Biddings in the Creative Industry

I maintain a Facebook page for those interested in the business of photography, and I often ask for writing prompts from the members of this group. This week’s featured questions came from Elmer Pueblo, an enterprising young man who runs a production house. His dad, who was with Akerlund & Rausing (a packaging firm), was my client.

Elmer Pueblo: I have a topic. Is the bidding process good for the photography industry or the advertising industry as a whole? Should we participate in such a process? Is it a waste of time or (is the) effort worth the trouble?

Before I answer your questions, let me start by saying that the bidding process in the photography or advertising industry is not the same as in other industries. Participants in biddings for industries other than advertising are pre-qualified – so whoever wins has been predetermined to have the capability to deliver on the project. Therefore the aim of the exercise is to find a contractor who can accomplish the project at the least cost. Bids are submitted sealed, and they are opened in the presence of all bidders.

In all the years (2016 is our 43rd year) that we have been in advertising, we have been asked to bid for photography projects several thousand times, but I have never been invited to the opening of bids. Not even once.

I learned very early in the game that what is done is not “bidding,” but collecting cost estimates, which unfortunately are not really treated as cost “estimates” but as quotations, but that’s another issue altogether.

Advertisers may insist on bids, but since they probably do not monitor bids or the bidding process which their ad agencies conduct, I suspect that agencies still manage to push for their preferred photographers, videographers, stylists and other production suppliers. I have met many retired art directors and account executives – some who had even risen to become heads of their ad agencies – who intimated to me that even before they ask for bids, they already know whom they would like to work with, and to whom the project would be awarded. As long as quotations are within the range, or within their budgets, then they can assign projects, not to the lowest bidder, but to photographer whom they feel is right for the job. This system of choosing a photographer sometimes benefit and sometimes prejudice the same suppliers, so I don’t know if we can say that the practice is inherently unfair.

I personally suspect that biddings are held only because clients insist on them. If the art/creative directors had their way, they would just select the photographer (or videographer) whom they like. And because the bidding process is not strictly enforced, they still manage to do so.

It would still be ideal if ad agencies would prequalify their bidders, so that competing photographers are more or less in the same level of expertise, and in what they offer in terms of equipment, facilities, and manpower, but maybe because we are dealing with creative folks, we supply creative services, and we are in a creative industry, it might really be impossible to expect iron-clad, tightly guarded, honest-to-goodness bidding procedures.

Given the experience, through the years, of winning some bids and losing some others, I would prefer to trust and believe that the bidding process –while not strictly enforced – is still basically fair, and all that I ask is that we continue to be invited to bid for projects. If submitting bids is what we need to get a chance at being hired, then I would appreciate every invitation to bid.

To answer your questions:

1. “Is the bidding process good for the photography industry or the advertising industry as a whole?”

I would like to see the day when there is a strict, fair and credible accrediting body that would rank creative suppliers (photographers, videographers, stylists, etc.) in terms of expertise, facilities, equipment and other criteria, so that those that are invited to bid belong to the same category or ranking. When this happens, then bidding might truly benefit clients and ad agencies.

The bidding process might also encourage or force photographers to study their costs and margins, to ensure that the bids that would make them win would also bring in profits. That might then help professionalize the photography industry.

2. “Should we participate in such a process?”

I think so. As I wrote earlier, if we don’t participate in biddings, we don’t get a chance to get jobs. While I accept all invitations to bid, I also work to suggest ways to improve the bidding process. (I can share stories of these attempts, in case anyone is interested).

3. “Is it a waste of time or effort worth the trouble?”

I don’t think it’s a waste of time, but we do need to involve ourselves in introducing and suggesting improvements not only in the bidding process, but also in the general conduct of business in the creative industry – since this is where we are.