Why we do this

Believe it or not, most consultants are not in it for the money. Seriously. Yes, we need to make a living, of course, but we are not going to get rich from telling creatives how to improve their businesses. Not even close. Each of us could make much more money (and have yummy benefits) working for agencies or in corporate marketing departments. We do this because we love it and, more importantly, we want to help creatives be successful.

Why am I telling you this? Because there seems to be a certain group of creatives who think otherwise and it’s been a tough week dealing with some of those people. So, I just wanted to put it out there.

Do we have all the answers? Any of us consultants? Hell no. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. But we do have loads of experience and we spend a lot of our time doing research so that our info is as accurate as possible. For example, with help from the fine folks at ADBASE, I am currently doing a survey of creatives and Art Buyers about some of their likes and dislikes when it comes to photographers’ marketing. I’m collecting real-world data and learning new things (all of which will be written up in an article shortly).

Consultants do more than just give concrete advice like “don’t include that image, it’s not right for you�? or “you need to put a skip button on that Flash intro you have.�? In the process of looking at your work and talking with you, quite often we help the creative to see his/her work in an entirely new way and we often can help the client learn to believe more in her/his work (and its value) so that making those hard choices about taking a bad gig or not becomes much easier (don’t take it).

As someone on the APAnet forum said (and I’m paraphrasing here), a consultant can be a bit of a shrink, a coach, a mother/father, a nag, a cheerleader, a teacher, a shoulder to cry on and about 100 other things. The one thing we are not is an oracle. But we do the best we can and we do help lots of folks.

Just don’t accuse us of not being in it for the love of the creative work, the creative process, and the desire to help.

The difference between what is and can be

I had rather a heated debate with someone on EP this morning. Part of what he kept saying was that things are a certain way–you know, “Editorial IS low paying�? etc. Me, I kept talking about what it can be–that is, if photographers work at it together, it can be better paying.

The other debater seemed to have a very hard time grasping this. He was just locked in the past as the definition of the present and me, I see the present as what it is, and the future is ours to shape.

Okay, that may sound a bit fluffy, but trust me, I’m not generally a “it’ll all work out for the best, la-ti-da�? kind of person. I’m not saying that we’ll just wake up one day and editorial rates will have radically improved and production charges will not get questioned. What I am saying is that if we, especially the leaders of our professional groups, inspire and encourage our constituencies to work (note: WORK) together, we can make the future better than the present.

It’s actually a pretty simple concept–the leaders of our professional groups should tell their members to do things–not just sit back and manage. For example, in the case of editorial clients not being willing to pay more than $250 for an assistant, the leaders should state that photographers should tell prospective clients that their assistants will be billed at $300 (or whatever it really is–no lying–but do include your mark-up in that charge). If the client says “we only pay $250�? then the photographer should say “I’m sorry, but I can’t do business that way.�? If the client won’t budge, do not work for that client. That will force the client to find someone else. And if that someone else does the same thing, that client will have to try again. Clients do not have the time nor do they want to try over and over to find someone for their projects. They will learn, after a while, that they are no longer in the driver’s seat and may not dictate how a photographer runs her/his business.

Yes, this will be hard. Photographers will lose money in the short term. Yes, there will be some scum-sucking lowballer who will do it for less, but the work will not be as good (almost always). If enough of the editorial photographers all follow this script, the publications will change.

But, the only way this and similar changes will even have a chance of happening is for the leaders of the photo community to lead. Get off your butts and call people to action already. Stop whining and do something!

To me it’s the difference between living and working from a place of victimhood (“things are as they are and we can’t do anything about it, woe is us�?) and taking responsibility for our current problems and working (together) to change for the better.

It’s All Marketing, part 1

Everything your do in your business life that in any way reaches other people is marketing. There are the obvious bits, like promos and your website, but there are loads of less obvious bits that, added up, are pretty damn important.

