How to Make the Most of a Creative Call and Write a Successful Treatment

November 16, 2015

By Holly Stuart Hughes

The triple bidding process inevitably ends with one photographer landing the assignment—and two also-rans. The difference between them comes down to a number of factors, including not only submitting an estimate that meets budget constraints, but convincing the creatives that you can deliver an ad that meets the client’s needs. Two of the most important ways photographers can win creatives’ trust is by making a good impression during the creative call, and by developing a treatment afterwards that presents—in words and pictures—an appealing way to produce and execute the assignment.

Even when the creatives don’t ask for them, many photographers take the time to write and submit treatments—believing they are the best way to illustrate a unique spin on the assignment, their understanding of the client’s strategy, and their solutions to the technical or logistical challenges of the job.

The treatment builds on the information exchanged during an initial conference call when the agency’s creatives explain the campaign’s overall creative direction. Before the end of the call, New York photographer Kareem Black explains,  “I’ll say, ‘I’m excited about this. I would love to have a few days to put some ideas together for you to look at.’” He then prepares a document, usually eight to 12 pages long, explaining his ideas for lighting, casting, wardrobe, styling and scheduling. He notes, “The treatment is a detailed plan of how I would put it all together.”

A treatment is also an opportunity for the photographer to demonstrate a thorough understanding of what the client wants the ad to accomplish. “People aren’t hiring you to create great pictures, but to get results,” says Seattle photographer John Keatley. “You have to communicate that you understand the clients’ goals and needs, and that you can help them meet their goals.”

Learning what those goals are begins with the creative call.

The Creative Conversation and Close Listening

Typically, the agency sends the three photographers invited to bid on a job some comps or sketches for the ads, then sets up a conference call with each photographer and his or her agent. This is the first and best opportunity to learn specifics about what the creatives want, says Los Angeles photographer Eva Kolenko. “It’s 80 percent listening, 10 percent asking questions and maybe 10 percent me selling myself.” She adds, “In listening and asking the right questions, you’re showing your interest in the project.”

The “right” questions help a photographer plan an approach: Does the client want models or street casting? Should the ads be shot handheld or on a tripod? Adjectives like “upscale” or “fun” mean different things to different people, and asking for clarification helps guide the photographer’s planning for locations or styling.

Understanding the demographic the client wants to reach and the message the ad has to send are essential to preparing a successful treatment. Keatley notes, “I try to say, ‘I hear you saying you want to do a portrait of a woman with an animal, but what’s the goal? Are we trying to raise awareness, or drive foot traffic into a retail store?’” He adds, “On the creative call, I always ask for a list of keywords that would describe the response they want from the viewer.”

With an understanding of the client’s needs, the photographer can begin to offer suggestions about how to shoot the images. Black says, “I’m thinking on my feet, saying, ‘What do you think of this approach?’ Or, ‘This is how I think this could happen.’”

Earlier in his commercial career, Black recalls, “I used to say, ‘Oh, this is easy.’” Then his rep, Howard Bernstein, gave him some useful feedback. Black explains, “What I was trying to say was, ‘This will go without a hitch,’ but my rep pointed out that this is something that the people on the call worked on for weeks or months. Saying it’s ‘easy’ makes their work sound simple. Another way to say it would be, ‘We can make this happen.’”

Photographer Zachary Scott of Los Angeles sees the initial call as a conversation and a chance to show how he would collaborate. He also notes that suggesting dramatic changes to the art direction during the initial call might sound like criticism. Instead, he advises, “Offer smaller shifts that put your stamp on it.”

