Keeping your sanity…Working with Producers, Clients, and other “experts” at your job.

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If you’re an editor you work for somebody.

Even if you’re just a one man freelance shop – Johnny’s Productions – if you have work, you are working for somebody. You, or your sales staff, or your producer closed a deal and got you a gig, and that means you work for somebody. That person is your client.

Whether you just landed your first real job and are scrambling to actually learn how to use After Effects by tomorrow morning, or you’re “celebrating” your 20th year in the biz by reminiscing about the good old 1-inch days, the manner in which you interact with your client will determine whether or not they will be your last.

It’s no secret that being polite, listening, and working cooperatively are all necessary when working with clients but to keep the passion alive and the creativity flowing year after year you really need to develop relationships that work in harmony together and truly mutually benefit each other. We may hate to admit it but we do actually need our clients input and direction if we are to create a successful piece for them.

During my career as an editor I have found that there really are 2 primary ideas that need to be balanced when dealing with a client. No matter what your skill and experience level, and, more importantly, no matter their skill and experience level –  keen attention to these ideas can make all the difference between a great working relationship that brings you work for years to come or just another edit from H – E – Double Hockey Sticks.

The first idea:
Give the client what they want.

When I was just a young buck eager to take on the world one Avid at a time (FCP wasn’t around when I was in school) a lighting professor of mine taught me probably the most valuable lesson I have ever learned in my professional career. My professor, a 30+ year veteran lighting designer, while answering a rather bizarre question from one of the more eclectic students, amongst an otherwise long-winded answer, said:

“You need to give the director what he wants.”

This simple statement instantly rang a bell with me. Here was a man who knows everything there is to know about lighting design and, without reservation, declared that despite all his combined knowledge he just needs to give the director what he wants.

As editors we are typically amongst the last in a long string of people who take part in any given project. The client or producer has pre-produced, written, shot, and taken care of a million other things for months or even years before we ever see the first tape. Long before we ever come along a vision has already been established. Now don’t jump to conclusions, yes, clients do hire us to bring our own unique vision to their project but in the end it is their project and ultimately they call the shots. It is our job to provide as much creative input as possible but in the end we must give the client what they want. The “keeping your sanity” part comes into play when your vision and their vision don’t match up.

It’s 3 days into a edit and your client says: “Can we just find a place to add these 12 pictures my wife took with her cell phone yesterday?” Or, “Ok, that’s a pretty good final draft but can we squeeze in these 12 lines of dialogue but not make the video any longer?” Better yet, “How hard would it be to just make it cooler, like the episode of Jag I Tivo’d last night?” How do you react to that without jumping across the table at them?

The very first thing I do, no matter who the client is and what their experience level is, I start by listening to them fully and completely. After that I react to situations like this depending on the client.

To begin, if the client is the end user, not a intermediate producer or creative director, and is totally ignorant to the entire process, treat the situation in the following manner. Never start to shake your head before they are even done talking. Listen to the suggestion.  Take a moment to actually think about it and really consider what it would look like in the video. Just because the first, horrible, picture that jumps into your head seems like it will totally derail an otherwise great video doesn’t mean that you are properly envisioning what the client is seeing in their head.

Next, ask follow up questions to get a better sense of what they see. Do you see green or red star wipes? Are the pictures of your dog filling the screen or are they mixed into a background? Is this 200 word text build a roll or a crawl?

After actually considering their suggestion with an open mind,  give your take on it. “Well Mr. Client, adding the chicken dance sequence back into chapter 3 may work and add some flair to that section but it’s already 2 o’clock and we just don’t have the time to fit it in because we still need to work on lower thirds.” Or, “Ok, let’s take 15 minutes to see what adding all 23 product logos to the end slate will look like and if it works great, but if not we can ditch it and move on.”

There are several factors at play here with an un-experienced end client. One, they have no idea what it takes to actually do what you do. Two, they have no idea how every element of a video lives in tandem with everything surrounding it and how they effect each other when they are changed. And three, all they do know is that what they are seeing right now is not what they want.

The best reaction is to listen to what they are saying, consider it, and then provide a practical solution that works, even if it is just to indulge them and show that in reality their idea does suck. Digging in your heels and pushing back with an attitude is no way to creatively collaborate on a project.

Now, if the client is an experienced producer or other creative director I take a whole different approach.

“Can you just make everything move in 3D around the screen?” “Can you just squeeze 3 more shots into this paragraph?” “Can you just remove her from the background and replace it with this animation?”

