Advice on How to Be a Better Client (From a Freelancer)
Hopefully, we’ve all experienced the delight of really good service—the kind that leaves a smile on your face and story to be told. Similarly, the chances are high that we’ve experienced the kind of service that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth and an angry tweet drafted—sometimes posted—on social media.
Both will have a lasting impact.
If you’re a freelancer, the service you provide builds your reputation, which can make the difference between working and not working. But it cuts both ways.
If you’re a client, the way you treat your freelancers—intentionally or not—can dramatically affect the level of creativity, quality, and success you see delivered as a result.
So, to help clients get the very best results from their freelance creative teams, and to aid fellow freelancers in their creative careers, I thought I’d share ten tips for how to be a better client from the perspective of an experienced freelancer and client who’s seen the good, the bad, and the ugly from both sides.
Here’s the shortlist of what’s ahead
Of all the steps in the creative process, the brief is arguably the most important. It’s also the most overlooked or underbaked.
Maybe everyone’s just so eager to get started that we make the assumption that we all have the same idea of what we’re making, but assumptions are dangerous.
The goal of the briefing stage is to bring about as much clarity as possible. It typically takes a lot of questions, requests for further explanations, and circling around the same topics a few times to really grasp a common understanding of what everyone is talking about.
The goal of the briefing stage is to bring about as much clarity as possible.
A situation I’ve often seen is that the key stakeholder—the boss who has ultimate sign off—has already given some vague suggestion of what they want and that internal-mini-brief is then being interpreted and expanded on by the client (you) that the freelance team (me) is working for.
But now we’re already one layer removed from the original source and makes it likely that you’ll hit a “This isn’t what I asked for!” claim down the line.
This can be stressful for all parties, causing expanding budgets and tightening deadlines as everyone tries to shoe-horn the project into something that matches the boss’ intent.
So rule #1—if the person with the ultimate sign off isn’t in the room, proceed with caution. And ask a bunch of questions.
Questions to ask in a briefing session
- Who are we trying to talk to?
- What are we trying to say?
- Why are we saying it?
- What do we want them to think/feel/do as a result?
- What would success look like?
- How will we measure that?
- How will the final product be used/distributed/watched/experienced?
- How will it fit in (with the brand/website/world/etc.)?
- What is the single most important thing this is all about?
You’ll rarely regret spending ‘too much time’ on the creative brief, and it’s time worth spending. Most of the problems you’ll face down the line will likely result from spending too little time making sure that you and your creatives are all on the same page.
I like to finish briefing sessions by asking ‘Let me see if I’ve got this right…’ and then explain what I think they mean back to them. This quickly exposes any gaps in our shared understanding and allows them to be filled in through further discussion.
Go Inside a Creative Brief
“The challenge in the discovery session is to really understand what the client is talking about and using words to describe images is often challenging.
So when we move into the creative brief we have to take the message from the client and the idea that they have in their heads and then make sure that we’re communicating that to the designers in the way that they understand.
Now we work with a design team that has many different people from many different backgrounds and so communication is just a massive challenge in this phase.”
This documentary series from The Futur, takes you inside the nitty gritty detail of a creative rebrand for a beer company, but also helps to lay out, step by step, what a professionally directed creative process can look like. In the episode below, they specifically cover the briefing process.
Prep the details
The next impediment to a smooth start is a lack of attention to the details early on. As a freelancer, a little prep work from my clients can help to optimize my time and reduce the number of emails you’ll get from me asking ‘for one more thing.’
Specifically, I’m talking about putting a ‘brand-pack’ together and handing it to every freelancer you hire. It’ll save everyone time and effort in the long run.
This brand pack should at least include:
- A full set of brand-approved logos. Ideally as an RGB vector file, with black or white versions if available. (If you only have raster files, make sure they’re in a lossless format with transparency.)
- Brand fonts and guidance on how they’re used.
- Brand colors as swatches with RGB color values.
- Brand guidelines for sizing, look, feel etc.
- Mock ups of brand in various contexts.
Invariably new graphics, titles and motion graphics will be created for the project and being able to create these with at least the basic parameters being correct, can save a lot of time later on transforming temporary titles into the real deal.
As a very quick aside, please never ship a hard drive with the cable still attached! As an editor I see this all the time and it can lead to problems accessing the data on the drive if the cable or the connector gets damaged in transit.
Do include the cable with drive, pay for a courier to deliver it or at least track the delivery and make sure you have a backup copy of everything before you send anything out.
If you’re supplying a ‘paper edit’—a list of timecodes or selections for how the project might be structured—please also include the following details per section.
