The Care and Feeding of Clients.

It's fun to pretend that creative businesses are totally dependent on the quality of the creativity offered.  It's fun to pretend that all there is to being a "professional" photographer is the credit card prowess to buy the latest gear and to learn to use it at the highest level.  If that was all there is to being a (financially) successful professional photographer then pretty much the rest of the economy would shut down because everyone would be a professional photographer.  

But the reality of the business is that....it's a business.  A business can make a wonderful and innovative product but if they don't bring it out into the market, educate customers about its features and benefits and tell them how to buy it, the product won't sell, the money won't come rolling in and the business will falter.  You can be the finest creative photographer in existence but if you don't put the work in front of the people who are in the market to buy the work you won't make money.

I was reminded of this recently.  I'd spent a lot of time and attention on my role as a writer of photo books.  The launch of a new book requires that the writers have a firm hand in marketing their books if they want the book to succeed.  I want the LED book to succeed so I organized reviewers, sent out press releases, called friends who write for newspapers and magazines and wrote about the book on my blog.  The book is doing well enough but the reality is that I took my eye off the only ball in the game that really matters to my bottom line.  My core business:  Making and selling photographs.

And the business started to suffer.  Bookings fell off.  Income dropped.  

As silly as it sounds I had made all the rookie mistakes that I counseled against in my book about the business of Commercial Photography.  I had stopped doing coherent and regular marketing.  I was coasting on my good looks and that will probably get me as far as driving on four flat tires.  

Then I looked at my new, iPad portfolio and realized that I really had two problems.  One was the lack of marketing but the other problem (maybe more serious) was the fact that I'd been doing all sorts of different photographs to illustrate a (seemingly) endless line of books and now my portfolio looked like a disconnected hodge-podge of images.  I had compensated by tossing in quantity.  The kitchen sink syndrome of portfolio engorgment.  Disconnected.  Chaotic. 

Even if my marketing revved up quickly and worked well I'd be shooting myself in the foot by tossing a confetti bomb of discordant images into an art buyer's lap. I wouldn't be pigeon-holed, just tossed in the waste can of failed suitors.

I knew how to fix the first problem:  Hard Work.  Get the mailing list in shape.  Prioritize. Tune up the message and send advertising.  I used the image above, shot for an Annual Report project, as my first postcard mailer of the year.  It sums up what I like to do.  I like to go on location with my big Elinchrom Ranger flash and make images of real people. It's technically more challenging than available light photography and requires good lighting skills.  That's a niche.  But a big enough one to be profitable.

I know my limitations so I didn't even attempt to do the design work on the post card.  I left that to award winning graphic designer, Belinda Yarritu.  She applied her skills to a 5.5 by 8 inch postcard and sent it out for printing.  I worked on my "Top 100" list of people (locally) that I'd like to work with and, when I finished with that I started on the next list.  The top 250.

But that still left the "defective" product presentation to deal with.  I was lucky.  In the right place at the right time, having coffee with the right person;  Lane Orsak, advertising agency owner and creative consultant.  I showed him my iPad portfolio over coffee and he actually groaned.  Over and over again.  I asked.  He replied,  "You know I like your work but you have way too much in here. It's not sequenced well.  It doesn't work together.  I hate the names you've given to the galleries.  This is a train wreck!!!"  Then he added, "I hope you're not showing this to potential clients....."

I must have looked totally dejected and hopeless because Lane took pity on me and grabbed my iPad out of my hands.  "Teach me how to use this portfolio program and give me a few days...."
He catches on fast so after 20 minutes of working with the app and taking a few notes he stood up, with my small computing machine in his hands, and walked out of the coffee shop.  He looked back over his shoulder and said, "Don't call me.  I'll call you when I've got it fixed..."

I spent the next few days sorting, labeling, (hand addressing a few) and stamping postcards.  I kept a list and made sure I had follow up telephone numbers and e-mail addresses.  And then I got the call.  Lane was bringing my rehabilitated portfolio back to me.

Lane had thrown away well over 50% of the stuff crowding my portfolio and it wasn't a butterfly that emerged from that little high tech coccoon, instead it was a bird of paradise.  Now the presentation flows and, more importantly, it leaves the prospect hungry for more.  We're back in the marketing groove once more and the first tentative phone calls and e-mails, asking for bids, are trickling in.  We've got another card in the works and a small, e-mail ad in reserve.

