Consultation with Clay Stang

Photography Consultation Demo, Part 6 of 6.
See the other parts here: (1), (2), (3), (4) and (5).

Leslie’s Website
Clay’s Website

I’m pleased to report the consultation session with Clay went really well and I learned a few things about the business that I had no idea about. I think we really did help Clay but as Leslie said in her answers to my questions earlier it’s up to him to make the changes and implement the ideas that were discussed. If you’re a really busy photographer, working hard every day, it almost seems crazy to hire a consultant because they will only give you more work to do.

Here’s the mp3 for those of you who want to listen to the session and get an idea what it’s like.

Here’s the direct link to the audio:
Consultation with Clay and Leslie

For those of you who don’t want to listen to the 55 min. session here are the highlights:

It was a huge relief to find out that these sessions don’t have a lot in common with an Oprah show or Tony Robbins lecture. I was afraid that we would sit around and blow smoke up his ass and then he would walk down the street staring at his navel and get clobbered by a NYC bound bus. We discussed what we liked about Clays work and then what we didn’t like and ways to improve and then we hugged it out (kidding).

First off, filling out a questionnaire like the one Leslie gave Clay is such a good exercise for all photographers and not dissimilar to creating a business plan. Don’t forget you’re running a business. Identifying specific clients you want to target and your dream job gives you targets and goals to work towards.

Clay described his dream job as something that already happened (time for a new one) and was very general about his target markets which Leslie pointed out as a common mistake with photographers. I do think it’s really important for everyone to go after a specific jobs and agencies and magazines and not just throw yourself into the “I take pictures for a living” market.

Leslie talked about the best way to do that, which is to find the people who already hire photographers like you. That seems so intuitive to me but I’ve never really thought of it that way. Why go around pimpin’ your style to people who aren’t interested in it. Find creatives, art directors, photo editors and art buyers who like your aesthetic and target them with your marketing material. The best way to find them is the contests like PDN Photography Annual, SPD (society of publication designers), Communication Arts, The Kelly awards, Graphis and Lurzer’s Archive. In a follow up email Leslie says to find projects that make your brain think “I would have LOVED to have worked on that project” and note that “I could have shot that” is not enough. You need to feel that real creative/vision connection.

We talked a bit about some of the problems Clay was having, much of which stems from his specific style of photography. He was feeling pressure to change the style and to use more digital to accommodate the tastes of his local market. Also, Clay has a bit of a dark sense of humor which turned off a few potential clients in his area. The key for him solving these issues is to look for clients outside of his local area and find more that are in tune with the way he wants to shoot. Ok, I know, that sounds like duh, who wouldn’t want clients all over the world but I think he’s at a major crossroad in his career that many photographers face, “Do I change my style to accommodate the local clients that make me money or do I go and look for new clients that like what I’m doing” not an easy decision and certainly one that can lead to disaster if those new clients never materialize. I honestly think Clay can make the jump but it’s gonna take some time and serious effort.

Something Leslie pointed out that I really found interesting was that photographers should use general naming categories on their website. I was really surprised to hear Leslie explain (she has a linguistics background) how people attach meaning to words and when your meaning doesn’t match theirs they get offended. Wow. This is big for me because I’m always saying to people “why are you putting those lifestyle photos in with the portraits and why are you calling those photos portraits when they’re clearly not.” That’s smart. Avoid that conflict of meaning.

Next we got into the actual website and Clay had a few problems with his navigation that we discussed and that he didn’t know weren’t working properly. He admitted to throwing a few random photos into the portfolios to demonstrate his ability to shoot other styles which we both pointed out as a mistake and somewhat of a distraction. If you’re going to demonstrate several styles of photography (not advised) then they all need to be complete bodies of work. I’m not really going to hire someone to shoot a style based on 3 or 4 images.

One more thing Leslie said that I found interesting was that some photos just don’t look good on the web and you should keep them off your website. I think it’s really smart to think in terms of what looks good and not, what am I trying to demonstrate or what jobs am I trying to show off.

Well, I hope everyone finds this useful, interesting and informative there’s certainly more advice in the audio of the session. I really want to thank Clay and Leslie for participating in this very public forum, I know I learned a few things from it.

