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Hey, Know Any Good Photographers? How to Get on an Agency’s Radar Screen

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Agencies need photographers just as photographers need agencies. So if you’re a photographer looking to work with an ad agency or design firm, it helps to understand how agencies look for you.

When it comes to finding photographers, word of mouth rules. For years, I’ve scanned all the photography books and the ads in them, the photography annuals, online portfolios from reps, and so forth. I’ve learned that nothing is as reliable as WOM.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Yes, I can pick someone based on their online portfolio — but what I really need to know isn’t found there. I need to know how well I will get along with you. No portfolio, no matter how cool, will tell me that.

That’s what every creative director considers first. Sure, the work has to rock, that’s a given. But there’s an awful lot of talent out there, and if it comes down to two photographers, both of whom are close on style, quality and price, the tiebreaker will always be personality and reputation.

Maybe you have enough existing clients and you’re not looking for more; if so, fine. Maybe you are though — or maybe you’re looking for better clients. Here’s a common scenario: you’re good, but you still aren’t getting the kind of photography assignments you want and know you can handle. Bread-and-butter work builds the bank account, but it rarely does much for your portfolio. At some point, you need to break the cycle.

Now granted, not everyone gets to shoot with a major ad agency and clients like Nike, but there are still a lot of good agencies both large and small out there you can aim for.

So, how do you get on their radar screen so they’ll want to get to know you — and spread the word to others?

Getting an Agency’s Attention

The same thing I tell brands about their marketing efforts applies to anyone promoting their work: when it comes time to getting your name out, it’s never just one thing you do. Collectively, it’s many things.

Of course, you have an online portfolio by now. Cool. So what — everyone does. I’m not trying to be cruel, but that’s the reality. The “If you build it, they will come” mindset only works in Field of Dreams. And let me guess: 5,000 postcards sent out and nothing back, right?

What are you doing to make yourself known beyond those mass mailings and your online samples? Are you attending industry functions where creatives hang out (such as awards shows, conferences, etc.)? Are you represented by an agent? Are you networking with other photographers online? Are you working with an art director to come up with a cool promotion that they might circulate for you — and among their connections? Are you contacting brands with in-house art departments directly?

You should definitely do the awards shows. (And have business cards with you. Always. I can’t tell you how many people forget to bring them when they go out to functions, let alone meetings.) Those shows are a great resource for finding agencies to target because, first, it’s safe to assume most if not all of the winners are doing great work. The shows likely also publish a pdf of the winners on their sites.

Check out online publications like AdAge, Communication Arts, Step, CMYK, etc. Register for free at agencycompile.com [2] and see the agencies in a given state. Communication Arts [3] also offers this in their jobs section online. You can see who’s hiring, usually to replace somebody, but often when there’s a few positions open, it may be because they have a bunch of new work.

Get the agency names you want to target, then Google them and check their site for any e-mail address you can use to substitute an appropriate contact. (If [email protected] is in charge of business development and you also happen to see that the creative director is named Bill Jones, but don’t have Bill’s e-mail address, now you do. Just swap out the name: [email protected])

Phone Calls and FedEx

As for contacting them, sure there’s the mass mailing route, but what about calling? Gasp. Yes, actually picking up a phone and calling an agency on your list. Dig down through a few layers and you can usually reach a creative director in a small to mid shop. Or, call after hours to get the agency directory and usually you’ll get a name from the art department. Call back the next day and ask for that person, then ask about who is responsible for looking at books.

If you keep getting voicemail, leave a message with your url. No matter what, a link to your online portfolio is essential until you’re a known entity. Forget really funky self-promotions and gimmicky stunts. There’s a big difference between your work standing out and you standing out — in the wrong way. Creatives get enough of that stuff from art directors and designers trying to get in their agency. Keep it simple and keep it about the work.

Send an e-mail, too, but unless you know them or you were referred, it will probably be ignored. CDs barely have time to answer e-mails from people they know, let alone something in their junk mail.

