As seen on the Digital Naturalist

This ran on a now-shuttered blog called the Digital Naturalist back in 2012. People tell me it helped them feel a little less crazy so I'm re-publishing it here—even though I now cringe at some of what I wrote. If it helps you, let me know. If you think I got it all wrong, let me know. If you think it's entirely forgettable, that's OK, too. Feel free to forget it entirely. -Brad

"Six things I've learned from two years of freelancing in Advocacy Video Land"

I'm a freelance multimedia producer and I’m pretty new in this business. Until a couple years ago my only bragging rights were that my Cub Scout leader wrote the movie Top Gun and that I know someone who knows someone who designs Victoria's Secret lingerie. But then I got my Master's in Multimedia Storytelling from Syracuse University and now I actually get hired by people. I’ve had editorial clients like NPR, commercial clients like Honest Tea, and I even shot a Jewish family's bris. Yet most of my work has been from non-profit advocacy clients like the UN agency IFAD (via a MediaStorm gig), anti-hunger NGO Bread for the World, and technically I believe AARP counts as an advocacy group for the aging. These last two years I’ve realized that it is shockingly challenging to navigate Advocacy Video Land. So I’m here to share what I’ve learned. Here are the six things I wish I’d known when I started.


1. It's frighteningly easy to make a cheesy, wimpy video even if you’re trying not to.

If you’re like me, you grew up watching dramatic, overly-earnest PSA's during Thunder Cats and Voltron and Full House. The spots had the subtlety of the bubonic plague and probably only aired because they appealed to the bureaucrats who paid for them. Unfortunately, I’m guessing those videos are still in your head.

I got what felt like a dream job a couple years ago when I was hired by MediaStorm to go to Madagascar and make a video for one of their clients, a UN agency named IFAD. But when I sat down to edit I felt like there were 100 characters from 100 “Just Say No” ads sitting on my shoulder. They said crippling things like “Now, don’t you go and do anything too weird. Remember, this is for the UN. Play it safe, make it sappy. That will be good enough. If you blow this, Brian Storm will punch you in the face and never call you again.” And I then I proceeded to make a video that was pretty much just “good.” Go ahead, watch it yourself. Take special note of the fact that only my dad and my wife’s grandmother left comments about it on the MediaStorm site. Someone even went to the trouble to write a blog post about everything he would do differently.

Don’t get me wrong, the piece was still a pretty big accomplishment. I only had two days with the subjects of the piece and I was battling dysentery the whole time – my body was doing disgusting, unprintable things while I was filming. Then, with Brian’s help, I edited the whole thing in about two and a half weeks, working around the clock and sleeping in the MediaStorm offices a lot of the time. The fact it wasn’t a total failure seems like a small miracle. But neither was it a total success. In the end it was just another “good” piece of multimedia on the web, and that kills me. If I could go back I would be the gutsy, creative person that had landed me the job in the first place. And when you sit down to edit or go out to film I think you should do that, too: be the gutsy, creative person that got yourself in that position to begin with.

2. Say no to work.

Sometimes. There are two good reasons to do this. 

For starters, if you take on too much—say, two jobs at once like I once did—it’s very possible you’ll screw something up and burn a bridge. Maybe both bridges. I burned bridges with two huge clients (and I mean huge ... pretty much household names), and I feel like such a dumbass I can barely talk about it to anyone except my wife and my therapist. I wish I was kidding. It's been two years and I'm still trying to move on in my head.

The other good reason to do this is more specific to non-profits (and commercial clients, too): I think you should say no to work you don't agree with ethically.

Non-profit work has been more of a moral minefield than I would’ve thought. Last year a well-connected friend asked me to bid on a video project for a big environmental group here in DC. I started into talks with the group and it was all very exciting and little ethically-earned dollar bills danced in my head. Then in the midst of preparing my bid I found out the group takes money from some of the biggest polluters on the planet. In exchange, their critics say, the group helps the companies look like they're eco-friendly—in other words, they're so-called “greenwashers.”

After wondering if god hates me I decided I just couldn't do it. I backed out and politely told my friend and the client why. My friend said she understood but I agonized over disappointing her and wondered if I’d burned yet another bridge. But a few months later she called back to connect me with a video project for Fair Trade USA and Honest Tea, the organic iced tea bottler. They sent me to India to shoot a pretty fascinating story in some of the most insanely beautiful places I'd ever seen. And here's the kicker: they liked me because I'd turned down the other job. They were actually looking to hire someone for way less money than I was asking, but after telling them about turning down the greenwashers they felt we had shared values and hired me. Here's what I learned: If you say no to work that you find morally dubious you might wind up getting the job you actually want, and your next client might respect you more for it. And more importantly, you'll be able to live with yourself when you’re 95. I honestly think it all comes down to this anyway.

