Do They Value What You Do
Freelance work and being self employed is a seriously tough gig. You're vulnerable in ways most people cannot begin to contemplate – A minnow swimming in a sea of sharks. The raw basics of just running a business is hard enough, but as a creative individual trying to make a living from photography or other artistic expression you're also working in a deeply emotional space. You choose a creative path because it matters to you.
What happens then when you end up working with a client who actually doesn't value what you do? It sounds silly that someone would hire you and then not value your contribution, but it happens all the time. I remember one company owner who contracted me to shoot images for a brochure, but hired me without consulting their graphic designer. And it turns out the designer had a boyfriend who was waiting for their big break in photography too. From the get-go the designer was determined to be exceedingly difficult about using my pictures. It was a waste of effort for everyone involved.
One especially short lived client of mine had a business model where he simply didn't pay his contractors properly. He seemed like a nice fella at first, and was very smooth at the small talk. He had a talent for retail schmoozing, that's for sure. But once the invoice came due he didn't have much to say at all. We'd chase him for payment and he'd misdirect for months. We knew something was wrong but didn't understand that this was a calculated technique on his part. He was willing to play this game for months in exchange for not paying his bills. It was six months down the track when he told us straight up, "It'll cost you more to chase the money than to walk away. I'll give you 10% of the invoice because you've put up a good fight."
Every time I hear someone use the phrase "It's not personal, it's just business." I think of that guy. Because it's not just business for me; it's my life and it's very personal indeed.
Sometimes the warning signs are more subtle though. As a general rule, any client that wants to haggle over your prices is a client who won't be happy with what you deliver. They're setting themselves up from the beginning with an attitude of "I'm paying too much for this". If they carry that attitude forward into the project then you start seeing strange requests that come out of left field and don't match the brief. They're looking for ways to get that extra value because in their mind they're still paying too much. They're never going to be happy, and the person they're going to blame is YOU.
The worst kind of clients who don't value your work are the ones that just ignore it. I have one client who over the years has repeatedly commissioned content, but then hardly used it. Once every 12 or 18 months they get in touch and they have a project to work on with clearly set out objectives. I get excited. Money turns up in the bank account and I get to work. Months later we get to delivery and it's like nobody's home. They've lost interest in the project and are focused on other things. I'm lucky to even get a reply acknowledging my emails and the images slip quietly into a dark abyss, never to see the light of day again.
It's such a weird feeling. I've spent months putting this stuff together and worked hard to create something really beautiful that the client can be proud of... Then nothing but silence. All that work just ceases to exist anywhere but inside my own mind, and the NAS box. It's crushing, and it makes me feel like shit. And then six months later they turn up again saying, "Yeah we love your work so much let's do another project this time will be different we have a new focus now."
Only this time they stumble even earlier. They're already distracted before I even begin work, and even though they commissioned the photography they don't even get around to sending me the products for the shoot. I start chasing them and they don't answer. It takes several weeks to work out that they've dumped the project and just haven't told me. And I've already moved around months of other work to fit these guys into the schedule.
Not only did I waste time and effort putting the work together, but now I'm wasting effort trying to work out what's gone wrong. And I mean a LOT of effort. When you're left in the dark you end up spending a lot of mental effort trying to figure out which way is up. If they call you and say "Hey there's a problem at our end, sorry to bring you bad news", then at least you know to throw out the anchor and start plotting a new course. When they cower away and keep you in the dark you expend a tonne more effort trying to work out when to pull the pin yourself. All because someone inside the company has screwed up, but it's easier for them to just ignore it than take responsibility.
The close cousin to wasted effort is wasted opportunity. Sometimes I have clients who we know could benefit massively from tweaking their brief, or maybe even straight up sacking their creative agency. That just doesn't happen of course because whoever hired the agency won't be too keen to admit they bought a lemon.
We see so much money being spent on bad content – so bad that I am convinced it's damaging their brand instead of promoting it. We'll talk to the client a year later and they'll admit, "Yeah that didn't really deliver", and then watch them make the exact same mistakes all over again.
To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Being outside of an organisation gives you a level of detachment and elevation that is harder to achieve from inside. I don't know if there's a Ground Hog Day effect happening or if nobody can actually see over the horizon from inside the bunker, but a lot of really bad content makes it out into the world and each time I think to myself with amazement, "Somebody got paid for that!"
The worst kind of wasted opportunity for us is when we could have delivered for the client, but they didn't get organised and missed the window of opportunity. This used to happen all the time when I was doing camera reviews for a magazine. It was the best three years of my life, and the worst three years of my life. The word "deadline" is pretty much meaningless to some folks.
