Have some stones

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Rocks, hard places, stones…mix and match your own metaphor.

Today, a few tangential thoughts on photography and the overall state of marketing strategy these days. Yes, I’ve done a lot of this kind of work extensively in my previous life as a consultant, but guess what: most of it is really common sense. And sometimes it can be very difficult to see the wood from the trees if you’ve been lost in the forest for too long. I’ll start with two thoughts:
Have some stones and
Social media metrics are not an indicator of fiscal success.
This principles apply equally to both sides of the negotiating table.

There have been several rather disturbing trends I’ve noticed in the last six months or so while undertaking commercial assignments, and observing the photography blogosphere in general. Firstly, common sense appears to now be uncommon. Secondly, there’s a general lack of self-confidence. Thirdly, spirals of death have taken over. It isn’t exactly new, but the obsession with collecting likes, favourites, shares etc. makes no sense whatsoever. Yes, popularity and visibility are good things – but doing that purely for the sake of collecting higher statistics has zero bottom line on your sales whatsoever; in fact, it might well have the opposite effect and be damaging instead as you deploy resources to the wrong areas. Popularity is broadly correlated to commercial success: I agree. But I disagree that it is a hard and fast rule. The Bugatti Veryron, I’m sure has millions of likes. But they still only sold a few hundred. Even if they made millions, and took economies of scale into account, they still wouldn’t sell that many more. Toilet paper, or rice brands probably have very few likes, but they shift by the boatload. See my point?

Then there’s the fear: there has to be some motivation for a client to change creatives; maybe they want a new look, or maybe they weren’t happy with the previous agency/ photographer, or maybe they have a new product that requires a different presentation. But what I don’t understand is when a client isn’t at all happy, then proceeds to rehire the same agency. Doing the same thing again is not going to give a different result. Yes, there’s some inertia and something to be said for second chances, but if the disconnect or level of dissatisfaction is that high, questions must be asked. Similarly, continually changing agencies in an attempt at playing them off against each other to shave slivers off the price is not good either: something has to give, and you can bet there’s a hard point after which we simply cannot do anything cheaper because input costs are fixed.

And here the lack of confidence comes in: photographers who don’t believe in their work, and the value of their work, enough to say ‘this is my price and my value, and I’m holding at this level; clients who are afraid to take risks because they don’t want to upset their bosses; agencies who give in to the most ridiculous demands only to find that it’s unsustainable because the expectation of continual discounts has been set, and they go out of business shortly afterwards. I’ve never had a successful negotiation with a seller before where I’ve said “let me try it for a week and see if I like it, then I’ll pay you; when I make you an offer you should be grateful I’m willing to take it off your hands; and beyond that, I really like your product, but I’m only able to pay 50% of what you are asking.” Yet this happens all the time in the creative industry; what results is mediocrity all around.

Here’s my logic: if you’re trying to sell the same thing to the same audience, repetition is fine. If you’re trying to sell something new to the same audience, or the same thing to a new audience, or a new thing to a new audience – then you have no choice but to break with your historical conventions, take a risk, and do something different. Whatever it is you have to say or show simply cannot stand out from the competition if it looks the same as everything else! If you lack the imagination to figure out how to best present it, then trust the expertise of the photographer or agency to guide you. Your job is to pick which of the creatives best matches your corporate culture and who best understands your product and your target audience. Unless you want a different presentation – and your organisation is ready to accept that – there’s no point in hiring a luxury goods specialist to do a mass market canned food ad, or a studio-pack-shot-conveyor-belt to shoot a hundred million dollar yacht. Specialization exists for a reason.

And then we come to the Spiral of Death. Your product sales are flagging; you clearly need to do something differently. But you don’t have the confidence to say ‘we’ll try it’, nor are you willing to take the financial risk; if anything, a failing product needs even more ad spend than one that is successful to bridge the consumer education gap. Pulling up is very, very difficult because it requires both significant investment and the acknowledgement of the decision makers that past activities have not worked. The risk level is high and egos are involved; that’s a recipe for disaster.

The role of the creative in the modern business world is not just that of an executor or skill-based specialist; we must bring a bit more to the table from a strategic point of view to help craft visuals that go beyond simple presentation, and are also in line with your business intentions. We do our very best to push that further and bring new ideas to the table. Understanding the psychology of the consumer and applying that where possible is the key. This role should be symbiotic. We as the creatives bring expertise and an objective outsider’s perspective. I’ve had long term clients – five, six engagements – who still try to nickel and dime me on every quotation. I don’t budge. They accept in the end anyway because they can’t find anybody else who can deliver what they want. But a whole lot of bad karma could certainly be spared by avoiding ‘the dance’. The client-creative role is a partnership, not a one-time deep-discount negotiation: we want to help you to be successful so we be rewarded for that success in return. All that we ask is that you have a little trust in us and confidence in your decision to bring us in – there’s no point if you intend to carry on as before and not make the most of our skills. MT


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  1. You are sounding very, very unhappy. Think about what in your life should improve to change that… or what you have to change to become happy… And please forgive me for asking this stupid question, but which scanner did you use?