If you get cocky and start drinking your own Kool-Aid, or, if you take your eyes off your core business, the universe will slap you in the wallet.  While I'd love it if the sole determiner of my business was my photographic skill I've been reminded that there are a lot of "channels" out there for clients to choose from and you have to work to earn and keep your market share.  

Oh drat.  This creative enterprise is really a small business.  And the physics of small business are always in play.  Gravity never takes a vacation.


Mike Padua said...

Probably my favorite post of yours to date, Kirk. Thank you.

Gregg Mack said...

Kirk, I hear you loud and clear. Really, I do.
Excellent advice from a true professional.

kirk tuck said...

Gregg, Thanks! And thank you for coming by the book signing last night. It would have been lonely without you.

dasar said...

I need a creative consultant too.
Now I know.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts

Frank Grygier said...

This is the stuff of business legend! Forget the four thirds pixel peepers. This is the real value that Kirk brings to the webosphere like no other. Great Post!

Geir said...

Wrong question maybe, but what iPad app did you use to create that portfolio? I want to make one, too!

Skip Hunt said...

Another excellent post. I've come to this same realization recently as well. Quick question, last I read... you'd bought a Kindle Fire some time ago and liked it. Did you switch to the iPad or did you have the Kindle in addition to an iPad?

Doesn't really matter I suppose, was just curious and also wanted to know which of the iPad portfolio apps you like the best. I've looked at most of them, but can't really see why any are any better than just a regular photo gallery now that you can create your own with iOS5. Branding is nice, but you can do that by just putting in a first brand image at the beginning and end of a photo gallery.

Are you using a dedicated iPad portfolio app? If so, why and which one is your favorite?

GNapp Studios said...

You are 100% correct on this one. I was at the mall during the holiday season and those glamour studios had lines of people waiting to pay $350 for a bunch of average photographs.

A professional photographer, whose work was brilliant, had a little booth set up on the mall floor and didn't get a customer all day.

Marketing, marketing, marketing. The glamour studios show the pictures immediately on big bold computer screens. They give the consumer what they want, and that is the appearance of quality, not necessarily quality.

Coyotebd said...

I like this type of post. Even though I am a dedicated amateur (as in, dedicated to being an amateur) I find this a fascinating read. Not only do we have a great image to look at, I can vicariously live the life of a professional photographer.

Carlo Santin said...

The clouds in the background really contribute to that image, combined with the deep lines on the subject's face around the eyes, great portrait. Too bad I couldn't attend the book signing.

kirk tuck said...

Coyotebd, Just to add to the excitement I thought I'd let you know that while everyone else is doing their job I'm doing the exciting work of photography, right now. I'm sorting through an e-mail list of publishers to find the right ones to send an e-mail promotion to. Then I'm sending the e-mail promotion. I've been at it since 1:30 and I only have another 346 names to go. I like to e-mail them individually because it's less likely they be tagged as spam...... I might have coffee later, that would be exciting.

Neal said...

As usual Kirk you've managed to convince me that having a secure day job and keeping photography as a passion is the right choice.

At least for now.

besides that the market here is overflowing with stay-at-home mum come photographers, and don't forget the uni students taking art classes, they would shoot a wedding for free if you asked them, (not that you would.)

finally there's the retiree's that consider themselves professionals because that's what the label says on their camera box.

Seems like it would be all too easy to compete with this, however when you have a young family to feed and shelter and plenty of bills to pay, running off to become a professional would seem like a very risky venture.

Not that I am adverse to taking risks but only when carefully planned and accounted for, I guess I like just photographing for myself, no one else to please.

"Whats that? you don't like my photo? Great, don't look at it."

Cheers again.

Err and sorry for the rant.

John said...

Very interesting post. Every time I read a post like this or hear similar stories at an ASMP meeting, I just shake my head. I don't disagree with any of this and it all seems to make perfect sense. And then I look at my business and have to admit that I do NONE of these things but have really rolled along very successfully?

In the past I've always chalked it up to the fact that these folks who are peddling their portfolios to art buyers always seem to shoot exclusively advertising. I don't shoot exclusively anything. I've never had a portfolio! I've never sent out postcards or any other type of mailing. I do no advertising and no marketing. I've only called about 10 people in 15 years to inquire about business.

