10 Questions to Ask Before You Bid on an Ad Assignment

November 3, 2010

Image © Hidden Valley/photo by Zachary Scott

Left: DDB San Francisco provided the layout for the Hidden Valley ad. Right: The client wanted an homage to Norman Rockwell, which affected casting and styling choices. Zachary Scott had the set built, then added the background in post.

As reps, art buyers and producers note in our feature story, “Making the Most of Pre-Production Calls and Meetings,” listening carefully during the creative call with a campaign art director and during pre-estimate calls with the agency’s art buyer is essential to successful bidding for a job.

The first call, known as the creative call, is a chance for the art director to explain the layout and the purpose of the campaign. Photographers often ask their producers to be on the creative call, but just as “a fly on the wall,” says producer Emily Vickers of Mason Vickers. After hearing what the art director wants, the photographer or producer can follow up with questions  –about scheduling, logistics, number of shots, budget limitations and more—for the ad agency’s art buyer. During this follow up, known as the pre-estimate call, it’s important to get the detailed information needed to complete a realistic estimate. It’s also the time to figure out whether the budget is realistic for the job specifications. 

Before you get on a call with a creative or art producer, it’s useful to prepare a list of all the questions you need to ask.  While every shoot is different, the reps and producers we talked to said there are certain questions that they have to ask in order to get the details they need to prepare a bid. Asking the right questions, they said, also helps them decide when they should just walk away from a job with a budgets that’s too small or a schedule that’s too tight to do the job right.

1. “What’s your vision?” Alternatively: “What are you trying to achieve with the creative?”  This is the time a photographer has to listen. As Liz Miller-Gershfeld, senior art producer at Energy BBDO notes, during this conversation, creatives will offer “clues” about the clients’ priorities and what the agency wants in the ad.  Producer Vickers notes that she usually asks few questions at this point.  “As this call may be the photographer’s one (and only) chance to make a personal impression on the art director, he or she usually avoids getting bogged down in specifics, especially if they involve costs.”

2. “How literal is your layout?” Freelance producer Berns Rothchild says she always asks that question to explore flexibility about things like number of models, locations, etc.  Vickers typically asks if the client has already approved the layout or not. “Lately, the trend has been for agencies to get triple bids on their creative ideas in advance of their initial client presentation, so they can present the entire package of creative and potential costs at a single meeting. “ That’s handy for the account team, she says “but it costs the producer a lot of unnecessary time in research if the client rejects outright the creative ideas and sends the agency back to the drawing board.”

3.  “What’s the budget?” Alternatively, Vickers suggests asking, “Is there a pre-established budget?” She adds that art buyers don’t like to give a straight answer, “But if the art buyer does reveal a ball-park, it can be crucial to your photographer’s creative approach.” It can also reveal if the client wants champagne but has a budget for “Pabst Blue Ribbon and beer nuts,” says Vickers. She adds, “Photographers shouldn’t bend over backwards to accommodate a ridiculously low budget. In the long run, it does no one any good to get the job without enough money to produce it properly, so  the first round of estimates should be logical and realistic, with provisos and suggestions for trimming so the agency knows you are willing to work with them, up to a point.”

4 “What’s the usage?” Producer Steven Currie says after the logistical and casting questions, this is one of the most important questions to ask. The agency’s answer “helps the rep or photographer determine fees structure and the producer negotiate talent fees, which can be two of the largest line items in a budget.”


5. “How do you want to cast this?” Rothchild says she asks for specifics, like, “Skin tones / hair color / weight / economic background they are portraying.” Rep John Sharpe of Sharpe and Associates notes that the more specific the casting requirements, the more time a casting director will need to spend looking for talent. Rothchild also asks how the agency wants talent evaluated: “Hair up?  Smile?  Full body?  Left profile?”

6. “What kind of location do you want?” That means not only geographic location, but whether they want a mansion or a suburban ranch house. Rothchild says, “I usually do a file pull of available locations prior to the initial call so we have talking points during the call (“what do you like about this location?  What don’t you like?”)”

7. “When do you need delivery?” Here again, photographers should be prepared to walk away from a job they can’t fulfill. “All too often we’re presented with an unrealistic production schedule,” says Vickers. “Account teams are waiting longer and longer to push for decisions from their clients, leaving us to produce jobs within claustrophobic timelines at a break-neck pace to meet their media deadlines, which were established months ago. “

 8. “Are there agency or client guidelines to follow?”  Vickers always asks if the agency has a standard estimating form. She also asks, “Are there agency rules for travel reimbursement such as alcohol, laundry,and hotel incidentals?  [Are there] specific formats for billing and receipts?”

9.  “Who will provide general liability insurance for the job?” This includes providing certificates for locations, rental houses, or props. “ Many agencies provide insurance,” says Vickers. “If the photographer or producer indemnifies the job, they should bill for a percentage to cover their own rising premiums. “

10. “Is our photographer the creative choice?” That’s tricky to ask, but it’s important to feel out the art director or art buyer before you invest time in estimating and re-estimating a job. The fact is, ad agencies often ask three photographers to bid on a job at the request of a client, even though the ad agency art director already has a favorite photographer in mind. You want to know if you have a realistic chance of being considered for the job.  Vickers notes, “Even if they don’t tell you or prevaricate, you can get an idea of whether you’re the preferred simply by the amount of time and attention the art buyer will give you. “ Here’s another tip off, says Energy BBDO’s Miller-Gershfeld: “If it’s a job the agency cares about…but the art director can’t make the call, [that means] the photographer is not seriously being considered for the job.”