Take your clothes. The way you dress for any sort of interaction with a client says a lot about who you are and what your business is like. I’m not saying that in a creative industry you have to be wearing Armani suits (though it wouldn’t hurt), but you should be aware of your appearance. Even if you are dressing casually, like on a outdoor shoot in summer, wear good pieces. And great shoes–always great shoes.

And don’t forget about general grooming, too. Keep your hair cut and your nails clean and trimmed. Make sure you smell good and, if you wear make-up, make sure it looks good–not too flashy. Same for jewelry.

Creative people are supposed to be at the spear-point of trends, so we do get to experiment more than many professionals, but that also implies a certain responsibility. It is the balance of trendiness with professionalism that we need to be aware of. For example, I met a vendor to the photo industry at an event. Just about everyone there was in jeans–typical group of photographers at one of their professional group events. He, however, was in an outstanding tailored dark suit with a crisply starched white shirt and no tie–collar just unbuttoned (but not open down his front). Peeking out from his immaculately pressed french cuffs, with classy cufflinks, was a hint of a tattoo that, I’m betting, was full-sleeve. More ink was noticeable on the back of his neck. His earrings were classic studs. His hair was cut very short and looked as if it had just been trimmed that day. His hands may have been manicured–if so, it was done well so that you just noticed how nice they were. He wore expensive cologne, and just enough to notice if you were standing close to him–not overpowering. His shoes were perfectly shined and just at the edge of trendy over classic, but not too far. He held his head up, shoulders back, and led with a free and natural handshake–not smarmy, but rather sincere and with a warm smile. Overall, he got the balance just about perfect.

And he was constantly surrounded by his potential clients. People wanted to talk to him, and not just because of his product. They were drawn to him. Oh, and to be clear, he was not some gorgeous model-type. Just an average man who, by taking the time and effort to groom himself for the event, got the chance to talk to many more potential clients than he would have otherwise. He was as classy-but-trendy, forward-thinking, and successful-appearing as he wanted his product to be perceived. That’s good marketing.

Friday Bits & Pieces

In the constant search for productivity tools, I’ve come across a couple of items worth checking out.

Backpack. An organizational tool, or suite of tools you could say. Web-based and with a free version (though you’ll probably have to upgrade to one of the pay versions for work use). I suggest setting up a page for each new project you have. Also has reminders that can be emailed or texted.

Tadalist. A very simple to do list organizer, from the makers of Bapckpack. Free. There’s a Mac widget for it as well. You can make lists for work and for home, and share them with whomever you need to.

Oh Don’t Forget. This is a very simple web-based reminder that you can use for yourself or for anyone with text messaging. Free, and you can set reminders months in advance. Always forgetting to buy the significant other’s birthday present before her/his actual birthday? This’ll help. Good for reminding you to check in with clients, too.

And, just for fun, something organizationally unrelated (and pretty close to useless). People ask me all the time about my business’ name, but as odd as it is, it sure beats lots of these.

Have a great weekend!

Service. How’s yours?

AOL has got to be cringing–there is audio going around of one of their now-former customers trying to cancel his account. The customer service person, apparently oxymoronically named in this case, does everything he can not to service the customer. Ouch.

And yesterday my husband came home from Best Buy without the new tablet PC he wanted to buy. They had a couple of models on sale, but when he asked about their return policy (these were open-box items), he was told that there would be a 15% restocking fee on any return–even if the item was broken/defective. Being a smart guy, he thought that taking a $150 gamble (15% of $1000) was too big of a risk in this case.

In both of these cases, the companies customer service ensured that their companies would lose money. In AOL’s case, they are going to lose more customers because of this publicity and in Best Buy’s, well, they didn’t get $1000 from us and I’m sure others will pass on that purchase as well.