3. Non-profits usually have more money than they let on.

I spent my early adult years doing environmental activism in Southern Indiana. The groups I worked with were perpetually broke. And I mean broke. I remember one time they bought me lunch and a train ticket (“A train ticket!”) and I felt like I was a zillionaire flying in first class. It was all volunteer, a paid staff of zero. Any big- or even medium-sized non-profit is in a whole different league. As Samuel L. Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, “Hell, it’s not even the same fu*king sport.” Do not kid yourself that these people don’t have money. I promise you they have lots of money. They might not want to spend it on you, but that’s no different than any other client you’ve ever had. If you’re a good salesperson and the stars align just right then you can convince them otherwise.

Before you go in to negotiate your price for a job with a non-profit, first figure out the actual rate you need to earn. Let’s call this the magic number. The magic number should not be a discounted rate (though it should be less than your commercial rate – mine is about half). The magic number should be a standard market rate that will allow you to have a normal life and do normal things like save money for a rainy day and eat food from an actual grocery store. Tell yourself you will not work for less than the magic number. If you have to look in the mirror and scream “I’m worth the magic number and I’m beautiful!” then do it. When they ask for your rate, take that magic number and double it. Seriously. Tell them this “twice the magic number” number with total confidence. Do not flinch or sound sheepish. But, and this is important, hint that you’ll accept less. Say something that will appeal to them like “since this is for a really good cause I would be willing to work with you on the price.” Because my clients have always wanted to pay less than whatever price I first threw out, I am willing to bet that at this point the negotiations will pretty much work their way down near the magic number. This is good in two ways. Most important, you’ll get to eat food from an actual grocery store. But it also means they’ll feel like they’re getting a good deal, which will make them very happy. And since you’ll be working for what you are worth and no less, that will make you very happy – and you’ll probably do better work as a result. (A quick note: if they offer you a fair price off the bat don’t jeopardize losing the job or look like an ingrate by arguing for more. Just accept it and be grateful everyone got spared a lot of grief.)

I know this all sounds very manipulative, and I guess it kind of is. But I’m pretty sure this is just how negotiating works. Last year I was shopping for a used car and I read something that really stuck with me: When you make your first offer, the salesman will act offended and laugh at you for proposing what he calls a ridiculous number. It’s an act to get you to lose confidence – and the same thing might happen to you when you throw out the “twice the magic number” number. I don’t think the people in the non-profit world are as manipulative as car salesmen, but I’ve still seen this dynamic happen in subtle ways when I’ve negotiated my rates. I try to remember their first reaction doesn’t mean much. What matters is that everyone feels good about the rates at the end of the negotiations. Above all, I think you should remember that you’re a professional and you deserve to be fairly compensated. It’s up to you to believe this with all your heart, because, sadly, almost everything in our industry tells us otherwise.

One big caveat here: from my experiences, many organizations are as caught up in the “multimedia storytelling” buzz as the rest of us. But many of them simply don’t realize how much good multimedia costs to produce. Your biggest battle may just be educating them on the costs of production, or even the value of doing a piece at all. So when you’re throwing out that first price, choose your wording and the dollar amount carefully – and I’d suggest explaining why you’re asking for what you’re asking. A lot of advocacy organizations are just starting to try multimedia and if this is their first big project or you’re their first professional producer they may be in for sticker shock or “length-of-production shock.” This doesn’t mean you should work for a t-shirt and a tote bag, it’s just something to keep in mind.

4. Work for free.

Sometimes.

I hope this doesn’t sound contradictory, but I think there are a couple really good reasons to work for free once in a while. 1. Some non-profits really don’t have the money to pay you and doing work for them might be very rewarding and energizing. It’s an act of service. And, 2. Working for free can also give you a meaningful way to explore new creative forms and styles without the stifling fear of failure that can come with being paid. In other words, your obligations are fewer when it’s for free and you’re a lot more likely to play and learn and grow and dare to fail. And call me an anti-capitalist heretic, but I find it’s really tough to get that giddy “this-is-why-I-got-into-this-business” feeling when I’m getting paid to do something.

5. Chances are good almost no one will see your video, unless ...

... you get creative with your marketing. Getting your work seen is about buzz, exposure, and distribution. If you just put the video up on the organization’s website I doubt you’ll accomplish any of these three important things and I doubt many people will see your work. Even if it’s really good. I hate to say it, but in general I don’t think anyone goes to non-profit organizations’ websites to watch their videos. Do you ever do it for any reason other than professional research? Do you even know anyone who does? “Hey, honey, this Friday night let’s stay in and watch videos about all the problems in the world ...” I admit it: I don’t do it, and this is basically what I do for a living. But I do think you can get people (other than your dad and your wife’s grandmother) to watch your piece, and I think you can do it by realizing why people watch advocacy videos. They do it because: 1. a bunch of people are talking about it on Facebook; 2. it’s mentioned in an established publication (like a newspaper or a magazine); 3. someone who’s respected says “man, you just have to see this” (this could be a blogger or even a friend of the potential viewer).

