5 Lessons for Better Client Projects
I spent 15 years freelancing and running creative services firms. In that time I learned 5 things. Probably a reflection on me.
When I started out freelancing I got burned. Every time I got burned I tried to learn something. I didn’t learn very many things, and that’s probably more a reflection on me, but here’s what I did manage to pick up along the way.
When People Pay You, They Respect You
I used to do motion design for films and television productions. Everything from interfaces to main titles.
One summer I had two productions at the same time. One was a high budget feature, and the other a low budget movie of the week. My budget and rate on the feature were excellent, and the MOW was basically a favour to the production manager — I was given a token amount to work with, and I took the work in order to maintain my relationship with the PM.
The contract length for the MOW was about four weeks. Ten days prep, ten days shoot, and then post if needed. It was an absolute nightmare. They questioned every decision, second guessed every design choice, and forced me to demonstrate every option.
Meanwhile the high budget feature was fabulous start to finish. We established a working relationship quickly. Easy sign off from the art department and the director, good notes, and excellent communication.
In retrospect, I think here’s what happened. On the feature I was paid well, and everyone assumed that I knew what I was doing (which was true). On the MOW I wasn’t paid well, and everyone assumed I was trying to get my first credit (which was not true).
Lesson learned: Charge what you are worth. You’ll be happier, and your clients will be happier.
Know the Decider
A consultant I know once described one of his clients as The Seagull.
He comes in the room, makes a lot of noise, shits all over everything, and then takes off.
They had their team and client-side team working on the problem, so they thought the client-side team were their clients. Their real client was The Seagull.
Lesson learned: On any contract you need to know all the stakeholders. If there is an ultimate decider (GWB) then you have to identify that person and make sure they are in contact.
Understand Stakeholder Motivation
Most projects have more than one stakeholder (stakeholders are people that have something riding on the project). The stakes that people have in each project are different, and sometimes entirely personal.
Take product launches as an example. The marketing coordinator just wants everything to go as smoothly as possible, while the product manager wants to stand out from the other product managers. The internal project manager wants to keep their job, but the internal art director wants to pivot to a design role at [ insert tech company here ].
Lesson learned: Understand the motivations of everyone involved so you can make sure they all get what they need.
Know Your Own Stakes
If you’ve never watched Mad Men, close this tab, go watch it, and then come back. It’s OK. We’ll wait….
You’re back? Great!
Remember Mohawk Air? Why did they want that account? It’s because Mohawk leads to TWA or American, moving them up the ladder to a more lucrative account. They could help turn Mohawk into a disruptor, but even if they don’t putting in great work could lead to bigger things.
Lesson learned: Knowing when to take a contract is about knowing what that contract delivers. If there is no upside for you, look for another opportunity. If there is upside to you, do the best job you can.
Get Paid First
When you are contracting it’s a business decision, not a favour. You need to at least make sure that you are covering your cashflow needs. Over time I have learned to stage out contracts so that clients are required to pay at certain deliverables in order to not freeze production.
Any contract or SOW should specify a deposit, and tie payments to deliverables with reasonable cutoffs for late payments. Many client companies will attach 60 or 90 day payment terms by default, but that’s unacceptable for small companies and freelancers that carry smaller cash reserves.
Lesson learned: Do everything you can to get regular cashflow, and make sure you get some payment upfront.