Challenging the Hold System

Photo by Kecko

Recently, we posted a review of Frank, an online tool that facilities the holding and booking of freelance talent. In the comments, though, many readers diverged from talking about the software and engaged in a spirited discussion about the hold system in general.

(What’s the hold system? Read this.)

Several readers suggested that we highlight some of the arguments around the hold system, so that’s exactly what we’re doing here. Following are snippets from the original comment thread.
 

Defining the Problem(s)

 
sistarr:

I go along with the hold system begrudgingly, but I really despise it, especially when post-houses abuse it by putting five to 10 people on hold just for the sake of having them available.

Also, I just don’t like the idea that I need to get “permission” from someone else to take a job. Book me or don’t book me or pay me a fee for the inconvenience of being on hold.


monovich:

In the end I think the system will always be somewhat Darwinian. Producers hold the cards/weight in the booking negotiation much of the time, but if you can advance to the point in your career where you hold some quality/dependability cards, you can negotiate things like holds/bookings on a more even playing field… and you can tell them, “Call me back when the project is 100 percent.”

Bran Dougherty-Johnson:

The hold system as currently being practiced isn’t really working. What was once a system of gentleman’s agreements is now a death race. Companies should really rethink their habit of using production coordinators to try to blanket hold freelancers for two- or three-month stretches.

And I fully agree with the idea of either retainers or deposits for holds. If there’s no penalty for putting a hold on a freelancer and then just dropping it without letting them know, producers will just keep doing it. It’s sort of like overtime, which is intended to discourage the employer from abusing the worker.

mattonium:

Holds can work out fine, if used honestly. Unfortunately, in this business they seldom are. I’ve been put on hold for jobs that don’t exist, put on hold to “be in the mix,” put on hold for a month only to find out they need you for a week, etc.

 

Holds Around the World

 
sk:

Maybe it’s because the industry is a bit smaller in the UK, but in my (limited) experience, producers have nearly always either booked my time or not. When I have been put on a “pencil,” as they seem to call it here, I’ve always been confirmed later, and from memory I think there was an implicit understanding that I reserved the right to not be available — they weren’t booking me so I wasn’t “booking them in.”

ThatGuy:

I’m working in the New Zealand motion graphic industry, and it looks like we have a similar system to the UK where freelancers are “penciled-in.” There is an understanding that, unless we are paid for our services to be retained, we are still able to look for and accept other work. A first-in-first-served policy, pure and simple.

 

The Producer’s View

 
producer25:

As a producer I’m not sure what the issue is for putting someone on hold. If I call a freelancer, I ask them if they are available and either FIRM book them or HOLD for the time period. If someone else is looking to book the freelancer if I have them on HOLD, then it’s up to me to book or release the hold.

 

That Old Trick

 
alba:

And regarding the hold system, it is sort of broken but it’s lazy and selfish for producers to blanket hold anyone for weeks/months without a specific project in mind. This might be great for newer artists trying to develop relationships, get experience. But for the ones who’ve been doing this for a while, it becomes conversational diplomacy, where the artist has to politely decline the blanket hold while not upsetting the relationship.

Why is anyone talking about third and fourth holds? Doesn’t everyone know the old trick by now?

 

Maybe Not?

 
Many readers refer to the practice of always reserving your first hold for yourself. This, of course, is not something you’d tell the producer. But it gives you, the freelancer, the freedom to choose your jobs. You can place subsequent offers as third or fourth holds — in theory at least.

In response to that idea, bfarn says this:

I’ve found that very few producers are willing to put me on a fourth hold, or even follow their own rules. As a (fortunately busy) freelancer, I know it gets very hairy dealing with half a dozen noncommittal studios at a time. Nobody’s willing to book, nobody wants to be anything but my first hold, nobody returns e-mails in a timely manner, nobody gives a straight answer.

 

What’s Your Take?

 
Are holds a problem for you? If so, which solution is the most viable? Hold fees, retainers, or some kind of collective bargaining?

