Sunday, December 02, 2007

Use Assignment Confirmations

Most of my freelance clients have worked with me enough where my assignment confirmations consist of an e-mail stating, "Got it."

To me, "got it" means I have the assignment and agree to the usual terms. To them, "got it" means I'll do my best, turn in the assignment before the deadline, acquire required releases, and everything else required to complete the assignment to their satisfaction and get paid.

I've been at this a while, so "got it" works for me and most of my clients. We "get it." Newer clients and student PJs stepping into the pro world might not.

This is when it's appropriate to use an official Assignment Confirmation form. Technically speaking, this form is the first step in a PJ's workflow.

What's an Assignment Confirmation form?
An Assignment Confirmation form is a contract. It essentially states a publication (or commercial client) has contracted the services of a PJ to provide images. It spells out the price, rights, deadlines and other responsibilities for both parties.

If there's going to be a misunderstanding, it's much better to identify it a few minutes after the initial phone call rather than when the invoice is due.

When to use this form
If an assignment is immediate (deadline) AND with a regular client, this step can be skipped. Shoot, transmit and invoice as usual.

Otherwise, pro PJs use this form with each new client. It's a good, professional habit to always send a form when an assignment is accepted (with both new and old clients).

For newer PJs, it also acts as a focusing device while talking to a new client. By filling out the form while the client is on the phone, the PJ gets the most out of the phone call. The client knows the PJ is a professional and also gets a contract to show a supervisor.

Customer service
One advantage of this form is a customer service technique. It lets the client know the PJ is a professional, cares about the assignment and wants to get the information correct. It also establishes the business-to-business atmosphere and may yield higher payment than "standard rate," which is almost always negotiable.

For example, we expect to answer some questions and give some information when we call a cable company to have the service installed. The people we talk to are customer service representatives.

Photo buyers expect the same customer service. If they don't get this service, they may not feel as comfortable about the PJ's ability to deliver the service. We want clients to feel confident in their decision when they conclude the call. The form helps focus the conversation and follows with a written version of the conversation.

Parts of the form
Address blocks
Take a look at a blank Assignment Confirmation form. Feel free to copy and paste it into a word processor document and modify as appropriate. This is a complete form. If parts aren't necessary for a specific gig, delete those parts. However, read the notes below before it's stripped down too much.

The first section is the PJ's contact block. It lists an address and every imaginable way to contact the PJ if something goes crazy.

The second section is the client's info block. It lists how we'll contact the client in an emergency and where the images and/or invoice will be sent.

Form content
The first content section is the actual contract. It states the PJ and client made a verbal commitment and set the terms as acceptable. It also states the details of the assignment as the PJ understands the assignment (cut and paste the assignment slug if the client sends an e-mail).

The second section establishes who's who. This keeps the form flexible enough to use with multiple clients.

Now we get to the guts of the deal. The first information we need to know is how much we're getting paid for the gig.

On the blank form provided, all blanks contain (XXX). On the actual form I use, I have real minimum amounts in these locations. If the client doesn't meet the minimum prices, our conversation is over unless it's some subject I'm salivating to shoot. If their budget is too low, I may refer them to someone who accepts gigs for less money (if the offer is insulting, I may suggest they call a day labor service).

If PJs already know their cost of doing business and Day Rate, it makes life easier. Plug these numbers into the form. Next, get the client up to the minimum numbers (or keep the PJ's mouth shut when the client offers more than an acceptable rate).

A guarantee is the price a PJ will be paid if nothing gets published. This is what the PJ is paid to cover time and expenses. It's often called a "kill fee." This means if the assignment is killed for any reason, the guarantee will be paid. Otherwise, PJs get the full space rate, which should be a much higher amount.

Space rates
While most newspapers pay a flat rate for shoots, several magazines pay space rates. These are amounts a magazine has budgeted per image on each page of editorial space.

In other words, legitimate magazine publishers already know how many advertising and editorial pages they'll have. They budget an amount per cover and for each inside image. Then, they find stock images or make assignments. Often this happens eight to 10 months before the publication date.

If a magazine editor calls and doesn't know how much they pay for space rate, be concerned. It means the magazine probably won't exist when it's time to pay invoices or the publication doesn't hire pro PJs often and will probably choke when you give them a legitimate price.

What's a day?
A "day rate" is how much a PJ charges for services. There are two kinds of day rates: travel and work.

Travel is a lower rate than work because nothing is produced. However, image buyers must pay for the time it takes to put the PJ in location. Otherwise, the PJ loses income because they can't accept assignments while traveling to and from the location.

