You receive an unsolicited email from a creative director who has seen your work and wants you to throw in on their company’s next design campaign. You promptly freak out. Yes, you had been working towards this, but the fact that it is actually materializing is unbelievable. Then reality sets in: This is by far the biggest client you’ve ever had and you can’t blow this career-propelling opportunity.
What’s the best way to handle your first major client? We asked creatives who were tapped by Apple, Ford, Oakley, and National Geographic for their advice. They’ve laid out a survivor’s guide to assist you with navigating through your own breakthrough project. Heed their advice, so you can parlay the first assignment into more gigs with Fortune 500 companies. As these creatives will tell you, brands hire as much based on your work as who you’ve worked with.
When companies put together a project and have you in mind for it, you might be the last to know. Often that means that the plans are in place and the ball is already in motion by the time you get the call. It doesn’t matter to the brand if you’re ready for it. They have a spot saved for you and simply want to hear that you’re onboard.
Just ask Navid Baraty. He normally books projects one to two months out, but Apple didn’t give him that option last fall. The infamously mercurial tech behemoth asked the New York-based photographer to shoot a project 10 days later, in Chongqing, China, right after the Thanksgiving break.
“It’s Apple, and I just had to make it work,” says Baraty. He hunted down a company that turned around his visa in three days and arrived in China on schedule to photograph a panorama of Chongqing that Apple wrapped around its new cylindrical-shaped store there.
In instances like these, act first like Baraty and think later. Get yourself to the project destination and then you can reflect on the crazy circumstances. (I’m in China! Working for Apple!) You might find it gets easier once you’ve landed. Baraty did. Apple provided him with a level of support in Chongqing that he had never experienced on a project. The company secured building rooftop access for Baraty and set up an on-demand printing service for him to review his images daily. “I was surprised by how smoothly it went,” he says.
One of the final images from Baraty's shoot for Apple. See more here.
Even though you’re a rookie, global brands will judge you against the other more seasoned professionals in their contributor stable. So don’t act like a rookie and be easily flustered.
Ben Johnston was living in a Toronto hostel and trying to jump-start his freelancer career when Ford asked him to create some typographic illustrations for a 2013 marketing campaign. Though the medium was still relatively new to Johnston, the then 25-year-old took the job.
Despite the obstacles in his path—like that his “office” consisted of him propping up his computer against a cereal box in the hostel kitchen to retouch images—he didn’t let on to Ford that he was potentially out of his league. “You have to be confident that you can more than likely figure it out,” says Johnston. “Definitely don’t tell the client you don’t know how to do it.” Because Johnston delivered a polished final product without making excuses, Ford had no idea that Johnston tackled the designs without a full arsenal of skills and tools.
Ben Johnston spent over eight hours drawing this mural for Vitaly.
When a big company that could change your career comes knocking, it may be tempting to practically do the job for free. But the brand reached out to you—they want you. Know that you have some leverage to get what you want out of the deal.
Photographer Adrian Wilson always begins rate negotiations by asking the client what their budget is, rather than giving his day rate. When Oakley emailed him in 2012, the company said they had a budget of $34,000 for Wilson to shoot 10 to 12 retail stores in different states. If Wilson could make that work, he had the gig. Wilson said he could and earned his day rate and then some, all because he let Oakley name the first number. “Clients don’t get to choose to pay me less, but I get to choose if I accept more,” he says. Oakley liked Wilson’s work so much that it hired him for this project annually. To date, Wilson has earned more than $100,000 from Oakley alone.
Money isn’t the only thing to consider at the negotiation table. Suren Manvelyan was caught off guard when National Geographic emailed him about using one of his trademark human eye photos in 2013. “It was a problem because I didn’t know how to set the price,” he says. The Armenian-based Manvelyan went to Getty.com to try and cobble together some rate information based on the prices of similar photos and usages. In the end, National Geographic offered $4,000 to include the photo in its worldwide magazine and on its website. The number seemed arbitrary to Manvelyan and, while he thought he had some room to counteroffer, he accepted it for reasons beyond the money. “It was one part salary, one part marketing [value], and one part personal happiness,” he says.
Think of yourself as a magician when you’re working with global brands. While you’re fulfilling the creative aspects of the assignment, don’t show them the great lengths you are going to pull it off. A true pro makes overcoming the challenges look easy.
During his nationwide Oakley photo tour last year, Wilson arrived in Minneapolis amid a winter blizzard. The snowy weather forced the Mall of America with Oakley’s store in it to close. Wilson had a legitimate excuse to call off the shoot that day, but doing so would have thrown off Oakley’s production schedule. He ventured forth, piloting his rental car behind a snowplow to reach the mall and climbing over snow drifts in the parking lot to enter the building. Mission accomplished. “The client doesn’t care if there is a giant snowstorm that makes it difficult to get to the shoot,” explains Wilson. “They just want to see the final shot.”
Brands also care little about how you get to the final product, even if that includes subcontracting part of the project. Say a company offers you a prime gig, but there is one element that is outside of your wheelhouse. “You can always hire a secondary person to do certain things for you,” says Johnston. “You don’t really have to tell the brand about it.” Johnston knows the importance of nailing that first big opportunity. His work with Ford has led to assignments with Audi, Lululemon, Nike, Aston Martin, and Sierra Nevada. “You need to crack one,” he says. “Once you get one global brand, you get them all.”
What have you learned from working with global brands?
Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.