Client Horror Stories: Runaway Bosses, Back Stories and Blue Socks

In my last post, I wrote about the difference between what I call “amateur” and “professional” clients. Some people thought the post was snobby and harsh, and suggested that — rather than avoiding amateur clients — photographers should work harder to educate them.

Here are two of my war stories with amateur clients. You can be the judge as to whether a greater devotion to client education could have made these experiences more rewarding.

Amateur Client 1: The Runaway Boss

Amateur Client 1 manufactured nutritional products, and my company published their newsletter. One day, our contact, Donald, the client’s chief science officer, called to ask for a marketing brochure. Based on his input, we produced some layouts. Donald then referred us to Rod, the owner’s son, to go over the layouts. Donald said he would not be attending the meeting.

Our meeting with Rod took place in a conference room without heat, in Vermont in February. I would estimate it was about 35 degrees in the room. During our meeting, Rod excused himself several times to take phone calls to discuss the delivery of his snowboard, his upcoming vacation plans, and other personal matters. My colleague and I sat there shivering while this went on.

After the third or fourth “you were saying?”, we decided it might be best to reschedule, and Rod agreed. On the way out of the office, we ran into Donald, who said that Rod probably wasn’t the best person to meet with after all, and that it would be better to meet with Rod’s father, who was two hours away in Montreal. Donald promised to set up and attend that meeting.

Two weeks later, we drove up to Montreal for the meeting. Donald was waiting for us, and he introduced us to Rod’s father. This time the office had heat, but we quickly discovered where Rod had inherited his gnat-like attention span. Every few minutes, Rod’s dad would get up from his desk and leave the office to do something or other. When the phone rang, he picked it up and discussed business in front of us as if we weren’t there.

During these various interruptions, we looked to Donald for guidance. He gestured to us to keep talking, so we did. Literally, we kept talking to Rod’s dad, even when he was on the phone or not in the room at all. Finally, as I continued with my presentation, my colleague looked out the window and saw Rod’s dad get in his car and drive off.

As we got up to leave, visibly flustered, Donald stopped us to say, “It looks good. You got the job!”

Runaway boss or not, our drive-by meeting had been termed a success.

Hello, Are You There?

Against our better judgment, we continued with the project. The next step was copy for the brochure, which Donald promised to supply us. A week, then two weeks, turned into three months. After much nagging and many phone calls from us, he finally delivered some copy. We edited the copy, put it in the layout and sent it back to Donald, expecting an answer in a few days.

Weeks passed. We heard nothing. Finally, he got back with us to say it looked good, but he hadn’t had a chance to look at it in detail yet, and would need more time.

Three more months passed. Donald had decided that the brochure should no longer be aimed at corporate clients (the original plan), but instead now be aimed at the general public. He said he would rewrite the copy to reflect this and get back with us.

We would call from time to time to ask about the project. He said he was planning to get to it at some point. We billed them and they paid, but Donald never did get to that copy.

Amateur Client 2: The Endless Back Story

Amateur Client 2 manufactured large medical diagnostic equipment; each machine was about the size of a refrigerator. Sam, the VP of marketing, asked us to design their sales brochure and to manage the photography for the project.

Sam had ideas about the brochure’s cover photo that included a rather elaborate back story. As Sam described it:

I see two physicians sitting at the machine. There is an older, senior doctor — a graduate of Harvard — and his young protégé, also from Harvard. The young man is looking up at his mentor in awe as they discuss the merits of our product. Outside the office, their patients wait for them to begin diagnosing them with this new unit. The two doctors are oblivious to the people waiting outside as they marvel at this magnificent device.

Sam stopped for a moment before continuing:

The two doctors are actually not very close. The younger one is very jealous in a way of the success achieved by the older doctor and cannot wait to attain that status. He is hoping that this device will help him achieve his goal. The older doctor is watchful of the younger one, and although he is anxious to help his protégé, he is also vary wary. The only thing that binds them together is the fact that they both attended Harvard.

I stopped Sam at this point to remind him that we were only talking about one photo. We could show the two physicians with the product, but the cinematic back story he had concocted could not be communicated in a single image on the front of a brochure.

He ignored me.

Sam wanted the shoot done right away, so I booked the photographer but told Sam I would be a few minutes late that morning because of a prior commitment.

