How To Keep Clients Happy in the Video and Photography Industry.
In my last post, I wrote about my experience at the Masters in Motion (MIM) filmmakers workshop in Austin, TX. I was fortunate to be able to present a look “Inside the Mind of a Client” to the attendees about the client perspective on the creative industry, starting with tips on getting a client’s attention, all the way through the post-production process on a job. In that post, I covered the “getting their attention” aspect of the client/vendor relationship. For this post I’ve decided to focus on some key things to keep in mind to keep the client happy after you’ve been hired – and answer some common questions about the client/vendor relationship during the creative process. If you’ve ever wondered “What happens if my Client doesn’t give me a brief?” “Should I just do whatever the Client says – or do they want to hear my POV?” “Why does the Client take so long to get back to me with approvals?” and “How should I interact with a new client while on set?” Well, I’ll answer all of those questions - and I’ll also connect the themes from my MIM presentation to an active marketing campaign for “Brain Games” season 2, as there are a lot of great parallels and takeaways between the two.
BUT FIRST: BRAIN GAMES!
I’m going to use the recent “Brain Games” campaign as a case study to answer some of those bigger questions about Clients and briefs, communication, approvals and on-set etiquette. If you aren’t already aware of it, “Brain Games” is the National Geographic Channel’s #1 series, returning in January. You can see how we treated the season 1 campaign HERE, and most of those same takeaways I discussed then also applied to this campaign. We collaborated very closely with our host, Jason Silva, all the way through the process. We used Jason as the conduit to explain the show AND demonstrate the “games” that your brain can play, and perhaps most fun of all, we did a new take on the “Riff” idea – having Jason freestyle a stream-of-consciousness take on what is so great about Brain Games. So, please read that post if you haven’t – and know that we didn’t change TOO much from season 1 to season 2. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Jason has gotten much more media attention since season 1, and one of his own “riff” videos has several million YouTube views now, called “Existential Bummer.” If you haven’t had a chance to watch that, here it is – a truly inspiring 3 minutes, and a peek at the storytelling gift that Jason possesses that we wanted to harness in the campaign.
I love that video, and Jason’s ability to take some pretty deep concepts and make them digestible and engaging to his audience. It’s exciting to work with someone with those storytelling and performance gifts when starting a campaign! So, back in August we began the process of tackling Season 2 for Brain Games. What did we want to change? What did we want to keep? And perhaps most importantly (at least from a logistical standpoint) who were we going to partner with creatively to help us get there? We decided on this project to do a Pitch, rather than just instantly award the job to one company. We don’t often do that, but for a series this important it seemed like a sensible route to take. Our budgets vary wildly from project to project and for each case we determine if we have resources to do a big or small shoot, or just do a simple edit using show footage, or custom music score, etc. For Brain Games, I decided to carve out from that project budget some money to have several agencies pitch concepts and ideas – to ensure that we would have some good creative choices to pick from before moving forward. For a series this important, it’s good to be thorough as you decide how you want to make the campaign elements. After a few-week process with several different creative agencies, we selected the team at Brand New School based on their work, their collaborative attitude, and their bid. I had not previously collaborated with them but our Creative Director of Design, Brian Everett, had. And luckily enough, there were a lot of great takeaways to be had that connect nicely to the themes from my Masters In Motion presentation.
YOU’VE BEEN HIRED – BUT WHERE’S THE BRIEF?
Once you’ve been hired by a client, there is a little bit of a dance that goes on. Everyone feels great – the agency is excited no doubt, after all they have a new client, and new possibilities abound. It is important, in those first few days after the job has been awarded, for the agency/creative to do one thing – prove that they are ON IT to that client, so that the client feels as if they made the right decision, and can begin to trust that new creative partner. And the first place/stage to do that is with The Brief. Now, briefs can sometimes not be brief at all. Charts, graphs, audience studies, positioning statements, what to do, what not to do…it can be information overload. But information overload always trumps those briefs that are so brief that they don’t actually exist. If a client doesn’t give a brief at all (or it’s just verbal) it is incumbent on the creative agency/partner/production team to ensure that they are all on the same page. I recommend writing your own brief if you don’t get one from the client – listen, ask questions, then come back with a written mini-brief that encapsulates what you heard. What is great about that is that in many cases, even if you come back with a brief that isn’t at ALL what they wanted, you’ll get more information, and more details and specifics about what that client DOES want. The more communication between both ‘sides’ the better, especially in those early stages where the briefing occurs. In the case of ‘Brain Games’ season 2, we had a great deal of information to share with the agencies involved. We actually conducted a pitch process on this project – something rather rare for us, as we generally don’t do a great deal of pitching due to budget issues, or because we have a pretty good idea of who we want to work with, and what sort of partner will fit the idea we may already have. But in this case, we were fortunately in the position to offer a real creative brief with our goals and objectives for the campaign.
Behind the scenes construction on the “tilted room” set for Brain Games.
