Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The High Cost of Simple Propping

by Susan Linnet Cox

As my styling life has morphed into, as much as anything, a career of teaching, writing, and sharing, here is a typical event in the life of a stylist. Although I don’t recommend writing out your thoughts as I did; my career has succeeded because I am nice – and discreet. But here we go…

I was recently contacted by an East Coast public relations agency about my availability for a half-day photo shoot. My contact stated, “We anticipate it would be about a half day of pulling and a half day on set. Hard furnishings will be provided - we'd look to you for the soft furnishings and plants/accents only.”

I was interested but I do know that most possible projects don’t happen. Still I rushed back my estimate since it was only a few days away. Here is my estimate based on my day rate of $600:

1/2 day of prop shopping/prep $300 (includes returns after shoot)

1/2 day on location $300 (4 hours; if shoot goes over charge will be a simple $75/hour)

Prop estimate (cash or check advance) $400 (if less I will apply to the day rate in billing)

Transportation I can transport in my car. I will invoice at standard mileage rate for prop shopping and returns and travel to location

I think this is a pretty tight estimate. I hope it works for you. Also let know if you will need any crew snacks/water, etc. I could take care of those too, maybe an additional $50. If you agree, I will send an agreement form to be signed by the shoot date. Thanks, Susan

The next I heard back that the client had decided to skip styling and do it himself or herself. “At this time the client has opted to move forward with personally procuring the styling needs for the shoot in an effort to mitigate expenses.” No surprise; it happens often, especially as budgets are tight in “tough economic times.” But I started thinking. Was my props budget too high? I know that my day rate is pretty average.

Here is my response. (Although I think I was polite, I caution you NEVER to do this! Just be polite, say thank you and hope to hear about more opportunities in the future. In an email especially you never know how things will be interpreted. If I wasn’t such an old, semi-retired stylist I never would have sent this.)


Dear [Potential Client], Thanks for letting me know. I suspect the client was stunned to hear the budget - that much for a pillow and a plant and a tray of drinks! I believe my day rate is pretty standard.

I am interested in studying these responses since I teach a college class and write about the profession. The following is NOT a rant, but rather a potential blog that I would be interested in hearing your response to, when you get a chance. I'm sure you understand and respect the role of a stylist.

What quickly went through my head was multiplying everything by three. A coral pillow becomes two coral pillows but also maybe a turquoise and a yellow. We should have a coral throw. It might soften the back of one of the patio chairs. The plant becomes three large decorative clay pots (they are expensive, even at Home Depot) and a large plant (jasmine?), as well as some combo planter possibilities to set in the clay pots. A wooden tray of drinks becomes a wooden tray that I already have but also shopping for a smaller one. The drinks could be lemonade, wine, or martinis, though I would clarify the client's style and narrow it down two options. Lemonade is not just two glasses with lemonade; it is a pitcher, ice cubes, several half gallons of lemonade of differing colors, lemons to slice. For martinis I could bring my own glasses and some icy, chilled bottled water, a jar of olives, a box of toothpicks - two different styles of course.

What started at $100 in my own mind turned into $400 when I multiply my options. Since some of them will be returns the final amount will be much less, excluding the plants and beverages, naturally. But I need the adequate advance in order to avoid putting this risk on my own credit card.
The challenge - and the job of being a stylist is to try to get into the client's head. I can't just show up with a coral pillow and a planter. Invariably the client would say, "is that all you have? That's not exactly what I had in mind." As a professional, I say "of course not, how about this?"

In the end, if the client goes and buys the $30 coral pillow he or she has in mind they will get the shot. But they won't have the pampered feeling of having a stylist there to provide beautiful choices - choices they won't have even imagined (Did they think about the throw over the back of the patio chair? Do they know how large the clay pot needs to be to have the right proportion next to the gate? I'm thinking 12 to 14" diameter). And they won't end up with the high quality lifestyle photo they have in mind. Maybe that's good enough for them.

I do hope to have the opportunity to work with you in future. Thanks for listening, Susan

This ad agency, one of many clients that get away after they receive my quite reasonable budget, had written to me with compliments about my online portfolio. Some of those styled images accompany this post.

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