You might also try FedEx-ing your work in one of their boxes if it’s a really good place you want to get into. Yes, it’s expensive if you do 50, but it will get opened before a postcard gets looked at, guaranteed — because nobody I know throws away a FedEx. (Obviously, you don’t send original work unless requested. Create an inexpensive mini-book from your digital files.) Then do a follow-up with a phone call a day or so later to see if they got it.

Don’t Forget Your Current Clients

What about existing clients who are giving you great assignments, but maybe not as regularly as you’d like? Don’t forget them by becoming complacent. The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” applies here. The time to do self-promotion is not when you need the work but when you don’t need it. If you wait until you’re done with assignments and out of work to start looking for new projects, you’ll tend to come off as desperate.

So for existing clients, maybe you show them something new you’ve worked on, a new technique or project for another agency. On a related note, I’ve seen agencies too many times lose out on new projects to someone else trying to get their foot in the door. It happened because the client only thought of them for one thing. (The refrain “Oh, we didn’t know you did that kind of work. If we only knew sooner…” is all too common.)

I’m not saying if you only shoot food that now you have to go shoot automotive. But make a point to show your clients the full range of your capabilities.

No matter what you choose to send, never stop promoting yourself. Even if you’re slammed with work, make an effort to keep on the radar of other people on a regular basis. Send that postcard. Send an e-mail. Update your site and use that as the reason you’re emailing. The creative director you stay in touch with will remember you when they move on.

Yes, it’s a pain to sit down and have to think about this when doing nothing is SO much easier — but self-promotion is one of the most important things you can do for your career and something you shouldn’t neglect.

[tags]photography business, photograpy marketing, advertising agencies[/tags]

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8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Hey, Know Any Good Photographers? How to Get on an Agency’s Radar Screen"

#1 Comment By Louise On January 9, 2008 @ 10:34 am

LOL regarding subbing out names in emails. I've been using that one for years -- also a great way to contact CEOs of companies that have given you crappy service.

#2 Comment By Pez On January 15, 2008 @ 11:40 am

I once, did a shoot, "oops" right in front of the ad agency. I had to shoot for an hour before the "right" person accidentally walked into the shot. It got my card in a CD's hand and my phone to ring a couple weeks later.

#3 Comment By California Photographer On August 11, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

Some solid advice. I had tried the approach of sending fancy mailers, but to no avail. I like the idea of sending a book in a FedEx box. I'll have to try that. As for sending sample albums, I have found using these online book printers is rather affordable when it comes to putting together a portfolio of my work. Just an idea looking for something affordable.

But I agree with your opening point, Word of Mouth. I really service the heck out of my current clients and they tend to refer me to other people they know, which I have found to be the best approach.

#4 Comment By KaiKaiKai On April 29, 2011 @ 4:19 pm

thanks for the advice. i will definately try some of it!

#5 Comment By Alex On October 14, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

Hi Bill! Interesting read, thanks for some great advice! I'm pretty much starting out in this field - I've done quite a few local live music showcases (in the vain hope of selling photos to artists) but that's about as far as I've been able to get so far. You mentioned doing award shows... Did you mean going to them to shoot (and if so how do I get in to do so?) or buying tickets (if that's what you do?) and then just walking round talking to people?

- Alex

#6 Comment By Alexander Moiseenko On April 26, 2012 @ 2:13 am

Hello Bill.
I am Russian photographer, 19 years old, just moved to Long Beach. And a lot of people saying that I should go to agency, but I don't know all process, and I'm very shy. Can you give me advice please, and say something about my works?

Thank you!

Alexander Moiseenko

#7 Comment By ken davis On September 15, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

Can you let me know what you think....whenever you have any time.


#8 Comment By Tommy Daspit On April 12, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

I like the FedEx idea. Is there an order to do this that's most effective? Do I send them an email, then the FedEx, and then a phone call?