During the pitch phase for Brain Games, we briefed all of our potential creative partners, both verbally and with a 1 page outline of what we were looking to accomplish. We wanted to include Jason prominently in the campaign, showcase games, stay true to the smart, accessible vibe of the show, and turn up the production volume up even more from season 1. After that briefing, then they came back to us with initial ideas and sketches. Which leads to the first big tip for what a Client wants after they hire you…
Clients ultimately always want more, right? That’s probably why so many people often squirm when they think of clients. But it’s true – clients want to feel like THEY are the sole focus of your attention. Of course, they know in their heart that they’re not the only one…but it doesn’t stop them from wanting to feel that they are. When you over-deliver to a client, particularly a new one, you instantly have made them feel more comfortable with you, and your company. They feel reassured – and with their own internal pressures that they deal with, knowing that you have their back is a great way to make them feel that their in good hands. Whenever we work with new agencies and they over-deliver on our expectations – whether in the form of a detailed brief, shot list, reference or style guide, it has a calming effect on the whole project. Brand New School (BNS) came out of the gate pitching ideas before the deadline, asking for feedback, and then coming back with a robust set of boards, concepts and style frames. And that was BEFORE we hired them. And once we started digging in to the creative logistics and details of the winning concepts, we time and time again noticed how they were striving to over-deliver. “Under promise and over-deliver” is a great mantra to live by in this industry, no matter which side of the table you might sit on.
DON’T BE SCARED OF THE CLIENT.
Here’s another important takeaway: very often, the creative agency is afraid of the client. Not literally afraid of course, but perhaps they just want to make the client happy at all costs and are afraid to disappoint. Clients like to be happy, but I believe that clients also should want to hear the honest truth from the partner in the project what they think will work – and what won’t work. After all, we’ve hired them because they have a point of view, a strong perspective and creative aesthetic. We rely on them to give that POV, of course in a respectful manner, but after all its in all of our best interest to have open, transparent dialogue about what’s working and what’s not. So don’t be scared of the client – respect them, but give your opinion – that’s why they hired you. Very early on, there were many times when we went back and forth on particular ideas or games for our “Portals” :30 spot, and some of them worked, and some of them BNS thought might not work. But what mattered was that we worked through those together, and listened to each other in the process. There were many discussions about what the best way to bring the games to life would be. We arranged and re-arranged the order, and ultimately we listened to BNS’ recommendation for the overall flow of shots based on what they thought could be pulled off most convincingly. Regardless, it’s important to remember – Clients are just regular people, like you. When you can break down the wall of fear or intimidation of them – or even if you can find a way to break down YOUR wall of annoyances with them, at the end of the day most clients want the same thing you do. Fear puts more distance between you, and it hurts the end product.
It’s always a balance of course – how to insert your POV while being respectful to that client. Just remember that they have their own pressures coming down on them as well in the process. So let yourself be heard, and if the Client continues to press the subject, it might be time to back off – which ties in to our next takeaway.
One of the most often heard complaint about Clients is how long they take to reply or respond back to vendors with feedback or approvals. But what many external agencies may not know is how many clients there are beyond the one that directly hired them involved in the process. Marketing Strategy, Consumer Marketing, Ad Sales Marketing, Press, Digital Marketing, Programming, Scheduling, Research, Legal, the Executives, International Channels, and Production Companies can all be a part of the approval process along the way to get an idea approved. Always remember – just as you (as the external creative partner) have a client to answer to, never forget that the client has his or her own clients to answer to as well. Brain Games was no exception – as the #1 series on the Channel and with a paid media spend behind it, we had many hoops to jump through to walk everyone through our creative plans. We had some very robust materials to help sell that idea, giving us PDFs with embedded quicktimes/links to video references, so when it came time to sell in the idea internally to our many clients, we had all the tools we needed.
Here I am presenting at Masters in Motion, walking through the stages of Client approval. Photo by Philip Bloom.
GOING INTO PRODUCTION.
After we successfully sold in our concept – we’d use Jason as our narrator, entering and exiting different “Portals” and doorways on a set as he described how the show opens new doors in your mind – and went into production in NYC. It was our first time shooting together, and I was anxious to see how it would all come together. In previous posts, I’ve discussed the quality vs. quantity issue – that we often need volume as well as high-quality visuals when we shoot. But in this case, with precise visual effects and specific shots needed, we were looking to take the sniper approach to this shoot. We only had 2 days to shoot the “Portals” and “Riff” spots – and this season’s “Riff” would be a complex shoot involving props and puppeteers to bring to life Jason’s stream-of-consciousness riff about the show. So there was a lot to accomplish, and a tight timeline to do it.
INTERACTING WITH THE CLIENT WHILE ON SET.