My entire strategy is based upon word of mouth and people leaving their jobs! I do work for a particular client for a couple years. Then one of my contacts in marketing/pr/advertising/development/creative services leaves for greener pastures. In most cases I have been fortunate enough to retain the original account and then get new business from the place my client moves to. In this way, I could sort of track 20 of my current clients back to my first couple clients 15 years ago. Invariably clients sometimes are lost along the way as well. But overall, my business has risen steadily for 15 years.

I agree that it sounds ridiculous. But, here are a couple thoughts that I think play into this scenario. I'm really not that interested in working for people once. I don't want to spend time and money getting a one-time $5000-$10,000 hit. I'll take them when they pop up but that is not what I am looking for.

I was always wary when the advertising guys I knew could make $80,000 on one ad campaign but they only shot 3 or 4 per year. They spent the rest of the time shopping their portfolio for another big hit. Scary to have all your eggs in a few baskets. Furthermore, even if the client loves your work, they are probably looking for a "new look" next year. That's a tough grind!

I am interested in clients. Clients with whom I can establish an ongoing relationship and to whom I become their only photographer - or at least preferred. I get to know them and they get to know me - we work together a few times a month - be it for an hour or a full day. The photographic process becomes stress-free for them and much easier for me as I am not reinventing the wheel on every job. The process of getting in sync with a client takes a bit of time and energy, but that relationship is huge equity. If I'm doing my job there should be a huge barrier to entry in the eyes of my client. They should see it as a hassle to try someone new.

FWIW, my clients are a mix of universities, hospitals, corporations, non-profits and niche ad agencies. I am basically a one-man show but have my father and sister to cover assignments when double-booked. (They have their own photography businesses.)

I'd be very interested to hear opinions or other folks who have found a similar experience.


Aboud Dweck said...

Kudos on a well written, honest discussion of the travails of the pro photographer's life. It is easy enough to get distracted, with a book, a personal project, even a blog. Forget what got you there and you will pay the price. Fortunately you realized it in time, so it is only a pothole in the road. A lesson to all.

kirk tuck said...

John, Good for you on your growing business. Maybe you'll be one of the very lucky few who will have a charmed career and not need to advertise. I have a $$$ number I want to hit every year and even though I've got some clients who've been with me for over 20 years I find that constantly adding new clients and working on retaining existing clients is a vital part of the industry. I would much rather do five or ten large, $20,000 projects in a year then lots and lots of one off head shots or product shots. While we can point to several high tech clients who have supported the business for decades the truth is that the exciting and challenging work is in advertising. You have to stretch to make it and you have to REALLY stretch to keep it working in the second half of your career.

John said...

Agreed. I think part of my good fortune is that I am not necessarily enamored with advertising work. I like doing those projects, but to be honest I find the end product to be much more disposable. I'm not speaking to the photographic work itself, but rather that the images have a very short shelf-life and almost never add to the historical record. (Not sure if that makes sense???)

I guess my example could come from a University setting. Let's say you were shooting some ads for UT. The nature of that shoot would probably be "model" based and ten years from now those ads only really speak to what the school did for advertising in 2012. For some reason, I get more satisfaction from shooting "real life and real people" doing real things - stuff that may be more applicable to the viewbook??

For whatever reason, I sort of like the historical record element. I've shot a decent amount for the Red Sox/Fenway Park over the years and I love that as a collection, it begins to weave into a part of the visual record.

I say fortunate because it seems like the advertising photographers got killed in this latest downturn. So I didn't escape for shrewd calculation, but rather the luck maybe of being in a different niche?? I've also never worked for a newspaper/news/stock agency and seeing what has happened in those areas gives me reason to give thanks that I hadn't gravitated in that direction as well. I say that from a financial perspective only, as I know there are many draws and benefits to that work beyond the economic benefit.


Skip Hunt said...


Never mind on the iPad portfolio app. Realized whatever works for you, may or may not work for me. I've got it narrowed down to one or two that might be what I'm looking for.

All the best, and good luck!

ohnostudio said...

John's points on Client Longevity are well stated.

I tell the N00bs about mailings and a well constructed "book" and they want to hear none of that. Instead I get asked how to get more Likes on Facebook. Likes don't put dinner on the table.

Skip Hunt said...

Hear that! Someone recently wanted to do a promo with me. Part of the presented benefit was more "likes" on my facebook page. I told them those "likes" do almost nothing I've found. And after the promo, they can easily just go "unlike" the page.