There Are 29 Comments On This Article.

  1. I know, I’m already wondering, “how much does she cost?”… I think that this experiment of yours has given us all some great starting points, though. Is there any chance you could post the complete questionnaire (or was that it?) and any other materials she might let you?
    I really feel like I learn a lot on this blog, so, again, thanks.

  2. Thanks for this! Great insights here.

    I don’t want to steal the fire from Leslie but another great source for consultations and info is Selina Maitreya and Port Authority (www.1portauthority.com). In fact, Selina and Leslie came through my city together on a lecture tour (that I unfortunately missed). Selina posts some worksheets on her site that are really helpful in keeping you focused. I also recommend her book “How to Succeed in Commercial Photography.” It forces you to really analyze the way you’re approaching the business and how to be more effective.

  3. Absolutely bloody excellent! Bravo Rob and Leslie, thanks so much for doing this! As Clay said, it wasn’t just specific to him; there were certain aspects (almost all) I picked up on that really helped me in the way I think about marketting stratergies. The first thing is; I need to get a printed book… Pronto.

    But yeah, excellent and well worth the 55 minutes!

    Something Leslie mentioned near the end “We really like your work, but we don’t have anything that we think you’re right for, at the moment, but we’ll certainly keep you on file”… This happens with me a lot and, as Rob said, I don’t know how to weed through genuine response and the “Oh leave me alone; come back when you can shoot a good image” undertone, and I don’t have much patience when it comes to the whole “We’ll call you when something comes along”, I can’t help but think that this line is BS. To compound my feelings that people don’t think much of my work, expressed in this paragraph, I’ve had people say “Really like your stuff, I like your portraits, but we don’t have anything that fits your style at the moment, but do call/email me in a month or so, as we’re always getting new stuff in”… That to me says they’re genuinely interested.

    Sorry for this long post, it won’t happen again, haha.

  4. Ahhh… this was so great. I’m going to listen to this again.

    At what level does Leslie typically work with photographers? At one point in the conversation a generic photographer grossing 50k in a year was discussed as being a small figure.

    I suspect that for many of us, especially just starting out, getting to 50k gross in a year would be fantastic – would it be worth it for a newbie photographer to seek consultation before reaching that point, or would it be financially impractical?

  5. Colin posted his comment on my blog as well so I thought I’d share my answer here too:

    I hate giving this answer, but it’s true: it depends. If a photographer is just starting out but has a vision s/he really wants to get out there and is not sure how to go about it, then working with a consultant would probably be a great investment. But if the photographer is still shooting a lot of everything and doesn’t yet have a visual style of some sort, then the payoff may not be there. On the other hand, the right consultant (we each have our areas of strength and weakness so that’s why I say find the right one for YOU) might be able to help someone find that visual connection that has eluded the photographer, because s/he is too close to the work–the consultant could help define the photographer’s vision, in other words. But to be truthful, there are some photographers whose work just is not “there” yet. Though a consultant could say “do this” and “do that” the photographer won’t get much payoff working the steps without a strong visual foundation to start from.
    As the saying goes, you can’t make butter with a toothpick. :-)
    -Leslie

  6. Oh, the other thing I would mention is that, if you are just starting out, try to get to one of the ASMP SB2 events. TONS of info at a ridiculously low price.

    And yes, I’m the presenter on Marketing at the weekend events, and no, I don’t make more money if more of you show up. :-)

  7. Thank you to all three parties involved. This was very valuable and surprisingly left me hanging for more conversation at the end. I would be very interested to see how such a process would go with someone with a less impressive portfolio than clay’s work.

  8. clay is a dear friend of mine and it excites me and inspires me to have read and listened to his involvement in this whole process. i know first hand that he truly is one of the most talented photographers out there and i hope this consultation will help him get to the next level because he really does deserve it. thank you ape for providing such informative and helpful ideas for the betterment of photographers and the photography industry. it’s rare to find people to who are willing to lend a helping hand in our cutthroat industry. much appreciated.

    and clay, as always, you are amazing.

