instagram and Facebook.) Deborah has been working with photographers like Marco Grob, F Scott Schafer, Andrew Eccles and Hugh Kretschmer, among a slew of others. Her client list is equally impressive: NBCUniversal, Netflix, Hulu, Mountain Dew, Urban Outfitters, Sony, Subaru, Vanity Fair, Asics and more. In summary, Deborah recognizes that the client-photographer relationship can be tricky when budgets are tight, but maintaing a solution based mentality is key to her success. Here’s how she does it.

Ian Spanier:  If you’re bidding on a job with no budget, where do you begin?

Deborah Burch: It all depends. I’ll come up with a game plan with the photographer to get an outline of a budget, and at that point, it’s important to find out if the job will take any special equipment, crew or technical things that can impact the budget.  I like to start by budgeting according to what I know it will take to get a job done in a professional and productive way. I usually budget what I feel comfortable with, and then always let the agency/client know I can be flexible and revisit costs if needed. If the estimate is coming in high, but the photographer is the top choice creatively, they will usually respond openly with an amount that we need to trim to be competitive with the other bidders.

IS: What happens after you’ve painstakingly created a proper estimate for a job, but the client wants it much lower.

DB: I generally review everything with the photographer or director and see if there are areas that we can try and trim to be competitive.

I also see if there are any cost-effective adjustments that can be made on the creative side that can help us get to the budget goal without compromising overall creative.

Depending on how much lower the client is requesting, I either say that it is not possible, or I try and offer a solution that could work with the budget they are aiming for (i.e. fewer shots, alternative locations, less talent, etc.).

Being solution-oriented is a big part of the job description for being a good producer, so if you can show the client you are willing to think outside-of-the-box from the start, they know they will be in good hands if any obstacles come up while in production.

IS: As budgets shrink, how do you make sure crew is paid fairly, there’s food on set and also some room for the unexpected?

DB: It’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. Taking care of crew is always a priority because they are the support system and foundation of the shoot. A happy and well-fed crew can help maintain a positive energy on set and this is priceless.

Loyalty also plays a role. If you have crew or vendors who you work with frequently, they sometimes will be willing to offer discounts or help (in some way) to keep you on the budget.

It’s also important to establish open and clear communication with the agency/client with regards to expectations and job delivery. It’s important that we are fair with people’s time. If the budget is tight, there has to be accountability with requests.

IS:  What happens when you’ve estimated a certain amount of money for equipment and your client is questioning it? 

DB: The client has a creative vision in mind and we are hired to execute this vision. If equipment is vital to this execution there shouldn’t be any argument.

The photographer should be able to assist in explaining the technical approach and the importance of the equipment if needed.

IS:  Let’s talk about line items. Are they helpful or hurtful in an estimate?

DB: For me, they are very helpful. When I bid on jobs, I try and be specific as I can and provide transparency regarding where money is being spent.

In addition, line items are vital in tracking your expenses and doing a running budget in production and billing.

IS:  What is your best piece of advice for managing clients when they don’t understand an estimate?

DB: I would say try and be solution based. Collaboration and communication are key. I’m always willing to get on the phone with a client and discuss costs line by line.

We all know the reality that demands are high these days, and budgets often don’t match. Having the lines of communication open, whether it is you, your agent or a producer speaking on your behalf, is paramount. Photographers need to protect not only their rate but also their crew, and that means having the right tools for the job covered in the final budget.