4.3 Bidding and Contracts

The many details of bidding projects and preparing contracts are best learned in the employ of a healthy and successful agency or under the direct tutelage of one with that sort of experience and a track record of success. Such details are therefore outside the scope of this treatise. There remain, however, a few things that distinguish inadvisable practices from professional practices in these matters.

Professionals have control over and, correspondingly, ultimate responsibility for their own work. Professionals tend to define the terms, processes, and conditions of work to be performed for clients (either directly or as preconditions for their ongoing agency employment).

From the fundamental characteristics of a profession

General Concerns

A professional with specific ideas about how a project should be pursued and executed should go to the trouble to define those ideas in the contracts so that they're explicit rather than implicit (or nonexistent). Implied ideas are the reserve of tentative and conniving people, not professionals. In short, be comprehensively explicit in your contracts. The right sort of potential client will respect and be reassured by that approach. The wrong sort of potential client will balk at such responsibility-laden territory and you'll likely be rid of them before you mistakenly take up with them on a project.

Inasmuch as professionals seek and collect commitments, you should outline your project commitments and responsibilities in your contracts. Do the same for what you expect of your clients. One of the more important opportunities for defining and holding to responsibilities is in how you offer your bid and how you expect it to be responded to. Tell your potential client when to expect your bid and then hit that deadline. By the same token, when you submit your bid clearly define the deadline for when you must hear back from them. This is your first tangible opportunity to show your own commitment to responsibility and evaluate how your potential client might approach theirs.

Some Specific Dos and Don'ts

Do:

  • Do define the project process, scope, deliverables, and hours/costs in detail (if costs are estimates, detail all the ways in which they might vary).
  • Do define at least the basic project timeline.
  • Do define the payment structure and set specifically detailed milestones for payment(s), as well as how these payment milestones relate to creation or delivery of all deliverables.
  • Do define all commitments expected of your client with respect to process, approvals, feedback, and payments
  • Do define how all expenses will be handled.
  • Do define everyone's responsibilities with regard to all forms of media and intellectual property.
  • Do define the consequences for either party failing to meet with any requirement or commitment.
  • Do define the consequences for either party failing to meet timeline and deadline issues.
  • Do define the terms for the various grounds and processes for contract modification and termination, and the consequences thereof.
  • Do use modern communications technology for contract execution (no one should ever have to print out, sign, scan, and fax anymore. Ever).

And finally…

  • Do anticipate every possible complication and nightmare scenario that could crop up during the project and ensure that your contract(s) clearly define how to handle them.

Don't:

  • Don't leave any consequential issue undefined or ill defined.
  • Don't use clever wording to obscure responsibility or cost details.
  • Don't define merely one party's responsibilities.
  • Don't use 20 pages to do what 5 pages can do in clearer fashion.
  • Don't rely on FAX, hardcopy scans, or other outmoded technologies for contract execution.
  • Don't forget that contracts are for making things clear, not for adding protective confusion.
  • Don't use unintelligible contract language or sections that you yourself don't understand.

Fees, Payments & Billing

Costs, payments, and other financial matters associated with projects should never be regarded as delicate and a professional should never be hesitant to discuss them or sheepish when doing so. Especially in pre-bid conversations with potential clients, any squeamishness you might exhibit when discussing budgetary issues will be perceived as an apology for the costs associated with your professional services. In other words, it will seem like you don't believe that you're worth what you're asking your potential client to pay. Don't allow this to happen. What's more, such behavior will betray a lack of confidence, and nothing is as unsexy as an unconfident partner.

Part of being a responsible professional is settling on the right fees to charge for your services. Having done so, don't ever apologize for those fees; explicitly or implicitly. If you're embarrassed by what you're charging your clients, it means that you're charging too much. Charge what you can competently and confidently charge.

It is best to structure payment schedules to compartmentalize phases of work so that work/payment milestones are equitable and manageable; in general and for logical resolution when things go awry.

There is no one payment structure that is best for everyone or every agency, but as a rule of thumb it is generally best to require a down payment of some significant measure (half or one third) before the project commences. This sort of initial investment requirement is a good way to ensure that you take up with only serious clients.

Regardless of your payment schedules, you should always have payment milestones clearly defined before any contracts are signed. Having done this, make sure that you invoice on time and require on-time payments from your clients. Make sure that they know that payment delays mean the project work will cease or be delayed. Again, don't ever be apologetic about a professional standard as fundamental as payment for service.