Picture © Casey Templeton.
When it comes to self-promotion, I’ve seen it all in my 24 years as an editor at PDN: bottles of wine with image-adorned labels, plastic stereoscope viewers, emblazoned T-shirts, bags of coffee, self-published books, decks of cards and much, much more. And while today’s marketing efforts may have become more sophisticated with the latest advances in technology and social networking –email blasts, blogs, portfolio apps for the iPhone, personalised USB flash drives, Facebook campaigns – I still receive the occasional weighty parcel filled with items designed to convey both the photographer’s shooting style and personality.
But no matter which way you go with your marketing efforts, traditional or contemporary, there’s one key question to bear in mind: “What works best for whom?”
Suzanne Sease, co-author of Photographers’ Survival Guide: How To Build and Grow a Successful Business, and a former senior art buyer for 11 years with The Martin Agency in Virginia, says traditional self-promotion pieces, costing as little as a couple of thousand dollars, can still be creative enough to get you noticed.
One of her clients, a children’s photography duo, sends out emails every year to potential clients saying, “If you’d like your Earth Day bag, get in touch with us”. The bag is a simple cotton tote with line-art drawings of the photographers and the tag line, “Ted and Debbie (photographers)”, plus their address and URL.
“Every year the response is overwhelming,” says Sease. “It’s a great and relatively inexpensive way to keep their name in front of art buyers and art directors, not only on Earth Day but every time they go grocery shopping. “
Make a splash
“The bigger names are usually the ones who do not send promos,” she continues. More established photographers usually update or completely redo their websites instead, sending a quarterly email newsletter or blogging and Tweeting about recent work. “It is usually the ones who want to jumpstart their career or take it to the next level who mail out pieces,” she says.
Commercial photographer Casey Templeton, also in Virginia, is a good example of what she means. Shooting professionally for the past three years, primarily for ad clients such as Apple, Walmart and Philip Morris, Templeton had a successful 2008 and beginning of 2009. But he realised his commercial work came mostly through word-of-mouth and that he had made no marketing efforts. “To take my business to the next level, I needed to start marketing myself on a national level,” he says. “More importantly, I had only one chance to make an awesome first impression. After a year in the making, I was excited to ship my official introduction to nearly 300 of the top creative people in the photo industry this past February.”
His “official introduction” consisted of a lunchbox  filled with items such as 4x5 cards of recent work, a Where Can I Send Your Free T-Shirt? self-addressed postcard complete with postage, a bag of coffee, a mini can of Diet Coke, a coaster, a candle, and a cigar and matchbox with his contact info. He sent it to art buyers and ad agencies with an enclosed note, stating: “I’ve stuffed a day of my life into this lunch tin. I’ve included my to-do list to help you along the way”.
To Sease it’s a good example of how to get your name across. “Even if they drink the diet Coke, smoke the cigar and use up the coffee, at the end of the day they still have the coaster with his name on it.”
The challenge, says Templeton, was how to fill a box with multiple items and not make it feel like a junk box, and he worked closely with Sease to find items that were relevant to the audience, and compiled a mailing list using Agency Access. Templeton’s effort was part of a business identity makeover that also tied in with the look of his portfolio books, business cards and website, and he paid $15,000 when all was said and done. Of that, $11,000 was spent on designing and shipping the lunchboxes.
“I don’t expect an immediate return,” Templeton says, “not for at least six months to a year, but the response, mostly from art buyers, has been overwhelming, including a barrage of emails, blog write-ups and endless requests for meetings with clients and ad agencies.”
That said, it’s important to remember that one piece won’t make or break you. Kat Dalager, an art buyer with 35 years experience who is currently the manager of print production at advertising and marketing firm Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis, points out that, “like anything else, it’s about having multiple touch points that is important. If people aren’t easy to find [online], a mailer itself isn’t going to work. It has to be a total marketing campaign”.
Dalager adds that when she wants to find new talent she looks at source books online as well as email promos, photoserve.com and portfolios.com, the ASMP directory and via Google. “I have my favourite sources depending on what I’m looking for,” she says.
Terry Vine, a Texas-based photographer who does lifestyle work for ad clients in the hotel, resort, real estate and travel industries, recently put together an integrated portfolio package for his 2009/2010 marketing campaign. First, his rep Patti Schumann worked with a designer in Chicago to include his fine art and commercial work in a portfolio presentation (three separate books entitled Life, Luxury and Leisure) that he could easily show clients during meetings. His website was also redesigned, and the titles of each book were replicated online as image galleries. Next he did a promotional mailing called Seven Assignments, featuring work from each of seven new project galleries posted online at www.terryvine.com. That mail out arrived in a cardboard shipping box padded on all sides, containing a small, hand-made wooden case with seven mini booklets, each showing a different assignment Vine had shot on location in Colorado, Texas, Mexico and across Europe.
“We also did a series of e-promos that were sent out to current and potential clients, each one featuring work from these same seven assignments that link back to the website,” says Vine. “It all comes together quite cohesively.” The Seven Assignments piece cost several thousand, but Vine says it was well worth it. It’s winning awards, including a Gold at the Houston Art Director’s Club and a Gold for Promotion at the Local and Regional Addys. Plus, he is bidding on many more jobs, and getting a lot of them too.
By the book
But, effective as these approaches are, Sease says that a traditional portfolio is often the dealmaker. She strongly advises photographers against simply relying on their websites, arguing: “I can’t imagine being in a boardroom with the clients, account executives, creative team and everyone else crowded around a monitor, and you definitely wouldn’t want your work to be cast up on a wall by a LCD projector.”