I helped produce a bunch of videos for Bread for the World (an anti-hunger NGO) last year and one of our videos got what I think was a modestly successful playcount (it gets about 50 views a day). This was no accident. We screamed and shouted about that thing to everyone we could think of. And I think it more or less worked. It got embedded in a couple respected blogs and was promoted by a Facebook group that has about one million fans. I don’t think our marketing was all it had going for it – it also had the elements that make up a good non-fiction story: great characters, dramatic tension, change, beautiful footage, surprising information, and someone cries (which never hurts). But what got it the views was that it was pretty much forced on people with loud “social megaphones,” and they were asked to promote it. I even did some of this legwork on my own, in addition to Bread for the World’s social media department, since I think it’s so important. And I just wanted people to see it because, like any sentimental sap, I fell in love with the piece while I was working on it.

6. There is way more riding on your video than you realize.

I could go on and on and on about this one, but I think it boils down to this: unlike an editorial client such as, say, the Daily Metropolitan Gazette, an advocacy organization usually turns out very little original content. So the project you’re working on is quite special to them. Whether or not to even make a video was probably discussed in 450  different meetings and involved more than one titanic, inter-office power struggle. Creating original content also takes a lot of money, and money is something non-profits use very, very carefully. So not only do you have a client (it’s the person that hired you), but your client has a client (it’s his or her boss) and the boss has a client (it’s the director) and the director has a client (it’s the entire organization). Also, you are producing work that is part of the organization’s image; what you do reflects, to some degree, on everyone there. So what does this mean for you, the producer? For me it has meant it two things: 1. It’s hard to know how long a project will take to produce, and 2. I’ve really needed to let go of my ego. Do not assume I’ve been successful at the latter.

At Bread for the World I when I finished a draft of a video it sometimes needed to be watched by ten different staff members, and they all got to weigh in on the piece. In general they gave incredibly helpful and insightful feedback, but this process took time and it took time in ways that are hard to predict – like someone who needed to see the video was out of town for a week. Thankfully, the woman who hired me, Laura Elizabeth Pohl, understood this and didn’t hold it against me and she made sure I was paid for this extra time. I felt very lucky. But this process has played out with other non-profit (and commercial) clients of mine and has definitely created tension. Mostly I’ve felt sore because I delivered my product on-time and they kept wanting more and more revisions which sent me over the number of hours for which they hired me. Sure, I could say “you need to pay more or you don’t get anything else from me.” But if you’re a freelancer you know this is more nerve-wracking than it sounds—it becomes maddeningly easy to imagine you’ll lose a client over a measly $200 invoice or a less-than-perfectly-worded email asking to be paid for something. So now I try to be very upfront about this phenomenon at the start of the project. I tell them that from my experience (and I emphasize this word – “based on my experience...”) the “draft-review-draft-review” process is a bit of an unknown element. I think each project and organization is different, but in general I think this “draft-review” process can potentially add another week of work. I tell them I will need to be paid the magic number per hour for this time, if it’s necessary. That way it’s clear at the outset.

The ego thing is a lot more challenging. This is something I really struggle with. I don’t think my work is awesome (in fact, I’ve yet to produce a project that I even like that much), but I do have strong opinions and I want to get my way. Someone who’s very successful once told me, “the media world is an industry of strong-willed perfectionists,” so I’m guessing you and I might have this in common. But this trait has made my advocacy work much, much harder. And that’s because, as mentioned, advocacy clients are generally incredibly invested in their projects. They push and, if pushed, they push back. I don’t have much sage wisdom here, but I do know this much: they get the last word, not you. I try to keep this in mind. I also try to remember that success is a lot more about being flexible and not whining than it is about being right. Don’t assume I’ve been successful at this, either.

Basically I think there’s just a pile of stuff that needs to be established at the start when heads are calm and no one’s arguing for, or against, having something specific in a video. In other words, before anyone has fallen in love with some little tidbit of dialogue or some timelapse or some weird shot where juice squirts out someone’s nose. I swear to god, these are the kinds of things that start world wars. Because once you fall in love (or “in hate”) with something and can’t imagine a video with (or without) it, sanity becomes an endangered species. Those first meetings are especially important if you’re hot-headed. And doubly especially important if you’ll be producing a story that you, yourself found. I produced my own story for a nonprofit last year and didn’t like the end result very much – they needed too much of the story cut because they thought it would offend their audience. I’m not mad at them for it – they had every right to feel that way. But I know that in the future I will be very careful about pitching a story that’s near and dear to my heart to an advocacy organization. And I’ll want to make sure editorial control is spelled out at the get-go if for no other reason than I’m not shocked when I’m told I need to change something.

Overall I think there’s a huge amount of opportunity – both artistically and financially – in working with non-profit organizations. I don’t mean my warnings to make it sound otherwise. I only want you to not make the same mistakes I’ve made, and to kick some serious butt in the creative butt in the process ... while also making a fair wage for yourself.