Ask an Art Buyer: Email Promotion

by Heather on June 25, 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.

I didn’t actually get any “Ask and Art Buyer” questions this week (c’mon people, this is your chance to ask a real live Art Buyer anything you want…) so I thought I’d highlight a couple of email promos I recently got that worked for me. Both of these made me stop and read and then click through to see the work.

Before I show you Robyn Vicker’s recent promo, you need to know a bit about the campaign that she’s referencing. Robyn is a tabletop shooter and she recent shot a piece of cereal for Shreddies. The entire campaign got huge attention and came close to winning a Titanium & Integrated Award at Cannes this year. Here’s the highlights reel:

In a nutshell, the agency has pinned a whole campaign and rebrand on a 45 degree spin of the cereal. It is a phenomenon in Canada. The fact that the idea came from Ogilvy’s summer intern has become legend.

So a couple of weeks ago Robyn sent this to my inbox:


Now, without question, this campaign does not highlight the best work Robyn has done or can do. For that, you should go here. She’s a great shooter with a fresh take on tabletop. I might even say this promo was successful for her despite the photography. I might go one further and say this promo was successful for the copy and not the image.

Associating herself with a successful campaign is obviously smart. But the story she presents is funny, appropriate to the context of the campaign in general, and it’s well written. So, I spent time reading it and I now associate her as someone who “gets” advertising and who’s a bit cheeky. She doesn’t take it all too seriously.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. I asked her rep, Mahshad at Sugarmama if this promo was successful for Robyn. She said:

Yes, I had the biggest response ever to any of my emailers, more than 400 people opened (37%) and a few replies from people who found it funny. Also, I Have an Idea made a comment about it in a discussion group about the campaign. It was written by Jane Murray who’s the copywriting side of the team that created it, Ivan Pols being the AD. I think it was a great extension of the campaign’s big idea.   

Me too.

And then on Monday, at 10.30 in the morning, I got an email from Jonathan Saunders with the subject line Remembering George Carlin. Here’s what it looked like in my in-box:


So you can see it:


This worked because it was so topical and heartfelt without being maudlin. I’m not a big George Carlin fan and yet I read the whole thing. And because of Jonathan’s sensibilities, which I gleaned from the shot and the words, I clicked through. Plus it felt really fresh, Carlin had just died the night before.

The story also telegraphed other important attributes of Jonathan’s:
• He is comfortable and has experience working with celebrities
• He has worked for TIME
• He sets up early and waits
• He’s able to roll with the punches without getting flustered (blowing circuits)
• He’s prepared (he had a second shot prepared)
• He seems genuinely interested in the world and excited about shooting it.

Plus, Jonathan’s a really good storyteller. It may sound cliche but I think that we all want to work with good storytellers.

Turns out Jonathan chose to send the promo out to a select and fairly small group. His immediate response, at the outset at least, was fair but not overwhelming. I asked him about it.

I was torn about sending the email about Carlin. I didn’t want it to appear as if I was simply trying to hock my images of a deceased celebrity, so it was really important to me to make it about what it meant to me to photograph him and how it really was one of my happiest days as a photographer.

I didn’t get too much response actually to the Carlin email. I sent 390 to a list I have made on my own of PE’s, rep’s and a small number of art buyers. I heard from one rep I have never heard from before, “Thanks Jonathan – it is a great shot of him.” That was the entire email, but it was greatly appreciated and good to know that this rep was taking to my promotions over time and I was officially on their radar. I cannot say who just yet, but one regular client will run it in a quarter page soon and confessed that my image was already on their mind when they got my email.390 sent, 12 bounces, 120 opens (many multiple opens from one contact), 20 click-through to one of my two sites linked in the email.   

As you all know, figuring out how to effectively promote yourself is a tricky puzzle indeed. Jonathan actually wrote about this on his blog under the title The System is Broken. Yep, sounds like it is. Bravo then to Robyn and Jonathan for making me spend so much time with their imagery. Hell, I even blogged about it.

*Update: Caitlin at An Art Producer’s Perspective has a nice little bit about email promos here.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete Soos June 25, 2008 at 4:41 pm

Interesting blog this week Heather.
First off I think Jonathans image of George Carlin is
a great image and fitting with his passing.
Second is I wonder if Robyns email promo
loses it’s impact when we know her partner is the AD.
Does that have an effect on your decision if you were
to try her on a project?

