Free Spec Work?
Back in 2015, Canadian ad agency Zulu Alpha Kilo created this great clip (above) that showed the responses of small business owners to requests for free spec work. The idea was that anyone from any other industry will look at you like you're crazy if you expect them to deliver a paid service for no pay. Their goal was to give words to the many creatives who are asked to do work for free. (Or was it to convince their cheap competition to stop charging so little?)
The video resounded well in the creative community, and a lot of us were posting and sharing it. We probably all hoped that our clients would catch a glimpse of our passive-aggressively communicated frustration.
The reality is that it's not that simple. Because we're not selling tangible things, most of the time we have to first sell our own ability to create before we can get a deal. The lines between paid services and pitch decks with preliminary story concepts can get very blurry.
My personal laptop has a "Projects/Clients" folder with a graveyard of pitch decks, project proposals and price quotes that will never see the light of day. Why are they still sitting on my hard drive? I guess I keep them as templates to reference for the next potential client.
My friend Max Zoghbi from Adventure Us gave me some valuable advice a few years ago, and I think it's saved me a lot of time and frustration in this department. He explained that the key to not getting sucked into the vortex of free pre-production services is to package those services and to demonstrate their value to the client.
Max pointed me to Brennan Dunn's e-book, "Double Your Freelancing Rate". Brennan is in the IT and web design business, where requests for free spec work are equally common. He has a very successful approach to the beginning of any client relationship by offering something called a "Roadmapping Process". This is a no-strings-attached, paid service that gives his clients an opportunity to pay for a small amount of creative work before considering paying for a full website build.
It's like a first date. Nobody (well, very few people in our culture..) decides to put a ring on it before trying out the relationship. The problem for most of us in this business is that we give away too much in that relationship for free.
If you're interested, I highly recommend you check out Brennan Dunn's full course, "Double Your Freelancing."
Recently we've been very busy in pre-production—not so much for our own shoots, rather for other people's shoots.
About half of our clients who hire us to shoot in China are overseas. Because they are not in China, they need a production crew here on the ground that is familiar with the lay of the land. One of their most sought-after needs is access to shooting locations.
Sometimes that refers to a predetermined location that still needs a visit. Other times it's a vague description of a hypothetical place, and our job is to find out if it exists somewhere in actuality.
In the past, if we had a potential client who needed a location scout (or "recce", for my readers who have been influenced by the British Empire), we would have been very eager to offer that complimentary service as a courtesy in hopes that our fuel costs and time spent would be a good investment toward landing the full production contract.
Only a few months ago did I realize the opportunity we were missing. I knew that there was some risk of wasted time in doing free scouts, but at the end of the day I'm just sitting around in the office writing a blog post anyway, right? What am I really losing?
I had forgotten to apply the lessons I learned from Brennan Dunn.
It literally was not until a client had to ask me for our company's location scouting rate (I'm like... "What's that...?") before I realized I needed to be packaging and selling this type of service to our clients as a separate item on our menu!
After three or four back-to-back requests (for pay!) of scouting various locations, I went back to our website drawing board and re-vamped our services page. You'll now find "Location Scouting" listed beautifully between "Cameraman" and "Drone Video". It deserves a section of its own!
I think my approach to offering a "Roadmapping Service" was that it was only for our clients with creative needs. I totally missed the fact that we could add a whole new niche market to our business by pushing the other elements of pre-production services.
At the end of the day the point is to give the client a low-risk way of experiencing your quality of service, while at the same time demonstrating that your time has value.
Another reason to charge for location scouting... there's always a good chance that the shoot will not happen in the end.
Unfortunately after we logged a solid eight days of scouting in three different cities in Guangdong Province (spread over a two-month period), the entire China leg of a big production we were supporting was cancelled.
I was so grateful that we had already negotiated rates for scouting and pre-production services. (I should add that the shoot cancelled due to script issues on the client end, not due to our lack of resources).
One of my favorite lines in cinema is from the Joker in The Dark Knight: "If you're good at something, never do it for free."
Yep... that pretty much sums up this whole blog post.
Need some locations scouted out here in China? We'll do it!