Wednesday, March 30, 2016

“Managing Up” as a Freelancer Part 2: Take the Bull by the Horns

In the first part of this series on “Managing Up as a Freelancer”, I described how “managing up” is a necessary component of a successful freelancer’s career. It’s not merely a technique used by corporate staff to get promoted or produce companywide success. It is also a vital part of the freelancer’s strategy of constant diligence, yielding satisfied, repeat clients.

In Part 2, I will highlight key areas that help the freelance artist create a streamlined experience for the client, one that minimizes problems and yields excellent results.

Getting to Yes: Alignment
The first thing you want when starting an assignment, be it remote or on-site, is to get into alignment with your client.

It’s not effective to sit down, follow instructions and think you’re doing your best. Even though you are an autonomous freelancer you must be briefly informed of the project history and details of the intended outcome. Are they presenting to an internal or external client? Is the concept already sold and merely needs to be fleshed out for group discussion? Or are they risking their last dime on this presentation to gain the new contract?

Your designs should fit the presentation. Are they printing your illustrations for display on presentation boards in a conference room?  A Power Point slide show, or a PDF document distributed via Skype? If the big pitch is for the newest brand acquisition, the frames might have a higher fidelity than looser storyboards prepared for a director who wrote the script. Whatever the form, establish the parameters and details ASAP. Part of “managing up” is getting clear on what you’re asked to deliver and why. The more you know the better you can proceed.

My clients often invite me to brainstorm sessions. I consider it an honor. If you’re asked to brainstorm, give it the importance it deserves. Your client values your input and experience. Take charge of their concerns – remember you are building trust with clients. “Managing up” means you aren’t afraid to discuss decisions that will serve them best.

After you and your client are in alignment on what the desired goals are, you must agree on “when” to get there. Are you working the whole day? Lunch? Coffee breaks? Need to stop at a certain time so you can make your kids evening drama production? Communicate times and involvement up-front. Not only will you focus better, you’ll be uninhibited by questions and do your best work.

Agree on “how” you will submit roughs and final frames for review. Can you reach the client via email, or stroll over to their desk? Are they in meetings all day? Do they prefer you send a PDF which they can quietly review on their tablet during their weekly staff meeting?  Would they rather discuss progress at your work station? Either way, they’ll be happy if you make it convenient for them.

Other details relate to the “what” that you will create - that is, what formats and styles? Are you drawing digitally or hand drawn frames on paper? Black and white? Color? Line? High-fidelity refined frames or low-fidelity loose images? Maybe they have a visual target you can reference?

Since you both agree “when” to deliver, “how” to get there and “what” it should look like, forge ahead. Together, you can make adjustments as needed.

After the client and I review the script, I sometimes identify more frames than discussed.  If it turns out the original 10 frames to be finished at 5:30 have doubled to 20, get some clarity. Do they want all twenty frames now that you’ve got their adrenaline pumping? Is the delivery flexible? If not, what then? Should you remind them “I was hired to do only ten frames“ or should you bunt your way to 20 frames, hoping to score a home run?

A smart alternative is to suggest another solution. Maybe you deliver 20 frames at a much rougher fidelity level than planned in the same amount of time. If it serves their needs just as well, you’ve managed up. Take ownership of the final results by getting their permission to use your suggestion, or to produce another one.

Things can change rapidly on an assignment. For example, after lunch, the client suddenly asks if they can have the frames at 3 o’clock instead of 5:30. You’re starting to feel stressed and taken advantage of. But hold on - you’re the expert! They hired you to assist them in achieving greatness. There’s no need to feel manipulated or pressured beyond what you can achieve. If they really need everything earlier and you want to accommodate them, suggest what you CAN deliver by 3. Can the frames be painted with broad strokes, masses of shapes without detail? Can they choose a smaller selection of deliverables in order to meet the deadline?

How you handle changes in direction or deadlines makes all the difference. Communication is important every step of the way. Never take for granted that a client knows what your thinking. Constant communication and evaluation of progress is vital for client success and satisfaction. When details and plans change, remain poised. “Managing up” is a sign of professionalism and uses deliberate action to get results.

