Ask an Art Buyer: Triple Bids, The Plague and Cost Consultants

by Heather on March 18, 2008

Wednesday is Ask an Art Buyer day. Send your questions to with the subject line Ask an Art Buyer. I’ll answer as many as I can every Wednesday.

Well KaChing Bling, I can tell from your clever nom de plume that you are on your way to being (if you haven’t already arrived) a very successful commercial photographer. And given the passion with which you have posed your three questions, I will answer them all:

I’m not sure how you do it up there in Snowy Country, but down here in the USA, there’s a tendency to triple-bid, and to also have the “triple phone call”. What’s the deal with that? You just know, with every job, there’s always a Creative Choice, so why do they insist on having three Beauty Contest Conference Calls, where the other two guys actually think they’re actually in the running for the job? Why waste all that time, and get everyone’s hopes up? Why not take the Creative Choice, and then have a phone call with him/her, and if they’re a Total Flake, or a Trust Fund Kid, then cross them off the list, and move on down the list to Creative Choice #2, and then have a phone call with them, at that point?

I love this question because the triple bid is truly something I have struggled with myself.

When I started out as an Art Buyer, and this was about 7 years ago, I was both blessed and cursed with having no road map to follow- there were only a couple of us in the whole country. I certainly felt like I could make the rules and one of those rules was: No triple bidding. Just like you, I considered it a huge waste of time. The way I liked to operate was this: Who do we want to work with? Can we afford them? Great. Let’s get on with it. At that point I was crazy overworked at my agency (around 12 creative teams, one AB) and I just didn’t have the time to put into the triple bid (or make courtesy phone calls- but that’s the next question). I also know that because of the triple bid system, some photographers were being asked “just send me a quote- I need a third quote”, knowing that they were not at all under consideration. Not on my watch!

I hear your frustration at what you perceive as being strung along but let me just give you the corollary to that. Because I rarely triple bid for the first few years, some photographers never (or hardly ever) heard from me and I know they thought they were never being considered and I also know this was unsettling for some in the Toronto photo community. But, it meant that when you did hear from me, I was serious about you.

Lately, I have softened. I have begun to see the benefit to the triple bid; I still believe in: Who do we want to work with? Can we afford them, but I am enjoying some of the benefits of talking to photographers. First of all, there isn’t always one “Creative Choice”. And, obviously, there are different ways to approach a production (which can certainly swing a close race). Most importantly, when we hear you talk about our job on the phone we can hear how enthusiastic you are about it (or not), how much thought you’ve put into it (or not) and how well your personality might compliment our Art Director (or not). And whether or not you get that particular job, what we glean from that call is stored for future reference, for a time when you and your approach might be better suited to the job at hand.

Without question, sometimes they are a big waste of time, but be careful what you wish for: if the triple bid goes away, your chances to hear from the agency, talk to the agency, have lots of people at the agency look at your book, submit numbers to the agency etc. go way, way down.

And while we’re on the subject, why don’t most agencies have the common courtesy to inform the other two people that didn’t get the job, that they didn’t get the job, so they can move on and cross out those possible dates? Why is it that, while you’re still in the running for the job, then you’re Our Best Friend And Buddy, but once the job is awarded, then the agency acts like the other two losers suddenly have come down with The Plague, and can’t be communicated with, and won’t have their phone calls returned? I mean, hey, it’s just business, right? Why not just say, “Hey, you didn’t get this job, but maybe there’s something down the road”. Why not have the common decency to inform the other two photographers?

Oh, that’s simple, it’s because we’re assholes.

But seriously, I can’t defend this behaviour at all. When I started out, I hated making these calls and so I didn’t do it either. I had heard horror stories of being berated or begged by dejected photographers and I wanted no part of that. I’ve matured.

Art Buyers are very busy and once the job is awarded, as you can imagine, there are a million things for us to put in motion. Picking up the phone and calling the shooters who didn’t get the job just isn’t on top of that list. However, I believe we absolutely owe you the courtesy of letting you know but please, for the love of Pete, it doesn’t help matters to give us a hard time about it- asking for a bit of feedback is fine but leave it at that.

My advice is to check in once in awhile on the status of the award. I keep my cards close until we’ve reached a final decision but when we have, I will gladly take your call and end your curiousity. Email is probably the best way to communicate on these matters.

And while we’re on the subject, what’s the deal with these Freelance Cost Consultants? Do you think anyone ever said, “Hey, if we just fired these Freelance Cost Consultants, and actually trusted the skills of the Art Buyer, then maybe we could take the cost consultant money, and actually order some decent Catering on this next shoot?”

Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the Cost Consultant. I don’t see any value, especially in photography, and most especially in Canada where none of the CC’s have ANY photography experience. I strongly disagree with the recent PDN article which seemed to suggest that AB’s need to grin-and-bear-it. I am working on a post about this which I will publish next week (feel free to send in any great Cost Consultant anecdotes or opinions- especially if you see some value because I’m having a hard time with that side of the debate) so I’m not going to go into specifics here. Suffice it to say I’m a bit angry too.

What great questions! Keep ‘em coming.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete Soos March 18, 2008 at 8:33 pm

Good answers Heather.
I’m sure some times it can be hard telling people they where not chosen for a project. But your insite will help a few more people understand what went into the final choice.
Also, I have to say I am a fan of the triple bid. Of course I would prefer to have every project handed to me but I do see value in bidding against other photographers. I just wish all the quotes would be revealed so all can see where they stood. It helps those starting to quote and also keeps the inflated quotes in check. during my days in construction this was the norm. It should be in this industry also

chad holder March 18, 2008 at 9:54 pm

how do you know that you didn’t get the job…
when you are flipping through a magazine and you recognize an ad that two months earlier was a layout you and your producer estimated.

no matter the discomfort an AB may feel by informing us that we did not win the job, they will be respected for doing so, and in turn, discredited for letting it slide.

j q March 19, 2008 at 1:32 am

great info there.
maybe you can give some advice regarding quoting for jobs?
Because sometimes there’s a great job that I would want to do but I am not getting any idea of the budget, and I don’t want to underbid, and then I find out later that my bid was way off from the budget.

Also, was curious as to how usage is charged in canada with regards to different media and ATL/BTL

Russell Kaye March 19, 2008 at 5:46 am

you’re right – great questions. And great answers. Thanks for the link to the Cost Consultant article. Can you shed light on where they come from? Is there Cost Consultant School?

KaChing Bling March 19, 2008 at 6:53 am


Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions thoughtfully. Hopefully other photographers will gain insight into this.

I am with Chad Holder on this one though — even though it hurts to get that email from your rep that someone else got the job — it still serves as some sort of silly “closure” on the matter, and you can mentally move on. For me, maybe like Chad, it also puts a little tick mark of credit and respect to the Ad Agency that we were quoting for. It keeps you positive about quoting for them in the future. In my little mental Rolodex inside my tiny pea brain, I keep a list of Ad Agencies, and an informal ranking about how I like working with them. There are one or two that seem really lax about letting you know about the status of the job, (even though they want your highly-detailed Estimate emailed to them by tomorrow morning, AT THE LATEST). Each time that agency sorta blows us off, it makes me respect them that much less, and go to bat for them that much less.

Even though we’re “the vendor”, on a human level, it’s still a two-way street. It’s simply human nature — there’s no way around it.

My position is, for every time that you make that uncomfortable phone call to those photographers that didn’t get the job, a little Karma Point comes up in your little Karma Wallet. Sooner or later, when you least expect it, you’ll need to reach for that Wallet and you’ll be joyous at how many Karma Dollars are in there.

We gots feelings too.

Anyway, thanks again for the great post. Spring is right around the corner.

KaChing Bling March 19, 2008 at 7:08 am


While my previous note there was somewhat upbeat, this one has a darker side:

I guess it’s just the paranoid side of me, but there’s this tiny part of me that wonders, when I’m on one of those Beauty Contest Conference Calls, and you’re discussing how you’d approach the job: “Is there some part of me that’s a bit resentful that here I am, telling this AD how I’d solve their problem, and how I’d tackle their job, when I haven’t even been awarded the job yet? Is there any reason why this AD might be having this Beauty Contest Conference Call with all three bidding photographers; maybe they’d take all three of the approaches, put them into a bushel basket, shake it up, and then approach the job that way?

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to show my hand, (just like you keep YOUR cards close to YOUR chest until the job is awarded). What if the AD thought it was best to shoot in San Diego, but our research showed that really, it was too cold there, so we should shoot it in Florida instead?

I know it’s a risk you take, to get the job. But I could see, at some point in my life, saying, “Hey, you want my experienced opinion on how to pull off this difficult job successfully? Well then, send me a signed P.O. and THEN we’ll have a little conference call. Because you’re not getting my experience and ideas for free, and then go out and hire someone else and use our ideas”.

I’m trying not to be nasty, but at the same time, these are true feelings, and I think they warrant some consideration.

Would I go out and talk to three architects about building me a house, and them take the time to go over a basic approach, and then I just blow off two of the three of them, if their idea didn’t please me?

Yes, it’s a Buyer’s Market out there, and yes, I’m keeping my chin up, but still, I’m just wondering about this whole approach.

