Your Guide To Working With Consultants

- - Consultants

I get a lot of questions about the photography business and for any answers that are more involved I refer people to my list of photography consultants. I’ve always been curious what the process of working with a consultant is like so I asked Suzanne Sease to tell us about it. She interviewed a handful of her colleagues to get a broad perspective on the practice. I can assure you, after a few times consulting with photographers myself, that these people are really good at what they do.

Working with a consultant 101

You have done what you think is right for your business. You edited your images for your website, portfolio and promotional materials but still nothing is happening. To get another valued opinion, you have made a big decision to work with a creative consultant to help take your career to the next level or jumpstart it. There are a lot of consultants out there so it is hard to decide who is best for you. This article is to help you make the best decision for your business.

I reached out to several veterans whom I respect because of their experience before they chose to be consultants. I asked them the best way to maximize working with a consultant. The resulting checklist is designed to help you make the best decision for you if you want to work with a creative consultant. For this article, I interviewed Amanda Sosa Stone, Jennifer Kilberg, Leslie Burns, Katherine Hennessy, Mary Virginia Swanson and included my own thoughts from my experiences as a consultant since 1999.

Getting Started:

It is best to e-mail several consultants to check their availability and a time to talk about your work. Please understand that we get a lot of e-mails each day so it may take a day or two to get back to you. Be focused about what you are looking for and what you would like to achieve. Make sure you clearly articulate your needs and expectations regarding your hope of working with a consultant. Most consultants will review your website before they talk with you. Leslie says she looks at a potential client’s website before returning a call or e-mail to gain more information about their level of creativity or sign of it. Katherine and I do that as well. We look at your website as we want to see how you are presenting yourself on your website. If your website is not organized with a clear vision, it makes a buyer confused. Jennifer, Amanda, and I all agree that you need to ask what it is that you are currently doing that is not working and where you want to go. Mary Virginia Swanson has created a page on her website on “how we work together”, and requires potential clients to fill out a “client fact sheet”. Amanda has the philosophy that she wants her clients to hire her because she is the perfect match for them. Katherine feels like you need to be able to have open dialogue and set reasonable expectations regarding where you are and the expected outcome. Mary Virginia adds “Not every photographer is open to constructive criticism when it comes to their work and their business model(s) currently in practice. I encourage those investing in consultations to anticipate a tough review and the suggestion of investigation into new markets.”

The Editing Process:

Before a consultant can begin the process, the photographer needs to take the time to edit the images that they want to represent them. Jennifer asks for 250-500 images per market. She says having clients send her everything and anything does not benefit her client and is a waste of her time. I couldn’t agree more. Amanda and I both prefer about 1,000 images in one folder and not separated into categories. I have received thousands of images before and after selecting great images, the photographer says “ I have never liked that image”. You must not be emotionally attached to images and you need to remember that a photographer carries baggage about imagery – you need to look at working with the consultant as an independent force that will help you cull the best, not getting bogged down by your perspective and past perceptions. As Amanda says “ You should go into the consult completely open (in your head and in your calendar- meaning you have time to do the work you want to do).” Most consultants like to work with digital images that are sent to them and are editing in Aperture, Lightroom and other software. Amanda, Jennifer, Katherine and I like to create contact sheets of the images in the order they should appear in the website galleries. A portfolio is also created for the client to use on an iPad as well as a printed portfolio. Leslie likes to work on the backend of someone’s website or with jpegs. But for the printed portfolio she requires prints to play with. Since Mary Virginia works primarily with artists on their personal projects, many of her clients send physical prints so she can gain a sense of their craft, project edits and publication layouts utilizing on-line editing tools.

