Ask an Art Buyer: Promotion

by Heather on April 22, 2008

Wednesday is Ask an Art Buyer day. Send your questions to with the subject line Ask an Art Buyer. I’ll answer as many as I can every Wednesday.

Joe Photographer asks: How in the Sam Hell am I supposed to get work?


This is my personal pile of promos: most of them amassed since being added to Adbase about four months ago.

We work in a world of paradoxes and conundrums: Send an email blast vs. no one reads emails. Send a nice promo card vs. it will get chucked. Get face time with an AD or AB or PE vs. no one has any time to meet with you. Don’t show boring ad work, show your personal work instead vs. I just don’t see it in your book.

Well, sorry for your luck but all of these things are true and they aren’t necessarily contradictory. Let’s deconstruct:

First off, I think y’all don’t actually believe that Art Buyers are busy. We are incredibly busy. Taking 5 minutes per promo to check the website is fine if we get one promo per day. We get piles of promos per day. So you need to grab us fast with one image. Justifable given the fact that in advertising, we are governed by the same set of constraints- the client needs a single magazine ad to grab a reader in the .2 second glance that she gives the page.

1. Email: What are you going to do, not send email promos? Not an option. Keep it streamlined- an image with a click through to your site. And of course use all available means to track who seems to be interested in your work. But for the love of pete, don’t stalk, just target the rest of your promotion accordingly.

2. Mailed promos: The best bet is that the image on the front grabs the photo buyer (as she’s transfering it from her mail pile to her recycling bin) enough to check out your site and/or pin it up on her board. Nice paper stock, interesting size etc. can all help grab notice. Some people get jiggy with their promotion and send out something guaranteed to get noticed. The king of promotion Tom Feiler, in addition to his I Hate Tom Feiler billboards, sent out steak knifes with I Hate Tom Feiler engraved on the handles. Genius. And, appropriate to his style of photography.

3. Meetings: very hard to get. It’s hard enough for me to find the time to look at your site, so I’m rarely going to be able to afford 20 minutes to sit down with you. At my last agency I would make these appointments and be in a constant state of rebooking because I got called into other meetings. Keep in mind, the Art Buyer’s time is at the whim of so many other people’s availability. If the Creative Director frees up a window to approve casting (or whatever), that’s the meeting. If the client wants to do the prepro Thursday afternoon at 2pm, that’s the meeting. Creative briefing’s happening in 30 minutes on a new job, that’s the meeting. Think about it- none of these things can be bumped so that I can meet with you and see your book. But, it doesn’t hurt to still try. Personally, I don’t want to be invited out for coffee or lunch, just a few minutes face time at my convenience is the best bet. And if your AB just can’t meet with you, I’m willing to bet she will accept your book as a drop off (but don’t just drop without getting the OK from her first).

Be patient. I do believe it’s an AB’s responsibility to see the work but if you keep trying and you are getting nowhere I think there could be one of two things going on:

A) She’s seen your work on your site and she really likes it and she doesn’t need to see anything more for the time being. She’ll call in your book for the job she’s got in mind for you.

B) She’s seen your work on your site and doesn’t think it at all appropriate, so there’s no reason to see your book. She’s Just Not That Into You.

Another paradox. OK, so this doesn’t seem fair to you? Well then you are underestimating your AB. It’s our job to be able to make assessments from the work that we see (and your job to show your best work). The web is our most accessible tool so if we don’t like what we see there, you’ve probably lost your chance to show the book.

4. What to show in the book. I really think there are two philosophies on this. As I’ve said before, I want you to show something that’s going to inspire me, that’s going to make me bookmark you. But, guaranteed, you will still loose a job or two because you haven’t got what the end client wants you to have in your book. It’s up to you to make a decision you are comfortable with based on the type of work you want to get. Ask yourself this: Do you want to inspire your collaborators or do you want to be the Safe Guy.

The images you shoot are crucial- they are likely 85% of the puzzle. We will hire the biggest A hole if he’s got a look that we need and we can’t get anywhere else. But, for the rest of you make sure all of your promotion is tight, consistent and current. Every interaction that you and your work have with an agency is a potential to sell or unsell the experience of working with you, don’t let that go to waste.

In the same vein, remember that AB’s and PE’s are reading blogs. I hope they’re reading this one but they are definitely reading APE and Shoot The Blog so don’t go all Chip Simons and then wonder why no one wants to meet with you.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Newberry April 22, 2008 at 9:31 pm

Thanks, it’s really helpful to hear the art buyer’s viewpoint on this stuff.

