Posted 11 September 2019
Interview by Indi Davies

Contracts and small print: A project manager’s guide to being commissioned

Navigating the logistics of your first few commissions can be scary. The project itself might be daunting enough, and that’s before you’ve even started thinking about fees, NDAs, contracts and invoicing properly. Luckily, as part of our advice series on being commissioned, Josephine New is here to help. Having worked as a project manager at It’s Nice That for the past three years, Josephine is something of an expert on all things logistical when it comes to making creative projects run smoothly. She gives us some sound advice on what to look out for, how to negotiate and why you should always read the small print!

Before you begin

When we work with young or new freelancers and creatives, they don’t always check the finer details of contracts as closely as those with more experience. So my main piece of advice for any creative working on a new commission is to insist on a contract and always read the small print. From the offset, I’d encourage anyone being commissioned to ask for:

• A clear outline of the brief
• Clear deadlines and timelines for providing the assets
• A solid contract

After discussing the project with an art director, it’s likely that you’ll also speak to a project manager, who usually deals with the contracting side of things. It’s wise to make sure that everything discussed matches up, and that all important details are included in the contract. This gives you the chance to point out and clear up any discrepancies.

Ideally, you always want to have had that contract signed and all the negotiations done before you start the work. It can get difficult to renegotiate once you’ve already started.

What to look for in a contract

What are the terms of usage?
With every project, you should know exactly where your work is going to appear. This includes knowing on which channels it will be seen and for how long, whether it’s print, digital or both, plus whether it’s global or just for a specific country.

Neglecting to read the small print might mean unknowingly giving permission for a publication or client to use your work in many more places than you ever imagined – for example in a commercial context [which is worth more money]. If you have concerns, remember to question this. And if the person commissioning you is working on behalf of another brand, you’ll also want to make sure you know where it’s going to appear on that brand’s channels, too.

Protect against changes
A major benefit of having a contract is being able to protect how a client uses the work, and whether they can crop or change it. This way, when you provide the work, they can’t alter it to a point where you’re not happy with it. You can include terms in your contract to protect your work from this happening.

Check the fee: is it enough?
Look at how much they are offering in terms of payment; you want to be sure that you can actually deliver within that budget before accepting the job. You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot and end up paying out lots of money on the production, or go back to the person commissioning you during the project to ask for more money. This can be quite tricky to negotiate once the contracts are signed.

If you have any doubt around the fee, in terms of covering your time and the materials involved, it’s fine to ask if there’s any more. There might be room to negotiate, and if it’s a fair request, it’s likely the client will understand and be able to look at making the fee higher. But if it’s not possible, there’s probably a reason for it. Remember that at this point, it’s fine for you to walk away.

Don’t be scared to push back
In the case of quick turnarounds, this can be a difficult situation to be in. If the client wants to work with you that much and with so little time, then they need to be more flexible in terms of what they are asking for. Don’t be scared to push back on it. As the creative, you’ve got much more power than you think – they’re basically relying on you to say “yes”.

Payment and invoicing terms
Adding terms for fees and invoicing is also important – ask what these are if not stated, including how long after the project you’ll be paid, or whether they are paying you in advance. Are they going to give you a production fee in advance of starting the project? Or will you invoice them for the full amount at the end? If you think you’re going to spend lots of money on production costs, for example on materials, you should feel confident in asking for some money up-front to cover those costs.

Be sure of what you’re providing
Another guideline is to be clear on what you’re providing, beyond the creative assets. Say if you’re a photographer, are you going to provide all the studio space or the lighting materials within that budget? Where’s that coming from?

Agree on expenses
The same goes for expenses, too. Ensure that you have taken it upon yourself to look ahead and think of any materials, expenses and costs involved in the project before you agree to the amount. If you’re going on a trip somewhere, are they going to pay your travel costs? These are simple things that actually end up being expensive, so make sure this is in the contract and that you’ve scoped it out. This also puts you in a really good position for negotiating.

Rounds of feedback
Be aware that most contracts will say how many rounds of feedback there will be. Otherwise, a client might have the right to reject the work for various reasons – so be wary of clauses relating to this.

Copyright and third-party work
The other clause to be cautious of is third-party usage, in terms of incorporating any imagery or logos of a third party into your work. If, for example, you did lots of research with other people’s images, and they end up being used in the project – you as the creative can be liable for the copyright. Be careful of what’s out there and make sure you’re comfortable that there’s no risk of this before you submit the work.

Digital contracts
It is becoming more common to digitally sign contracts. It’s also best not to just send the signed page, but the whole contract.

Tips on negotiating

Be prepared
The best way to ensure a positive negotiation process is to be very clear on what you’re negotiating on. It sounds obvious, but make sure the negotiation is based on fair reason.

It’s also good to identify your boundaries – where you’re willing to compromise and the things that are non-negotiable. You need to know exactly what your case is before you get back, in order to avoid really lengthy email chains with these discussions.

Negotiate in the right way
Generally, if you have an agent, they will always ask about usage and query the fee, and negotiate this on your behalf, which can be helpful for the creative. The other side of this is that, sometimes, when a creative or their agent are too particular with a deal and terms of usage, it can put us off working with them again.

Consider the long-term
With all of this in mind, it’s worth thinking about what this commission means for you work-wise. This might just be a smaller-scale editorial commission for now, but what will it be worth in the long-term? If you build good relationships with the art director and the team, perhaps it’ll become an important moment for your future work. On the other hand, if the terms aren’t agreeable and it doesn’t feel like a good fit, don’t feel you have to go through with it.

Sending your invoice

Invoice as soon as you can
When it comes to invoicing, as mentioned earlier, be sure that you understand the payment terms for the project. It’s also good to be efficient – send the invoice as soon as the project’s finished. An easy win to start building a good relationship is to be organised and communicative.

Check the details
Plus, it’s easy to forget, but remember to put your bank details on your invoice! You’d be surprised how often this is left off.

And finally: follow up

At the end of it all, if you’ve enjoyed working on the project and you’re happy with it, it’s always a nice touch to send a follow-up email. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s so nice for the team to know that someone’s happy with the commission. If not it’s a missed opportunity, I think!

Mention Josephine New
Interview by Indi Davies
Introduction by Ayla Angelos