Post Production

The case of the white t-shirt

An assortment of analogies to help understand the video production business

In an earlier article I said that when I began my career, I found business issues more difficult to understand than any software or hardware matters.  This article elaborates on some of those issues, and presents several different analogies to help you think about you and your business differently.

Like many teenagers I had a part-time job while I was at high school and university.  In my case, I worked at the local supermarket – which happened to be one of the biggest in the city.  So many people were employed there, and so many people shopped there, that I never thought about how the supermarket attracted customers.  From my perspective, the supermarket opened in the morning and shoppers came in and bought stuff.  While some days were traditionally busier than others, and holidays could prompt busy periods, there was never an extended time where the supermarket simply didn’t have any customers at all.  Working for an established national company, at a store with over 200 employees, it never once crossed my mind that if the supermarket didn’t make enough money I might not get paid on time. 

When I finished my course and left the supermarket for full-time work in the video production industry, I found myself in a radically different working environment.  Video production was very different to working for a supermarket, and working for company that had less than 10 employees was very different to working for one with over 200.

Unlike the supermarket, at the video production company there weren’t people milling around outside waiting for us to open the doors in the morning.  Working in the supermarket was predictable because everyone knew what they would be doing the next week, the next month, and even the next year.  But a video production company relied on other businesses coming to us to produce their videos, and it took me a surprisingly long time to figure out this was very different to someone buying milk and eggs.

A few months into my first industry job, I was helping to put together a proposal and the client kept asking me to clarify a key point.  It felt like I was being asked the same question over and over, and – perhaps because I was young enough to be a little ignorant of etiquette – I basically said so to the client.  Luckily the person was very understanding and explained to me that they were considering four different proposals – from four different production companies –  and they needed to clarify the differences between them.

This was a real “lightbulb moment” for me and one I remember very clearly almost 20 years later.  It totally changed the way I viewed our proposal, and also the way I approached similar proposals in the future.  What I suddenly realized was that the client wasn’t deciding whether or not to make their video, they had already decided they were going to do it.  But the general tone of our proposal was simply that we knew how to do it and that we’d be happy to make their video for them.  What we hadn’t considered was that they were shopping around and had approached other companies that could also do it.  So they wanted to know the details of our proposal that would make us different from the other three companies they had also approached.

We weren’t just naïve.  I may have been the newest and youngest member of the team, but I was working alongside people with many years of experience.  We all knew that businesses obtained multiple quotes and proposals from several different companies.  It’s just that we’d never stopped to consider this from the client’s perspective, and to think about what it must be like to receive four proposals for the same project.  Re-reading our own proposal again, but mindful that the client would also be reading another three just like it, it was easy to see phrases and terms that were either vague, generic, or simply streams of jargon.  There wasn’t anything in the document that really seemed unique to our company – the text could have been written by any other video production company.

Once I realised that our proposal was relatively bland, I re-wrote it to remove any generic phrases, and instead of simply saying “yes we can do it”, I explained exactly what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.  With this new approach we ended up winning the job, and as well as the happy ending to the story I still recall the moment I first considered the client’s perspective rather than my own.

No doubt some of you reading this are thinking ‘well d’uh!’- and of course some people have a very natural business acumen – but as I approach 20 years of experience I still work alongside people who struggle with the same issues I struggled with when I first began working.

Over that time, I’ve thought of a number of analogies that are worth considering, and which you may find useful when contemplating proposals or even just your own career.

No analogy is perfect, and that’s why I’ve presented several different ones here.  These are not earth-shattering revelations, the aim is simply to give you a new perspective- sometimes you just need a single “lightbulb moment” to see a situation from a new point of view.

PVC Tshirts InLine1 DoctorsLawyers

Doctors and Lawyers

When it comes to professions that are highly regarded, Doctors and Lawyers are usually at the top of the list.  The thing is, however, that within these broad descriptions are countless sub-categories and specialized areas that often have little to do with each other.

While the title “doctor” deservedly commands respect, there are many types of doctor.  Your local GP is not a hospital surgeon.  The guy on TV advertising cosmetic surgery is not a psychiatrist.  The in-house doctor at the local nursing home is not presenting new research at a conference in Europe.  All of these people are doctors, all of them studied medicine, yet all of them have very different careers and daily jobs to each other.  The point is definitely not to say that Doctor A is better than Doctor B – we’re not interested in hierarchies or value judgments.  The point is that all of these people can be described as “doctors” but their day-to-day jobs, their working environments and the people they work with are very different. 

The same goes for Lawyers.  Depending on where you live in the world, then the entire profession of “lawyer” may be divided into two completely separate fields – barristers and solicitors.  Both are lawyers, yet you study different courses to become either one.  Even in countries where this divide doesn’t exist (such as the USA) there are all sorts of specialty fields: corporate law, family law, tax law, patent law and so on. 
Two people in the same room may both be doctors, or both be lawyers, but that doesn’t mean their  work environments, customers and daily routines are at all similar.