What is your company’s customer service really like? Do you have policies that push away potential clients rather than encouraging them to buy? While it is important to have sound policies to protect your financial interests, they need to be flexible. For example, if Best Buy had said that the 15% policy would be waived if the machine was defective, they’d have our money now. Or, if you lose a client for some reason, do it with grace–you never know when the contact person will go to another company and if you part kindly, you may get business from him/her down the road.

Brief flashes of brilliance and stuff

A few brief links…..

A good reason to make sure you don’t give rights to “all media, now known and unknown” because new media is arriving every day. For example, Blade Runner is now: www.lightships.com.

A good article on licensing photography, both for buyers and photographers, appears in Communication Arts.

Design is becoming more and more recognized as not just a part of business, but a crucial part. There’s even a foundation to promote design in business.

HOW magazine has an article about what skills a good designer needs. The info transfers over (mostly) to any creative discipline. And you may have heard me say just about the same things, from time to time.

You’re on the edge, here’s the push

Are you doing the same thing you’ve been doing since your started your business? Seriously, take a second to think about it–is it pretty much the same as it was last year, and 5 years ago, and 10 years ago? Besides going digital (if you’re a photographer), have you made any significant changes? Are you producing work that looks pretty much the same as when you started? And what about your marketing? Same old same-old?

Is it a safe place, where you are? You have regular clients who bring in regular work and you know ahead of time what you’re going to be doing for them and how much it’ll bring in and what they will and will not accept from you creatively (“but that’s okay–they’re bread-and-butter clients�? you tell yourself).

Is that what you want? Is that what you imagined your business would be when you launched it? Shooting or designing safe catalogues or brochures for conservative clients who demand Black, Latino/a, Asian and white models in ALL the “happy office�? images or who want yet another farkle on that techno-whatsits or an exclamation point after the third “free�? in their (client-supplied) copy (bold AND italics too, please)? If your answer is “no,�? then what are you doing to change it? I’ll bet the answer is “nothing.�?

I don’t work with everyone who comes to me. Why? Because some people do not want to be challenged. If you’re one of those kind of people, stop reading this now and go do something else. You’re not going to want to read what follows. Go. Now.

Okay, for the rest of you, if you’re not having the business you want, change it. You made it the way it is and you have the power to make it something else. It takes guts and being open to new ideas, but you can do it. Here’s an interesting example of an old, stodgy creative company that needed an “intervention�? to change. It got it, and things are starting to happen. Good things.

But look at the risks it took! Though I am utterly disapproving of the fact it did a ton of work totally as spec, there are still great lessons to be learned here–creative for creativity’s sake results in practical applications of the creativity; going beyond their past boundaries results in new business, better clients, happier work; risk=reward.

When was the last time you took a big risk with your business? Tried a crazy promo idea, told a client “no�? when they asked for something mind-numbingly blah, told a client to “use someone else�? when they said they wanted the same work for 50% less–and why not?

Safe isn’t. You’re at the edge of your business cliff. I’m here to push you off.

So you can fly.

Catching up

It’s amazing how missing one day can wonk your schedule for the week. The self-employed in particular loathe missing a single day of work, out of fear that it will result in losing business, ticking off clients, etc. It’s also amazing just how wrong a way of thinking that is and just how understanding your clients will be about it.

Yesterday, I had a stomach virus (I assume) and, as it is difficult to work when doubled-over, I got very little accomplished. To a man (and they were all men so do not get on me about not being PC), all the clients I had to contact to change appointments not only did not complain, they all wished me well.

Yes, my one experience doesn’t mean it will always work this way for you, but I can also tell you that, in the past, on the rare occasions when the photographers I repped had to change schedules because of emergencies (rare as that was), clients always understood and we never lost a gig because of it.

I like to look at it this way–if a client cannot understand that things need to change because of something out of your control, if they can’t have the compassion to work with you in the face of whatever emergency you are facing, then they are not a client worthy of your time and best efforts. That client does not respect you and your professionalism, and if they don’t actually fire you, you should seriously consider firing them.