  9. Thanks a lot Rob, Leslie and Clay for this interesting conversation and consultation. I think it would be great Rob, if you’d also link to the MP3 file in addition to the player so that people could download the file, put it onto their MP3 player and listen to it while sitting on the train to the next assignment or whenever you have time to spare but do not sit in front of the computer.

  10. I think many photographers stuggle with the same struggle Clay seems to be struggling with.

    He has a look that may hook big campaigns and high budget work

    He is no doubt also a very competent commercial photographer and is scared of not advertising this but also sacred of advertising this !

    He looses jobs because people think he is too busy or wouldnt do that type of work (the basic commercial shoots) but the big shoots are not coming in enough compensate this

    Leslie punts a ‘go with your dreams/aim high’ philiosophy which is fine but it is Clay who has to pay his bills every month

    Creating the balance between ‘general commercial ‘and ‘dream shoot’ seems a much finer path to tread especially for those more regionally based…

  11. @15 – your hitting on something important – IMHO. A business has to build. If you’re going to go nation you need a strategy that is based on your dreams but applied locally to finance those dreams. It takes serious money to reach a national audience no matter how great your work is.

  12. So how does one strike the balance?

    Maybe, taking ones website for example, one should just have two links

    ‘pictures that pay my bills’

    ‘my aspirational work’

    Trouble is this double exposes one ‘dissing’ your current clientelle and telling the big shots that you are not qite as big as them !

  13. @15

    Sam, respectfully, I believe your statement is what prevents a lot of photographers in Clay’s position from getting to the next level.

    It’s not a one or the other situation (local or national campaigns). One can continue to work with local clients, while marketing nationally to begin the process of attracting national or international campaigns as well.

    No VISA to work abroad? Clients can come to you. In many cases, this can actually be less expensive for them. Your own studio allows you to work better anyway. And you’d be surprised how many times creatives actually love to get out of the office for a few days. Don’t assume this is a liability. If the agency wants to work with you, then they’ll find a way to work with you. The key here is to change your mindset from working with the locals to working with the big boys/girls.

    No money to market nationally? Sending 500 promos/emails locally is not very different or more expensive then sending them nationally.

    Locals think you’re too busy and/or too expensive, or think you wouldn’t want to shoot certain jobs? That’s perfect! Because it means it’s time to move on to the next level. It means you’ve hit that point where your style is more specialized, your level of work and perception of your work & pricing by agencies is now more attractive and suitable for the more prestigious assignments.

    Once you start landing a few of the more prestigious (national/US) clients, the locals that you’ve not worked with before (because they think you’re just the local yokel) will sit up and take notice and start considering you for the bigger assignments that they would otherwise give to photographers outside your area…. because it works both ways.

    Cheers!

  14. Peter wrote a good response (@18).

    Seems to me that right now for Clay, word of mouth will be a significant factor in how fast, and on what scale, he makes a break for the big ad jobs.

    If he devises a plan to market a great campaign internationally, the first dozen or so jobs he gets will either make or break his entire plan. Those [happy] clients will share their opinions, his vision will be visibly put out there in the market, and he can build on that same process to further his ideas and get even more new work. This is the snowball effect at it’s best. And it still works.

    Clay seems to have a good head on his shoulders and from the consultation, it seems that he lacks the particular kind of confidence that comes from staying really busy shooting for terrific fees on dream jobs. He’ll get there soon enough with a more targeted approach.

    To Sam (@17), and anyone else who feels their commercial work doesn’t mix with their personal work, I have to ask why it feels like you aren’t shooting what you’d like to be shooting?

    If you ultimately feel that your work is divided between “paying the bills” and “aspiration” then you haven’t even begun to maximize your vision’s potential. *This is not a negative remark, it’s just an observation.

    Personally, the only reason I will shoot a job I’m not into is if the fee suddenly makes me interested. Does that make sense? Basically, if you’re not feeling the assignment then it is your obligation as a photographer to say no. The client will especially appreciate that, regardless if they know why you turned it down.

  15. Here’s a thought:

    Recall in the interview when they talked about target markets? It’s not that hard to learn which markets are easier to penetrate such as local magazines, local corporate portraits, local small agencies, etc. They’ll be more quantity than quality but it’s better than getting a night job.