Andrew Ptak April 23, 2008 at 6:03 am

I’m always bewildered about what goes on my site and what goes in my book – don’t want to be redundant. However, any of us only have so many show stoppers that really represent the best of our work. How many pages do you want to see in a book and how many pages on my site? The total of the two could easily be 75-100 pages (I think) and that’s a lot of work if it is really to be the cream of the crop.

Laura Berman April 23, 2008 at 6:26 am

Direct, honest and incredibly helpful information. Thanks Heather for (once again) providing answers to the questions we are all gnawing on.

liz April 23, 2008 at 6:56 am

One more thing: it’s probably been said a million times but – just because you haven’t heard from an AB, AD or PE doesn’t mean they haven’t seen your book/website/promo AND liked/loved it. As a photographer, that can be pretty excruciating to not get any feedback but patience(sadly) could be your best friend in this market.

There was one photographer that would consistently send me promos every 3 months, email me updates and call and leave simple messages directing me to his website and let me know what he was up to. He casually was able to make sure I never forgot about him. And yes, with a tonne of AB’s, AD’s and PE’s to call, email, etc. that’s a lot of work BUT it will pay off.

Mastering the casual phone call/email is really important. Nothing worse than the message: “why haven’t you hired me?” or “if i pay for lunch will you hire me?” or “can you tell me why you don’t want to hire me?” All of which I’ve received. Don’t ask the questions – i know why you’re calling and it’s duly noted. Say hello, update me on your goings on and we’ll go from there.

Gates April 23, 2008 at 7:43 am

Dear Heather Morton,
I heart you. Thank you for your great blog and this great entry.

Photographer Italy April 23, 2008 at 8:43 am

Thanks, nice and useful post. I believe that is not easy at all.

Christopher Bush April 23, 2008 at 9:12 am

Thank you for the insight, Heather!

OG April 23, 2008 at 9:08 pm

Great post/insight.

Chris Cloete April 24, 2008 at 6:25 am

Fantastic post! Love your blog.

Thanks for some great reading and insight

Ian April 24, 2008 at 6:37 am

Great to read this,.. .being up in the hinterlands of Winnipeg, we have no idea what’s going on “down there”.

Ryan April 24, 2008 at 11:35 am


Thanks for a really insightful post. I recently subscribed to this blog and have been enjoying it very much. Thanks for all the info.

doug April 24, 2008 at 8:46 pm

Lately it seems the more casually I promote myself the more effective it is. I’ve been super busy the last year or so and I can trace most of it back to one or two face to face meetings I had which led to jobs and then the spread my name around for me. I haven’t sent out a postcard or made a call in 6 months or more, right now I’m riding a wave but who knows how long it will last then I’ll be back on the phone again. Complaining that know will see me, great post it puts things in perspective. Heck I’ve been linking my blog posts here and other places to my personal site not my biz site.

CR April 25, 2008 at 6:07 am

I looooove your post! I can tell you how much every single nugget of information here is applicable. sometimes I feel that the artists think art buyers are a hindrance to the process or feel that we don’t care. We wouldn’t be doing what we do if we weren’t appreciative of photography and illustration.

Heather April 25, 2008 at 7:56 am

Thanks CR, it’s great to have the support of another AB- both for me and for my readers!

Anon April 25, 2008 at 9:37 am

… trouble is, while agencies are indeed inspired by creative work, they ask Safe Guy to shoot it.

The other paradox is how ‘busy’ AB’s and AD’s claim they are. It’s actually quite amusing. When they show up on set, it’s always interesting to observe how much time they spend sending each other the latest jokes via email, doing their banking, flipping through magazines, and generally looking for something to fill their time. Then tell me how slow it is at the agency. So I don’t buy this busy excuse. It’s the new catch phrase and generally a ploy to convince themselves and others how important they are. No one, and I mean no one, is as busy as agency people claim they are all the time.

Then plan a wine and cheese at the agency and watch the AD’s sprint over for free wine, beer and food and it’s incredible to watch how they linger around for a few hours… or until the booze runs out. Call them a month earlier or later and suddenly they are soooooo busy! Just slammed!

I made over 25 appointments with AB’s in Chicago and NYC last year over a period of 4 days. Not one changed their appointment time… not one showed up all hurried and rushed… not one didn’t have time to chit chat about kids and family. While reviewing my book, AB’s picked up the phone and called AD’s/CD’s who had plenty of time to see me….. one CD stepped out of a meeting to say hello to me (I’d never met her before).

Are US agencies any less busy, or just more committed to seeing photographers work?

