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LD On The DL: Who's Justifyin' The Rate?

The other day I was on-site tweaking cyc lights. We had some time before the performance began, and I was trying to even out the field of light. The older units, however, were not cooperating. So I moved the ladder across the stage, going up and down, adjusting the units to find that perfect, elusive sweet spot. The crew chief, who was sitting down reading a newspaper, looked up at me and said, ”Justifying the rate, eh?” We both chuckled, I think at my expense, and went back to our respective tasks.

It was a fair question. Was I justifying the rate? Was I unnecessarily moving the lights around in order to make my job look difficult or to stay busy? Furthermore, is there anything wrong with justifying the rate to begin with? I thought a lot about it. Professionals exhibit three common traits: we create systems, implement organization, and act unemotionally. Given these traits combined with human nature, I think all of us should be in the business of justifying our rates.

The first trait exhibited by professionals is the frequent use of systems. Designers pull from past experiences when approaching a new design, no matter how complicated the current design may be. They know what's worked before, and are usually able to adapt that knowledge to work in this new situation. Production Managers already know who to call when they need something. Furthermore, organizational skills learned from one job are applicable to another. Crew, regardless of their discipline, build on their knowledge from previous jobs to make things flow smoothly today.

The common link here is a system. Professionals have systems, usually developed from years of past experience, which can be modified to solve today's hurdle easily. Herein lies the trouble: A client sees us nonchalantly look potential disaster in the eye and avert it. Human nature takes over. The client thinks how hard can this job possibly be, and, furthermore, why am I paying so much for this apparently easy thing? It's like one of us pondering why baseball players are paid so much. After all, how hard can it be to catch a ball?

We inadvertently cheapen what we do because we make it look easy by using our honed systems. Thus, justifying the rate makes for good policy, lest we want to be replaced by a younger, cheaper, less experienced individual who coasts along on our systems till something goes wrong. We all know this happens. Consider the following, all too common, story.

Years ago a friend of mine took over an event space. The venue was a complete disaster. Over a long period of time this individual slowly brought organization to the space, the second trait of a professional. After several years the venue became a well oiled machine, capable of executing our industry's biggest affairs with relative ease.

What happens next is a familiar story to any veteran. As the organization increases, it takes less and less effort to maintain; Newton's First Law of Motion at work. As years go by and the memory of how bad things were fades, human nature does the rest. It quickly becomes apparent to the newer, cheaper middle management they're paying this person a lot of money to do nothing. You can probably hear the conversation in your head. It goes something like, “This freelancer is costing us a fortune, and look, he‘s just sitting there! What, exactly, does he do again?”

And of course, they're right. The individual isn't doing much right now, because the effort, time, and energy to organize had been exerted long ago. So a cost conscious, clueless management hires cheaper people with less experience (Because, how hard can it be, right?), things unravel, become disorganized, and the cycle begins again. It's a common story. Let's hope the younger, newer crew justifies their rates a whole lot better than their predecessors obviously did.

Lastly, a professional is typically unemotional about their work and calm in the face of disaster. The trouble is “freaking out” gives clients outward signals their problem, however ineffectively, is being addressed, and that's comforting on an emotional level. A professional, on the other hand, who handles problems calmly can inadvertently send signals that he or she does not care. Again, here's human nature muddling things up.

Early in my programming career a client came to me with a huge problem, or a huge problem from her perspective. To me it was a very simple thing to fix. I, lacking tact, blew it off and told her how simple the fix was. Her reaction was not what I expected. I inadvertently belittled her concerns while trivializing my job. I came across as callous and arrogant when I intended to appear competent and cool. I've since learned to treat all clients' concerns with the same weight they do no matter how ridiculous. Would some consider that justifying the rate? Perhaps. Let's be clear, I'm not advocating we implement an industry-wide temper tantrum policy. However, tending to the emotional state of our clients and paying attention to what our own emotional state is saying may mean the difference between one rate and another.

We don't need to play these games with every client. Some clients are angels, who appreciate our skill sets, problem solving abilities, and respect our rates. We have open, warm relationships with them and value their friendships. However, this just is not the case every client. Of course if any of my clients are reading this, I love and adore you all! Clearly, none of this pertains to any of you.

Now ... about those cyc lights.


Lance Darcy is a Lighting Director and Director of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City

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