Discussing the Editing:

Each of the consultants in this article spend the time discussing the edits that have been tailored to their client. The edits are created to your vision and the markets it should target. Amanda and I both agree that the discussion needs to honest and about the photographer’s strengths. Weaknesses can be indentified, discussed and pushed aside for the strengths to shine. Each of the consultants discusses where you want to grow and their edits are a reflection of that. As Leslie says, “ Be open, be willing to listen and learn, and have some faith in her/himself in the process.” Mary Virginia helps her clients gain awareness of today’s diverse marketplace and where their work/skills are most likely to fit and teach them the necessary research skills aimed at targeting those most likely to respond to their work. Katherine, Amanda and I like to use our previous skills as an art buyer to look at your images as to what they sell- either a product or an emotion. In advertising and graphic design, your images have to stop the viewer to look at what is being advertised. In editorial, your image has to entice the viewer to read the article or want to buy the products featured, cook a meal or decorate a room. I look at the production value to your images. If your images look like you stumbled upon something, you got lucky. If your images look like you created a scenario and knew how to shoot within it, I know you have talent.

Marketing:

You have done all your work with your edits, you have uploaded the images on to your site, designed your portfolio from the edit, and have a selection of images for your marketing. At this point, we look at your marketing plan and discuss how it is best to approach your target. For Mary Virginia she enjoys seeing her long-term clients achieve their goals of exhibitions, gallery representation, publications and/or creative commissions in the style of their personal work. For the commercial side of consulting, you need to decide how you are willing to spend your marketing dollars. But you HAVE to market. Each of these consultants will work with you on your target market. The best way is to purchase the rights to use a database. Agency Access has merged the research from Adbase to create an excellent researched database of companies, contacts and brands. Each consultant knows how to create lists for you on your account and will select images for your e-promo materials and direct mail. Katherine adds “Direct Mail cannot be discounted in this technological world. It is an avenue that should still be pursued.” I like my clients to create personalized e-mails complimenting the work a buyer has done showing they have done their research on a case by case basis. It is encouraged that you go on the road and show your portfolio. I have clients send out personalized notecards telling potential buyers that you would like to meet with them and then giving them a call to set up a meeting. One of my clients said it perfectly “ I came to realize when I did all my marketing virtually, that client didn’t want to hire a virtual photographer.” But if folks are unable to meet, create a virtual portfolio that is an extension of your website. A PDF portfolio is usually too large to send to buyers (2MB can crash a buyers computer even at large companies). A good virtual portfolio company is www.issuu.com.

The Lessons Learned:

Each of the consultants agree with what Amanda wrote so perfectly:

My wish for all my clients is that once we show them the path – they learn to trust themselves and listen to their gut instincts.

The lessons I have learned from clients who hired another consultant and then hired me to fix what the first consultant didn’t do the first time (which I know happens to the best of us):

  • Sometimes it wasn’t the consultant who didn’t do the work, sometimes the client didn’t communicate they weren’t happy and felt bad and didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the consultant.
  • As a consultant you have to edit without an ego – you can’t please everyone and if you can’t, you better hope they speak up so you can fix the problem.
  • It’s a two way street – you have to be respectful of each other’s time and feelings, but still be honest about the process, the work and the state of one’s business.
  • Spending a lot of money doesn’t mean you are getting the best, it just means someone charges more than another (same with designers).
  • Listen to the work. Sometimes, the consultant is given a verbal direction by the photographer, but the works demands another direction, which might be out of the artist’s comfort zone (i.e. you want to shoot fashion, but your best work is portraits). In the end, the artist may not be ready to take their work to the next level or that direction, in which case the artists needs to clearly communicate this to the consultant. If they do not, they will have wasted their money by not communicating their needs.

Mary Virginia says “Not every photographer is open to constructive criticism when it comes to their work and their business model(s) currently in practice. I encourage those investing in consultations to anticipate a tough review and the suggestion of investigation into new markets.”

Jennifer says “When hiring a consultant you need to make sure you are a strong communicator and have expressed your expectations up front. A good consultant will help you figure out your goals and help you prioritize where your focus should be. We can help build a strong foundation to get you out the door, but you still need to do the work.”