Heather April 25, 2008 at 9:52 am

I think what you may be missing Anon is that in Canada, we know who you are. Just as Liz said at #5 we know you are out there and, balanced against all the other things we have to do, meeting with you just isn’t a priority because you are already on our radar. As Liz reiterated, it is our job to be up on who’s shooting what and if we don’t want to meet with you, that has got to be respected and it doesn’t mean we don’t think of you often as a potential collaborator.

Regarding the booze-hound AB and AD’s. Sure, a photoshoot is often a bit more relaxed but it is still a time when the AB is working- ensuring (out of the corner of our eye most of the time) that everything seems, and is, smooth for the client, the agency and the photographer. And of course, because we spend that day at the shoot, away from our desk, we have that much more work to do for the rest of the week.

When you hear that it’s slow at the agency, that may be true or the AB might be protecting herself from the inevitable: “Have you got anything coming up that I can quote on?”. What do you expect we are going to say: “Oh, that’s great, I was looking for someone, anyone in fact, to quote on this big sexy job I just got briefed on”. That’s not how it works.

And the “from away” phenomenon- it exists. People will be more interested to see you if they think they can’t see you whenever they want (ie, you are just in town for a few days). I think we also respect the effort of travelling to show your book- I certainly try to see American shooters (I check their site first) because I recognize that they are serious about their career and making it work in Canada. This is my chance to ask them serious logistical questions about working with them when they are from out of town. Nevermind the fact that they have many many more AB’s in the US which means everyone, in theory at least, has more time to see new talent and not just react to the million immediate emergencies we deal with everyday.

Toky April 26, 2008 at 9:08 pm

This is THE most useful thing anyone has told me about promoting my work. Thank god for you Heather Morton, thank god for you!

Anon April 29, 2008 at 4:16 pm

Hi Heather,

Great insights… much appreciated. I respect all your points… and really don’t disagree, only to say how unfortunate the whole situation is. However, to my initial point, it’s for the same reasons you list that makes it difficult for those trying to get into agenccies to land assignments. If I understand you correctly, there’s not enough time for AB’s/AD’s to properly review a promo, spend a few minutes on a web site, and especially to meet in person. Thus, it must be less time consuming and safer to call the same photographer you used last week for the portrait shot, to now do a still life shot. I might be the right guy to shoot still life, but because the AB, AD, CD have not met me, it’s an understandable risk the agency is not prepared to take – so, again, it’s Safe Guy (who perhaps shoots mainly people) on speed dial that gets the call. This is especially true of agencies who have no AB, or where the AD is the sole decision maker. Safe wins. Not because he/she is best suited for the assignment at hand, but because there’s apparently no time to properly evaluate the photographers.

I just wonder why the aversion in Toronto to shaking someone’s hand and looking them in the eyes and saying hello. If they don’t like me, fine… that’s one less photographer on their radar they need to worry about, and one less agency I need to worry about. But I sense in Toronto there’s less value placed on personality and meeting someone face-to-face than in the US. I find that very odd.

I also notice how much more time AB’s and AD’s in the US take in the selection process. More importantly is their courage to take some risks – as long as it’s for the betterment of the creative/ad. They are not afraid to take a stand and sell a photographer to their colleagues, account person and client. I’ve yet to witness that here to anyt significant degree. In fact, I see the opposite – it’s fear that makes AD’s go with Safe Guy. And I believe that’s the primary difference between agencies in Canada vs the US. I believe it’s not that US agencies necessarily have more staff or time, it’s that they don’t make decisions based on fear.

Just my take…..

Your pal,


Gary Crabbe / Enlightened Images May 1, 2008 at 11:14 pm

I ride both sides of the fence doing photography as well as occasional jobs as a Photo Editor. You’ve done a really great job communicating the major catch-22′s we all face. Thanks for a great read.

Will Pursell June 5, 2008 at 12:08 pm

Wow, this article is great, this is the exact info I was looking for. Your blog is very informative.

DuckFive June 5, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Thanks for the great insight. You rock!! I’m in my first round ever of marketing hell and this was such a great refresher for all those things I seem to have forgotten over some of the assisting years and I learned some new things, too. Don’t mind me while I stalk your blog from now on.

Patrick Mchugh February 4, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Keep shooting. Obviously a strong message there.

Nino Andonis Food Photography March 27, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Great Advice! Seems out of all the blogs and advice I run into, the same sort of sentiments are shared about marketing, networking and self promotion; don’t give up, have patience, show A+ work, keep updating your work and most of all be consistent with your marketing. Glad to see I’m on the right track. -Thanks for your post!

Rand November 13, 2012 at 12:28 am

Totally agree with Anon.

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