Please keep the discussion going in the comments below. This is clearly an issue that affects thousands of people on both sides of the table.

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33 Comments

Rimma Dreyband

As a producer, I feel that it’s a necessary evil.  Too many times has a client been wishy washy on a job timeline or award, only to pull the trigger at the last minute.  Without people on hold, I have all too frequently had to spend many hours looking for emergency talent, and often not getting the skill level required because everyone has been booked up by THEIR first holds. 

Freelancers not honoring holds adds to that problem as well – it’s a self perpetuating cycle.  When I think I do have someone on hold and I call them to book, only to find they’ve already been booked elsewhere puts me in a tough spot as well.  That’s the reason for keeping multiple people on hold – you literally never know when a job will hit.  At least on my side, I try to prep and plan as well as I can, but ultimately, the schedules follow the client and we can’t control when a job begins.

I am a freelancer myself, so I am on both ends of the system. I don’t like it very much as it pertains to me and my own bookings, but seeing the other side of it as intimately as I do means I accept it begrudgingly.  I would welcome a better system and I hope we find one soon and the industry decides to jump on board.

Rimma Dreyband

As a producer, I feel that it’s a necessary evil.  Too many times has a client been wishy washy on a job timeline or award, only to pull the trigger at the last minute.  Without people on hold, I have all too frequently had to spend many hours looking for emergency talent, and often not getting the skill level required because everyone has been booked up by THEIR first holds. 

Freelancers not honoring holds adds to that problem as well – it’s a self perpetuating cycle.  When I think I do have someone on hold and I call them to book, only to find they’ve already been booked elsewhere puts me in a tough spot as well.  That’s the reason for keeping multiple people on hold – you literally never know when a job will hit.  At least on my side, I try to prep and plan as well as I can, but ultimately, the schedules follow the client and we can’t control when a job begins.

I am a freelancer myself, so I am on both ends of the system. I don’t like it very much as it pertains to me and my own bookings, but seeing the other side of it as intimately as I do means I accept it begrudgingly.  I would welcome a better system and I hope we find one soon and the industry decides to jump on board.

Eric Del Greco

The hold situation is only one issue of many ultimately answering to the massive problem that studios and artists pitch for jobs.  A network, agency, or any other client seeking design services of studios and artists is also seeking expertise, which we have.  As experts in a field, we should expect our clients to internally research their needs and goals and approach a studio /artist that fits their needs.  I’ve never put the word out in Los Angeles that my foot is broken and I’m holding a pitch meeting to pit hospitals, surgeons, and doctors and their staff against each other for the opportunity to operate on it.  The pitch model will continue to suck the energy out of our days, dry up our studios’ bank accounts, and force us to operate under bizarre conditions such as the “hold” arrangement. 

FDiddy

Having recently gone freelance after 6 years in the industry, I was quite surprised to find my American clients insisting on ‘holding’ me for a month for 5 or 6 possible days work. I don’t quite understand what has happened in the US really, the talent should, by all rights command the power in this situation (there is always work out there), Im not sure why the American freelancers have relinquished it? It works fine in the UK.

Matt

As a former freelancer and now a studio owner, I think it is a perfect system. I think the bigger problem is artists not understanding exactly how the hold system works. Experienced artists have no problem. Younger artists think we are taking other jobs away from them… if another job comes up, call us, tell us to either buy your time or release you. Many times we buy even if there is nothing for them to do. Free money. If an artist is on hold and they take another job without telling us, they are blackballed.

John

I completely agree with Matt.  I used to be pretty against the hold system, until I learned that I can use it to my advantage.  I take long holds and then constantly find someone to challenge.  You can end up getting booked for 3 weeks from the challenge when they really only needed you for a week.  If you are just sitting at home on hold waiting for your hold to book you and turning down other jobs then it’s your own fault for not understanding the system.

I’m not saying the system is perfect by all means.  I still don’t agree with the long blanket hold.  But I’m just saying that until it changes, you can use it to your advantage.