In reality, just about any profession will be compromised of all sorts of sub-industries and market sectors.  Accountants, teachers, chefs, and so on all work across industries that are comprised of different markets.  The life of a chef working for a 3-hat restaurant is radically different to one working for a small café, even a full-time accountant working for a multinational company will have a very different working day to a self-employed accountant doing tax returns for individuals.

The film & TV world – just like doctors, lawyers, chefs and accountants – is not one big universal all-encompassing industry where everyone happily works together on everything.  In a very general sense, the film & TV world has divided itself into 3 areas – pre-production, production and post-production.  While it’s fair to say that a producer putting together a funding contract has little in common with a gaffer running cables on set (and neither have much to do with visual fx artists) the industry has all sorts of other, sub-worlds that rarely intersect. 

While the pre, production and post divisions are traditional stages of every video production, what isn’t taught are the divisions that have emerged between different markets.  So while it’s obvious that a gaffer and a 3D animator work in different environments, it’s less obvious that five different gaffers may work in five different sectors of the video industry.  It’s this sort of subtlety that took me years to figure out.

In my experience, the people making wedding videos work in a completely different world to the people making TV commercials, who work in a different world to those working on corporate videos and events, and from those who are employed full-time by TV stations.

Just like the analogy with doctors, these separate worlds are not better or worse, just different – but the people who work in each world don’t tend to mix.

One of the most difficult things to do in any industry is make a sideways step.  Perhaps you’ve built up a successful business producing high-end wedding videos.  No matter how well you’ve been doing, or how profitable your business is, you will probably never be considered for a high-budget TV commercial.  This doesn’t mean you are any less capable, or talented – and you may well earn a lot more than a director who does direct TV commercials – it’s just that the world of TV commercials is very different to the world of wedding videos.

If you’re offended by this, then consider the doctor / lawyer analogies.  If you need your appendix removed and had to choose between a psychiatrist and a surgeon, who would you prefer?  If you need legal advice about a property would you ask a divorce lawyer?  It’s not to say you can’t, it’s just that when there’s the option of choosing someone who’s done the job before against someone who’s kinda doing something a bit similar but not exactly, then it’s always easier to choose the first option. 

 


Stonemasons

You don’t meet stonemasons everyday, but your boss has asked you to find one to install the new benchtop in the office kitchen.  How do you find one?  Where do you start – google?  When you start getting quotes, how do you know what to expect – what’s expensive, what’s cheap?  And when they’re working – how do you know if they’re doing a good job?  How will you know if another stonemason will have done a better job, or a cheaper job, or a faster job?

There’s a good chance you’ve never thought about stonemasons before, and that’s the point.  For your average person has probably never thought about video production before, either.

For someone working in a corporate environment who is asked to organize a video – perhaps for the company website, or for internal training, or for a conference – commissioning a video production can be a blind experience.  They won’t know the terminology, they won’t know the factors that effect price, and they almost certainly won’t know how to relate cost to technical factors.  Try explaining the difference between HD and 4K to an accountant, or the difference between h264 and ProRes acquisition to a banker.  They’ll probably look just like you’ll look when you need to find a stonemason.

 

White T-shirts

The basis of the white t-shirt analogy is the fact that white t-shirts generally look the same, yet there are many different brands sold at many different prices.

At the local shopping mall you can find white t-shirts from $2 to well over $100 each.  And thanks to the internet, where other people have undertaken more detailed research, we can find plain t-shirts retailing for over $1,800.

The point is not to have a personal opinion about the actual worth of these t-shirts- simply acknowledge that the same product exists at many different price points.  You can be personally outraged by the existence of a $1,850 t-shirt, or you may turn your nose up at a $2 t-shirt, but that’s your choice.  The simple fact is that if you want to buy a white t-shirt, they cover a wide range of prices.  The main point is to consider the different business models behind each t-shirt.

The first lesson to take from this analogy is that overall business profit is not necessarily linked to the price of the t-shirt.  T-shirt X might be sold for more than T-shirt Y, but that doesn’t mean the company selling T-shirt X is more profitable.  It is easy to see that the business model for selling $2 T-shirts is based on bulk quantities and low costs, and that the business selling $100 t-shirts must have a different business plan.  These businesses will have different costs and overheads, and generally different priorities.  The companies designing these products will have very different working environments, and so will the shops selling them.  But they may or may not have different profits – it’s certainly feasible that the company making $2 t-shirts also makes more money.