The greatest complement a freelancer can receive is when a client leaves them alone. They go to lunch or meetings knowing you’re on the job because you’ve won their confidence. They feel safe because your suggestions are good ones, and you are in alignment with them. 

When employers find someone who is great at their job and a pleasure to work with, they will love having you around. Since you aren’t subject to the same jaded outlooks many staffers are infected with, your enthusiasm makes you a perfect candidate to tackle a problematic or difficult job. As your storyboards, concept art or illustrations breath new life into their troubled project, you will become a favorite freelancer for future projects.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
After following the above practices, you’ve handed in all deliverables. Now take a minute to see if the client is happy. You may have to wait until after their presentation to find out. Usually, you can gauge their satisfaction by how relieved they are once completed. Since you partnered methodically with them and received their blessings every step of the way, they’ll remember how instrumental you were for a smooth production and how you inspired confidence for the project.

In the odd case the client is not happy with what you’ve provided, express regrets and ask what you can do to make them happy.  You also want to know where things went wrong. At what point did both of you not align in the process? Walking through it step-by-step allows the client to revisit the decisions they made, suggesting a constructive review both parties can learn from.  

Wrap it Up
After ending on a good note, mention that you would love to work with them again. Perhaps they can refer you to other potential customers. Also, it’s perfectly fine to ask for a testimonial that you can share on your web site or linked-in. They may not have the time or patience to put one together no matter how much they liked your performance, but assure them you only need one or two sentences. With that amount of brevity, their comments will get right to the point. If they are slow to get back to you, be patient. They just had a great experience, let’s keep it that way. You can always circle back when the time is right.

I hope these points on “managing up” as a freelancer are helpful. It may seem common sense, but many times we can forget to employ such basic principles. As your talent gives you entrĂ©e to seek freelance work, “managing up” is the method you use to secure a foothold. Get into Alignment. Agree on “how,” “what,” “when” and “where.” Adjust the plan as needed. Finally, build Trust between you and your clients. You’ll be delivering the highest level of Satisfaction their money can buy.

Monday, March 21, 2016

“Managing Up” as a Freelancer Part 1.... It’s Not Just for Staff

If you’re a member of the corporate world, you’ve frequently encountered the catch phrase “managing up.”  Books have been written on it, seminars have addressed it, and corporate training programs have empowered managers to apply its principles. But you don’t need a subscription to the Harvard Business Review to understand the techniques that have helped employees galvanize effective relationships with their bosses and supervisors. “Managing up” need not be obsequious or contrived. It utilizes clear communication, a dedication to partnership, and an interest in successful results.

To put it simply, “managing up” is a deliberate effort on the part of an employee to forge the best possible partnership between himself and his boss, with the ultimate intent of producing innovative and high performance results for the company.

But hold on, you don’t consider yourself an “employee” so to speak. You are an elite member of the freelance swashbuckling club, uninhibited by the oppressive doldrums of company politics and unconcerned with climbing the corporate ladder. Maybe you’re a Storyboard Artist or Illustrator, a contractor who dreams of being so prosperous that you call your own shots.

Perhaps you toil away in your home studio, office, or kitchen table creating what you love with the tools of your choice. You gladly work on-site in the client’s office to make them happy and confident in your skills. You say: “I draw pictures for a living! I work for myself, and as long as I get paid, who cares what happens after that? I don’t WANT to manage up, that’s why I FREELANCE!”

You may think that doing what you love and getting paid for it is in-and-of itself the realization of success. For many, it is. You get to work in your slippers sometimes, with your favorite mug, listening to your favorite music, satellite radio, or daily podcasts. Although rewarding, it’s only part of the picture. The reality is a lot less glamorous than it sounds, AND a lot more IMPORTANT than it sounds.

I’m sure there are superstars in our industry who are so popular, talented and in-demand that they may never even consider the client relationship that seriously. They command large sums of money and get so much work they turn assignments away. If you're one of those artists, I admire your talent and skills. If you're not one of those artists, listen up.

The reality is you can’t be successful unless you are helping your clients be successful. 

