Creative work holds an inherent risk of overwork for underpay (that is, no margin, no profit) if you do not control your client’s behavior in your contract.
Say you are proposing to deliver a creative work – perhaps a story bible for an online game, a webisode, a ghost-written book for a celebrity, or a graphic design for a website or marketing piece.
With this kind of work, you are risking many hours of rewrites for which you will not be paid, if your contract does not control the client’s expectations, sign offs and change orders.
There are two risks lurking in creative work, and they are two sides of a single issue: reading your client’s mind and limiting his change orders.
To deliver a creative work, you must pull from your client’s mind what he really wants to see when he cannot show it to you. These ideas are expressed as vague directives, goals, dreams and references to other work. Sometimes, in Hollywood, these references are to “high concept” ideas, like “Godzilla meets Bambi and Bambi wins!” Others are “make it sexy (when it is a software utility) or “we need a world created for these characters.”
The other side of this issue – the manifestation of your failing to read his mind — is the “change order.” A change order is request to fix what the client doesn’t like. It can be as simple as “make the villain more nasty” to “let’s change the gender of the main character.”
Controlling this two-sided threat starts in your contract:
- You specify each deliverable in phases.
- You do not begin the following phase until you have approval, in writing, signed by the client, that he has accepted what you have delivered in the previous phase, and authorizes you to begin the next phase.
- If he has made suggestions, your have documented his recommendations and he has signed off on that.
- You offer several steps of deliverables, each with its own authorization for sign-off. These steps will keep the creative vision and the project on track: an outline of the intentions and goals of the project; research as needed to validate these intentions; delivery of first draft; documentation of client changes and recommendations to the first draft; delivery of final (or next) draft. Each of these phases has the client’s sign off in writing.
- Then you control your client’s expectations: each phase has an estimated time period for your work and delivery. But each phase only begins when you have the sign off and payment from the client. I have seen creatives miss their deadline by promising a final delivery within two months, only to find that the client takes 3 weeks of that time to send back change orders.
- So, for each phase of work, there is a deliverable, a fee (in advance), a request for approval and sign-off, then the beginning of the next phase. The time of delivery is expressed as “X days from sign-off and receipt of fees.”
This system of careful contracting shares the responsibility of the creative course of work, and the timing of the deliverables, between the creative and the client.
Beyond the system, of course, the creative must be strong enough to not begin the next phase of work until he has received authorization and payment for the next phase to begin, despite any pressure from the client to move forward.