Katherine would add “You need to come with focused goals, but also be realistic with your expectations, acknowledging the industry and the economic situation. There is work out there, but our relationship and business partnership will not be the crystal ball answer. It’s simply one step in the process.”

And Leslie sums it up “ I draw the map, they have to drive the route.”

Most of the consultants are available ala carte or for packages. Check out their websites for more information. Mary Virginia doesn’t offer packages and bills for time spent on working with her clients.

The contributors to this article are:

Amanda Sosa Stone- www.sosastone.com, She has over 12 years experience as a former art buyer for FCB/Draft, rep/producer for over 27 photographers and photo editor. Amanda was the photo editor for Elyse Weisberg’s book. Co-author with Suzanne Sease on The Photographers Survivor’s Guide. Currently, Amanda is the in-house consultant for Agency Access.

Jennifer Kilberg- www.fluidvisioninc.com. She has over 15 years experience as a former photo editor for SciFi Channel, NYC Kodak, American PHOTO, professor at Parsons (NYC), current professor at Creative Circus and The Portfolio Center (GA), and producer for clients like American Airlines.

Leslie Burns, Esq.- www.burnsautoparts.com and burnstheattorney.com. She has worked for clients and commercial photographers since the 1990s, including being a photographers’ rep and adjunct prof at CCAD: A consultant for over 10 years, she is the author of 2 books and a frequent speaker. She recently passed the California Bar and can help with copyright and legal issues, too.

Mary Virginia Swanson- www.mvswanson.com is established in the fine art and quality fine art stock world. She maintains a popular blog “Marketing Photos” that showcases upcoming opportunities for photographers. Swanson contributes to many industry publications, lectures frequently, participates at portfolio review events such as FotoFest and Review Santa Fe, and earlier this year coauthored Publish Your Photography Book with Darius Himes (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). Her next publication “Finding Your Audience: An Introduction to Marketing Your Photographs” is due early 2012. Swanson is based in Tucson and NYC.

Katherine Hennessy- www.kate-company.com Katherine has over 20 years experience in the business. She managed the art buying department at Arnold Worldwide- Boston, prior to that, was a buyer in NYC with McCann Erickson and Scali, McCabe, Sloves. Currently, in addition to consultations, Katherine is a photographers’ agent with her business, Kate & Company.

And me, Suzanne Sease- www.suzannesease.com I have over 25 years experience. I established the art buying department at The Martin Agency and when I left I had the opportunity to work at Kaplan Thaler, Capital One, Best Buy and many small agencies. I co-authored the book with Amanda Sosa Stone “The Photographer’s Survival Guide: How to Build and Grow a Succesful Business.” I am a contributor to blogs here on APE as well as Agency Access’s The Lab.

There Are 14 Comments On This Article.

    • Suzanne Sease

      Thank you so much for telling folks about about your experience with Kate Osba. It is really helpful for folks to hear about a good positive experience!!

  1. As a photographer you can only be so objective about your own work and I have found that my experience in working with a photo editor was invaluable. The quality of my clients went up and the look of my website and portfolio excelled to a much higher level. I was fortunate enough to come across Stella Kramer to help with my business objectives, her editing skills and “behind the scenes” knowledge far surpassed mine and it was just a good fit for the both of us. It just makes good business sense to work with consultants and/or mentors to help your grow your business, just make sure that you are using only the best qualified ones that your budget will allow for.

    • Suzanne Sease

      Thank you so much for telling folks about about your experience with Stella Kramer. It is really helpful for folks to hear about a good positive experience!!

  2. A few years ago I needed a professional photo consultant to help me refine my direction and focus on my strengths. I found Stella Kramer (http://www.stellakramer.com ) through Media Bistro and elected to work with her in a group consultation. I had four sessions with Stella and three other photographers. It turned out well because one was a political photographer, one was a lifestyle photographer, one was a photographer of children, and I am a botanical photographer. The sessions were excellent and I know that I came away feeling inspired and most important, clear and focused about my next steps.
    I then worked with Stella for a few more sessions, private this time, to launch my new website. The more open and honest I was with Stella, the more she was able to help me. As with everything, communication is one of the keys to success. I am still reaping the benefits of working with a professional who could be far more objective about my work than I could ever be. It’s like finding a therapist–when you find the right match, the rewards are exponential. Based on my own experience, I recommend it.

