Executive Decisions: Pro-Am
Posted Apr 18, 2005

What does it mean to be a professional? Is it the equipment we use? A fancy title? Net income? Most people would differentiate amateur from professional by levels of experience. If you've been at it long enough, then one would tend to assume that you are a professional. If your reel includes trophy projects for influential clients then you must be a pro. If you have state-of-the-art, brand-name gear then you must know what you're talking about—right?

Not so fast! Years in the biz, flashy resumés, and equipment a professional do not make. Anyone can get by leaving bad production in their wake. You just move on to the next client … there are hundreds out there. (What about references, you say? We'll get to that in a minute.)

Resumés can include all sorts of fluff. You may have been a PA on a shoot for a Fortune 100 client, gotten a copy of the production, and put it in your reel, glossing the truth by saying you "worked on the project."

And as for brandishing the latest and greatest equip-ment—don't get me started! Any clown with enough dough can buy the gear. Sony isn't picky. The only reference they need comes from a client named Franklin … and a lot of his cousins, too!

So what makes the difference? Attitude. Only pros really know what is supposed to happen on a shoot, in a pre-production meeting, or at an edit. The real pros are the ones who have the answers. They are the ones who solve the problems rather than avoid them.

You know the people I mean. Usually quiet, tidy, and always working. They're never satisfied. There's always something to do. There's always some detail that needs attention. If you ask what's next, they know. If you ask how to make a certain thing work, they can tell you. If you need to get a certain widget, they either have it in their pocket (or out in the truck) or know the one place in the world you can get one.

But it's that almost intangible thing—attitude—that makes the difference. Maybe it's not attitude exactly. It's more like confidence—the confidence that comes with truly having been there, done that, and most assuredly gotten the T-shirt.

You have to be confident. And confidence only comes when you genuinely know what you're doing. That kind of self-assurance cannot be faked. You can't put that into a resumé or a reel. It doesn't come with the gear. It's earned, by doing the thing for which you've been hired. By trying, failing, and learning from the failure and trying again and getting it right—and by having a client see you get it right and be willing to vouch for you.

References come only from people who can say with personal certainty that you can do the job. They hired you once and asked you to do something and you did it and they paid you and everybody was happy.

Now, how, you ask, do people do hackwork and still sport a commanding list of references? Usually, because the job was a no-brainer or the client had no clue that the job was hacked, having thought the producer's sparkling personality substituted for professionalism and not having looked at the product closely enough to see the shoddy work beneath the slick veneer.

You cannot hide from the quality of your work. Eventually you will be exposed. Eventually you will have to give back the money that you gouged the client for and run screaming from the building.

Be professional. Don't accept less than perfection from yourself or your employees any more than you would if you were the client. That's what your clients deserve, and that's what they're paying for.

And it's really very easy. Number one, own your limitations. If you are asked to perform a task about which you know nothing, acknowledge it. Say you don't know. But tell them you can get them answers. You're not shirking responsibility here. You're actually providing a service. You become a resource rather than a liability with no integrity.

Secondly, always be deferential. Never condescend. Always treat your clients—however ignorant they may be of your job and what it entails—with respect. They will warm to that and be willing to hear your suggestions.

Third, present as a pro. Professionals don't show up late, unshaven, and wearing blown-out blue jeans and Black Sabbath t-shirts. Look the part. Look like you have the style and manner and background commensurate with your price. Show up looking like a farmer, and you'll get chicken feed for pay.

Lastly, be easy to get along with. Be nice to with your co-workers, clients, employees, and everybody else associated with the project. It's no skin off your nose to be nice. Say "hello." Say "please" and "thank you" and "may I?"

If you act like a pro and if you really know your stuff people will treat you that way and you will be paid accordingly. Treat this business as a career, not a hobby. Treat it with respect and you will be treated with respect every time. And when they start handing out swag, get the XL. Those shirts always shrink!