Because the freelancer has multiple clients over the course of his career, an attribute of success lies in satisfying the needs and solving the problems of each and every client. Being a “rock star” artist is great – but if a freelancer is inflexible or indifferent to the project, or does ONLY what he is told, cannot read between the lines, or anticipate problems before they arise, the results will be less than stellar. You may realize too late that your client had a different expectation, one he or she THOUGHT they communicated effectively, but didn't. Or maybe you thought a last-minute change in direction would naturally be followed by an extended deadline. However, if you have not clarified an extension with your client, they will be disappointed when you deliver later than originally agreed. Chances are that you will be viewed as the one who flubbed the presentation, not them. The client won’t rush to hire you again, and may even discourage others in their organization to contract you.

Remember you are carving your own legacy with each assignment. You’re enjoying work on your own terms, but if immediate satisfaction and comfortable work habits are what you ask from life, that is what you’ll get.

My guess is you want more. You want a prosperous business, professional achievements, artistic growth and financial gain. You want to be a bread-winner, and have the freedom to jfly to the Bahamas or hike the Appalachian Trail once in a while.

That's where managing up comes in. If you want your freelance storyboard or illustration business to flourish, make yourself an integral part of your client’s success by managing up.

Managing up is essential, even if your projects last one day, one week or one month. And it’s easier than you think. The techniques are easy, unobtrusive and effective at scoring home-runs with clients. I believe it's what keeps me first-in-line for future projects.
In part 2 of this article, I will explain some key managing up methods that have worked for me.

Continued in “Managing Up" as a Freelancer 
Part 2:Take the Bull by the Horns

Monday, March 7, 2016

How to Make it as a Storyboard Artist

"Would'ja believe.....that desk is also a car?"

This January I had the privilege to join Storyboard as a guest teacher for one of their industry webinars. Titled "How to Make it as a Storyboard Artist," the sessions began with a webinar where I talked with moderator Sergio Paez (a master story artist and great public speaker, to boot) about industry experiences and practices. We had about 200 attendees signing in live around the globe, submitting questions regarding best ways to find work, when to use contracts or letters of agreements, and different methods of getting paid. 

When marketing a class, tell the student what they get in clear, concise words.

Between Sergio and myself, we were able to cover the tools of the trade, professionalism, and how to work under pressure. I shared a bit of my history, including my time as a Disney Animator, my role as an Art Director on "Madden NFL" and my early struggles shopping around my portfolio in the pre-digital age. Especially of interest was how-the-heck does one freelance for 7 years full-time while raising a family. It was a lighthearted session, even though packed with tons of information for beginners and professionals alike, and I received many warm messages from participants who appreciated me recounting my personal struggles and successes.

The indefatigable Sergio Paez, co-founder of
The webinar was followed by two classes, where students were able to gain details regarding portfolios, marketing and self-promotion, networking, and web sites. Through the miracle of Google Hangouts, I was able to speak on camera here in my studio, surrounded by my books, computers, hard drives, animation desk, collectibles and the general state of clutter that I am forever battling. Students submitted portfolios and received personal portfolio reviews where I discussed their strengths, weaknesses and potential strategies for getting work. It was an honor to review the students' work, as it was to provide feedback with respect and encouragement. 

Personal projects like this frame from a movie pitch
offer variety and excitement not always found in client work. 
Despite being called a "successful storyboard artist," by Sergio, I emphasized to the group that success in this industry is often transient, and encompasses not just getting clients but living a balanced life. Making money from a skill set or talent like drawing is a blessing, but one which must be tempered by preparation for rainy days. Having personal or "vanity" projects like writing a screenplay or a comic book involve the ability to reinvent yourself, to stay flexible, and adapting to whatever times require. It helps to be able to work in many formats and styles, and not accept the comfort of being a one-trick-pony. When you're not storyboarding the next great commercial spot or the current animated Nickelodeon series, there is no shame in doing product comps or personal commissions. 

By the look of those phonemic distortions,
I could be singing "Mammy."
I enjoyed coordinating the sessions with Sergio and his co-founder Anthony Rivera. I look forward to future sessions where I might help inform and educate pro's, beginners and clients, while elevating the distinction of the storyboard artist community. For info on classes and storyboard resources, visit