As often as I consult with photographers when they need pricing and negotiation support, I work closely with agencies to oversee projects from initial photographer recommendations through production and retouching. This experience on both sides of productions has allowed me to thoroughly understand what clients are looking for. Many times it’s the photographer’s personality and ability to be a problem solver that lands them the gig. While a photographer’s portfolio will get them to the point of consideration for a prospective client, they will then need to demonstrate their experience and ability to add value to the production to secure the project. So, how do clients find out if a photographer will be a sure bet when everything is on the line? Enter the creative call.
Table of Contents
Creative calls can take many forms. Sometimes a client (typically an art buyer at an ad agency) will send a photographer some notes in an email and will want to hop on a quick call to gauge interest and availability for a small project. Other times (and this is typically the case for larger assignments), these calls will be scheduled in advance. They will involve not only the art producer, but also the creative director, art director, and/or account executives that are involved with the project. These conversations can make or break a photographer’s chance of being awarded a project, no matter how on-point their numbers are or how great their portfolios look. Photographer Bryce Boyer puts it like this,
I have been on quite a few creative calls in my career. No two have ever been the same, but they all have a common goal. A creative call is the opportunity for me, the photographer/director, to align with the vision of the ad agency creative team.
Recently, we’ve seen these calls primarily take place virtually over Teams, Zoom, or Google Meet. Because of this, a photographer should be prepared to be seen on screen for a video call. One significant benefit to this call format is the ability for the agency to share moodboards or creative documents in real-time and discuss the project. It’s rare that a photographer is asked to present any documents in this meeting. Still, it can’t hurt to have portfolio pieces or brainstorming ideas to share if the opportunity arises.
It’s essential to understand a few things about these calls. First, you should always assume that the agency/client is considering other photographers. So when they finish a conversation with you, they are likely jumping on a call to talk through the same details with another photographer…or maybe two or three. For that reason, it’s important to express enthusiasm for a project. Be energetic, have questions prepared, and generally put your best foot forward.
I’ve been on many creative calls where photographers have responded to questions in one-word answers or don’t have any questions about the project. This is a surefire way for the agency/client to lose interest in you. Clients don’t just want a great photographer; they want a great collaborator as well. They want to work with someone who they’ll enjoy traveling and spending a lot of time in high-pressure situations with. They will also want to make sure you are like-minded and easy to work with. Above all, they want to make sure that you understand the overall goals from a creative standpoint and a marketing strategy perspective.
So during the call, it’s important for a photographer to prove that they have fully internalized the project. They should be able to explain how they can add value to the production and the entire campaign. First impressions are crucial, whether you are meeting over the phone or in a video chat. It’s your enthusiasm that matters most, so make it count. Here is Bryce‘s advice:
To prepare for the creative call, I gather all of the information I have and make my best assumptions of what I understand about the concept and how I would approach the production from start to finish. I usually write out a list of questions and some ideas that I might talk about. Most of the time, a lot of those questions will be answered before I have time to ask. I try not to get too bogged down by details yet, because I know that everything might change after the call. I then try to put all those thoughts on the back burner so I can listen with an open mind.
During creative calls, clients are trying to figure out if they can trust you. They want to hear how your experience can translate into success. Whether that means being a problem solver in tough situations or being a specialist in a certain genre. Creative calls are the perfect time to brag about recent accomplishments and tell clients about other projects you’ve worked on. Don’t be afraid to drop some names of other clients you’ve worked with. Also, take the opportunity to relay anecdotes about other shoots. Clients want to know that you are confident in your abilities and that you can handle the pressure of a big assignment.
Sometimes clients are looking for you to come up with a plan and drive a given project with confidence from start to finish. That means they might be relying on you to tell them the best way to accomplish a difficult task or suggest production approaches that they may not have thought of. However, it’s also important to realize when the client will want to be heavily involved in each step, just relying on you to be a technician to accomplish their fully thought-out concept. So, showcase your confidence in a way that lets them know they can trust you. But also expresses enthusiasm for collaboration. Dallas-based portrait photographer Justin Clemons says,
You basically want to figure out all of their expectations. You are just wrapping your mind around what they are looking for, how big of a production they expect and the style that they are wanting. And, if the job is a good fit for you, you want to explain why you are the perfect person for the job. Then soon after the call (maybe a couple days) I might send a mood board of images I have shot showing why I am a good fit, but also inspirational shots that show that I am on the same page as them and maybe how I see the shoot being shot.
Third, it’s important to know that creative calls are not usually the time to talk about numbers. Save that conversation for a separate call between you and the art buyer or agency producer. The point of the creative call is to talk about…well, the creative! What are you photographing? Where will it take place? What do they want the final images to look like? What’s the story they are trying to tell? How are you going to accomplish it? These are the types of topics to focus on and this is why the creative directors, art directors, and account executives are also joining the call. So, as much as you are dying to know how much money a client might have to spend, save that question for another conversation. Bryce describes how he expects the creative call to unfold:
I expect that the creative call to set the stage for success. It should be an opportunity for the creative team to tell me where the target I’m expected to hit is. Usually, an art director will run through the shot list and concepts for the project. They will often share sample images and, if I’m lucky, graphics, fonts, and layouts that will help me understand what our target is. It is important for me to really listen here and to take thorough notes. If I still have questions after the art director gives their walk-through, this is the time for me to pull out my list.
Fourth, this might seem like common sense, but be sure to take the call in a quiet place where you can focus on the conversation. For video chats, make sure you have solid wifi and are in a space where you can focus and not be distracted. Don’t jump on the call while you are driving. Ensure that you’re not in the middle of the woods with poor reception. Don’t be somewhere noisy. Clients want to know that they have your undivided attention and that you can focus on the project. It’s ok to tell a client that you need to schedule a call when you will be in an appropriate location to talk (your house, a hotel room, or a quiet studio).
Although your schedule might be busy with other productions, it’s important to show a client that their project is as important as any other production you might be working on. Justin says,
It’s important to have a good video camera on you and a good mic. You are on this call because you make beautiful images, but if your video on the zoom call is horrible, it gives them the wrong message. When they see me on the zoom call, I want them to be impressed with my video, audio, and lighting quality. I also make my space clean, especially my background. It says I pay attention to details and visuals mean something to me.
Lastly, it doesn’t hurt to have a producer on the line with you when you jump on a creative call. They can help you show confidence in your ability to execute a concept by drawing on their experience. They can also ensure that you’ve received all the information you might need to develop a cost estimate when the time comes. It also shows your ability to pull a team together quickly, and lets the agency/client know that you have a team to rely on to execute the project seamlessly.
Here are the top tips for a rewarding creative call:
Here are a few important tips from Bryce:
Treat the call like a first date. You don’t want to be late. If it is a video call, it is important to test the links or mode of connecting…5-10 minutes BEFORE the meeting. It is important to know that the agency producer or art buyer handles the budget but not creative questions. The art director doesn’t usually handle money, so you shouldn’t go into budget questions with them. Listen when it’s time to listen and take notes. Try to get a sense if the creative team already has a specific flight path or if they are leaning on you to bring your own ideas to the table. Show some enthusiasm! Keep things positive and show you will bring energy to the project.
And Justin’s advice?
Be as prepared as you possibly can and just relax and be yourself. You are all just humans wanting to make cool art. If you are the right person for the job, they will see it. Let your personality come out, don’t just be a robot.
Wonderful Machine: Shoot Production: Con Edison
Wonderful Machine: Shoot Production: Banner Health
Wonderful Machine: Pricing and Negotiating: International Hospitality Stills & Video