Suzanne Sease – Estimating An Advertising Shoot

After the post on “what to charge in advertising photography” received so much interest I decided to start exploring the topic further. A photographer I was talking with suggested I contact Suzanne Sease for more insight into the estimating process. As it turns out she was the perfect person to talk with about estimating an advertising job because of her background.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got started in this business?

While I was in college I did internships at two ad agencies the first was with RMD (Richardson, Myer & Donofrio) now Grey-Kirk in Baltimore, Maryland. When I found out Hal Donofrio, CEO of RMD was good friends with Dave Martin, then CEO of The Martin Agency, I asked if I could use his name to get a second internship and subsequently landed an internship at the Martin Agency when I was a Junior in college. At RMD I was an intern with the art directors but fell in love with images so the Martin internship was in the print production department. I thought the visuals were so much more fascinating than what the art directors did. So, I wanted to be a print producer. And that is what I did when I first graduated.

What were you studying in college?

I studied Communication Arts and Design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. I was in the interdisciplinary program that taught us how to be art directors, illustrators, graphic designers, photographers and video. I was in school from ’80 to ’84.

Really, does that kind of program still exist?

Yes, it’s at Virginia Commonwealth University and in fact a lot of graduates have gone off to do very well in the industry. A lot established art directors and creative directors were in the VCU program back in the 80’s. The program has been the precursor to the VCU Brand Center which has been getting International notice.

So, what happened after you graduated?

When I graduated in 1984, I went back to Baltimore and worked for a small agency as the print producer. It was great experience because I had to wear several hats like go on the photoshoots to work with the photographers and one client even requested that I be their account executive so I wore that hat as well.

Eventually I decided that I wanted to move back to Richmond and returned back in 87 but didn’t get a job in print production but in a position as a print project estimator for The Martin Agency. I was the print estimator which was the beginning and end of every single project that went through the Martin agency.

What did an estimator do?

Well, back then it was before everything was done on a fee base we had to estimate how much time the art director needs, the copywriter, studio art, photography, typography, how many xeroxes you would need. I was really entrenched in the whole project. It was really a great experience to understand what it took to do print advertising.

Then they created the Art Buying position in 1989 so I interviewed for the position and got the job. I trained under the amazing late, Linda Marso, then at Scali, McCabe & Sloves (now Lowe & Partners) I then worked for the next 6 years as the sole Art Buyer working all the campaigns until the department grew and they brought in Kat Dalager (now at Campbell Mithun) to run the department. I got to work on some amazing campaigns and with many of the great photographers at the time both of local and International fame.

In 1999, I decided to spend more time with my family and was looking for a career that would allow more flexibility. Bobbi Wendt suggested I should consider being a creative consultant. I gave it a shot and haven’t turned back.

Tell me about this book, The Photographer’s Survival Guide, that you wrote with Amanda Sosa Stone. I was just reading the chapter on estimating and it’s quite informative.

Amanda and I put together a program called The Photographers Survival Guide and we were going around the country giving a presentation once a month to associations and at one event there was a publisher in the audience and they approached us about making a book. We had this black and white xeroxed hand-out as well as a in depth PowerPoint Presentation that became the basis for the book.

First thing I want to know is if you are a photographer who’s never bid on a big advertising job but expect to be doing so in the near future what kinds of things should they be doing to prepare yourself for when that day comes?

The first thing would be to check out Blink Bid. It’s really the easiest way for a photographer to get a bid together and a great way to teach yourself. Blink Bid is a check off list to make sure you are not forgetting something and if your job has unique items you can customize them. I am beginning to think that this program will become the universal format that buyers will expect to see.

So, the first thing would be to practice by doing a fake job?

Yes and understand the verbiage. Like for example on the “real estimate” post you did someone in the comments was explaining what I call the Creative Fee for execution and usage. That is a term that all the big dogs use. It really comes in handy to lump the execution and usage together when you’re negotiating fees (as someone explained in the comments), but it’s also good for residuals because those fees will be based on the creative fee now instead of just the usage fee. In other words if you separate them out: $2,500.00 for shoot and $2,500.0 for usage residuals will be based on the usage fee of $2,500.00 not a combined $5,000.00 for a creative fee.