In exactly the same way, it’s just as difficult for a new business entering the market to compete with these established businesses.  It’s just as challenging to succeed in the bulk low-cost market as it is in the high-cost designer market – just because the product is cheaper it doesn’t mean the company is inferior, or that they’re selling their t-shirts for less because they’re just not good enough.  If you sell $2 t-shirts, are you making them as efficiently as your competition?  And if you’re selling $100 t-shirts, why would someone buy yours and not an established designer label with more recognition?  If your t-shirts are $50, why do they cost more than the ones selling for $20, or why aren’t they as expensive as the $100 ones?

Once again, the point is not to simply label different businesses as ‘better’ or ‘worse’.  It’s fair to hope that the technical quality of a $100 t-shirt is better than a $2 t-shirt, but that doesn’t mean the underlying business model, working environment and profit is ‘better’ too. 

However there are two bigger lessons to take from the white t-shirt analogy:

Firstly, in many cases price does not determine which t-shirt someone will buy.  Generally, people will have an idea of how much they want to spend first, then they will choose from that price bracket.  Someone happy to spend $100 on a white t-shirt won’t be interested in a $50 t-shirt, and definitely not a $2 t-shirt.  Neither, probably, will someone prepared to spend $20.

Secondly, consider the white t-shirt from the perspective of a young graduate entering the fashion industry.  Without knowing it, they will be more comfortable working in one area of the market than the other.  Some people are simply born to design, market and presumably buy t-shirts for $100 – but others will simply never fit into this niche.  In the same way, someone who feels comfortable working for a company that sells $20 t-shirts may simply not be happy working for a company that makes the $100 t-shirt.  The values and environment of the company will reflect the product they make and sell, and if these are too different from your own priorities – and you may not have even realized you had your own set of values – then you will always feel like you don’t fit in. 

Remember that just because a company sells a t-shirt for $100 doesn’t mean they pay their employees more than the company selling $2 t-shirts – it’s not like there’s an established career path where you begin your career selling $2 t-shirts and work your way up to the more expensive ones.

The point of the white t-shirt analogy is not to get distracted by technical details such as fabric, thread count or whatever it is that clothing manufactures do.  These different companies cater to different markets, and simply operate differently.

The white t-shirt analogy is something to think about when considering all the different markets for ‘video production’.

The point is firstly to accept that there are different segments of the market, and that you will feel more comfortable in some than others.  You may not realize it – it’s probably not a conscious effort – but a career is really about finding a profession that you enjoy in a segment of the market that you know and understand.

 

Your wedding photos

While the industry stereotype for visual fx workers is that they’re all single, geeky males, it’s a valuable exercise to use your own wedding as an analogy for the video industry.

It’s a sobering thought that your own wedding may involve months – and even years – of planning, and yet the basic structure of a wedding is identical to any of the hundreds of corporate events that take place in major cities every day.  Organizing your wedding is basically the same process as organizing a corporate event, with the big difference being that you’re paying for it yourself.

The flip side of this is that if you work in events, or work in corporate video production for events, your wedding is the occasion when you are the client – and you get to see what it’s like on the other end of the invoice.

One key aspect of a wedding is hiring a photographer.  As with our stonemason example above, there’s a good chance you’ve never had to hire a photographer before, so the same questions apply (ie. How do you find one, how do you know if they’re good etc).  Let’s assume you have found four photographers eager to shoot your wedding for you, and you’re meeting them all to view their portfolios.

Photographer 1 comes in with a stunning portfolio of high-end, expensive car ads.  They’re a well-regarded commercials photographer with a few industry awards for automotive clients, but they’re getting bored with taking photos of cars and would like to get into weddings.  To help build up a wedding portfolio, they’re willing to give you a great deal – about half the usual price.

Photographer 2 comes in with a portfolio of stunning wedding photos that even include a local celebrity.  They have a very distinct, artistic quality to them.  These photos could easily be ads in a fashion magazine.  The price quoted is about double what you were expecting but wow – those photos look great!

Photographer 3 comes in with not much more than a graduation certificate and a few school assignments. This will be their first professional gig.  As such, they’re happy to give you a substantial discount.  In fact – they’re so eager for the experience they’re offering to do the job for cost price – practically working for free.

Photographer 4 comes in with a typical collection of wedding photos.  This is what you were expecting when you started looking around.  Nothing outrageous, nothing unusual, exactly what you had in mind.

The point of this analogy is that any one of these photographers could do the job.  But because it’s your wedding, and you’re paying for it, you will most definitely have a strong feeling about which one you go for.  Like the other analogies listed so far, there isn’t a better or worse “answer” to this scenario – the point is simply to make you think about projects from the perspective of the person actually paying for it.  The choice made has as much to do with the personality and the priorities of the person making the decision – in this case that’s you.  The three photographers who don’t get the gig aren’t “worse”, they’re just not the ones you thought were best for your wedding.

And, in fact, you may even recommend the photographers you don’t pick to other people.  If you have friends getting married who have an artistic, alternative flair then you may recommend photographer 2.  Or if you have friends who are planning their wedding on a budget, you might suggest photographer 3.  These choices might be right for your friends, they just weren’t right for you.