Heather June 26, 2008 at 5:00 am

No, not at all. The only way I can see that relationship impacting on the promo is that she might have been able to get the final artwork back from the agency quicker than normal.

As I said, this promo worked for me for reasons other than the actual photography. In terms of favouritism, if that’s what you are concerned about: 1. No slight on Robyn but this was not a plum photography job. 2. It comes down 100% to the work, if a photographer is the right one for the job, then I don’t care who he/she is related to. What I am concerned about is AD’s who send every job to a certain shooter, regardless of their suitability.

Anon Amous June 26, 2008 at 8:37 am

These days, almost all jobs jobs are plumb jobs. Freelancers don’t have salaries, and we have bills, mortgages and kids to feed. We run businesses. Please don’t assume we are independently wealthy and regularly turn down jobs because they are not glamourous enough. It sticks when a straight forward job like this comes along and there’s favouritism involved.

Favouritism is a problem. You may not be concerned, but let’s be honest here:
1. the AD/CD makes the decision
2. you are not directly affected by this decision
3. how could you honestly express anything differently publicly?

I absolutely love your blog and there’s been some very VERY good information shared here – from a AB’s perspective – which has and continues to be helpful to photographers. But the AB’s allegiance is with the agency/client. I’m not trying to start a war here or antagonize, but I believe photographers should be reminded of this occasionally.

myles June 26, 2008 at 8:38 am

Am I missing something? How would someone know that there is a partnership here? Have photographers go so far as to put their personal information in their promotions? ie. who they are dating or married to? Good grief I hope not – leave that to gawker. I didn’t read that in any of Robyn’s promos so how would we know other than someone outting it – which I find tacky and catty.

Aside from that I agree with Heather. Personal contacts should never sway a choice on hiring someone. I found the email funny and played with the concept behind the campaign. I read it more of a “Hey I shot this” mailer rather than a “This is my best work” mailer. I mean it is a simple shot and certainly not refelctive of her calibre of work.

Promo’s are so difficult to get right and it sounds like Robyn hit it this time. Good for her! As someone who receives many many many promos a day I still can’t say what really gets my attention though straight up photography is a better bet than using tricks of design and copy. Email promos – I often think there are a lot of people being fleeced paying big money to have a company take care of it for you. Spam blockers kill so much of them now and if they do make it through the gates the magnitude of people using them is enormous making it less likely I will take sometime to click on it. (an FYI – for the most part mails from adbase etc. come through as blank pages with nice red X’s over your pictures rendering the promo pretty much useless). I am sure that comment (and my next one) will piss some of you off but it is sadly true. I would like to see great work and love when someone new comes along that I have not heard of but when you receive 20 + mails a day from people shooting everything from dogs in Kansas to boudoir in Texas it makes finding the diamonds real tough. Sure there is a market for that photography but it makes it much harder for those of you who have relevant work when trying to contact the PE or AB. (insert reply here: But isn’t that your job Myles? Answer in short: Yes it is and I truly do try to open each mail, rarely do I click through though so it comes down once again to the image presented)

Heather June 26, 2008 at 9:17 am

Anon: I will direct you back to my #2 point: It’s all about the work. Robyn shoots tabletop. Robyn did a great job. End of story. If the AD had suggested Robyn shoot lifestyle I would protest because she is not a lifestyle shooter.

Truthfully, I briefly debated whether to post Pete’s “outing” but I thought it was valueable to make the point that, in this case, Robyn was a completely valid choice. Without question, there is favouritism but, despite what you may want to believe, I assure you, AB’s do not condone this.

An Art Buyer’s role is to protect the client, agency and the photographer. I advocate a relationship of negotiation. These are my needs, what are you needs? How do we satisfy both?

Anon: if we’ve worked together before, I hope you will get in touch off line because I take my role as a photographer’s advocate seriously and I would like to know if you’ve had a different experience.

Lucas Cichon June 26, 2008 at 9:33 am

Sorry I didn’t get any questions in. Haven’t gotten to surf at all this week until today.

I stopped tracking opens on my e-mails after I couldn’t figure out what they actually mean. Are they opening it because they like it, hate it, love it, or just open all mail before hitting the delete button?

Wish there was some way to really know what the impact of these e-mails are. I’ve gone to portfolio reviews, seen my photographs printed from my website and taped on PE’s walls, told how much they LOVE my work. So, you make sure they get promos. Sometimes you hear from them again on how much they LOVE your work. But, years and years go by and never get a job. I know that’s the business but it just goes to the futility of trying to figure out what web hits and e-mail opens mean.