Another good reason for doing this is when, for example, you have a prototype or a product that’s new to market. Never do a shoot and usage because the chance of those products being held up is really great. When I was doing satellite art buying once the product wasn’t ready to come to market and I had to explain to the account executive that there was one fee to be paid and it was not the photographers fault that the product is not ready. So, I could not credit the client for not using it, as when you have a shoot and usage fee separate, but when they were ready to use it, they could for the negotiated two (2) years usage effective date of first use. And if it took them weeks, months or years, they had the rights from when it was first used. This protected the photographer who did all the work asked of him.

What I really want to get at is where do you come up with those numbers? The creative fee. How do you know what that should be?

Sometimes you can come up with those numbers by going to Getty Images and see what a stock shot is worth and use that as a parameter but there’s no real source out there for numbers because there are so many parameters go into an estimate.

What about the quoting systems like books, software and websites?

I have found that none of these are very reliable because there’s no experience of having done large advertising production jobs behind them. I think only someone like a rep, art director, photo editor or an art buyer can tell you what to charge.

Ok but there must be a source for the usage, right? The creative fee would grow the more experience you get and the more seasoned or in demand you become as a photographer but the usage is usually fixed isn’t it?

Well not exactly. I had a young client just a year out of school who I helped with his estimate and he was asking more than two seasoned photographers. He got the job because his estimate was so buttoned up. We spelled things out, how we would produce the job and we estimated for one division of a corporation that has International divisions. It has paid the photographer greatly and he shoots for them all the time now.

The estimate really has to speak the volume of how you plan to shoot a job and really shows your understanding of what it will take to execute the job.

As an art buyer I once had a job with Capitol One and I had to triple bid it and I had this one estimate where the producer was so good I just looked at it and said “this guy gets this job.” The other people bidding said “this can be done in post” but I didn’t want it done in post I had asked them to go get a prop and have the logo melted into brass and that’s what I had asked for. So don’t assume you can save money for the client when the client wants things the way they asked.

So, you’re reading into how they’re going to produce a shoot?

Right. The winning estimate was $100,000 more than the other two estimates and I got Capitol One to approve it because I told the creative director “this estimate will come under budget but the other two will be over budget,” because some people under estimate thinking the money will be there if you need it later when in fact the money is already allocated to other divisions.

I was reading in your book that you tell photographers they shouldn’t mark up invoices anymore, something  you say will be controversial. Why is that?

In a large production any Art Director or Art Buyer is going to ask for receipts. You are required to give receipts and bill exactly what you have. So, there is no room for markup anymore. That went away when the agencies didn’t get to markup invoices anymore. Agencies used to markup the estimates 17.65% and that’s when the photographers started marking up expenses as well. Those days have gone away. The other thing that’s gone away is agencies now days are not purchasing the media buy so you cannot base your estimate on a media buy, because half the time the agency doesn’t even know exactly what it will be. The agencies used to make their money off the media buy plus per hour expenses but now it’s becoming a monthly retainer. It’s all done on retainers now. There’s no little fluff extras anymore.

Ok, but there’s really no place to get a number?

You and I could come up with a chart with a whole range of numbers and you can post that.

Yes, let’s do that, that sounds really cool.

Now with regards to the estimate again how thorough do you need to be in describing how everything will happen?

In the example I gave you earlier where the young photographer out bid 2 seasoned photographers he was bidding against a team of photographers who were friends with the creative director. They did a pdf thing with these superimposed shots on how they would execute the job, but they weren’t where the client was going and they had second guessed it thinking they were for sure getting the job. The other thing I’ve seen is where this photographer had a 2 or 3 page dossier of how he was going to execute every single aspect of an image but forgot to include props, location scouting, wardrobe, casting in his estimate. I will tell you this, Art Buyers don’t read. That’s why an estimate needs to be clean, concise and to the point. They’re looking at the numbers.

And in that example I gave on my blog earlier the estimate was a little loose because the photographer was the ringer on the job so they didn’t have to worry about making everything super tight they just had to hit the number.

Well, I can tell you on a job where I did have a ringer that I knew was going to do it but another photographer actually won the job over my ringer because of the way he talked to the Art Director about how he was going to expedite the job. The Art Director wasn’t sure how to do a shot and the other photographer said “let me show you” and sent over a sample while on the phone. I actually had another job where a big name photographer withheld information and lost the job because he thought it was proprietary and they might steal his ideas.

When I used to triple bid jobs I would set the fee at fair market value then tell the photographers who they were bidding against and just make it about the production and the photographer who I thought produced the job best would get it. It wasn’t about the fees.