The first thing I remind myself when presented with an outrageous list of changes is that this isn’t their first rodeo. They have produced many videos before and will go on to produce many more. What they are suggesting to you is probably coming from past experience. Maybe it’s a technique that they used with another editor, or maybe it’s something a colleague of theirs did in a piece. In any case the suggestion is coming from somewhere where it worked in the past.

One of the hardest things to deal with is to be chugging along cutting like the wind and to have the client stop you in your tracks with a idea that goes in the complete opposite direction, something that’s not even close to what you were planning to do. After many years of grudgingly shuffling down their apparently insane train of thought I started to say this to myself:

“What they are suggesting may actually make the video better.”

Like I stated earlier, they have probably been working on this project for months before you ever saw it and they have a vision, and that vision is probably not a bad one. You need to just trust that what they are asking will actually work and give it a go. Most of the time I am humbly surprised that the change does work and does make the video better. The fact that I didn’t think of it doesn’t make it a bad idea. And in the end you just need to give the client what they want.

The second idea:
It’s your job to say no.

On the other end of the spectrum it is our job to say no to clients.

Why do clients hire us in the first place? Because they can’t edit the video themselves. They hire us because we know how to edit, because we bring a level of creativity and expertise to the table that they don’t have. They trust us to bring their vision to life and to incorporate our own unique vision into the video along the way.

It’s because of this that we need to push back and say no sometimes. “I think we should change the music during this section.” “I don’t like the color of the font you chose, change it to blue.” “What happened to the part about the rollerskating grandmother?”

Does saying no negate the first idea – give the client what they want? No.

What the client ultimately wants is the best possible video for their money and if it is absolutely clear that what they are asking for will harm the video or drive it over budget or past the deadline then they are not getting what they want. From our experience we are required to take a stand and say no.

Often times it is best to indulge the client first and show them why their idea is a bad one instead of just shrugging off the idea from the get-go. Remember that in their mind the idea works, however cloudy that image may be. You can put them at ease and convince them fully that the idea doesn’t work by un-muddling that image and mocking it  up on the screen for them. You have to give and take all the time during an edit and often take side trips and experiment to see whether ideas work or do not work.

I heard a great quote  some time ago: “Never say no to a client, just charge them more.”

For a long time I thought that quote was a good way to handle difficult demands by clients. But in hindsight I have found that throwing the budget or deadline back at the client to force them into submission is almost never the best way to handle things.

“Ok, Mr. Client, I can make those changes but what you just asked me to do will take 2 more days of work.”

Saying that almost always produces a scowl on the clients face. They hired you to get the job done for the budget you agreed to and by the deadline you set. Turning around and declaring that their ideas will blow the budget and deadline does not foster creative problem solving or encourage further communication. Instead, it builds a wall.

If in reality what they just asked you to do in the 11th hour will require 18 additional hours of work it is far better to suggest alternatives that don’t blow the budget or deadline (or at least don’t blow it as much).

In extreme situations like this, both sides are going to have to compromise. They are going to have to settle for something less then what they really want and you are going to have to put something together that is less then ideal as well. It may mean using Livetype over After Effects or stock images over custom.  Whatever the case, providing a compromise is always better then throwing the budget back in their face.

The SuiteTake Take:
If you take the time to listen and consider every idea your clients come to you with, and if necessary even test the idea out a little, you’ll quickly build a trusting relationship where your client values your input and response and respects you when you say no. Keep an open mind and remind yourself that your vision for the video is not the only one, and at times you’ll be surprised at how many ideas actually do make the video better. The trust between you and your client is a two way street. You need to first trust in their vision and experience, and in return they will trust in yours.

1 thought on “Keeping your sanity…Working with Producers, Clients, and other “experts” at your job.

  1. I am currently working on project that has seen two producers come and go, a distracted director who's wife is having a baby and the head of an agency with no creative experience making creative decisions. The job has gone way over the deadline and editorial budget. When in a situation like this it is important and crucial to keep the client informed of the overages they are racking up by continually making picture changes. This way, the breaks can be put on a runaway project and the client feels he still has a handle on the costs. If there were a producer on the job it would be their responsibility to inform the client of where they are money wise. Without a producer its my responsibility. Its kind of like saying “no” but putting the onus oh the client. Granted I will keep taking his money as long as he wants to keep screwing around, but at some point you have to say “no, enough!”

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