    • Write a post that causes clients to pay on time, respect your creative input, and make the heads of web trolls implode.

      • I hope that you don’t mean me being a troll… I just noticed a fundamental amount of unhappyness in your recent posts, but probably I should have written something less esoteric sounding. But I just read your newer post, so I think this one here was neccessary to get there… and I still like to know the scanner…:-)

        • Don’t worry about it. You didn’t write an abusive 2000-word essay with no punctuation with your life story demanding I apologise and admit publicly that Canon/Leica/Fuji is the best thing since sliced bread 🙂

  2. About the continual dance with clients always wanting to pay less, I’ve started offering a 1O% rebate when clients pay within 2 weeks of billing (raising the base price accordingly of course). The initial idea was to encourage prompt payment, but I’ve noticed how useful it is with clients who want a deal. For an event, the base price included 10 photos, with a price for any additional ones the client would want. At the end, the client came back with “the pictures are so nice, but our budget is tight, could you let us use an 11th one for free?” Instead of an annoying negotiation, I just replied “lf you pay within 2 weeks, you’ll get a 10% rebate that covers the price of that additional photo.” They were happy, they paid quickly, and they paid the full amount, so l was happy.

    • I don’t think it’s a good idea to start eroding few scales based on payment – they contracted and SHOULD pay you in full per the agreement. Try putting your prices up. It worked for me.

      • The agreement mentioned the 10% rebate very clearly. I never intended to use it as a surprise or as a negotiating point, but rather as an incentive to pay the bill quickly. The end result would be the same if I said “you must pay a 10% penalty if you pay late”. It’s just that people like receiving a rebate for fast payment and dislike receiving a penalty for being late, even if the end price is the exact same. The client I mentioned ended up paying the initially agreed price for 11 pictures, but he felt like he got a good deal. I made no concession and it was a positive customer experience.

        • Fair enough. I work a bit differently personally – if they’re a good client, I go above and beyond the above and beyond already and they appreciate that…

  3. Hi Ming, my advice to you (I’m 51 and still working) would be to work hard (which you are capable of), make a boatload of money (which you are capable of), invest it wisely (which you are capable of) and then retire at 50.At 51 you can decide to be “gentleman photographer”. QED 🙂

    • The problem is photography does not make a ‘boatload of money’ – I should change careers, I think…

      • This is a topic for a whole different article, but there are few careers where you can make a ‘boatload of money’. Heck, even ‘regular’, well-paid jobs don’t provide the security they once did, and most employees — at least in North America — don’t stay with organizations more than an average of four years nowadays.

        Add to that companies outsourcing, cutting hours, using contractors, etc to save themselves $$; in most sectors you’re better off intentionally planning to be a contractor from the get.

        I’m sure there are certain vocations, where certain people, with certain skills, can still make a very very good living. But those positions don’t apply to 80%+ of folks in the real world.

        We live in an increasingly greedy, consumptive, and wasteful society, IMO. I believe that as long as you can make enough money to live a reasonably comfortable life — and put something away for a rainy day/retirement (also increasingly difficult, I’ll admit) — you might as well choose to do something you enjoy and have some talent for.

        On the other hand, if it’s just to chase an increasingly fleeting buck, you really are going to be miserable.

        Not meaning to rant. 🙂

        • Sounds familiar. Frankly I made a lot more in corporate than photography – but even then, at the top of the management food chain, your career has almost zero security and changes with the CEO – which is pretty much every three years.

          It would seem most of the wealth goes to very, very few people. The rest of us keep chasing, which is why it’s so incredibly important to at least like what you do, seeing as we’re going to be doing it for a very long time. Maybe the solution for this era is more than one career.

          • “It would seem most of the wealth goes to very, very few people. The rest of us keep chasing, which is why it’s so incredibly important to at least like what you do, seeing as we’re going to be doing it for a very long time. Maybe the solution for this era is more than one career.”

            Spot on. You’ve hit the nail on the head. The 1-percenters hold 99 percent of the world’s wealth, while the other 99 percent hold 1 percent of the world’s wealth (slight exaggeration, but you get the idea) … and there seems to be no end in sight. Income inequality is spreading, and when you add it to all the other problems the world is facing right now, I suspect a tipping point is in the making.

            (btw: If you really want to get upset, have a look at the Citigroup plutonomy memo from a few years back to see just how arrogant the 1 percent have become. It’s breathtaking in its hubris.)

            Yes, enjoying what you do is key; most people don’t, it seems, or are searching to find out what that might be that still pays a living wage. I do agree that multiple income streams from alternate (but hopefully related or interlocking) careers is probably not a bad idea, however. After all, a financial planner always advises one to diversify their portfolio … perhaps diversifying one’s career (at least a bit) is equally wise for the same basic reasons.

    • No offense, but who the hell can afford to retire at 50 anymore? Not in this era. And not unless they were wealthy to begin with.

