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How to Avoid “Bad Apple” Clients

Question: How do I tell a bad client from a good one? What are some ways to help me politely back out of a potential project, or ways to help me avoid working with a “bad” client in the future?

I can honestly say I've been lucky enough to avoid too many incidents where I would consider the client “bad.” I'm very flexible and I’ve been around long enough to know that things aren't always smooth, and to make the best of it.

I did have a couple of unpleasant experiences early in my career, but first I want to talk about some early signs that your client could turn out "bad."

The Business Lab   bad apple clients   copyright illustrator Brian Taylor resized 600

© Brian Taylor

A Few Bad Apples

I think the No. 1 sign of a “bad” client is a lack of respect towards you and your work. Whether it's a backhanded comment or something more obvious, be on the lookout for belittling comments about your profession. That's a sure sign of a “bad” client. There needs to be mutual respect. For the most part art directors really enjoy working with illustrators.

However, I think more often the reason a client can be “bad” isn't because of the relationship between the art director and illustrator, but between the art director and the editor. If there is friction in that relationship, then there is a chance it might rub off on your interaction with the art director.

For example, an art director may hire you because he or she envisions that you could do a really slick vector-looking portrait for a certain assignment; that may or may not be what the editor would want for the article. Editors rely on art directors to handle the art and trust in their judgment, but the approval often comes down to the editor who may have a different idea by the time roughs or final art have been created. That can cause a change of direction after you've already completed roughs or even started working on the final art.

Rough Going

That brings me to my “bad” client story. Early in my career, I was contacted by a new art director for a weekly newspaper. He wanted an illustration for a story and presented me with the overall theme I should focus on when doing roughs. I showed roughs, but then heard the story was pushed back a week.

The following week, he presented me with a new set of themes I should focus on for the same story. So I did another round of roughs. And again the story got pushed back a week. Again I was given a new theme for a new set of roughs. So that was three rounds of roughs and at least 15 to 20 sketches for a simple black-and-white half-page inside illustration.

I was finally given a go-ahead in the third round, finished the final art and over-nighted the original artwork for them to scan in (like I said, this was early in my career, when FedExing artwork – and scanning it – were still common practices). They scanned in my art and it finally ran in the newspaper. But I soon learned that they lost my original artwork. The art director I worked with was no longer there and the new art director agreed to pay me an additional fee for my lost art.

Shortly after that project, I added an additional roughs disclaimer fee into my standard invoice. Thankfully I haven't had a project like that since.

Concerning backing out of potential projects: I'd just be honest. If you're concerned with a client being legitimate, then ask around to other illustrators or ask the client who they've worked with before. In the end, don't be afraid to ask your potential client questions.

About Brian

Brian is an editorial and portrait illustrator. His clients include: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Billboard, Wired UK, The Washington Post, Fast Company, Games for Windows and The Boston Globe. He lives in the Washington DC area with his wife, two daughters and a dog named Bill. BTillustration.com

Related Articles:

1. Ending Toxic Client Relationships on a Positive Note

2. Clash of the Visions

3. Managing Client Relationships: It’s All About People