Thank you.

Bruce DeBoer March 19, 2008 at 7:58 am

Great stuff – a few thoughts:
- don’t cost consultants come from the client side? If I was spending 200K on a project I think I may want to hire someone who knew the biz to make sure I was getting my money’s worth – just sayin’. On the flip side, I suppose the client should also hire an agency they trust.

- Triple bids are a pain in the butt for everyone. Formulating a comprehensive, accurate, competitive proposal is time consuming and – thus – expensive; every time an AB asks for an estimate they never intend to take seriously, they are abusing a business. That said, in addition to all the points Heather made, reviewing more than one proposal can’t help but give the buyer a better idea for their desired scope of a scalable project. Sometimes it’s hard even for photographers to scale a project [ should we hire 12 talent or can we get away with 7] in a proposal so I can only imagine what agencies and clients struggle with.

- As far as that “we decided to go in a different direction” phone call. I can take it or leave it: yes it’s nice to be treated well but I’ve grown to accept typical behavior after 20 + years. Besides, do all photographers call their casting agent or stylists to tell them that the job they priced out isn’t going to happen?

Jono Fisher March 19, 2008 at 8:42 am

Great post Heather, I really enjoy reading your blog, thank you.

Some of the most important topics surrounding the bidding process are covered here. As for “The Plague” and not getting back to photographers regarding the bid – that is unacceptable. Art Buyers are never too busy to inform the other two who did not get the job. I have had CD’s and AD’s send me one-line emails that say something like: “Not this time, maybe next…”. If the AB does not have the people-skills for a simple communication task like this, how are they going to have the necessary skills to assess …”how well your personality might compliment our Art Director (or not).”? Chad (#2) is right, AB’s are discredited for not keeping photographers informed through the bidding process, something AB’s should consider when thinking of future employment. No one wants to hire someone who underperforms on the people-side.

As for the Cost Consultants, most of them seem to be really nice. Maybe they have to be because deep down they know that their job and their title is marginally bogus (I am probably wrong on this, but personally, I have always viewed CC’s as a temporary byproduct of the rapid downsizing of any bloated, big & traditionally structured Ad Agency). A few well thought out questions from the photographer or rep quickly helps determine whether the CC knows what she/he is talking about or not. Unfortunately, CC’s are still a necessary evil in some arenas – so I say, just deal with it. Don’t waste your time doing elaborate estimates, when all the CC is looking for is a number to attach to your name. With the changing economy, it will be interesting to see if CC’s become a superfluous, non-essential role/job-title in the future, or if they are here to stay.

Finn March 19, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Triple Bid + Triple Call Back = Fairness

Hiep Vu March 20, 2008 at 8:02 am

Hey Heather,

Great topics and answers on this one. I think most of us understand that this is what is going on in the AB’s and agency’s minds but it is always good to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Once you’ve been in the industry long enough I think you develop a thicker skin to all the slights and knives of the way this all works. It is a business afterall and business is paramount. If photographers really felt as strongly as they profess than they have the right to turn away work from offending agencies and speak up.

All that said, I have encountered on several occasions over the last couple of years a situation that I thought was highly dreadful. In this day and age where alot of budget are cut down and slim, I’ve been asked to work on a project with slim to no budgets and then had the indignity to triple-bid it. Why if an agency has no budget would they triple-bid something? No answer required. I’m just bewildered is all.

Thanks again for your frank commentary Heather.


Jeff Singer March 20, 2008 at 9:03 am

Its kinda like when I go out on a date with a girl I’m not that into… Sure, before the date, we’re talking on the phone, emailing, texting and IMing. Then, after a date or two I realize… Ehh, its not working. I have a hard time sending off my own “sorry, it’s not workin” email… Even though I know if she wasn’t into me I would much rather get an email from her saying “Hey… you’re not that good looking, you were boring, and you got too drunk and groped me all night… I just don’t think it’s going to work out” (Like I haven’t heard THAT before)

But, since we’re talking about business and not our personal lives… that’s all you need to do. I don’t need a phone call to let me down easy and console me… Just send me a 1.5 second email that say’s “we went with another photographer.”

That’s it… I promise, I wont even waist your time with a “Thanks” email… although, I guess that would make me look like an ass.

Billy Kidd April 14, 2008 at 3:47 pm

Great information all around, as well as great questions. I feel similar to bling. i’ve had a few ideas, picked from my brains, and had AB’s and AD’s use them with other photographers. kinda stings.

Therese May 3, 2008 at 2:00 pm

@12 – Hiep Vu’s post

I’ve been asked to triple bid a pro bono account – srsly.

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