But I bet, like me, you’ll find that your clients will work with you and will respect you for being honest and caring enough about the project to admit “I’m sick and can’t give your project my best efforts today–we have to reschedule.�?

Reading for Creativity, and Otherwise

I spend a lot of time reading. If you’re a creative, you should too. An informed creative is a more creative creative–pretty much always. Fiction and non-fiction, work-related or not, it all goes into the little grey cells and comes out in your work. It can help you talk to your subjects better, understand an assignment better, and give you new ideas on how to represent whatever art it is you’re trying to get out there. All good stuff.

If you’re like many visual creatives and find that you are either too busy to sit down with a book or you read too slowly for your taste, there are so many audio books now that you really have no excuse not to “read.�? Audible.com, iTunes, books on CD, etc., make it so that you can listen to books everywhere and any time. Use these tools.

I’m currently in a couple of work-related books (which I read the traditional way, btw): Blue Ocean Strategy by Kim & Mauborgne and Brand Sense by Lindstrom. Both of these books speak to sides of the same idea–that is, to be successful in today’s marketplace, you need to connect with your buyers’ and you need to figure out some way to differentiate yourself from the pack.

Sound familiar? Similar ideas have been spouted by me and also appear in Purple Cow and All Marketers are Liars (both by Godin). They’re good, solid ideas. And, the more I read, the more I hear them reinforced. In fact, the only places I ever read/hear the “cheaper, faster, give-the client what they want” theories (for service-based businesses) are from some of the photographers on the pro forums (who, almost universally, have mediocre work, at least on their sites), incredibly low-end “sales” training websites, and from smarmy business “gurus” in their spam emails.

If I read/hear one more person say “it’s simply a question of supply and demand” in reference to why creatives need to lower their prices, I’m going to go postal. What they need to do is differentiate themselves–change the market, make a new one. Blue Ocean Strategy puts it clearly in its very subtitle: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant. That’s the way to be successful today. Reading will help you get there.

Summer often has a work lull for creative businesses. All the vacations by clients make for odd pauses in their marketing schedules and so you may find yourself with some “free” time. Why not take it to improve your business? Read a book, get some ideas.

A thousand words, my dupa

You want to know what a picture is worth? Ask Time, Inc. (People), Hello, and the other international publications who have now paid millions of pounds, dollars, euros, and who knows what else for the exclusive first publication rights to the Brangelina baby pics.

Now, I have absolutely no interest in the images from the celebrity standpoint–I’ve never cared for either parent as actors and really don’t care if they have one or a dozen babies. I will look at the images like I do most images, with a critical eye, and I won’t go out of my way to get my hands on the pubs with them, but that’s just me and I’m weird in that.

What does interest me about the pics is that incredibly high price. Some photographers are bitching and complaining about it–railing about the unfairness of Time, Inc. paying such sums when they make “regular�? photographers take low fees. But here’s the thing–numbers like that mean that they do understand the value of images and they are willing to negotiate.

What does that mean to the average photographer? It is yet ANOTHER reason to hold the line on prices and to negotiate better deals, or walk away from the table. Use the fact that they shelled out so much money for those images as one of your negotiating tactics.

Oh, and no one ever “makes�? a photographer take a crap deal; s/he chooses to do that him/herself. Always. You can always say “no.�?

The second part of the story is that Time, Inc. and Hello are going after gawker.com for infringing on copyright and their exclusive publication rights. Gawker, a blog-ish site that has repeatedly stolen images and other material to fill its pages, published a small version of one of the photos, in its original context on the cover the the publication. Ooops! That’s a double infringement–the image AND the cover as a whole. And the lawyers at Time, Inc. and Hello are serious about this.

Now why would they be bothering if they weren’t aware how important their intellectual property rights were? What value they held? They know, and every creative should know the value of his/her work as well.

As I posted on one of the photo forums earlier, infringement makes for strange bedfellows–go get ‘em Time. Inc.!