Also, I will tell you one trick I used once when I wanted Richard Avedon to shoot a job I asked to see the media buy which was in the millions of dollars and found 1 insertion in Ladies Home Journal for $40,000 and told the account executive I needed that insertion for my shoot and to ask them for the $40,000. The client agreed. My philosophy was always that running crap 6 times is way worse than running something great 5 times so lets spend the money that we need on production.

Ok, if I’m a photographer and I get the call tomorrow to bid a big advertising job and I’ve never done anything like that before, what do I do?

I do estimates for people and even have people in my back pocket who can do it if I’m not around.

So, you call a professional estimator. What does that cost?

I charge $150-$200 plus 7.5% of the creative fees if you get the job. That’s just for the estimate negotiation is by the hour at $150.00 per hour plus the percentage of the creative fees.

Are there a number of people who do this kind of thing?

I don’t know for sure (comment if you know some – rob).

I wanted to comment on a couple of things in that example you gave the other day. There are profit centers that photographers don’t realize even with no markup. The biggest one is Tech Scouting. There were two locations scouted with no tech scouting and let me give you an example of why it’s so important to do this. The location scout goes to 5 or 10 areas a day but the actual chance of them going to the area where the shoot will happen at the time it will happen is close to nil. I have been on a golf course with a client at 6 am because the photographer thought the sun was going to clear the trees then and we sat for 3 hours waiting for it to happen. If the tech scout had actually happened I would have had a lot happier client. So, that’s how you can sell it to any client and a lot of times it can be half of the fee. Also, digital capture and even something like an ftp site. I have a client who charges $1500 for an ftp site. Another area people don’t charge for is liability insurance. You can actually mark that one up because of the time it takes you to go get the certificate.

Right, so don’t forget to charge for your time and equipment on a shoot.

When you’re negotiating a job how do you make sure you’ve not left money on the table?

I don’t think you can ever know for sure except maybe when they say “yes” really fast. There are times when you may have left money on the table but you are building a relationship and you get people to realize that you are a good value. So, in the example you gave earlier, the photographer was within the budget and the client is coming back.

There are always people who out bid you, you have to show value for what you are.

Any last thoughts on pricing advertising photography?

You can never gauge something by another person’s success, because you don’t know how they got there.

Only walk in your shoes.

There Are 67 Comments On This Article.

  1. Thank you Rob, for digging deeper and finding someone who would be very specific about estimating & pricing advert shoots. It helped to get a clear idea of Ms. Seases’ job title, experience and expertise in the field first. Excellent information. ~Thank you Suzanne!~

  2. Hey Rob,
    Thanks for this. A lot of people give me flak because I went to Brooks, but I must say these topics and suggestions about billing, invoice’s, estimates etc etc really back up what so many of my instructors were talking about.

    It’s also great to see someone sharing their knowledge from experience with an audience.

    • @Blue,
      Why do they give you flak for actually studying photography? I mean, I got some silly commercial photography degree too and granted I didn’t go 3 years – just 2, but there are so many wannabee photographers out there right now who still don’t know photography basics it’s mind numbing. Shit, even over a decade ago when I was assisting, I worked for some photographers that if it weren’t for me, wouldn’t be able to to shoot the job.. I just find it odd that people would give you shit about it.

      Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled programming and thanks Suzanne. I may be hitting you up soon for some estimating.

  3. fantastic post. I’ve always found the best thing for putting together a big estimate is going over it with the producer you plan on using they are great resources.

  4. Suzanne helped me put an estimate together for telecommunication ad campaign and it was right on the money. She knew the agency, how the fees should work and what was perfect for the shoot. Her approach and suggestions on tech scouting (which was needed) helped me create the images the images that were right on target for the client. She knows her stuff!

    • @Cameron Davidson,

      I’ll second what Cameron said. What Suzanne offers is a great asset and her advice has been proven to help us succeed.
      Plus I LOVE her quote at the end of the interview!

  5. EXACTLY!!!! Right on, fantastic. Whew, Thanks Suzanne. It really helps to have lived inside an Agency or Company on the buying side if you’re giving advice. Good one Rob.

  6. When you asked the question “if I’m a photographer and I get the call tomorrow to bid a big advertising job…” an alternate answer could be: call a freelance producer. Photographers who are throwing their hats in the ring should establish relationships with producers before they get the call so they are prepared. Producers DO NOT charge to create estimates, they get paid to produce the job if the job is awarded. A service that would have been needed anyhow.

