LBJ's school house, outside of Johnson City, Texas.
I think most photographers survive financially not because of the big jobs that come to them from time to time but from the income derived from a constant stream of smaller, less flashy projects that constitute the bulk of what most advertising and public relations clients need on a month by month or week by week basis.
Going against the prevalent marketing common sense I'll say that the continuous flow of decent paying, moderate to low stress jobs beats the adrenaline euphoria of the occasional all hands on deck, national advertising jobs.
I realized lately that, in my market, many local clients and potential clients have positioned my company in their minds as one that only does high profile photography projects. While this is not true, nor even welcome by me, it's a market perception that is most definitely a double-edged sword. A long tenure in any market paints a target on one's back for all the up-and-coming photographers while also fostering the idea that financial and business success in our field depends on creating only top dollar images for big, complex projects. But nothing could be further from my own wheelhouse of skills or preferences.
My greatest comfort zone is the happy creation of portraits either in the studio or in any fun location within an hour's drive. The budget is generally always less important than how much freedom I'll have in doing the actual work and defining the style. There is so much that's reassuring about "limited engagements." For example, if your intuition failed you and you are on site with a client that turns out to be a real jerk, you have the comfort of knowing that after you wrap up, head home and deliver the deliverables, you'll never have to work with that client again. You have that control. You've only suffered through one engagement.
It's different if you are working on a big project through an ad agency and you've done lots of pre-production work before finally meeting the client from hell on the set. At that point you have sunk cost and sunk scheduling and you probably have a number of people who are directly or indirectly counting on you to pull off the job, and stomping off the set, no matter how convincing your excuse, is pretty much career suicide. Multiple day jobs create multi-day stress. The higher the budget, generally, the higher the stress...
Don't get me wrong, a big, long job with a fun, happy, well adjusted client is like an early Christmas but there is charm and calmness that comes from a series of unrelated but similar smaller assignments that will keep your blood pressure low and not mess up your early morning swim schedule.
When we (collectively) market we tend to put our best feet forward and that usually means finding the most impressive job you've done in a given quarter and then broadcasting it far and wide. That's great but by doing so you create the expectation amongst art buyers that this is the only kind of work (budget) that you are interested in. They save you for that mythical job that might come to a smaller agency only once or twice a year. Those are the kinds of jobs that generally require competing bids, jockeying amongst client requirements and budgets, and lots and lots of nervous tension from the agency and clients (remember, if they are doing this kind of work only once or twice a year that makes them amateurs for this kind of project!).
By the time you finish with a typical high profile project you'll have spent way too much time hand holding, running through airports and managing people and not as much time shooting as you'd like. You'll find the budgets better but you'll also find that this kind of work, from a business point of view, is like whale hunting, in that you might invest in a big ship, sail the seas for months, maybe over a year, before you even catch sight of the next whale. In truth, I'd rather go fishing, cast a net and bring in a daily catch. In my mind a constant stream of fun, smaller jobs beats the feast and famine nature of giant undertakings.
I've been changing up my marketing to emphasize more that I do small scale projects. I want people to call and book me for one executive portrait, one product documentation or one video interview for the web. There's so much less stress and so much more financial continuity this way. And, generally, I find that these dependable clients, when treated correctly, will come straight to you when a bigger project emerges: you've already built-in trust and value for the client and most of them will assume that you can "scale" to a more complex project. The reverse isn't necessarily true. Most people wouldn't go to a surgeon for a head cold but most people with a mysterious pain will head to a trusted general practitioner 99% of the time.
I want clients to call at the drop of a hat. I don't want them to feel as though they have to schedule weeks or months in advance.
A client called yesterday and they were almost sheepish about their request. They needed some photographs of a rental space to put on their website. "When could I schedule this?" It was an exterior space so the vagaries of weather were a consideration... I had just finished editing a different project and I was in the process of uploading 18-20 gigabytes of files. The client's rental space was a five minute drive from the studio. I hopped in the car and drove right over, shot the space from every angle and uploaded finished files for the (astonished) client about an hour later. Did I care about the budget or prestige of the project? No. I've worked with this client for years, decades. I knew what they could budget and I knew they could make good use of the images. I also knew that they'd call again in a week or a month with a daylong project or a half day video interview or some other calm and happy project.
I'm more likely to market with a nice location portrait these days than a Promethean project. An e-mail blast and a post card. A quick upload to Instagram. The benefit is that I tend to lock in clients with these less intimidating projects. When bigger projects erupt there's less resistance on the client side to awarding me the project. Less competition.
In the early part of the century I thought I was on the wrong marketing track. Most of my work came from ten or fifteen regular clients who had assignments like events, product shots, portraits and "people at work" stuff. Like radiologist reading scans, specialists taking readings at water treatment plants, engineers supervising large scale construction. They were smaller projects, less budget, less usage fee income, but the trade-off was stability. And consistency. And a certain flow.
I became friends with a legendary photographer who moved from New York City to Austin just before the big bust of 2008. He worked the big projects for corporate titans. His work was everywhere. He was surrounded by producers, multiple levels of assistants, representatives and more. His burn rate was (to my mind) ridiculous. We had dinner and we talked about each other's business strategies. After the bust his work more or less dissolved, vanished. The big projects weren't on anybody's radar for a couple of years. None. I too worked less but my work was flying under the CFO's radar which meant we kept working so the wheels of industry would keep turning. My friend's projects dropped from ten per year to maybe one per year. But all of his previous marketing made it unlikely that anyone would call him for a P.R. headshot.
My work dropped (in 2009) from a pre-bust average of 140 projects per year to 60. But the income kept flowing. We tightened up on costs wherever I could and were able to survive what has to have been the roughest year for freelance artists since the Great Depression. In retrospect I owe that survival to the strategy of casting a wider net. The fish were smaller but there were more of them in the nets.
Now, my decision making is less about economics and cash flow and more about controlling my free time. Working shorter and less rigorous projects means more unencumbered personal time and a more relaxed working environment. I'm happy with that.
Now I need to figure out how to market "smaller and easier" without dumping the bigger projects altogether. It might take some dancing but I think I've got the shoes for it.
Curious to hear from fellow pros about what works best for you. Thanks.