Pete Soos June 26, 2008 at 11:06 am

Well I don’t think I outed anyone, while I’ve never met with Robyn I have met with Ivan and he did not hide the fact and actually told me so. So I hardly consider this some dirty little secret or relate it to a persons sexual preference which seems to be the case with the term “outing”

My question relates more to the fact that the photographer is new to the market and how would her cred would be affected by the relationship.
Lets not get so sensitive about a simple fact.

Myles, take a chill pill.

myles June 26, 2008 at 1:09 pm

Pete – You did out her and not to turn the blog into a seminar on on semantics BUT… It was not known (her relationship that is) to people outside of a select few (photographer friends, art directors, those in the loop, family, friends etc.) until you brought it up in a post about mailers. More specifically a post about the effectiveness of mailers. You questioned if the effectiveness was less because of her relationship with the AD – sure, valid question. But if you had not told us about the relationship, I nor numerous others who have never met the two of them would not have known. (nor frankly really care, because what if she was the best photographer for the job? What if her quote was bang on the clients money? To simply question the role implies unethical business practices. Period. And that my friend, has the potential to be damaging.)

It is also a textbook definition of outing. Which certainly does not always pertain to sexual preference.

And I don’t know Robyn or what the heck she would have to say about all this. I hope she would laugh it all off. Her sense of humour seems solid!

Back to the business at hand.

As Anon pointed out originally and as Heather followed up on. There are numerous jobs that go to friends. It is a sad part of the industry but one that is ever present. How do you escape that?

One way would be more AB’s. As Heather mentions her role is to protect the agency, client AND photographer. Nepotism doesn’t look good on anyone – just ask the Liberals.

Lucas – As one who is not familiar with your end of email promos (I only see your promos) I am not sure of something. Can you track if I see the mail or only if I open it? Obviously click thru traffic is traceable but do your mailer programs allow for you to see if the mail is even read or skipped over? I was just talking with a photographer about the problems of the mass email promo and how one could get around it. It is sad that so many people put so much time into editing there work down to the image(s) that they want to be the front page of their promo – and essentially the image that could get the clients eye – only to have a bloody wall stop those images from appearing.

Does anyone have way around this problem?

Lucas Cichon June 26, 2008 at 6:49 pm


Sorry for this long comment post. I’ll answer you question and have a question if you wouldn’t mind.

I’ve used a couple of different tracking systems. It really depends on the tracking system and on what e-mail program the receiver uses as to what I can see. If the recipients are using the standard PC or Mac software tracking works pretty good.

Any other software, or phones, or looking but not downloading your emails by viewing them from an online server is a problem. So, really I usually can’t tell what you have seen and not seen.

I would say it is about 70 percent accurate. About 6 months ago I started sending email promos after not doing commercial photography for the past few years. When I stopped doing commercial work about 8 years ago, e-mail was a huge way to get a lot of attention. A nice e-mail promo would get a huge amount of hits. Now, it is much smaller amount of opens and replies.

I really think it is a problem of e-mails being too easy to send out. Look at this sentence from Heather’s original post

“I sent 390 to a list I have made on my own of PE’s, rep’s and a small number of art buyers”

It used to be a postcard mailing of 500 or 1000 was a pretty good size. You would research and edit down to get to that number. The cost was high and you didn’t want to send to people who wouldn’t be interested. Now, we can send thousands via email. I think the flood of e-mails has caused PEs and ABs to ignore most of the e-mails. Some I think open and delete. Kind of like the old days of sorting mail over the garbage can. But, prior to hitting the garbage can someone had to look at my postcard, or open my envelope and at least look before tossing it in the trash, now, it is click and gone. The work is never seen.

The question for you. If the photography is something that interests you and, you receive regular mail something like I describe below going to get your attention or not?

My primary market is black and white and color photographs with strong contrast so, I’m thinking of picking a small group of people who use my style work work, and I want to work with. Do an old fashioned, pretty sophisticated direct mailing.

Perhaps something that is either looks or perhaps is handmade, looks classy, and has about 4 direct mailings. I’m thinking I will introduce myself with 2 handwritten cards, inside an envelope. So, the 2 cards would go out, the first 2 larger pieces, and I would then the first phone call.

