October 3, 2023
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How to Negotiate Client Expectations

Loring Weisenberger
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Commercials are no longer just for TV. If a device has a screen, it’s a potential medium for an ad. Modern commercials can literally take any size, shape, or length that you imagine. 

In a perfect world, each variation on a commercial would be listed as its own deliverable well before production begins. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. 

When clients shift their expectations late in the game, you’re forced to scramble. Unexpected deliverable requests can lead to serious costs, delays, and decreases in quality. 

In this post, we’ll help you avoid all of that. We spoke with producer and ABID president, Danny Rosenbloom for his insight on how to negotiate client expectations and establish a strong deliverables list. Below, we’ll explore producing principles that will help you craft win-win situations for you and your clients.

Expert insight from Danny Rosenbloom

Danny Rosenbloom is a veteran producer and longtime AICP board member. As a producer at companies like Psyop and Brand New School, Danny demonstrated a knack for delivering unique commercial filmmaking solutions through cutting edge tech.

Today, Danny continues living up to his own hype as the president of ABID, the AICP’s bid management platform. At ABID, Danny combines technology with the AICP’s deep institutional knowledge to optimize the commercial bidding process for producers and their clients. 

To enrich this post, Danny took us on a backstage tour of commercial production politics. In the following sections, we’ll dive into his expertise on deliverables and client expectations, outlining real-world principles that you can apply to your next production.

Why do expectations matter?

In commercial production, expectations are everything. The difference between what happens on a shoot and what your client expects to happen on a shoot can be the difference between failure and success. Setting the wrong expectations early on is a surefire method for causing problems down the road.  

Poor management of expectations can lead to higher costs, heavier workloads, and the kind of tension capable of destroying a relationship. Or even a production company. The wrong client expectations will inevitably force producers into an uncomfortable position, particularly when it comes to deliverables. 

Let’s consider an example from Danny. Here’s an unfortunate situation that he says post-production houses face all the time:

“You’re doing a 60-second spot and sitting in the edit bay waiting for notes from the client. Then the creative director says, ‘Hey, what would this look like if we turned it vertical and did it for Instagram?’ Next thing you know, you’re doing seventeen Instagram versions.” 

In this example, the producer faces a limited number of options. They could choose to create the new deliverables without question and eat the extra cost themselves. They could choose to simply decline creating the new deliverables and probably never work with that client again. 

Or they could choose to create the new deliverables and pass the cost on to their client in the form of overages. 

Let’s be clear. None of these options are good. Each of them carries a distinctly negative risk or outright consequence. However, these choices do share one positive characteristic worth noting. 

You can avoid them all by negotiating the right client expectations and establishing a good deliverables list early on.

Below, we’ll dig into best practices and principles to help you do exactly that. Let’s start with the big picture. 

Keep communication clear

Clear communication is the most effective measure for setting the right expectations and guaranteeing any project’s success. That seems like a no-brainer. It’s not always so obvious in the heat of a commercial production. 

Imagine that you’ve just aced the creative call and are poised to win a major bid. At this stage, it’s in your professional interest to impress your potential clients and keep them happy. It’s only natural that you’d want to tell them what they want to hear, and there’s nothing wrong with a little budgetary optimism.

…Right?

The truth, of course, is that it all depends. Optimism can inspire confidence, but it can create serious risk if you stretch the odds too thin. A willingness to tell clients what they want to hear might win a job or two, but it will also set your productions up for eventual failure. 

Sooner or later, you’ll underdeliver, go overbudget, or endure both disasters simultaneously.

How to Negotiate Client Expectations and Establish Good Deliverables - Wrapbook - Filming
A failure to communicate can increase costs and damage professional relationships. SOURCE

Note that this doesn’t help you or your client. Bad communication is a disservice to everyone involved with the production. Good communication, however, can amplify the power of collaboration. 

In his post on producer-client transparency, Danny puts it like this: 

“[T]ransparency can do much more than offer peace of mind to the buyer of creative services. When an advertiser truly understands what they’re getting – and how the money being spent will provide it – the conversation changes.”

In other words, transparency is a tool for both offense and defense. It protects you from the risks of poorly set expectations and enhances your ability to deliver on well-set expectations. 

It puts you in sync with your clients’ needs, which creates benefits that increase over time. While budgetary optimism might instill confidence in the short term, transparency will build trust over the long haul. 

Clear communication is the cornerstone of establishing the right expectations and negotiating a healthy deliverables list. But how do you maximize the value of that communication?

Ask questions

The best way to understand what a client expects is to ask them. While that may seem basic, a producer should never underestimate the practical power of curiosity. A few well-placed questions early on can help you dodge a deliverables disaster in post. 

Sometimes, questions provide straightforward solutions. Asking the client about social media cutdowns during the bidding process or pre-production could have avoided Danny's previous example of late-game vertical video edits. In such situations, a single question could turn a disaster into an opportunity.

Of course, clients and productions aren’t always straightforward. If your client’s expectations are complex or ambiguous, you may have to do a little digging to find meaningful answers. 

In that case, think of the process like an investigation. You want to look for as much information as possible in order form a complete picture of your client’s needs. 