John Fiorelli

Matt – it sounds like you’re describing it as a “right of first refusal” or restricted free agency.  When event producers put holds on venus all the time so that if someone else wants the venue, we hear about it and either we lock the venue (committed booking) or we lose it.  As someone who is not a freelance designer, is that how the Hold system works and with that definition, I’m asking everyone else:  are you okay with that?

jayson anderson

yo Matt makes it so simple.. Just called the producer and be honest and say there’s another job.. Everybody got bills to pay and fam to take care of which anyone should understand.. If you really want sweeten the relationship.. Give the producers some of your colleagues info so he or she has more options.. communication is key..Somebody has to grab the communication bull by the horns.. So y not take matters in your own hands.. 

Revilla

If you don’t like to “hold”, don’t participate.  Just say “I don’t do holds”.  It works.
Also, the job market will ultimate decide.  Right now, the balance is in favor of the freelance artists.  Many slots to fill, not enough talent to go around.  Hold me at your own risk, I owe you nothing.

I get gigs and I keep busy...

It’s just really frustrating when they want to hold you, but then they don’t even call to say that they called someone from the rest of the people that they put on hold and you’re no longer on hold, then you call them, ask, and then say… oh yeah I’m gonna go head and release you that’s just messed up…. that’s like imagine having a crowd simulation “massive” artist on hold, it is really hard to get them and you have only him on hold, then you get the job you’re committed to the client, you call your artist and he says… “oh yeah… I’m booked on another job” without even telling you… that’s the reason why I don’t get holds anymore, producers loose credibility AND so the companies they work for…

adam

I get your point, somewhat, but information flows downhill.  It’s not as if the studio knows if they have the job yet either.  They are essentially on hold from their client until the job is awarded. 

It’s not as if it costs you any to be on hold, but booking a freelancer for a week or two when there is no work will cost a studio dearly.

Anonymous

The system works between post houses without any problems. This seems less an issue with the Holds system and more about the client relationship.

I’ve been freelancing for 4 years and if I ever feel that a producer is being greedy with blanket holds, I just say that I’m already held but that I can give them a 2nd hold. Better still, I have an adult conversation (gasp) with the producer about the realities of their schedule and my schedule. “How many days are in the budget?” “What’s your sense of when this job will happen?””I have several jobs on the horizon so I can’t hold all this time, but let me know when things start to firm up.”

If you don’t like your schedule, you only have yourself to blame. Producers are free to request all the holds they want, but it’s your schedule to manage. We’re freelancers remember?

Anonymous

The system works between post houses without any problems. This seems less an issue with the Holds system and more about the client relationship.

I’ve been freelancing for 4 years and if I ever feel that a producer is being greedy with blanket holds, I just say that I’m already held but that I can give them a 2nd hold. Better still, I have an adult conversation (gasp) with the producer about the realities of their schedule and my schedule. “How many days are in the budget?” “What’s your sense of when this job will happen?””I have several jobs on the horizon so I can’t hold all this time, but let me know when things start to firm up.”

If you don’t like your schedule, you only have yourself to blame. Producers are free to request all the holds they want, but it’s your schedule to manage. We’re freelancers remember?

LMH

This is a great discussion and some interesting points are raised. I am a freelancer in the UK and the pencil system works very well over here in general.

We all need to remember that as freelance artists, reputation will always preceed us – and we are slaves to behaviour that produces good reputation. The only time the pencil system goes awry is when producers or freelancers abuse it –  so the only way to combat this abuse is by being proactive, decisive and honest about pencils to avoid awkward situations and damage to our reps.

I take personal responsibility to get confirmations or releases ahead of the booking date. The times when I’ve been slack about pencil bookings are the times I ended up getting messed about. 

So, I make sure I don’t work for companies that have messed me about unless they can confirm me straight away. They’ve lost the privilege to pencil.  That’s my choice, because in my mind they’ve shown themselves up to be disrespectful to my time and business. If they don’t want to work with me because of that approach, then that’s fine too. We all have terms and conditions that we have to respect.

Most producers in the UK are good and honour the pencil system. I guess we’re lucky over here.