    Can we agree that you have an easier chance making a living with those? Cool. Could you even do weddings on the weekends? Of course – it’s good practice. Then start there but NEVER EVER forget your dream. Save for a comprehensively integrated marketing program for a year or two – once you have the cash, blast off. And all the time you’ve been waiting for blast off you’ve been workin’ that portfolio like that big national boy you want to become. But …. and here’s the trick … you were able to do it on the back of those local cash cows. Gradually you pick up one great job which allows you to do more marketing, then another, and another. Pretty soon your not taking calls from those agencies that treated you like crap.

    Let’s be real, it cost money to build a book with the production values that will cause national clients to sit up an notice. It takes money to get those great images in front of the right people. Do you have a sugar daddy? Ever try to get a business loan with a Nikon D1x for collateral? How about that second mortgage on your Mom’s home? I actually know someone who did that – don’t ask how it turned out.

    There is no short cut as far as I can tell; no clean answer. The best thing to do is keep fresh tires on your car but keep your eye on the horizon.

  16. Can someone clarify for me why it supposedly costs so much to market oneself nationally compared to locally?

    Comprehensive integrated marketing program? Yikes! It doesn’t have to be a $20,000 solid gold 3 karat campaign or nothing at all.

    Costs a lot to build a book? Show the damn book! One’s book should never be static anyway, so damn the freaking torpedoes and send out a couple hundred promo cards, follow-up with an email promo, see who visits your web site, call them. Add more work to your book. Repeat in 3 months.

    How much can that cost??

    In Clay’s case, it’s getting more difficult to target and generate interest from the local market. I know where he’s coming from because I’m in the same market – and find it much easier to generate genuine interest and gigs from the large US agencies (and those in other parts of Canada) than I do here at home. Just because it’s your local market, does not mean it’s the most appropriate target – nor the only target.

    And what about Clay’s reps…. just curious if they are focused exclusively on the local market.

  17. Firstly I love shooting – I rarely do jobs I dont enjoy

    I do turn down work but

    In my region there are a lot of hotels, I enjoy shooting thier interiors and think I do a good job of it – but I would never pitch at Hilton or Marriot for a global campaign – im not that good at hotels

    My biggest joy, however, is shooting exciting sports and the beautiful people and lifestyles that revolve around those sports

    It seems that on one hand people critiquing my work are saying

    ‘to be seen as serious in this sports arena you must exclude your other work from your book/website’

    While I meet locals with deep pockets who are saying

    ‘we didnt know you could shoot hotel lobbies so well – if we had known we would have hired you’

    Peter would appear to be top of the game and can live from national clients I am sure

    Its how to climb the ladder while running a business that pays mortages and funds folio shoots that seems harder to crack

    Any comments on breaking this circle greatly appreciated – I think that is what was missing from Clays critique from LBDA…..

  18. Pamela Hamilton

    Peter, great comments. We were quite focussed locally, and Clay can continue to hone in on the specific people here that will connect with him aesthetically, and his reps (me being one his former ones, now working in motion) can AND do help him with this. He needs to follow your method described in your post and I do believe he does…shoot new work, show the book, meet, follow up, repeat every 3 months. He needs to experiment with technical and creative tests, pick the best of this work (with the help of his reps, all the consultants here) and meet with his clients personally and continue knocking on the doors. His reps can help open doors for him, and match make appropriately. However, most important to this equation for everyone including Clay is to keep the passion alive, and keep the perseverance–which is the most difficult. Good Luck Clay !!

    Also regarding how marketing in local markets can differ financially to national or international markets: shipping books, sending promos overseas, making travel visits, long distance calls, and paying fees / expenses for trade fairs + source books are all the difference in marketing costs nationally, or internationally vs. locally. You can personally deliver a book, a promo, a coffee or have lunch much more inexpensively locally.

    Also, just fyi in general for all: the Toronto Contact Photography Festival puts together a fairly strong cross section of International Reviewers and is another great place for people looking for feedback on their work.

    Thanks all, Cheers,

    Pam

  19. Yeah Leslie just made a great marketing move for herself via Rob Haggart – brilliantly done.

  20. Hi, I would like to listen to the mp3, but I keep on getting error. It says the file is no longer there.