Anna Devere Smith for Zachary Scott Theater.

I’ve heard photographers and advertising people joke for years that these industries would be a lot more fun and effective if only they could get rid of the clients.  What they are really saying is that the client’s demands can impinge on the creative impulses of image makers and content creators.  It’s true.  There is always a friction between the goals of photographers (goal: to have fun taking really creative images) and clients (goal: cost effectively acquire images that reliably help to sell product).
Many in the creative industries routinely couch the relationship between clients and themselves as an adversarial one.  They describe their negotiations as heated battles where each side attempts to conquer the other.  Some photographers even seem convinced that clients are out to squelch their creative output and force photographers to create staid and boring work instead.  They go so far as to believe that clients are acting against them because they are jealous that they are not in a “creative” industry like ours.
So, what does this adversarial point of view buy you?  Generally ulcers, migraines, early death and little else.  I hate to be the one to tell you but clients are the most important single thing in your whole business.  More important than the latest cameras and lenses, much more important than that brewing debate about lighting styles on your favorite blog.  Even more important than the overall economy.  They are your sole financial resource.  They make everything you eventually do in your business possible.
If you step back and think of your clients as business partners, research their industries and try to put your feet in their shoes, you’ll come to realize that they are really seeking a collaboration or a blending of their skills and insights with yours to try and achieve a successful outcome for their business goals:  maximum profit.  When you drop the adversarial approach and become a truly integrated part of their team (whether in editorial, advertising or weddings) you’ll be in a position to better sell your creative ideas, maximize your budget and build the kind of long term relationships that create a good framework for consistently getting assignments and making real money from them.
If food service is an industry you serve you’ll want to subscribe to their trade publications to stay knowledgeable.  Knowledge is profit.
Here are the three most important things I do to build my relationship with clients:
1.  Understand their industry and their position within that industry.  This should mean that you’ve read everything available about your client’s business from the mission statement on their website to the last page of their annual report.  From the current news in the Wall Street Journal to the blogs that flame the company.  You should also know what their competitor’s photography and use of advertising looks like.  You’ll have a better understanding of what kinds of budgets are reasonable and even when their business is going (hopefully temporarily) into the toilet, prompting you to get busy building relationships in other industries
2.  Build my relationship with the person I collaborate with.  This can be as simple as sending interesting articles about intersections between our industries (articles in Photo District News Magazine or Advertising Age) clipping newspaper comics that are relevant to their industries as well as pointing them to interesting webcasts.  It can escalate to monthly lunches where you meet and discuss big issues, present fun new work and generally get to know your client as an individual.  Anthropological research has shown time and time again that sharing food creates bonds between humans.  The more bonds you can build with your client the better you’ll understand their needs and the more disposed they will be to award you work.  This can be especially important with clients who are constrained by their companies to solicit competitive bids.  In a surprising number of cases you will build genuine friendships that will last over the long course of your career.  Constantly remind yourself that it’s far easy to nurture an existing relationship than it is to “beat the pavement” looking for new work.…….
 3.  Go into every negotiation looking for ways to sell your vision or style without alienating those you should be collaborating with.  In my mind this means accommodating the other person’s point of view.  If you feel you are always right or that you always have the best solution for every project you need to take a few moments to consider that,  you may be wrong!  In many instances where, in the past, I would have vehemently argued my position I have learned to listen first for all the details.  When I do that I realize that I sometimes argue from a position of “ego”.  If I have all the facts I can more clearly see my client’s point of view and we can then work together to create a collaborative work that effectively combines the best of both our skills.  I have a little note attached to my computer.  It’s helped me retain many clients over the years.  And it’s helped me to generate more profits.  The note just says, “What if the other guy is right?”
4.  If you become a “commodity” you’re dead meat.  The most important single thing you need to get across to your clients is that you bring a very unique vision and a unique set of attributes to your projects.  If you compete just on price,  and you offer the same styles and types of images as everyone else, your potential clients will be inclined to look at all photographers as commodities.  When a product or service becomes a commodity (an interchangeable product like wheat or machine screws.…) the clients immediately reduce the parameters of their selection process to price.  Competing on price alone means that your business has entered a “death spiral” from which it is hard to ever escape.  You must have powerful differentiators that add value to your photography for clients.  Only then will you succeed financially.
Learn right now to befriend, nurture and educate your clients and you’ll find that they do the same for you by smoothing your working process within their company and by connecting you with people in their social and business networks who can offer you additional work.  You might even make some nice friends.
This was excerpted from my third book,  Commercial Photography Handbook, published by Amherst Media and used as a textbook by Austin Community College's Photo Dept.  I think it's a very good book for anyone who might want to make a living as a photographer.    Thanks.


Pete Appleby said...

We used to have a saying:

If it weren't for the clients, this job would be perfect!

Of course, it was a joke, a way to blow off some steam with co-workiers after dealing with a problem client.

Keep up the cool blog!

Anonymous said...

I have this book and it's a fun read. It's actually a very fun read, even if you aren't doing photography for a living. Kirk is a fun and funny writer.

Ezequiel Mesquita said...

Impressive shot Kirk! Pretty scary ;-). The lady (hopeful only the part she´s playing) reminds me of the "mother" from Pink Floyd's "The Wall"

kirk tuck said...

Thanks. She's a very famous playwright and dramatist. She won a MacArthur Genius grant for her work. Pretty impressive person. I shot her when she was doing a one woman play here in Austin.