    • Just to clarify: I’m thinking of Ming’s former life in the corporate world, not photography.

      @Robert Falconer: Starting in the early 80’s with a decent paying job and your head screwed on properly from day one, it was possible to retire at 50. I know people who have done it. Unfortunately for me, I only got focused at 35, so I’ll be working til 65 for sure.

  4. This is why I, and many before me, figure out how to run a line of conveyor-belt work, and still have the skills to do specialty work when it’s available. I was just looking into the Motion Picture Cameraman Guild the other day, and I thought “cool!”, the union negotiates the creative fees so there isn’t any undercutting going on. Quite a specialty, but the downside is, many of those folks report being unemployed 50-70% of the year, but make great wages when they do work. Personally, that might drive me crazy. I LIKE to be working all the time, unless specifically on vacation. It keeps me sharp and engaged.

    Ansel Adams didn’t make his living doing fine art. He paid his bills doing far less glamorous work on the very same commercial assignments we might do, with the same back and forth continual negotiations that exist in this business.

    Many of us know that our skills are too big for the pond we reside in, but we also know it’s our natural habitat, where there is safety and predictability. While typically unexciting and benign, it’s relatively easy to survive, when compared to jumping to a larger pond, where the very same negotiations occur daily, but on a larger scale, with more pressure, and many adept & cunning competitors. It’s hard to know just what it takes to become a big fish in a big pond.

    I believe you may have reached a turning point when shooting the commercial. It’s a taste of bigger things, with joy, satisfaction, and excitement. Many of the things you do daily won’t compare to that experience, even though the quality of your daily output matches or exceeds what was achieved on that commercial. The adrenaline rush isn’t the same though. I’ve found I have to reset, chill a little, and go back on the converor-belt, and dream and work towards the next opportunity of a lifetime.

    • The conveyor belt is depressing. If I was going to do that, I should have just stayed in corporate – the pay was much better. The only solution I see is move up or move on…it’s going to be a roller coaster, but fun while it lasts…

      • I agree that “conveyor belt” sounds ugly but I still have respect and enthusiasm for the stories of business owners who engaged in the profitable segment of their industry that enabled them to self-support the finer works they also desired to produc. I envision that this gave them greater creative independence and personal freedom than either taking commissions for fine art from wealthy of their time, or working as an employee in a “day job” and relegating themselves to create art in the last exhausted hours of the night that remained. I think the industrious model is the one I personally think of as the best solution.

  5. Brilliant draft of the commercial reality. I recognize the problematics in the companies which I am still following.
    This not any different than the problematics I see satisfying perhaps not only myself, but certainly also my trusted viewers and judges being my close family and wife who most frequently disagree with my choices of what is going to exhibit on our walls in the house. It seems I cannot force them to like my work 🙂

  6. Ming is agree with the narrative, you see it in the various photoblogs platforms I wonder sometimes his some of the folk find time to work given their activity on them. The irony is the chosen comments which generally fit the usual diatribe. I shoot for me like your previous poster, I don’t care what folk think, yeah it’s nice to have positive comments but you’ll never see vote for me at whatever.com I’m not interested. And in response to randomesque I’d disagree your words and images are always thoughtful inspired and enjoyable and no this doesn’t mean you have to visit and day gushing things about my latest PIC.

  7. Your stone image is so dull and lacking merit.

    Some of your other images you text hundreds of words to many of your works.

    When I post an image, I captioned it “untitled.” The magic of images is the viewer (he/she) must sort out in their mind.

    A stone is a stone — a flower is a flower.

    Inca Stones in Peru tell a story.

    • I think you’re missing the point. It’s a metaphor to go with the title of the post.

      Not captioning can also be pure laziness, not courage. Relying on the subject to carry the story can also be lacking compositional skill to make something that stands on its own irrespective of subject.

  8. randomesquephoto says:

    Thanks for this Ming. It speaks on more than one level.

    Also. Do clients not understand that you have also worked in the corporate world and understand those things also. ? You definitely have an edge on your creative input because of your past. Not just a photographer who’s always been a photographer. Is hope that at least some value that input.

    • Yes and no – I think sometimes I’m seen as just the contractor, but sometimes – with the best clients – they’re willing to listen OR hire me because of that edge.

      • I’ve witnessed environments in which the “high-paid outside consultant,” is valued by the requisitioner but is hated by the company’s internal employees. Then the instances in which “the contractor” is viewed as a lowly pot-scrubber. I remember of an institutional sized corporate that programmed its internal systems to knowingly take advantage of its vendors as a policy. That was disappointing.

        I try to remember the cases (with disparate size of business) that I’ve witnessed an independent business-person accorded the ordinary respect and dignity of an independent business-person. I can’t think of any right now.

        • That’s pretty much the case most of the time, actually. I can’t remember any projects in my previous consulting life where the internal employees actually wanted the consultants there. Hell, most of the time the management in the consulting firm doesn’t respect its own staff either…

  9. Thank God I don’t take pictures for anyone else, just me! However, in my software consulting business…ugh!

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