    • @Liz, Do have a list of producers you would recommend photographers new to the business to contact? I mean it’s not like you can just run into producers out of the blue and establish relationships. Any websites you can recommend?

      • @Kwaku Kufuor, you can look on http://www.photocrew.com/ for producers in your area and other areas… this is a pretty good resource for finding people like producers, hair/make-up artists, set stylists ect. then you can get in touch with people and create your own network of people to turn to.

            • @jonathan beller, When working with National Geographic Assignment, Amanda Sosa Stone and I created a list of producers pulled together from photographers and reps. Would you all like to post that list?

              Producers are AWESOME!!! but unfortunately not all projects can afford them. They can give you some amazing advice as they have been through it all. Agreed with above, they don’t quote the creative fees.

              • @Suzanne Sease, Yes, please post the list.

                BTW what you call a producer seems like what we call a UPM in the motion picture business. Am I correct?

                • @c.d.embrey, Great Rob has the PDF to post. It is from Amanda Sosa Stone and myself. I would like to dedicate it to the Late Linda Marso, a great producer we lost this year!

                  UPM- Unit Production Manager- in motion pictures watching all the money- yes, but they can be so much more- they coordinate everything so you can spend your time shooting and not worrying if the caterer is showing up on time!!

  7. Another great post on the theme.

    I didn’t know a job like ‘Estimator’ exists.
    I’ve bookmarked the site of Ms. Sease.

    Although her service fees don’t sound like a bargain, it could be a pay off.
    Especially for non-US photographers who have to bid on US jobs for the first time and are not represented by an agency.

    Thanks and cheers,
    Reini

  8. My feeling is that Suzanne’s value is in negotiation more than estimating. If all you need is an estimate, a good freelance producer will do a comprehensive job. However, I think if you’re going to give up 7.5% of your creative fee a good negotiator will probably earn that or more. It’s very hard to negotiate on your own behalf in my opinion.

  9. Suzanne knows her way around in the industry. She helped me with a bid, which was right on the current market and well presented. There is more than numbers, and she knew exactly what to do.

  10. Thank you Suzanne, and all who read this. After more than 30 years of doing ALL of it myself, then finally having the projects large enough for a Producer, let me just add my voice to say… ” She is right!” But you better know all of it yourself too…Bobbi Wendt was a mentor for me too in that regard.
    Good Luck all!

    • @Timothy Shonnard, Thanks Timothy, I wouldn’t be in this position today if it wasn’t for Bobbie Wendt. For all you- Bobbie knows copyright!!! She is one smart person!!!

  11. Very useful information, Rob. Thanks.

    Nothing against Suzanne (her input was great) but it would be nice to see this same discussion from a couple different perspectives as well. For example, I’d love to see a similar discussion from someone responsible for evaluating proposals. What line items raise red flags? Are there items that should be avoided in proposals (even if they represent legitimate costs)?

    • @Tom, excellent idea. I know of someone who works for a cost consultant, was once a rep so she gets the art of the estimate. Would you all like for me to get Rob in touch with her?

      Also, have a great art producer who would be helpful too.

      • @Suzanne Sease, Yes, Suzanne please (assuming Rob is willing). I’d like to see an AD/CD perspective, an art buyer perspective, even an accounting perspective.

  12. Thanks for this very informative inside info Suzanne.

    I have hired freelance producers to bid, produce, and invoice ad jobs, and I think it is worth every penny, especially when I was starting out. BTW they did not charge for the bid, but the jobs were awarded, so they got the producers fees/expenses. Also helpful was that they dealt with paying the crew/talent.

    Rob, I love the in depth questioning – you are a true friend to the photogs! This helps us not “reinvent the wheel” at every step.

    -Rose

  13. Great to see this theme continued and what a good choice in Suzanne.

    I have a dilema with Suzanne’s, “always hand over the receipts and don’t mark them up” , advice. I never mark up anyway, so that’s no big deal, but as a business person myself, the IRS requires me to keep and then produce original receipts, if they ask for them – not copies, originals.

    In addition, some of my suppliers I would rather keep to myself. If it took me a lot of legwork to find a good retoucher, model builder, whatever – I don’t feel like broadcasting my source to the world. My suppliers and sub-contractors are part of what makes my business different than someone else’s and I try to keep that kind of information to myself.

    Being forthcoming with a client is good, but giving away the farm isn’t good business practice either.