Let’s all be upfront, straight talking and honest – and take responsibility on both sides for the pencil/hold process. Set your terms and conditions – and stick to them! I believe it’s a good system that can work :)

 

tloin

I never allow myself to be put on hold for more than a week.  I explain that if I do not hear an offer to start during that time that I will most likely pick up the first offer that comes my way.  The cutoff is important.  Most importantly I will never have more than one hold at a time.  I’ve made that mistake before and its a good way to burn relationships when you have to explain that you have accepted another offer during the grace period you have allowed them.  

random1

The hold system gives all the power to the producer, and producers don’t quite understand why us freelance artists don’t like it. They say “just let us know if someone wants to book you…” Well that’s all fine and dandy, however, no one is ready to book. It’s more about weighing out who to give your first hold to based on which job you think will come through. Everyone wants the first hold, and if you can’t give it to them, they go to some other artist who will. Therefore, this takes you out of the pool of potential candidates for some job that doesn’t even end up happening. I’m currently being called every month at the end of the month to be put on hold the following month by a certain company, and this studio has NEVER booked me. I’ve heard them doing this to at least 10 different people. This is incredibly handy for the producer, not so handy for the freelancer. There also needs to be a cut-off for time for bookings, 7pm on a friday is unacceptable for a monday start!

adam

I don’t see what the whole fuss is about.  How bad is it to be put on hold really?  If another job comes up and you haven’t heard from your first hold, then they probably aren’t going to release you if challenged.  It’s only happened to me once or twice in 10 years.  So basically if you are on hold, continue looking for other jobs until you get booked, no problem.

Essentially when a producer asks me for a hold, they are really asking me “are you booked somewhere yet?  ..let me know if you get booked please”.  Of course you have to call them back and challenge the hold, but they rarely book you because they haven’t won the job yet, so they almost always release you.

From the producer’s angle, she/he only wants to know if he needs to start calling people to have them on deck in case the job awards and he/she needs 10 people starting after the weekend.

adam

I don’t see what the whole fuss is about.  How bad is it to be put on hold really?  If another job comes up and you haven’t heard from your first hold, then they probably aren’t going to release you if challenged.  It’s only happened to me once or twice in 10 years.  So basically if you are on hold, continue looking for other jobs until you get booked, no problem.

Essentially when a producer asks me for a hold, they are really asking me “are you booked somewhere yet?  ..let me know if you get booked please”.  Of course you have to call them back and challenge the hold, but they rarely book you because they haven’t won the job yet, so they almost always release you.

From the producer’s angle, she/he only wants to know if he needs to start calling people to have them on deck in case the job awards and he/she needs 10 people starting after the weekend.

adam

Another thought;  I actually like being on hold for 2 reasons. 

For one thing it gives me an excuse to email the producer and ask them if the job is actually happening or at least to clarify their confidence in landing the job. Producers are usually candid with me if the job has a low chance of happening and I make sure to let them know that I appreciate the information.

The second reason is that I get a feel for the marketplace.  For instance, if I am only on hold at one place and haven’t gotten any calls in a week or two then I know I need to start calling people to line something up.  On the other hand, if I’m on hold at 8 different places, then I know that it’s likely something is going to happen soon and I don’t have to worry as much about what I’m doing for the next few weeks.

mk

I don’t work in mograph, but I would assume that the trick Alba was talking about would be keeping yourself as first hold, then everyone else is second.  What would be the need for third or fourth?  If you have to turn down 3 or 4 “second holds”, all they need to know is that you took the first hold.

Cb

I’ve only been freelancing for a short while and through trial and error and even some very helpful people I’ve met along the way, I now mange my holds like this.

It’s honestly the best, and only logical way, to navigate the Book/Hold system without stepping on anyone’s toes and getting blacklisted. Anything that comes into me that isn’t a 100% solid book, I place on second hold. If multiple jobs come in then I pick which one works best for me. All the other producers need to know is that my “first hold” booked. No hurt feelings, no burnt bridges.