The work day rate is considered any part of a day where images are produced. This means PJs have the camera out and are producing publishable images, whether published or not. This also means the PJ is using privately-owned equipment and hard-earned skills. This costs the client more.

If PJs' travel rates are too low, they must make up the difference with their work day rate. If the work day rate is too low, the PJ will be out of business soon. This benefits nobody.

Additional fees
All legitimate fees incurred while shooting are passed along to the client. These aren't expenses PJs would have if they weren't on assignment. No PJ pays a hotel, rental car or restaurant meal if they stay home. Keep the receipts and pass them along to the client.

"On stock" items are bought in bulk. Not too many years ago, we all had bricks of film and 100-sheet boxes of paper in our freezers. We purchased film and paper in bulk to keep our stock standardized (predictable results).

Now, we buy spindles of CDs/DVDs. Some folks even make prints for clients and need to calculate the cost per piece (I'll get back to this one day).

These are legitimate costs to the client. They would pay full price if the PJ didn't have these items on hand. The PJ has tested these products and found them up to standard. So, the client pays full price to get a superior product. Any difference goes toward the PJ's research and development phase. The only difference is there are no receipts to give to the client. So, they must accept the PJ's invoice as the receipt.

Due date
Most PJ work is Net 30. This means the invoice payment is due within 30 days of the date the invoice is submitted. Almost all clients pay on or before the due date (see below). The rest go into collections.

The importance of this paragraph is the establishment of interest charges for delinquent accounts. I've had at least one incident where the interest charges equated to much more than image use price. I eventually got the total due, but I would've rather gotten the fair amount on time.

The "terms and conditions" clause is the delivery memo.

The copyright clause clearly states the PJ is the sole owner of the copyright. It also clearly states the client is buying a license to use an image. This eliminates misunderstandings.

The next paragraph lists the licensed uses. The additional statement is a formality. However, it does clarify for the uninformed that images used for self-promotion must appear in context.

An embargo is a designated amount of time a publication has to use an image without it appearing in other publications. Spot news typically has no embargo while assignments do.

This is why it's CRITICAL for new PJs to never accept ex-post facto (after the fact) "assignments" for spot news. Publications are simply trying to secure an exclusive and limit the PJ's potential income.

The dates set are a normal embargo for an assignment. I've had clients want up to eight months, but those clients paid sufficiently for the time.

Another important embargo issue involves understanding the agreement is void if the client doesn't pay on time. It's a contract. They're contractually bound to pay by the due date. If payment isn't received, the embargo is void.

Either way, they must still pay use or kill fees, but the PJ is no longer obliged by contract to honor the embargo if the PJ has another client. This motivates most clients to pay on time.

Safe return
This confirmation form is old school. The safe return clause applies primarily to prints and chromes. Back then, it was important to get these safely returned because it was expensive to replace these images.

Now, images are mostly digital. It's far more important to ensure the images aren't "accidentally" reused without payment. I retain this clause to have leverage if something unusual happens down the road.

PJ's don't advertise in a traditional sense. Instead, our credit line ("photo by") is our advertising mechanism. While we don't particularly want our name used as a graphical device to fill space on a page, we want potential clients to see our name.

As such, our credit line has value. Publishing our images without this credit line costs us potential income, and we need to get it back. This clause sets our value of our investment and how important our advertising investment is to us.

Libel protection
Almost all publications change cutlines. Each publication has their own style and no publication wishes to be redundant (cutlines cover much of the same information for a series of images).

This clause is the PJ's protection against being involved in a libel suit because someone on the copy desk decided to be "cute" with the caption.

We accept full responsibility for our cutlines as provided. If they're modified, the publication accepts responsibility.

Several publications try to shovel libel responsibility onto PJs. It won't hold up in court, but they try.

Model releases
We've already covered model releases. If it's an assignment, get them. If it's spot news, only sell to editorial publications or get releases before selling images. Remember to charge an adequate fee for acquiring these releases and pass along model compensation fees.

This clause clearly states the PJ provides the model release rather than a client-provided release. The client's release typically only indemnifies the client and leaves the PJ hanging. In rare egregious circumstances, it tries to assign copyright to the client. Whereas the PJ's release protects both parties and places the copyright duly with the PJ.

Courtesy close
Finally, the courtesy closure gives assurance the PJ is a professional and will work diligently to provide the best images possible in a timely manner.

Enough for now,

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