So – what DOES a Client want on set? Of course, it’s all dependent on that particular Client. Some want to be hyper involved, and some want to just hang out by The Client Monitor. Usually The Client Monitor sits next to the big soft comfy couch, with a nice big jar of peanut M&Ms and some beef jerky. It’s been around for a long, long time – most often it’s the place where the Client is parked by the agency to keep them close to the action to feel involved, but just out of reach from doing real damage or from bothering anyone. Let me first say that I can understand and appreciate what role the Client Monitor serves on-set. Having Clients running around on set CAN be dangerous – but I also think its usage is diminishing more and more. Because a Client Monitor sends a subtle signal to sit away from the action – and it doesn’t loudly proclaim “collaboration” when the Client is so far away. I would recommend that when starting a new job with a new Client, to find out how they work, and what their expectation is. In this case, Brand New School did a great job understanding how we liked to work – and they did have a nice Client area, but the AD asked me to join the Director closer in to work together with Jason for both days of the intensive shoot. I felt welcomed, and in return I set out to not intervene more than necessary, and to respect the roles on set. Give…and take, establishing trust and a good balance of collaboration and also getting what needs to be shot in a timely manner. Just remember: the Client Monitor DOES have a place on set, but how it’s used can vary from client to client.
THE FINAL PROMOS.
So, after the hiring, briefing, over-delivering, not being scared, remembering that Clients have Clients, and a successful and collaborative production, we moved into the posting and delivery of the spots. There were two main creatives we set out to shoot – the “Portals” :30 spot is really an evolution of the concept from season 1 – Jason interacting in a set with games going on around him. The difference was that HE was the center of the games rather than controlling or manipulating them. Timing was everything, and because we could not shoot one continuous sequential take this time, nailing each section precisely was critical. When we got to post, we collaborated with Clean Cuts Music on the final score, and I love how they were able to bring elements into the song that helped accentuate the gags. Making the song sound like it was playing backwards during the tilted room was a great touch that helps reinforce the topsy-turvy world we created. Here’s the final “Portals” :30 promo.
The idea for the season 2 “Riff” promo (called “Puppets”) is one I’m especially excited about. It’s a mix of real and animated CG props with live puppeteers on set and is another wonderful example of collaboration between client and the creative partner – we each had our roles, and went back and forth with Jason to nail the perfect delivery. There were so many things to watch out for – Jason’s performance, the edit continuity, visual effects, props, the puppeteers’ performance, and timings – that having those extra set of eyes helped to nail it. And just like in season 1, we collaborated with Jason on every aspect of this spot. The script, the look, and even the music were all decided on as a group. Jason found a track by the incredible composer Tony Anderson which fit perfectly with the vibe of the promo. Then Tony tweaked and customized the song for our :45 hero spot. Here’s the final version of that ‘Riff’, a product of trust and true creative collaboration.
PRINT AND BEHIND-THE-SCENES.
I’m very proud of the work done on this campaign – there’s actually more to share too, as we teamed up with a great creative partner for the print and outdoor campaign, and I finally got to work with photographer Miller Mobley to shoot lots of great stills of Jason for our billboard, print, and digital portion of the campaign. At the time of publication, some of those materials hadn’t yet been released, but I plan to share some of that very cool work soon. One last takeaway before I wrap this up – and that’s creating Behind-The-Scenes video. BTS videos are fantastic content, and of course widely loved within our industry. But I find that more and more often, BTS is extending beyond just gear-porn-for-DPs, or music videos showing how fun the shoot was. The amount of content that is devoured on the web is staggering, and that beast has to be constantly fed unique and entertaining content. The other great thing about BTS beyond the creative result is that I’d also recommend young filmmakers to network with larger production companies and offer their services in this area. It’s a great way to get on a client’s radar for projects – today’s BTS project could lead to bigger, more juicy gigs down the road. For Brain Games, we wanted to do a BTS in a way we hadn’t done before, and that was to use Jason as our guide – walking us through the sets and props and games we used to bring this campaign to life.
CONCLUSION: EVERYONE’S A CLIENT.
So I’ve covered a lot of ground here today – discussing the new campaign for Brain Games, as well as what the Client wants after they’ve hired you. Chiefly, they want you to listen, to be proactive, to over-deliver, and to be passionate about their project. And always remember that this industry is extremely competitive – for clients, it’s a buyers market. There are always tons of choices for them to make when hiring new creative partners, so bring your ‘A’ game every single time, no matter how many times you’ve worked with that client before. It’s a sad truth, but it is true: you’re only as good as your last job. And if you take nothing else away remember this: Everyone is a Client. There are many voices, many cooks in the kitchen, and many boxes to check. It can be challenging for everyone along the way, but if you can make a solid connection with the client so that they feel as if you are their partner, and operate from a place of respect and open communication, that will go a long way towards doing the kind of work that everyone loves to be a part of. And hey, you might even become friends along the way. Many thanks to everyone involved in the Brain Games campaign, especially BNS, and once more to the team at Shoot/Edit/Learn for inviting me to speak on these themes at Masters in Motion ’13.