- Start timecode.
- Start line of dialogue/action.
- End timecode.
- Final line of dialogue/action.
- File name you’re referencing.
If your editor has already prepped footage to be reviewed and burned in some timecode onto the screen, please reference this in your paper edit, rather than your current duration into the file.
Sharing references with your creatives can be an incredibly helpful thing to do; The same words mean different things to different people. Therefore sharing references, examples of the kinds of existing work you want to draw inspiration from, can help put something in front of everyone that you can point at and say, this is what I mean!
This launch video for Inside The Edit in 2014, clearly references the Apple keynote animation from 2013 (below). They have a similar feel, look, design aesthetic and sonic palette.
But what if you were only trying to point at one aspect of that. Maybe the sonic palette, or the gentle feeling, or the sense of continuously evolving movement.
If you share a reference you need to be specific about the aspects you’d like to emulate or incorporate. It isn’t enough to send a bunch of links and say ‘this kind of thing’, as this will leave too much room for gaps to emerge in the interpretation.
Talking About Color is Like Dancing About Architecture
Colorist and color scientist Cullen Kelly has also written an excellent article for colorists (and clients) on how to talk about color, which will once again give you tactical resources for making the most of working with an experienced creative.
As Cullen points out “Receiving and communicating visual ideas through words is rarely easy, and it’s all the more difficult with remote color workflows devoid of body language, facial cues, and sometimes even tone of voice.”
Cullen’s strategies for understanding what everyone means when looking at the same images, can readily be applied to leveraging visual references at the start of the creative process.
I’ll know it when I see it
For all this talk of the importance of taking the time to fully explore the creative brief, planning ahead for as many details as possible and using visual references as a shortcut to creative clarity, sometimes you can only know it when you see it.
Creativity is an iterative process of reduction and refinement. So both creatives and clients need to be comfortable with trusting in the process, and understanding that the first cut isn’t the final product.
One of the pitfalls of this requirement is when both clients and creatives are uncomfortable with sharing unfinished work. We want to impress with our creative flair and get ahead of any potential client concerns by ironing out all the bumps before we show it.
Clients often have a client of their own (their boss) to whom they usually don’t want to show unfinished work for the very same reasons.
These problems can easily be addressed by showing a less than perfect version first.
But this can cause problems when time, effort and resources are needlessly spent refining something that may later be totally superfluous. These problems can easily be addressed by showing a less than perfect version first, where the focus is on structural changes over final polishing.
Showing a work in progress version is a bit like heading to the tailors and seeing a suit or a dress on the mannequin with pins sticking out of it and chalk all over it.
You have to try it on and that won’t be as comfortable or satisfying as the final fit but if we don’t get the measurements correct at the start, it will never fit properly at the end.
Feedback: mo’ rounds, mo’ money
Getting feedback matters, and one of the things I like about using Frame.io is that I can set it up so that everyone can see everyone else’s comments.
This means that I don’t get caught in the middle of conflicting requests for changes as my clients can work out any creative disagreements amongst themselves in the comments. I can wait for the final conclusion to emerge before I roll out the next set of changes.
Bringing everyone together at once saves you a lot of time, effort and ultimately money, as you condense the need for multiple rounds of changes as the project passes through successive layers of authority.
This is why it is especially important to bring in anyone with ‘ultimate sign off’ as early as possible, if their opinion carries the greatest clout.
It works well either with everyone in the same room to watch and review together—the physicality of which really helps with tone of voice, gesticulation and jokes—or asynchronously with a service like Frame.io, with everyone responding at their own pace yet still maintaining that collaborative connection.
Of course, you can still choose to leave the biggest decision maker out of the final process until the very end. But when the boss axes the entire thing and questions the validity of making it in the first place, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Trust is fundamental to any successful relationship. This is also true of the relationship between client and creative.
Hopefully you’ve hired someone who has the experience, competence and character to have won your trust in the first place, so please trust that they know what they’re doing.
Everyone at the table needs to put the ego to one side and focus on the critical choices.
If your freelancer mentions that something might not be a good idea, it might be worth hearing them out. But it’s your project, so bear in mind that they’ll feel obliged to deliver exactly what you ask for. Just be prepared to hear some counterpoint and creative ideas, and remember that they’re all ultimately in the service of meeting your goals for the project.
This also means that everyone at the table needs to put the ego to one side and focus on the critical choices that best serve the stakeholder’s stated aims, even if that means cutting out our favorite contribution.
It’s particularly challenging when you’ve invested so much in the project, but in the end, it’s not about us.
