The Ones That Get Away

December 7th, 2007 | Posted in Freelancing

Most of the time the way freelancing works, at least with illustration, is that you get a call or e-mail from a client with you in mind for a particular project. They describe what it is they are looking for, and most of the time name a dollar amount as their budget on the job. Then you either accept the job, or you don’t.

It isn’t always that way, however. There are three main scenarios where a “job” comes in that isn’t really a job but is a “potential job”… you may or may not end up with any work out of it. The first involves a client not revealing a set budget, but inquiring how much you would charge and setting you in competition with other illustrators based on your fee. The second also involves competition, but of the art variety. The client requests to see your portfolio or further samples of your work, and compares it to other portfolios to try and decide who would artistically be best for a given job. The third surfaces mostly in advertising jobs where you are being considered by an ad agency to work on a third party’s ad campaign. Your work is part of one of several “pitches” the ad agency makes to one to their clients, and you getting the gig is dependent on that advertiser deciding on the campaign involving your work over other choices. Any of those scenarios might result in your not getting a job, and that’s always a little depressing. Especially if it’s a job that would have been particularly fun and/or high profile.

Deal or No Deal– The first scenario is the dreaded “bidding” process. In this situation the clients describes the job and asks you for an estimate of what you would charge… sort of like a contractor bidding on the job of adding an addition on to your house. In that business it’s typical for a homeowner to call 3 or more contractors and get estimates on the construction project, compare the bids and the companies themselves, and then accept one of the bids while the others are out of luck. That seems a little cruel but that’s the way to make sure you get the work done by someone who knows what they are doing and aren’t overcharging you. That’s really a bad analogy, as costs for things like construction are a lot more fixed than illustration. Two by fours cost the same no matter what… the materials and labor run essentially the same so it’s a matter of efficiency and other small factors that make the difference in a competent construction company estimator’s price.

I don’t know many illustrators that enjoy that process. I know I hate doing it, especially when the project is outside the familiar magazine illustration genre. What do you charge? Will it be more or less than other illustrators will bid? It’s almost impossible to know. You might be charging yourself right out of the running, or you might be doing it for dirt cheap when you should be charging much more. A friend of mine and fellow illustrator wrote me a few weeks ago lamenting a job he lost that he really wanted to do… a series of video packaging images… that he was afraid he bid too much on. It would have been a great portfolio piece and some high profile work, but he didn’t get the job and he thought maybe he should have done it for a lot less just to get the job.

For me when it comes to bidding a job there are two factors involved… finding out what a typical fee might be for that type of job, and then weighing that against how busy I am and what the job means to me at that time. I was asked the question “How do you decide what to charge?” in a Sunday Mailbag a while back, and the basic answer is “that depends”. Mainly it depends on what you are willing to do it for, and that might be different if your board is swamped or completely empty. In that article I mention using the Graphic Artists Guild’s “Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook” as a starting point for bidding a particular job. My buddy Cedric Hohnstadt just posted a great two part article on “How to Bid Out a Project” on his blog. Check out Part 1 and Part 2… great advice.

Portfolio Cage Match The second scenario is when the art director of a given project isn’t quite sure which illustrator suits their needs best, and calls several requesting a portfolio be sent for comparison. Honestly this does not happen much at all anymore. About 10 years ago I used to ship out my portfolio every few months for just such a purpose, but I haven’t needed to do that in years. Part of that may be that art directors seldom have time to mess around with such a long process. They usually need the artwork yesterday as it is, let alone taking a week just to pick their illustrator out of a line up. I suspect the main reason we don’t see much of that anymore is the ease of contact and communication between art director and potential illustrator today. Thanks to the internet, most illustrators have their entire portfolios on-line and accessible 24/7, so the old fashioned bound portfolio is fast becoming a distant memory. The process of comparing and choosing an illustrator is still taking place, but the illustrators don’t know they are in the running for a job unless they get the nod and then the call. That’s nice in that there’s no let down when a job does not come through (and no hassle of shipping out your portfolio). It’s bad that you have no way of knowing whether or not your work is being considered at all for jobs. I have a funny feeling that every week I am being considered to do the cover of TIME Magazine, but just before they pick up the phone to call me something happens and I don’t get the job…. then I wake up.

The Darrin Stevens Effect- Remember the old “Bewitched” TV show? Husband Darrin was an advertising executive who would brainstorm and “pitch” ad ideas to clients. Often there would be several ideas that the client was presented with, and then they chose which one to go with. Well, that’s not just fantasy. That’s often the way real ad agencies develop ad campaigns for their clients. The “pitch” will sometimes include artwork mock ups or sometimes a full illustration to help sell the concept. If an ad agency calls wanting an illustrator to participate that process, they’ll sometimes pay them to do a small sample piece with the prospect of doing a lot of art for the campaign if it gets picked up, or often they’ll just ask to get several pieces of sample art that shows the style or technique they’d want to use and incorporate that into the client presentation… again with the potential of a big job in the balance.

That scenario is the same kind of arrangement as the others… it might lead to a big job or it might not. It all depends on the end client and the direction they want to go. I recently missed out on a major and very fun job under this process. I received a call last week from a big ad agency in New York that handles the marketing for most of the shows on Broadway. They were doing the promotion and visuals for a new big musical production that is coming to Broadway, and had several concepts to pitch to the client… one was a MAD Magazine (circa 1950’s) flavored campaign and they wanted me to do the art in the event that was the concept that got picked up. They asked for high res samples of several specific pieces out of my portfolio to use in the presentation. This week I got a call saying that the client decided on one of the other concepts. I usually don’t get too disappointed if I don’t get a particular job, but in this case it would have been a real kick to see my artwork plastered all over New York in the form of theater posters, placards, programs, T-shirts, etc. Oh well…

I would still say that 90% of all the calls I get are of the “here’s the job, here’s the deadline and here’s our budget, can you do it?” variety, but there are still others that come in you have to angle for. Some of them you land, and some get away. The goal as a working freelancer is to land enough to keep you busy and make a living… if you are doing that it’s hard to be upset with the ones that get away.


  1. Kirk says:

    Very good post! I read Cedric?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s post on pricing and now yours.

    I have to admit I have been an Art Director that does the multiple quotes and go with the lowest bidder. Mostly pushed on me by the CEO or VP of Sales, I have always disliked doing it this way and would try and find ways to work around it. Most the times, the prices are very similar anyway. This (bidding process) is mostly caused by the owners of the company wanting to spend the least for illustrations (and other things too) instead of seeing the unique value of each illustrator?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s style and view. We all know you get what you pay. Too many times I wish I had free reign and the money to use the illustrators I like.

    Reading your comparison with house building really bolsters me to make a stance to not do this any more. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m going to push more for what we will pay for an illustration. Float out numbers till I get a yes and then I can ask the illustrator if they will do it for that amount.

    Thanks Tom, – Kirk


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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