Suggestions should reference the client’s goals. Keatley recalls talking to creatives about the Instagram campaign he shot earlier this year for Hotel Tonight, the hotel booking app. The brief called for images of people in unpleasant settings—a leaky basement, an office cubicle—who were already prepared for their vacation getaways. The client wanted the ad to increase brand awareness and, Keatley recalls, “grab people’s attention and be bold.” He noted, however, that the people in the sketches weren’t looking at the camera. Keatley says he told the creatives, “I love the concepts, but I feel they’d be more engaging if people were looking at the camera.” He suggested shooting straight-on portraits of each subject in small, shallow sets built in a studio. Keatley says, “The concept was the same but the approach changed.” (It helped, he adds, that building sets eliminated the need for location scouting, and allowed him to shoot six portraits faster.)

Separating the Money Conversation

The creative call is a chance to learn “the overarching creative direction,” says Kolenko. She leaves the discussion of budget to her rep, John Sharpe, who directs questions to the art buyer, either during the call or in a follow-up email.

Photographers who don’t have reps also need to learn what the budget is in order to prepare an estimate. Keatley’s advice to them is: “Talk about the creative first: ‘What’s your dream? What’s your goal?’ Then come back saying, ‘Based on what we discussed, let’s talk about numbers.” He, too, says the production and budget issues are best discussed with the art buyer alone.

Even during the creative discussion, he says, there are ways to glean how the creatives perceive the scale of the production. He notes, “One question we ask is: ‘Is this your first time working with this client and are you interested in impressing them, or is everyone being budget conscious?’ That’s a clue.”

Tips for a Good Call

Scott says, “Call in from a land line, don’t breathe heavily into the phone—and make sure your crew follows the same protocol.” If you’re sick, jet lagged or tired, he says, “Reschedule. Be rested and prepared to talk with energy.”

Black notes that, though he works from his home studio, he wears business attire for the conference call. He explains, “It puts me in a different mindset” than wearing a t-shirt.

Writing the Treatment

“There’s no quick way to write a treatment letter,” says Kolenko. “I’ve tried methods where I cut and paste from older treatments, but every job is so specific, it doesn’t work that way. Every job has its own challenges.”

After the creative call, she says, “I like to sit with my notes and then I can really visualize what my process will be, and what the production will be like from start to finish. Then I offer those solutions in a lot more detail in my treatment.”

The treatment should reiterate the client’s goals. Black says for one assignment, the agency had sent him concept boards designed with a bright color palette; he mimicked those colors in the PDF of his treatment. “They were trying to say they were going for a certain vibe, and in my treatment I was trying to say: I am taking that in and running with it.”

Black recently wrote a 12-page treatment that began with a thank-you page, and ended with his bio. He devoted several pages to showing the work of wardrobe and makeup stylists he liked for the job, because the creatives had stressed the importance of those to the success of the ad. “I also discussed managing our time well,” he says. The shoot called for a large cast, and lots of time spent on hair and makeup. He addressed the challenge in his treatment, noting, “Preparation is key. I said I’m always aware of the schedule, but it’s important that the models not be aware of the time pressure.”

When he’s illustrating how he would shoot the ad, he says, “I always use my own photography in the treatment, in order to say: I’ve done this already.”

Kolenko, who shoots many lifestyle and pharmaceutical ads, says casting is often an important part of her jobs. In an estimate, she might list line items such as casting days or a baby wrangler; in her treatment, she would explain her methods for eliciting emotion from her subjects—who might be kids or actors portraying disease sufferers. She then submits her treatment and her estimate together.

“The treatment is a great way to justify the cost,” she says. “If you ask why the casting cost is six grand, you can go to my treatment and see what will happen in pre-pro, and that it will guarantee that much more success in the shoot.”

A treatment is more than a selling tool, Kolenko adds. “It’s also a great way for me to envision what every day of the shoot will be, and what has to happen in pre-production to make it work.” She shares her treatment with her producer and assistants, “so they can understand what has to happen.”

Writing treatments and estimates is time consuming, and offers no guarantee for success. Scott counsels photographers to stay enthusiastic. “This is an opportunity to show the ad agency what it’s like to work with you.  If the art buyer enjoys the bid process with you and your team, they’ll call again.”

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