Does this old fashioned direct mail type of marketing still work? Or, is that something that went out with the 90′s?


aaron mckenzie fraser June 30, 2008 at 9:45 am

Maybe I should have read your post Heather before sending out my promo last week…Myles brings up a an interesting technical point which I’ve been hung up with. I’ve been sending out digital promos as a direct link to the photos to avoid the “red X’s” which typically show up if I just sent out an html email (a la adbase). Do you feel that’s less acceptable, as a friend pointed out, “you have to dig to see your photo”?
I think it’s better since you aren’t directly met with the “red X’s” or having the promo sent directly to the spam folder…but I’m not sure…

Leslie Burns-Dell'Acqua June 30, 2008 at 10:29 am

Direct mail does work…in as much as anything does. What you have planned there is a campaign, and that is vital, so good on you! :-)

Far too many photographers dump DM because they have “failed” with it. Usually it is a case of sending out occasional postcards, with no plan, no concept, beyond the individual card itself. That’s not going to work.

Of course, it is first and foremost about the work–so make sure you are showing fabulous work, and the kind you want to get, and showing it to the people who can (really–not just maybe, possibly, sometime) use it.

Using multiple tools and consistent, regular points of contact is the best method for reaching your targets.

Good luck!

myles June 30, 2008 at 11:35 am

Aaron, Love the direct mail. Just because we have access to the interweb at work doesn’t mean we no longer have office gray walls to cver with awesome art work!

I like DM more than email promos becasue I can reference them quickly – with web promos I have to bookmark them or search through my inbox. On the wall, always in my face….Love it.

And Leslie is bang on – PLanning is eerything. One postcard or mailer with no follow up is a complete waste. Have a plan of action – a campaign perhaps – spread out and mailed every 4 to 6 weeks reminding me you are there and have images and ideas I need! All too often it is a one time thing with no followup.

And once again, know you audience.

Heather June 30, 2008 at 12:34 pm

Absolutely 100% agree with what Leslie and Myles have said (thanks guys):

1. Consistant and well conceived 2 year plan for promos.
2. Targetted to your audience generally- we all need to be aware of other styles because our clients and needs can vary.
3. Great, inspirational work and design.

SugarMama June 30, 2008 at 8:34 pm

Wow! this is another reason why DM works.

I’m glad that the little idea Robyn and I conceived of has created such a debate. Its always hard to come up with fresh ideas, when I know for a fact (having been an AD myself) how hard it is to get people’s attention. This email promo was a vehicle to show Robyn’s new work on my site. The photography itself doesn’t really show her skill set, and the email was sent out because of the campaign’s crazy success. And of course the timing was perfect. The tone was in line with the Campaign’s idea which is why it got so much attention. Even if favouritisim was involved (which there wasn’t), it has no impact on who opens the email. As Myles pointed out this DM piece stood on it’s own merits of a good idea at the perfect time.

I would encourage all photographers to know when there’s an opportunity to promote yourselves. Timing is everything. oh, and a good idea doesn’t hurt either.

Shane Kislack July 1, 2008 at 1:49 pm

Thanks for posting this. We often hear people describe what makes a good email (or postcard for the matter) campaign but rarely get to see real world examples. These don’t really look like the high concept imagery we see in CA or Archive, so it’s nice to know that we can be a little different.

A Luke July 16, 2008 at 4:47 pm

Can someone (AD, AB etc) post some examples of what caught their eye? I find most of what I see these days is rather pedestrian. Great concept IS important but I find that the photography is rather blah. Of course there are a few exceptions. Toronto is a “safe” market. We need to push things a little more. Show some creative with balls, for lack of a better term. Think Steven Meisel!

John Hryniuk September 24, 2008 at 4:32 am

I know Im a little late in on this but regarding relationships in the business and Pete Soos outing of the photographers partner being the Art Director. Lets be honest here.. most of the time ADs and CDs hire photographers either because they have a relationship with them ( whether they are dating them or not ). Thats what this business is all about networking and getting to know these people. I’ve never heard of a photographer getting a campaign out of no where.

Avi Lehrer September 24, 2008 at 10:28 am

I am an old man who loves to paint. A young friend said that I should sell prints of my work and set up a web site for me. Then he said that I should promote it thru email marketing. But I have no idea how to do that. Nor does the young friend really.
So I have a web site without anyone looking at it and without any sales from it – although I have sold some prints to people who have seen my work.
What can I do?

Angel F. Matamoros July 15, 2012 at 9:41 am

Interesting, interesting, interesting! Thank you!

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