Er

I take this hold system with a huge grain of salt.
When a producer put me on hold I just say thanks for considering me.
Then if in the meantime i have another gig I just call the producer and challenge him/her. If they are still unsure then I just take the other job and move on.
It gets trickier when you are working already on a project and the producer is unsure of the length of the gig and keep asking for you to hold the following weeks and then later drop and you can lose the other gig that could benefit you.
The industry should get a pay system for situations like that so freelancers don’t get screwed. My experience tells me that will never happen since it’s notorious the ME first mentality that prevails in our business.

O_o

What’s a hold?

Zara

As a former freelancer, I think it is a perfect
system. I think the bigger problem is artists not understanding exactly
how the hold system works. Experienced artists have no problem. Younger
artists think we are taking other jobs away from them… if another job
comes up, call us, tell us to either buy your time or release you.
Zara Finlay, Motion Graphics Producer, Bonfire Labs, San Francisco

Mograph Producer

The hold system has a number of flaws, most of which have been brought up here, but so far a serious alternative doesn’t seem to exist.  Not one that doesn’t require design companies to take unsustainable risks.

Think of it this way: design companies have to deal with their clients the same way freelancers deal with their employers.  Our schedules are dictated by the networks and ad agencies, and they all too often require us to jump or change direction at a moment’s notice.  The only way to stay in business is to accommodate these unstable demands, and one way of doing that is to know there is a group of freelancers ready and available when the job kicks off.  Do you think design firms get a retainer when they’re waiting for a project to materialize?  It doesn’t happen.  We’re left in as much suspense about whether a project will ever start as a freelancer on hold is, and often times turn down other jobs in hopes of the first coming through (much like being on a first hold).  Without any promise of a budget, it’s impossible to commit funds to freelance talent.  Even when a contract is signed, design firms deficit finance their freelancers rates since networks and agencies rarely pay an invoice until two months after it’s been submitted!  I don’t know any freelancers that would be fine with 60-day payment terms.

There are bad producers out there who put freelancers on 2-3 month blanket holds with no project on the horizon, but most design companies have no interest in screwing over their freelancers.  In general we don’t put someone on hold unless we have the intention of hiring them.  The system is based on trust and honor, and if either party breaks the rules their reputation is tarnished and they suffer the consequences, including a producer who doesn’t honor bookings or keep their freelancers abreast of changes to the potential schedule.  In this industry reputation is everything.  And when we book someone and the project they’re on falls through, we do our best to put them on another project or work with them to find another company in need of their talent.  We can’t afford to pay freelancers without a budget, and most freelancers would prefer to not sit around doing nothing all day.

We also happen to work in an industry that is very unforgiving to everyone below the client’s level.  Design companies have gone bankrupt when a network hasn’t held up their end of the bargain.  Others have had to make serious cuts in staffing just to stay afloat after a bad end to a project.  If you don’t think most of the firms you work for are living paycheck to paycheck, you’re in for a surprise.  It’s in a freelancer’s interest for the companies they work for to stay in business, and while the hold system can have consequences for freelancers it also helps design firms avoid losing unnecessary money and having to close up shop.

The hold system is not perfect, and unfortunately some people abuse it, but if producers and their talent form a trusting relationship they can be open about the likelihood, or lack thereof, a hold will materialize into a booking and be flexible so that no one gets screwed.  As Bran said, it’s a gentleman’s agreement and the system only works if everyone acts honorably, but when they do the system does tend to work in everyone’s interest.  Until a better system that everyone can agree on gains traction, we all have to find a way to live with it.

Mograph Producer

The hold system has a number of flaws, most of which have been brought up here, but so far a serious alternative doesn’t seem to exist.  Not one that doesn’t require design companies to take unsustainable risks.