The four photographers described above are all based on real-life experiences – ie. different weddings I’ve been to – and in each case the photographer my friends chose was the “right” one for them.

 


Ron and Tom.

Let’s say that it’s 2005 and you’re a struggling actor in Hollywood.  You hear on the grapevine that they’re making a film of the hit book “The Da Vinci Code”, and that Tom Hanks has initially declined the lead role.  You’ve got the number of the director, Ron Howard, so you give him a call.

This phone call has never happened:

“You: Hey Ron, listen- I hear a rumour that Tom Hanks has knocked you back for the part in The Da Vinci Code.
Ron: Yeah that’s right, we offered him $40 million but he said no.
You: Look- I’m happy to do it for half that.  In fact, because I like you Ron, I’m going to help you out with the offer of a lifetime.  I’ll do the part for free.
Ron:  For free!
You:  You heard me.  There you go, that’s an instant saving of $40 million dollars right there.  You can put that money in the bank.
Ron: Thanks man, you’re a lifesaver.  We were going to offer him $50 million!”

The analogy is crude and not exactly subtle, but the point is clear.  Often money is not the point.  Probably the biggest mistake I’ve seen amongst colleagues who are struggling to understand why they’ve lost a pitch is to think the answer was money.  Sometimes – often, in my experience – money is something that is negotiated after a decision has been made about who to work with.  I’ve been involved in projects where the initial quote was higher than the client expected, but because they wanted to work with us, agreements were made.  Usually the client comes up with a bit more, and we quote a bit less, and the project goes ahead.

This is really an elaboration of the white t-shirt analogy, or a more blunt example of the wedding photographer analogy – if someone knows what they want, a lower price won’t change their mind.

 

The pitch that never was

This isn’t actually an analogy, but a true story.

Fairly recently, a company I’ve worked for was invited to pitch for a large product launch by a global company.  This is the sort of product launch that makes news headlines around the world, and the budget wasn’t modest.

Several agencies were briefed and invited to pitch, and because of the magnitude of the event significant resources were spent on preparing concepts, pre-visualisations and the client presentation.

The pitch itself only received a luke-warm reception, but the client also said that nothing they had seen so far had excited them.  In the brief conversation that followed, the art director sketched a quick design on a napkin for a unique staging set up.  The client loved the idea, and on the spot the company was commissioned to prepare a new proposal based on the napkin sketch.

In reality, the sketch proved impossible to realize – what was drawn simply could not be built without breaking the laws of physics – but the fascinating thing was the process.  Despite weeks of preparation by our company, and presumably comparable amounts of work by other agencies, what excited the client was a quick sketch made on a napkin that wasn’t even presented with a quote, pitch document or a detailed proposal.

While this isn’t an analogy, I think about this often – it reminds me of the proposal story that I mentioned earlier on.  When video production companies are pitching for work it’s often easy to be so focused on your own proposal that you don’t stop to think about the client’s perspective.  They’re going to be presented with several different proposals and there can be one element – one point of difference – that can make the client want to work with you.

When preparing a proposal, stop to think about how it might compare against other proposals that may well be very similar.  What makes yours special?

 

Lessons learned

It’s always difficult to summarise a career that will soon have spanned 20 years, but here are some of the most important business lessons I have learned.

Any industry, including film & video production, will actually be comprised of many smaller sub-groups that may have little in common.  Two people who are both video editors, for example, may work in radically different environments, with different working cultures, budgets, expectations and values.

Money isn’t the start and end of all negotiations.  When pitching for a job, try to think about the process from the other person’s perspective.  Their choice on who they want to work with isn’t simply down to money.  If they want to work with you but your price is too high, then they will let you know.  If they want to work with someone else then don’t think that lowering your price will have changed their mind.

A career is a journey that takes a long time.  Without realizing it, your career will eventually take you to a place where you are comfortable working.  You might be happier producing wedding videos from your garage than working on million-dollar TV commercials.  You might be happier with a full-time job producing in-house videos for a company website than working freelance on TV shows.  You might prefer the buzz and pressure of an agency environment to the slower pace of documentary production.  You might prefer the sense of ownership that small corporate videos offer to working with 600 other people on a feature film.

These choices are not right or wrong, or better or worse.  They are simply a part of who you are.

 

This article follows on from a series of recent articles that reflect on video production during the 90s.  If you’ve enjoyed this one, check out my earlier article on some of the difficulties facing early adopters of non-linear editing suites.  If you’re interested in video technology, check out my article on the different philosophies behind five early desktop non-linear edit systems. And if you’re up for something more in-depth, check out my 3-part video series on the desktop video revolution.


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Chris was born a geek, and was lucky enough to own a Commodore 64 at a time when the number of students at his primary school who owned a computer could be counted on one…

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