    • @Andrew Ptak,

      I very rarely send hard copy bills. Most agencies and magazines prefer electronic invoices. If the AB asks for back-up, I will embed scans of receipts directly into the bill. I have never had a client insist on seeing an original, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

      – M

  14. Can someone please explain why it is receipts need to go to the agency? Once a PO is received, as long as I don’t go over my estimate and the PO amount, what’s the big deal?

    Besides, if I get work done by an electrician, plumber, mechanic, lawyer or accountant, I don’t get to ask for receipts from their suppliers?

    • @peter,

      The reality in many larger agencies is that they have careful audits on behalf of the client, or the client requires backup receipts and even worse that agencies hire cost consultants.

      Cost consultants are hired to reduce costs and some are paid a percentage of the reduction they facilitate. So if they save $100k, they get a percentage of that savings. Many of the consultants expectations are totally impractical.

      Back up receipts are not necessarily the norm with smaller agencies or more regional agencies.

      Technically speaking, if the PO does not state that it requires back-up receipts, there is no legal compulsion to provide them. But then again, you may not work for that agency again if they request them after the fact and you refuse to provide them.

      Some agencies ask for exact line item costs, but then allow one separate ‘mark-up’ line, for instance, 15% of expenses, etc. But that should be in one’s estimate first, before trying it on the final invoice.

      In some cases, it’s fine to charge an accounting line. Afterall, to prepare the back-up receipts takes bookkeeping time.

      There’s not as hard and fast a rule as ‘no mark-ups are allowed on anything’ and some exceptions are definitely made. Some people mark each receipt with a 15% mark-up right on each receipt, and turn that in.

      I believe that a mark-up should indeed be allowed. But the overly inflated expenses of the past have drawn a lot of scrutiny of late and one needs to have the paperwork in order, even if they don’t require receipts on the PO, one should be prepared with solid numbers if requested.

      • @geo, Well said. I would be more than happy not to charge any markup if the client cuts a cheque upon delivery of the work. But until that utopia is upon us, a markup is an essential part of equalizing the loss on your capital when paying suppliers before you are paid.

        • Erica Chadwick

          @Carlo Hindian,
          You won’t get your check from an ad agency until you give them receipts. That means you will have to make your own receipts for renting equipment for digital capture that you do yourself, or equipment you own that you are renting to them.

        • @Carlo Hindian,

          The agencies that we are mostly referring to that require back-up receipts pay advances on expenses. You have to state this in your estimate and you have to be firm on requiring it and don’t being the shoot without it, but they are accustomed to you doing so.

          So in most cases, they should be giving you the check long before you ever have to provide a receipt.

  15. Great article; there’s a lot of really useful information in there. Particularly loved Suzanne’s comment that ‘My philosophy was always that running crap 6 times is way worse than running something great 5 times so lets spend the money that we need on production’. Couldn’t agree more.

  16. Something tells me, after this article is now published, that she’s going to change her policy of not charging if the photographer doesn’t get the job. She’s going to be deluged with requests “for help”. I smell a Policy Revision about to happen…

  17. Appreciate the interview/exchange.
    Learned some, though not lost bidding adverts.

    Rob, can you provide this sort of exchange for editorial markets?
    I have no idea how editorial photographers can make a good living doing just editorial.

    Thanks again!

  18. Hi Suzanne :) There is another (free), often overlooked estimating / bidding tool I would like to suggest: the AICP (Asssociation of Independent Commercial Producers) Bid Form. Download it here: http://nypg.com/resources/AICP_Bid_Form.pdf.

    Altho structured for tv commercial production, many of the line items might apply to a still shoot.

    As well, there are a number of business and negotiating tools on the APA (Advertising Photographers of America) website in the online Business Manual; some are free, some require APA membership. http://kl.am/2ZfU

    Thanks as always for your input and insights.

  19. Finally someone who validates putting the execution and usage into one Creative Fee. I have been getting tired of all the bashing on various forums for my practice of not separating out usage. I also got bashed for not marking up expenses, yet here that practice is validated. Thank you Suzanne Sease!

  20. I might be way too late in comments, but is it okay to ask if a the agency has a budget in mind and if you are bidding with other photographers vs just giving them an estimate?

    • @Christy, By all means you have the right to ask, they just may not give you the answer. As far as budget, you can say “I am thinking this is going to be around $25,000.00 is that within your budget?” Sometimes that cuts to the chase and you don’t waste your time.

  21. Suzanne,

    I have a quick question. If the client tells you they have a budget of say $50,000, but you feel like it will run about $55,000, is it OK to bid over their budget?