After your initial questions, ask follow-up questions. Ask the same question multiple ways. Compare notes with your director and agency collaborators. Ask more questions based on what you find. Rinse and repeat until you’re absolutely positive about the client’s expectations. 

Follow-up questions also present an opportunity to let your creatives take the lead. Your creatives are in the best position to think about what material they’re going to provide and how best to leverage it. If a creative suggests a new asset or deliverable early on, you might be able to add it to the budget and expand the job up front. You could turn what would be an unexpected cost in the future into a foreseeable return on investment right now. 

All of this may require a little extra work, but remember that it’s in your own best interest. With a little diligence, you can build an accurate and achievable deliverables list with even the most informationally challenged of clients.

Negotiate a realistic budget

A deep connection runs between your communication, your client’s expectations, and the budget itself. The budget should be a tangible manifestation of your understanding of the client’s requirements. It’s a financial map of how you’ll meet their expectations. If the budget does not accurately correlate to these expectations, you’re setting yourself up for overages and uncomfortable decisions.

The key to negotiating a realistic budget is transparency and communication. Your clients deserve to understand how their money is being put to work. If your client is considering extra deliverables, it’s your obligation to help them understand how much those extra deliverables cost and why. Danny sums up this principle succinctly:

“The best way to ask for overages is to ask before you incur the cost.”

If you want to optimize cost transparency, consider using Wrapbook. Our on-demand reports and other digital tools make it easier to know exactly where your money is going and why. Dynamic data enables you to drill down into payroll expenses with more precision, and custom report outputs make communication more efficient. 

Wrapbook grants your team real-time insight on payroll expenses.

The goal is to transform the budget into a tool for mutual understanding. It’s not about what you might be able to pull off with a given amount of money. Rather, it’s a concrete plan. It describes exactly how you’ll meet a clear set of expectations with a specific list of deliverables. 

Provide solutions, not problems

One of the more troublesome challenges of establishing clear expectations is the reasonable fear of disappointing or offending a client. Producers know that rubbing a client the wrong way often means losing their future business. It’s a chilling fact that raises one spicy question.

How do you create realistic client expectations without seeming like a Debbie Downer?

The trick is surprisingly simple. Provide solutions instead of raising problems. . It’s one thing to frame a potential cost as, “We absolutely cannot do that because we definitely don’t have the money.” It’s another thing entirely to frame it as, “We can absolutely do that! It’ll just cost extra.”

You may find that providing solutions often means providing options. By giving your client a choice, you empower them. You’ll position yourself as a teammate instead of a bearer of bad news. 

One of the primary responsibilities of an executive producer is to be able to clearly articulate options in terms of priorities. You can present options in a way that appropriately tempers expectations. 

On one hand, for example, you could present an option as an opportunity and not a guarantee. As in, “If we get the chance to create this deliverable, we will.” By deliberately not promising the deliverable now, you leave it up for negotiation later.

On the other hand, you could present an option as an objective. You could budget for a foreseeable deliverable upfront, so that you can promise it to the client when appropriate. You protect yourself by working the option into your budget.

This simple act of collaboration is a potent tool for building creative relationships and can help turn new clients into repeat clients

Make alternatives unappealing

To outsiders, the world of media production is exciting. Clients aren’t necessarily familiar with the time, sweat, or considerable cash that goes into making even a brief commercial. While we don’t want to spoil the magic, producers do occasionally have to show them how the sausage gets made.

When you find that client expectations are skyrocketing, you may have to gently underline the less-appealing aspects of certain decisions. It’s important that producers help their clients understand that different choices carry different consequences. 

To illustrate, let’s return once more to Danny’s vertical video example. 

A client might suggest creating vertical alternatives for a commercial because it sounds like a good idea. To them, it’s a casual change. They’re not intimately familiar with the amount of real work that goes into each cut. Therefore, one way to deal with this situation is to make them familiar with that work. If they understand the cost, they’ll be less likely to incur it on a whim.

Be as specific as possible in these interactions. A talented editor might be able to quickly whip up a proof of concept that seems “done” to an untrained eye, but you know that that isn’t the case. Remind your client or agency partners that actually finishing this new deliverable might carry further costs, like additional edit time, audio mixing, VFX work, coloring, etc.

Note that this is not a tactic best used for “winning” an interaction. Rather, it’s a strategy to create win-win situations for you and your client. By being transparent about potential costs, you can steer clients toward decisions that will better meet their big picture objectives.

Wrapping up

As your production company grows, the need for precise expectations and deliverables will become increasingly important. If you can establish an open dynamic with clients from the beginning, you’ll ensure a healthy working relationship going forward.

Special thanks to Danny Rosenbloom for allowing us to tap his expertise in this post. For more of Danny’s insight, check out his tips for effective communication with clients and agencies.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Loring Weisenberger

Loring is a Los Angeles-based writer, director, and creative producer. His work has been commissioned by a diverse range of clients- from Havas Worldwide to Wisecrack, inc.- and has been screened around the world. Through a background that blends project development with physical production across multiple formats, Loring has developed a uniquely eclectic skillset as a visual storyteller.

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