  3. I’ve learned that each consultant has their strengths and weaknesses. Some are good at inspiring and others are good designers that will help create a portfolio and marketing materials. The hard part is realizing that they don’t always have the talents to help you at every stage and that you need to fill in the gap yourself or team up with someone that can. Listen to the outside advise that you’re paying for and yet still be aware that it is your career and still be aware when it’s time graduate to a new voice or someone with a different skill.

    • Agree with Mark, and I’ll be a bit more blunt. Too often I’ve seen consultants who are situated aesthetically in the middle of the culture stream. Able to recognize what is the common image vernacular of the day, but when it comes to recognizing new less common work some may not respond well. I wonder how many would have approved of some of Gursky’s early work (99 cent store) – at the time it was created. Same with Sherman’s early work – again in real time at the moment of creation. It’s much easier to compare work to that which is in common circulation, than to recognize and understand new work. However consultants are not alone here, many ADs/CDs/ABs/Eds are the same. Confirmation bias is quite prevalent in all areas of this industry, maybe more so in this day of nethives.

      Like many others (who live off of those trying to earn a living creating images, including some orgs) how many consultants advise on the business side of the career? The risk, the opportunity costs (relative to other endeavors and investments), ROI, the true state of the market today (over-saturated, crowdsource/free models, good enough taste and budgets) ? A truly honest assessment may include the infamous quote, “The only winning move is not to play.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHWjlCaIrQo

      • Suzanne Sease

        Agree Bob, This is why it is so important to do your research. A good consultant should understand the business, the art and the marketing so photographers can make a living. They should also know of areas of photography that are not conventional but allow the photographer to make a good living. They should know what is happening in the market today and more importantly, in the future.

        And yes, I had the pleasure of seeing two installations of Cindy Sherman’s work in the 1980’s and the Mapplethorpe show at The Whitney before his passing.

  4. I recently met Allegra Wilde at a photo review. We had twenty minutes to get to know each other. Though, she never had a chance to sit with the work before meeting me, her quick insight after she looked through the book was fantastic. She left me with a comfortable sense that she understood where I wanted to take my book. She also opened my eyes to ways I could better organize my book and how to better present it. If I can get that in twenty minutes, imagine what I can do with a good body of sessions.

    An outside eye is important when you get to close to your work. Finding someone you can let your guard down to is the key to a good working relationship between photographer and consultant.

    http://www.allegrawilde.com/

  5. I worked with Jennifer Kilberg in 2010-2011 and really enjoyed the process. She challenged me to push my work to a higher level, outside of the safe/easy/comfortable realm, and got me really thinking about investing in my career. When we started working together, I was still in 100% photo assistant mode and she got me to think about the work I truly wanted to produce, not just the work I could emulate based on who I was working with at the time. Though we’re not currently working together I’m using what she taught me and will probably call on her again when I get the next round of personal work completed.

  6. This was a great article! I am planning on working with Amanda Sosa Stone in the new year and after reading this article I can better prepare myself, my calendar and my work for a successful consultation. In the past I have worked with Leslie Burns who is a rock star and helped me at that point in my career then. Everyone’s comments on this post have been great

  7. So helpful! Who is recommended to help with actual task completion such as rewriting copy for website, marketing materials, Facebook, blog
    Editing images for website/blog/marketing pieces
    Social media set up – for instance, I have a personal FB page but not biz page.
    Copy for outreach to potential business partners?
    I’ve just begun exploring the names included here and see lots of wonderful advice sharing consultants, which I Always need. Currently I am committed to finding help with implementation. Recommendations?