Plan for the future
More often than not the shelf life of a video is longer than anticipated. This creates a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that featured employees will leave, statistics will change, and details will need to be amended.
The opportunity of extending the useful shelf life of your video with a few incremental updates is that it substantially increases the return on the initial investment. If you plan for it.
As a client, it’s helpful to request a master copy of the final video that has no graphics and no music on it. This means that it will be more easily updatable in the future as these elements won’t have been baked in.
As a freelancer, it helps to build a longer term relationship with your clients so that you can quickly add value to existing projects by being able to make simple updates at an affordable price.
But this means that someone needs to…
Keep a copy of everything
The easiest way to be able to ensure the future viability of your project is to keep a copy of everything—all of the footage, project files, graphics, music, subtitles and other assorted assets that form the final deliverables.
What’s important is to agree, upfront, who’s going to be responsible for maintaining and securing this archive.
My personal preference is to hand over a copy of everything to my clients so that they have access to and are responsible for keeping a copy of everything. Or, if they prefer, I’ll charge my clients a reasonable fee for adequately backing it up somewhere securely. (That said, I work with so many of the same clients repeatedly, who often want access to older projects, that I end up keeping a de facto archive anyway.)
As a counterpoint to this, I know that some professional colorists, editors and motion graphics artists, prefer not to hand over their project files to clients for fear of others making changes to, or reusing, their work further down the line without their consent.
This is where having an initial discussion at the start of the project, about what the final deliverables will be and who will store them in perpetuity, is so important for avoiding a last minute clash of assumptions.
Assuming all goes well
Surprise and delight your freelancers by paying early.
I have one (magical) client who pays the minute they receive my invoice. Now, I know this isn’t always possible, in fact, it’s a massive outlier and I’ve also suffered at the hands of 90-day payment terms.
But the critical lesson here is, for clients and freelancers to have an upfront discussion about payment terms, timelines and paperwork.
If your company operates to a prescribed and unwavering set of rigid payment terms, please communicate this to your freelancers up front so that they can plan for this in their own cash flow processes.
In my experience, most of my clients are in salaried positions where they can rely on their monthly pay cheque arriving on time and don’t know what it is like to operate as a freelancer, where each invoice can make a huge difference to their bank balance.
This is one area which is often left to the very end of a project and often requires fulfilling the paperwork requirements of the finance and accounting department. I’ve always hugely appreciated any clients who will champion, chase and communicate with these colleagues on my behalf.
This initial discussion can also help to align both sides if your terms and your freelancers payment terms are different, where often the paying clients terms are longer than the freelancers invoicing request.
It is a huge help when clients try to accommodate for this difference in some way. For example, if the final payment will be more than 30 days in coming, agreeing to pay 50% up front can help to keep freelancers afloat while they wait and keep the project operating smoothly in the meantime.
Lastly on the topic of payment, if there are ever any delays in being able to make that payment, always communicate this as early as possible with your freelancers (and maybe explain what can be done to resolve it). They’ll then be in a position to plan accordingly, rather than having to send chasing emails to find out why a payment is late.
While most people don’t like to talk about money all that much, how this part of the process is handled often frames the working experience for the freelancer. Everyone is happy to work for a client who pays on time, or even early!
Finally, assuming all goes well, consider sending a note to say thank you. A short appreciative email or a quote they can use as a testimony on their site is gold dust to hard working freelancers, yet costs clients nothing but a few minutes of thought.
Hire them again
When the time comes for the next project, assuming all went well with the first one, you might be able to look around and find someone cheaper when comparing day-rates or project proposals. Just remember that there are a whole range of valuable intangibles that you will lose out on if you don’t hire the same freelancers again.
What are those valuable intangibles? Great question.
You’ll lose the build up of institutional memory that the freelancer will have built up about your brand. Knowing what your goals and preferences are, who different members of staff are, how your brand or business operates, the kinds of aesthetic style and approaches that succeed with you.
You have to rebuild the working relationship and establish trust between yourself and your creative team and take another gamble on the same level of creative expectations being met once again.
Trust, confidence, and strength of relationship are valuable commodities that don’t appear as line items.
You’ll also lose access to that shared common language and understanding that underpins an efficient creative process and which removes some of the setup costs (briefing, references etc.) that you (hopefully) invested in early on the first time around.
Trust, confidence, and strength of relationship are valuable commodities that don’t appear as line items in a spreadsheet when comparing quotes, but can materially transform the quality of the end result, and ensure a far more pleasurable experience.
Until the next time, when you build on it all over again.