Sometimes the Tuesday deadline exists because I'm getting on a plane Wednesday, so delivering a fancy new tripod a week after I've left means we lost a golden opportunity to see the gear in action and capture something useful. It's even worse when you've planned your packing around that bit of kit that didn't show up. Too often I've made the mistake of compromising my own travel shoots by agreeing to carry gear for review, and finding the gear wasn't up to the job, or was delivered to my home three days after I've left country.
Finite Creative Energy
As a freelancer or self employed artist you have a finite amount of energy to be creative. This is a much bigger deal than most people recognise. In any given day there are just a few hours during which your creative energy is flowing in the right direction. Some days it doesn't flow at all. I've learned over time to recognise and respect the different settings my mind clicks into during a day. There are times when I'm ready to create something new, or times when I'm ready to edit existing work, or times when I need to absorb information and learn, or times when I need to take a long walk with a podcast and forget that my clients even exist.
Those precious few hours where my brain is connecting and filtering in a creative and focused manner are extremely valuable. And they're absolutely finite.
When you have one client lobbing hand grenades into your working space you might end up losing days or weeks or even months of those rare and valuable creative hours. And that is going to effect your work for every other client you have – not just the trouble maker. The cost of one bad client far exceeds the hours wasted dealing with their bollocks. It puts blockages into your ability to be creative at all. Your creative focus demands a positive space.
The impact can be measured not merely in hours, but in months. The damage this can do to your overall business is immense, and easily underestimated. So much of being self-employed comes down to planting seeds each year that you hope to reap for a decade to come. When you stop planting those seeds for a few months, you may be doing long term damage to your future.
I'm going to say this again because in fact you can never hear it enough. One bad client can do a lot more damage than simply ruining your day.
Creative vs Compromised
Most clients bring you new opportunities to be creative, but not all. Sometimes you just end up losing sight of why you got into a creative and artistic space in the first place. Every commercial situation has the potential to conflict with your creative spirit, and compromise is a necessary part of delivering a service. It's the client's money and you're the dancing monkey.
Only you're not a dancing monkey are you? You're a human being and you have creative aspirations. You want to build a career from your creative talent, not from crumbs tossed out by the organ-grinder. If you simply wanted a job you'd simply go and get one. Instead, you're working for yourself because a) you can't do meetings before 10am like me or b) there are no jobs that let you do the wonderful and expressive long term creativity that you love so much. You want a career that lets you be yourself.
Some clients will pay for your creativity, but some will crush it into the dust. Social media in particular is a bone crusher, because the algorithms are trying to determine what you should or should not create. Indeed, Instagram itself is a metaphor for creative focus: When Instagram first started it was heaven for photographers who wanted to share their vision of art and the world. Today the algorithm literally hides still photos from people's feed because they not only demand you create video content (in a specified format and using their preselected music) but they insist that you watch this stuff as well. Nothing sums up the "dancing monkey" syndrome like reels on Instagram.
Client work can have a similar effect if you're not paying proper attention. You start moving your goal posts to align better with theirs, and over time you end up somewhere completely unexpected. That's not always a bad thing of course; there are clients who end up elevating you and your vision. But honestly this is rarely the case. Most clients are very narrow in their objectives and your lifelong creative ambitions are rarely going to be a significant focus for them.
It's often helpful to get an external perspective and look with fresh eyes at the situation. Being self employed and working solo for a few decades can make that tricky, especially if you're judgement has proved good enough to survive for all this time. But there may already be someone in your life trying to tell you there's a problem, and you may be very reluctant to listen.
My wife, Shellie, is very sensitive to those clients who effect me. Because they affect her too. She has an external perspective but with the benefit of seeing what's happening inside the machine as well. Shellie sees when I'm working hard but failing. She feels the disappointment I get when a client repeatedly fails to value my work. She can see the weight I carry in trying to make something good out of a bad deal. And she's kind enough to speak up and hope that eventually I might hear it.
Too often I give myself reasons to persevere with a client who really doesn't deserve it. On one level I know Shellie is right. On another level I have a loyalty to my clients that is far too self-deprecating. Part of being a successful business owner is you make a habit of solving problems, and making the best of a situation that isn't ideal. But there are limits. That tendency to keep digging the hole deeper is exactly why I need Shellie’s perspective, and her helping hand to get out and move on.
The "point of diminishing returns" is that exact moment when they're taking more from you than they give in return. From that point onwards, all the way to the horizon, every step further will take you backwards. Most people have no idea they've reached that point until they're a long long long way past it.
This is the hardest situation to work your way through. A client might have been really good once, but for various reasons they're just not the same team player they used to be. Maybe there's been a change in the company's focus, or a new manager comes in who wants to do things differently. Or maybe all the good people you used to enjoy working with just aren't there anymore. Letting go of a client that is no longer the same client is difficult because that change is gradual, and because there's often remnants of the old relationship still in the mix.