Think of it this way: design companies have to deal with their clients the same way freelancers deal with their employers.  Our schedules are dictated by the networks and ad agencies, and they all too often require us to jump or change direction at a moment’s notice.  The only way to stay in business is to accommodate these unstable demands, and one way of doing that is to know there is a group of freelancers ready and available when the job kicks off.  Do you think design firms get a retainer when they’re waiting for a project to materialize?  It doesn’t happen.  We’re left in as much suspense about whether a project will ever start as a freelancer on hold is, and often times turn down other jobs in hopes of the first coming through (much like being on a first hold).  Without any promise of a budget, it’s impossible to commit funds to freelance talent.  Even when a contract is signed, design firms deficit finance their freelancers rates since networks and agencies rarely pay an invoice until two months after it’s been submitted!  I don’t know any freelancers that would be fine with 60-day payment terms.

There are bad producers out there who put freelancers on 2-3 month blanket holds with no project on the horizon, but most design companies have no interest in screwing over their freelancers.  In general we don’t put someone on hold unless we have the intention of hiring them.  The system is based on trust and honor, and if either party breaks the rules their reputation is tarnished and they suffer the consequences, including a producer who doesn’t honor bookings or keep their freelancers abreast of changes to the potential schedule.  In this industry reputation is everything.  And when we book someone and the project they’re on falls through, we do our best to put them on another project or work with them to find another company in need of their talent.  We can’t afford to pay freelancers without a budget, and most freelancers would prefer to not sit around doing nothing all day.

We also happen to work in an industry that is very unforgiving to everyone below the client’s level.  Design companies have gone bankrupt when a network hasn’t held up their end of the bargain.  Others have had to make serious cuts in staffing just to stay afloat after a bad end to a project.  If you don’t think most of the firms you work for are living paycheck to paycheck, you’re in for a surprise.  It’s in a freelancer’s interest for the companies they work for to stay in business, and while the hold system can have consequences for freelancers it also helps design firms avoid losing unnecessary money and having to close up shop.

The hold system is not perfect, and unfortunately some people abuse it, but if producers and their talent form a trusting relationship they can be open about the likelihood, or lack thereof, a hold will materialize into a booking and be flexible so that no one gets screwed.  As Bran said, it’s a gentleman’s agreement and the system only works if everyone acts honorably, but when they do the system does tend to work in everyone’s interest.  Until a better system that everyone can agree on gains traction, we all have to find a way to live with it.

Mark_sk

The Hold System simply does not work because their is no accountability. It makes everyone look less professional. Artists need to schedule their time, and producers need to nail down their clients – or get new clients.

Anonymous

The way for artists to take control of this situation is for them to self-report their availabilities on a singular site where their skillset can be searched. Right now, each studio is currently tracking their own list of artists in order to get first dibs on artists, a tremendous waste of time and energy for everyone involved. If at a glance, studios could see who was available without any work and without the frustration of the hold system, they would jump on it. It’s silly that every studio is tracking all their own artists as well as their skillsets, reels, resumes, etc. – a total waste of time for artists and studios.

Lo

Freelancers who complain about holds are ridiculous. You have just as much power as the producer (or PC) asking for a hold. You can give out a hold or not give out a hold. It’s a CHOICE. I know plenty of artists who now refuse to give them, and that’s fine. Alternatively, you can give out a 2nd hold which subliminally puts pressure on the studio to make a decision about you (for fear of losing you to a 1st hold) and you can tell them that you’ve been challenged — which puts a deadline on a booking decision. You can do this whether or not you IN FACT have a first hold. The studios are none the wiser. As a freelancer you are at the mercy of the hustle but you also have a lot of freedom and ability to play the field. Studios would be f’d if we had no hold system. Psyop would book everyone for 12 month stretches. In cities like NY or LA. where there are so many post houses and not enough top talent to go around, producers need their protections too. Only newbies get upset about this.

smithjackob

go along with the hold system begrudgingly, but I really despise it,
especially when post-houses abuse it by putting five to 10 people on
hold just for the sake of having them available.

smithjackob

go along with the hold system begrudgingly, but I really despise it,
especially when post-houses abuse it by putting five to 10 people on
hold just for the sake of having them available.

Anonymous

Is there a potential conflict of interest since it looks like it is the same owner as http://madeinhaus.com/ ?

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