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THE UNFORESEEN CONSEQUENCES OF UNPROFITABLE JOBS | by Tom Zimberoff

Some photographers think that any fee they can collect on a day that would not otherwise have been booked counts as profit. At first this seems like a logical assumption, because the alternative is - well, zero. Even just a little income has to be better than nothing at all, right? But there are really bad consequences to that line of thinking. It is delusional. Consider, hypothetically, a photographer just out of school who goes after the "Big Job" without looking at the bigger picture.

After many months of pounding the pavement and showing off a great portfolio he finally landed the assignment of his dreams. The results were beautiful. The client was pleased. But because he hadn't accurately anticipated all of the production costs and had to use his credit card to finance the shoot, and because he had to wait ninety days for a check that didn't quite cover all of his direct, job related costs plus his fixed overhead, he went broke before the pictures were published. He crashed and burned on take off. It has happened many times in real life.

It has too often been said, "Well, the client will just ask someone else if I don't shoot this job. I wasn't booked anyway; so I'll do it just to make something. I've got to pay the rent!" But, in spite of such "reasoning," two consequences are inevitable:

• The photographer who works for a less-than-profitable price has either intentionally or thoughtlessly - it doesn't make any difference - lowballed the job. That photographer will never work for that client at a higher rate.
• The corporate CFO (chief financial officer, a.k.a. the top bean counter) will expect subsequent jobs to come in at no more than the windfall low price he was just billed. He will therefore impose correspondingly lower budgets on the art buyers who report to him, the same art buyers who hand out assignments. A lower budget will, in turn, be imposed on the next photographer in line for an assignment, and so on.

If you are that next photographer in line you have to make a choice. If you make the wrong one it may haunt you for years to come. Do you want to be considered only for jobs with paltry budgets, i.e. to be offered only the $500 assignments and never considered for the $5,000 ones? Or worse yet, do you want to be offered all the $5,000 jobs for $500?

If you accept an unprofitable assignment your decision will have an indirect - but nonetheless adverse - effect on your fellow photographers as well as on yourself. All photographers will find it increasingly difficult to negotiate reasonable fees or to earn profits because the bean counters will be mandating lower budgets, now they know "there's one born every minute." That's what causes the kind of pressure that keeps ratcheting fees down lower and lower, one job at a time, job after job after job.

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The following is based on a true story. It involves two photographers, Phil Flash and Otto Focus.

Phil, while visiting an art director's office at the Acme Advertising Agency in San Francisco, noticed a photo on the wall and remarked how superb it was. The AD said, "Oh yeah! Otto shot that for me. I love working with that guy. He only billed me five hundred bucks for an assignment fee, and I reimbursed his expenses at cost." With some consternation, Phil could see that it was a rather complex shot, produced on location for a major pharmaceutical company.

Phil listened intently as this agency honcho went on boasting about how popular he had become with the pharmaceutical company for finding such a "reasonably priced vendor." It so happened that the picture was used nationally in a long running ad campaign. The shoot lasted three whole days in Death Valley. It employed one model, a prop stylist, a make-up artist, and several assistants. It was obviously a fairly big budget affair. Phil felt the heavy hand of innuendo upon his shoulder, as the art director seemed to imply to Phil that he might land such assignments too, if he was as economically cooperative as his colleague.

When Phil left the AD's office he immediately got Otto on the phone and asked him to explain why he virtually gave away his professional services for free. Otto replied that he had been cooped up in his studio shooting catalogs for a whole month, and, besides he really enjoyed the desert. What he didn't say outright was that, when he was approached along with two other shooters to bid on the assignment, he decided to ensure that he would get it by underbidding his competitors. He rationalized that he needed desperately to get away from his daily grind. A few days in the desert photographing a beautiful model would do him some good. Besides, this would make a great new piece for his portfolio - maybe even win an award, he thought - and put him in the good graces of his client.

Phil inquired about how much good that did for the other photographers trying to earn an honest living. He asked what would happen to industry fees if there was always some photographer waiting in the wings who wanted to "get away for a while" or create a new portfolio sample every time an assignment came up for a bid. He went on to suggest that the next time Otto thought about financing a vacation that way he would be pleased to donate the airfare to Palm Springs and a hotel room too; it would cost both of them less in the long run. Otto hung up on him.

Phil's comment was not entirely facetious. Did the price of Otto's popularity with the art director cost him his pride and his pocketbook? He certainly sold himself short. Moreover, he sold out his colleagues. That art director surely must have had a hard time trying to explain to the pharmaceutical company why the next shoot would cost thousands of dollars more. Of course, he still had the option of asking Otto to do it - but for the same ridiculously low price. Do you think Otto could afford to repeat his generosity?


IGNORANCE AND APATHY

As freelancers who operate independently, outside the infrastructure of a corporate environment, photographers have always had difficulty reconciling their casual but chaotic way of life with their responsibilities of running a business. Competitive pressure makes it easier for buyers to leverage photographers against each other to keep their costs down. You have to make it harder for them to do that. But you cannot do anything by being either ignorant or apathetic about issues of commerce and profitability, an attitude that is, unfortunately, still worn like a badge by some photographers.

The ignorance part means not knowing how much profit you either need or currently have at hand to grow your business. The apathy part is illustrated by some shooters who still support a happy-go-lucky approach: "I'm just glad to get paid anything at all for what I love to do." There is nothing about that attitude that is even remotely compatible with being a professional photographer. It is unacceptable.


A PAINFUL LEGACY

On a regular basis any number of talented photographers will founder into debt and wash out of business - or nearly so - while the survivors, talented or not, float to the top for the time being in a pernicious churning cycle.

The photo business cannot survive as we know it if revenue continues to decline while the cost of operations continue to climb. Real competition based on the cost of production, volume of work, margin of profit, and market share will continue to be preempted by ignorance and apathy until more individuals learn what it means to be profitable.

It is of no use to undercut another photographer's price just to take a job away. Your success does not depend upon someone else's failure. You only hurt yourself if you accept lousy terms and inadequate payments, no matter what the excuse. It is counterintuitive to say no to a job; but, if it will not generate a profit, then no it must be. If someone else is either too ignorant or too apathetic to care about profitability, there is nothing you can do about him except avoid sinking to the same level of depravity.


This article is an excerpt from the book Photography: Focus on Profit by Tom Zimberoff, CEO and founder of Photobyte Inc.

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