When I showed up on set, all hell had broken loose. The photographer approached me immediately with a desperate look on his face.

“You’ve got to get this client under control, David, or else I will cancel the shoot,” he said in frustration.

I looked up and saw the product sitting on a strip of seamless. It was lit up and the two models were sitting on lab chairs next to it.

Sam was in a corner yelling.

The Blue Socks Disaster

“Blue socks? F—— blue socks! Nobody who went to Harvard would ever wear blue socks with grey pants! This is so unacceptable! So f—— unacceptable!”

The two models were sitting there in white lab coats. They were both wearing grey slacks, but when the younger one took his position to look up at the older doctor, there was a slight hint of one blue sock beneath the cuff of his slacks.

“This is a mess,” Sam shrieked. “A f—— disaster!”

I walked over to try to calm him down.

“It’s just a cover shot on a brochure, Sam,” I told him. “Nobody knows where he went to school.”

Sam shot me a look of disgust. “He looks like he went to Boston Medical School, not Harvard!”

After a few more minutes of this, I finally had had enough. I took Sam aside and said:

Here is the deal. We will proceed as planned. If, when you look at the transparencies, you believe that the blue socks are still unacceptable, we will send it out for retouching at your expense. Otherwise, the photographer will cancel the shoot. You have managed to embarrass me with this photographer, and I won’t allow you to jeopardize my relationship with him.

Retouching wasn’t cheap in those days, before Photoshop. It would have cost a few hundred dollars to change the socks from blue to black. Nonetheless, Sam reluctantly agreed.

I did continue to work with Sam after that. But I never allowed him to attend another photo shoot.

Education or Avoidance?

So, back to the question of whether to educate or avoid amateur clients.

Education is nice when possible. I suppose I educated Sam enough to make doing business with him tolerable.

Other times, as with the runaway boss, education is probably not possible. At the very least, it’s certainly not worth the aggravation.

8 Responses to “Client Horror Stories: Runaway Bosses, Back Stories and Blue Socks”

  1. Educate or avoid? I've run into similar situations both as a photographer and in my previous life as a web designer. The older I get, the less I choose to put up with. Life is too short to deal with jackasses. And, let's face it, you can't educate the jackass out of someone. If a client simply doesn't understand the process, I'm happy to help them along. Angry control freaks I avoid like the plague. Thanks for the post!

  2. glad to hear someone elses story make me remember im not the only one with crazy clients.

  3. Had to do mugshots for drug/chemical company: one woman convinced the photo did not look like her, and she was not happy. High up enough to have to be mollified. Took picture after picture, unhappy with each one. In the end, flipped the neg, and "that's it, perfect." Explained that the photo couldn't work that way, because that wasn't how she looked. In the end, gave her the bloody thing and sent in the best of the right way round shots for the company wall...

  4. I think the best approach is to put in a reasonable time educating the client but some people, just don't get it.

  5. We have all been there. What a nightmare. I had a similar situation when I was asked to shoot a video for the first time. Originally it was to be an internal training video then the brief got changed as we where shooting, enventually morphing into a corporate promotion video, talk about baptism of fire. We all vastly underestimated the time involved together with the post production. Subsequently the finished product never saw the light of day, even though it was pretty good.

  6. Too much money is lost running around chasing people!

  7. I think there are some people that are going to be the same no matter how much "education" you do beforehand. As for the vast majority though, they're going to mirror your behavior to an extent. Whatever you dish out, you'll get back. It sounds like this guy may have been a different story, but at least in our experience, most people will act like decent customers if they're treated like one.

  8. I was so frustrated by having to tell people the same things again... and Again... and AGAIN.... and AAAAAGAIN.... that I just finished writing a book called "Everyone's Guide to Designers: working with creative professionals".

    Now, I realize that not all clients will be willing to read it, but when I hand it out to new clients, they certainly sit up and give me more respect and seem to treat me as more of a credible authority. So, for that reason alone it was worth doing. You can see the book on amazon, barnes and noble or at

    The designer-client relationship is always a complicated dance. Some clients are just born to be difficult. Some are great and trouble-free.

    But, I have learned that I just do the best I can for the client and try to accommodate them as much as I can while nudging them towards the behaviors and practices that work best for me....

    Some of the most "amateur" clients I have ever have, worked for Fortune 500 companies....

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