Books are much more appealing, she says, emphasising the beauty of the printed page. The photographs should not, therefore, be put behind acetate sleeves, but they should be given a sense of narrative. “Books today are structured as if they are a journey – they should flow front to back, but also back to front,” she says. “They should be strong throughout with no stops and starts. You want to leave the viewer in awe, saying ‘I want to work with this person!’.”
Most books these days are designed in conjunction with the photographer’s other marketing material, ensuring that everything down to the colour of the portfolio’s fabric and logo is consistent with the website, business card, stationery and direct mailers. On noplasticsleeves.com, a website that serves as an extension to Focal Press’s book, No Plastic Sleeves: The Complete Portfolio Guide for Photographers and Designers, the portfolio as promotional tool lives on and thrives. The book’s co-author, Danielle Currier, offers plenty of advice on how photographers should structure their portfolio, including taking into consideration questions such as: “Do I stand out from the crowd? Do I communicate an effective concept and message? Do I demonstrate impeccable skill and craft?”
At ad agency Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, art director Chris Hutchinson receives more portfolio books than mailers from photographers and reps. “The art buying department will have a portfolio show once a month or so and have us come and look at books [that photographers have brought in],” he says. “It’s nice to actually meet people and see their work up close.”
W+K Portland’s art buyer Natalie Flemming agrees, adding that she wouldn’t hire any photographer based solely on a promotional piece. If they’re effective, though, they make her fall in love with a few images and seek out the wider portfolio. “I also think photographer’s blogs are amazing promotional pieces for their work,” she adds. “If you’re doing interesting work, art buyers [and art directors, says Hutchinson] will follow your blog to see what you’re up to and how you’re growing as an artist.”
“It’s all about creating a buzz around yourself,” Sease chimes in. Photographer Nick Onken, whose clients include Nike, Reebok, Lamborghini, State Farm Insurance and Chivas, is a big Twitter user, says Sease. “He will tweet something like ‘doing a casting in Brazil for Reebok,’ and creative directors or art buyers read it and think, ‘I should definitely check out his work’,” she says. Celebrity and fashion photographer Mike Ruiz, she adds, has two different Facebook accounts, each with 3000 to 4000 friends. He’ll post a shot he’s just taken of, for example, singers Adam Lambert or Zooey Deschanel, to convey what he’s doing at any given time. And he’s getting high profile jobs. “It’s just one more step in the marketing process,” Sease says. “Will you win work just by tweeting? Probably not, but it’s still important to put yourself out there and make your name known and link everything back to your website or portfolio.”
A lot of photographers are now also using a virtual portfolio employing self-publishing, page-turning sites such as issuu.com and page-flip.com. “They are great because you can send a link to any art buyer, art director or creative director anytime, anywhere, and they can click the link and download a PDF of your portfolio then store it for future reference in an electronic folder on their computer,” says Sease.
Technology is evolving, but having a solid website is still vital. Commercial photographer Jimmy Williams in North Carolina recently went through a massive website design because, although he had a varied business of commercial, fine art and stock photography, he wanted his portfolio site (www.jimmywilliamsphotography.com) to be his primary promotional tool.
“The old site was no longer competing well in regards to our clients’ needs for seeing a body of work fluidly and quickly,” says Williams’ rep and producer, Catherine Schramm. “The branding also needed to be updated so that it both complemented Jimmy’s imagery and fitted with what clients prefer, such as a clean, black background and quick image loading. We also wanted the logos and tool icons to melt away as users navigated through the photography.”
After researching other photographers’ sites and working out his own needs, Williams decided he wanted viewers to be able to see a large image accessed from a gallery containing thumbnail images; a single page that remains intact and viewable (by way of a fixed-width Flash page contained within a fluid HTML wrapper) without requiring the viewer to scroll down; and a fixed menu bar on every page so users could mark their place. He also wanted to be able to track which images were clicked on; update the site himself; and add galleries of up to 20 images easily.
Art director Chris Hutchinson of W+K says that for him, a good website is one that is easy to navigate, has large images and loads quickly. It doesn’t need lots of bells and whistles and should be mostly about the images, not the latest technology. “A good website is the most important thing to me; it’s a huge deal,” he says. “I find it so frustrating when I’m looking for someone and they don’t have a tight, easy to use website with large, viewable images. That, to me, seems like such a given these days. We’re on the web all day researching and looking at work. If the site isn’t easy to use or see the images, I’ll move onto the next one.”
Having got your portfolio, website, Twitter, Facebook and direct mail sorted out, the only other obvious tack is email newsletters. Sease and Dalager are in favour of them, but they encourage photographers to think them through carefully. They should match your website and portfolio, for example, and you should follow some basic rules:
● Be smart with the subject line, it’s your way of making a first impression.
● Keep it simple. For example, “Just won first place at the Addys for Levi’s campaign”.
● Keep it in the body. Having an image attached is better than asking busy creatives to search for the work on different sites.
● Keep in touch – in moderation. Most photographers send out quarterly or monthly emails. Weekly is overkill and will put creatives off.
● Include your contact information. Be sure to include office, mobile phone, email and website in the body of the newsletter.
Shout about it
And as for what to include in them, the trick is to keep busy. You need to have interesting new work to include in each newsletter, or big news such as winning awards. “Everyone should enter competitions and if you win, you should tell people about it,” says Sease. “Competitions are a good way to get your name out there in themselves, and if it’s a contest being looked at by top notch judges, it’s very impressive when you win. You should always tell people when you’ve been recognised, even if it’s just an honourable mention.”
Jacqueline Tobin is deputy editor of PDN, where her responsibilities include writing columns on printed and digital promotion and interviewing art buyers and art directors on which promos work. She is also the author of Wedding Photography Unveiled, published by Amphoto Books (ISBN: 978-0817459109), priced £18.
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