Gradual change is pernicious. You may not even notice the depth of change purely by virtue of the time frame. It's far more difficult to push back on because there are no solid edges. Add to this the effect of attachment to past experiences with that client and you have a very difficult landscape to navigate. You want to see the client as they used to be, because that was the client you really enjoyed working with. But that client is gone and what stands in the same place may not deserve the same generosity from you.
It's Hard Because You Care
If you don't care about your clients then this stuff is easy. But chances are if you're reading one of my articles on this website then you might be the kind of person who does care about other folks, be they clients or neighbours or friends of a friend or a total stranger who needs a hand. When you care about other people the world of being self employed is a very connected place. And those connections bind you in ways that some of your clients cannot possibly understand. Because some of those clients actually don't care at all.
It’s a tough lesson to learn, but it’s vitally important. There are plenty of people in this world who just don’t give a crap about how they treat you. And they’re often good at faking it.
On a personal level I find it shocking to rediscover this. On a business level however, I should friggin know better by now! Of course there are people who don't care, and in many corporate roles this tendency is an asset to their employer. These are clients who will mess you around and cost you weeks of work because they screwed up, and they will walk away from responsibly because... they simply don't care. It's much easier to ignore the problems they caused than fix them.
So when things don't go smoothly, and you do care, then it's a lot of extra work for you to try and make it right. Most of my clients are good clients though, and we work together because we both care. The ones who hang you out to dry are not merely making a bad decision; they are showing you who they really are and they absolutely will do it again and again.
Let me repeat that for clarity... They. Absolutely. Will. Do. It. Again.
Don't Stop Caring
The fact that you care about your clients is a genuine asset. It's part of why your work is valuable in the first place. So keep caring, for your clients and for yourself.
Doing good work that genuinely helps your clients is the most wonderful part of our lifestyle. Yes we need to make money to live, but we actually need much more than that. We need to know that we're making a positive impact. It's not just about feeling valued by others, but a sense of value in ourselves. Watching our travellers experience once in a lifetime moments in the Himalayas, or launch a new product with our video, or publish a beautiful book with our photos is something that sustains our spirit. As a creative spirit we love nothing more than making something special, and making a difference in the process.
If your client doesn't value your work, truly value it, then stop wasting your time and effort with them and go find a client you really can make a difference for. It's a double whammy to walk away from a client that isn't working and instead devote your time to something more rewarding. Everybody wins. Literally. Everybody.
Easy advice to give I know. Given I've been soooooo slow to take heed myself where this one client is concerned! It's also hard for many of us because we may not be confident we can replace that income or creative outlet so readily. As freelancers we're in a very vulnerable position, which makes the antics of such clients all the more reprehensible. But take it from my experience, until you get rid of the problem client you're making it twice as hard to focus on getting a better one anyway.
And you'll know you've made the right decision by that feeling of relief that sweeps over you afterwards – knowing that you just don't have to deal with that client's bollocks ever again. You’ll know from the conversations that happen with your spouse that, in hindsight, reaffirm just how dysfunctional and systemic the issues were. The dozens upon dozens of little things that never even made it into the bigger discussions at the time, but keep popping up as additional affirmation that you needed to walk away. What’s left after all that release is a feeling of being able to let go of the anxiety and clear your mind. Now you can make space for much better things in your life and career.
I think back to one of my very very early clients when I started shooting travel, and what a toxic environment it was to even step inside the building. As the company grew bigger and more profitable, the internal culture became more unstable with the egos of middle management and higher up. Not everyone was toxic, but things were getting worse with every passing month and a lot of good people were pushed sideways one by one. It was so dysfunctional I even got accused of hacking their email server several months after I had resigned. At the time I was on a yacht on the Greek Islands, enjoying time with a new client and making friends with people who would later prove invaluable on my journey towards a sustainable career.
The contrast was incredible!
The minute I stepped away from that toxicity all manner of opportunities popped up. I was ready to grab them, and ready to give my best. Once I made sure I was putting a proper value on my creative work the doors opened to finding clients who would as well. Meanwhile in the rear-vision mirror all I could see were the same old ego desperately looking for ways to justify a lot of bad decisions or just blame them on someone else.
In many ways these toxic clients are very creative too. They can conjure an unlimited number of excuses out of thin air. Eventually you learn that it’s just the same pattern of behaviour over and over. The formula is quite uninteresting once you see it.
Hard to Fake
One of my great failings in the corporate world was that I was never good at faking sincerity. Even worse, I’ve become very good at spotting those who *are* good at faking it, and I just cannot bring myself to buy in or play the game. Most of the people I’ve worked with have been people I genuinely care about. If I can't be friends with someone then I definitely don't want them as a client.
Life is too short to spend time with people you don't care about. At home, or at work. So, if you’re not good at faking it then please don’t. Be yourself. And I hope you find a lot of clients who appreciate you for who you are, as you are, and can help you move forward on your creative path.