HUSTLE AND FLOW: The Photography Industry



This article was provided by Lou Lesko. He is a successful Advertising Photographer, and is also the founder of the BEST invoicing software for photographer’s called BlinkBid. You can listen to a great interview with him on Young Photopreneur Radio: Episode 4. You can also find more information about him on his website, at or follow him on Twitter @LouLesko!

HUSTLE AND FLOW: The Photography Industry

The compulsive urge to panic while waiting for your next job should be recognized as a medical condition. Many times over the last twenty years I’ve found myself on the verge of a complete breakdown, spending huge money on promos, emails, and sourcebooks, trying to figure out the magic bullet for getting noticed by the ad agency art buyers and art directors the people with the work. There were times when resources ran low and the whole effort seemed overwhelming. And then, out of the blue, often on the very day I’d be using the same coffee filter for the third time, a phone call.

“Hey, Lou, I’m looking at your promo and I think you’d be perfect for this ad campaign.

Bravado firmly restored, I’d confidently walk over to the blue sedan parked outside my house and tell the nice gentlemen from American Express to return to their office. I’m working again!

There’s a dazzling number of theories about what goes on behind closed doors in selecting a photographer for the next big ad campaign. Some say voodoo, others say sex. My ex-agent says sourcebooks, phone calls, and cocktails.

This is an article about the naked truth: What happens on the other side. Why an art buyer will suddenly pick up the phone and say the magic words, “We’d love to see your book.

To get to the nitty gritty, I spoke with eight art buyers and art directors from the East Coast, West Coast, and heartland of the U.S., all of whom were exceptionally candid and helpful. Not once did I encounter any attitude or hear a cross word about photographers. In fact, just the opposite. I learned that if you’re a good person who works hard and you’ve got some talent, you’re going to get booked; if you’re an ass and exceptionally talented, you’ll probably still get booked, but people will talk about you; and if you’re nice and exceptionally talented, you’ll get invited to the agency Christmas parties. Most importantly, if no one knows you exist, I’ll take that cappuccino with whole milk if you please.

Combined, the industry people I interviewed represent billions of dollars in global advertising campaigns. They see the work of hundreds upon hundreds of photographers a year. And yet the possibility of getting in the door is better than you think. I asked for absolute honesty, and they asked not to be directly quoted. Some of their revelations are truly surprising.

I’m no Picasso, but do you like it?

Annie Ross, the Art Services manager for RPA (think Honda), is holding a ruler. I’m reverting to my Catholic school instincts and hiding my hands under my thighs. She stands the ruler on its end on the desk and points to the 5-inch mark. This is the height of the pile of promos she receives every day. Across town, Jigisha Bouverat from Chiat/Day (think Different) is looking at a similarly sized pile that has just arrived on her desk. Two of the busiest art buyers in the industry, during the course of the day they will take the time to look at each and every promo in their respective piles. Many of the images won’t survive the brief audition. But the ones that do will end up in a file, waiting for a job that matches the photographer’s style. The truly exceptional images will end up on hallowed ground, the wall of the art buyer’s office.

Once I walked into an art buyer’s office and saw one of my promos on her wall. I was thrilled. In some ways it was more exciting than seeing one of my photos in a national magazine. Oddly, the design was about as simple as it gets: an image, my logo, and my Web address. After years of getting my graphic designer friends drunk and begging them to produce a promo, the one that makes it on the wall is the one that took me an hour to bang out in Photoshop. 

So what makes a really great promo? The universal response is: great work. Ultimately, the decision to hold onto your piece is completely subjective. There is no magic layout that will give your promo sticking power. That being said, framing your photography with a nice bit of graphic design can be an effective way to create some familiarity. One art director said that one of her favorite shooters has been using the same promo layout for years. She likes it because it’s recognizable, and she always looks forward to seeing his latest work.

Promos with multiple images are also well received, especially if they’re a campaign of photos. It shows that you’re consistent in your work. And if you assign yourself a series and then use it as a promo, you’ll be delivering the message that you can handle shooting an entire ad campaign. Just don’t make your layout feel jam-packed; it’s a fine line between versatile and crowded.

I am a very fabulous photographer.

Avoid the urge to convert your magazine covers and ads into promos. No one in this industry is going to be impressed that you’ve shot an ad before. Moreover, if an art director hates the design surrounding your image, you may be considered guilty by association. If your photography is strong, they will know you can shoot. Keep it all about you.

Just for the record, I come from an editorial background. When I started segueing into commercial agency work, I used my magazine covers as promos all the time. I called it the “aren’t I fabulous phase. Never got one call. Fortunately, no one looked at those promos long enough to remember my name. And as much as I’d like to say that switching to straight images was a conscious decision, it wasn’t. I just ran out of covers to show.

I’ll get better, I swear.

One of the fears I had when I was starting out had to do with artistic growth. My skill and style were always getting better. What I loved yesterday, I hated today. That’s the nature of being a photographer. So I was always concerned about the work I sent out in my promos. There were days when I wanted to call everyone on my mailing list to explain that I was so much better than that tired rag I had sent them last week. The truth is, no one cares. If the work sucks, it will be thrown out so quickly, no one will even notice your name. Unless, of course, the image is truly retarded, at which point your promo will handed around the office as a joke. If you’re at all concerned you could be that bad, then I suggest a career re-evaluation.

That sure is a nice sized…

A basic rule to keep in mind when designing your promo is, will it fit into a file folder? Because if you’re lucky, that’s where yours will end up. One art buyer I interviewed held up a beautifully designed promo poster. The photography was gorgeous, but there was no room to keep it anywhere. She said she would probably hold onto it awhile longer, but ultimately it was going to disappear because she couldn’t store it, show it, or hang it easily.


All the art buyers and art directors I interviewed said they liked email promos just fine. Hmmm, “just fine. I pressed the issue further. If you’re going to shoot for an agency, you’re more than likely going to be shooting some sort of print work. Art buyers and art directors like to see how your work translates to print. Also, when an art buyer is searching for a photographer, it is easier and far more efficient to go through the printed promos than it is to open up email after email, looking at images on the screen. Tangibility and print quality are important to these people, so help them hire you. 

Don’t give up on email promos, just don’t use them exclusively. According to my interviewees, an email promo is fantastic when someone is intrigued by your work and they have the time to check your Web site. But they also pointed out that when their inbox gets full, the email promos are the first to go. Lastly, think about this: When an art buyer who is a fan of your work leaves an agency, they usually leave their computer behind. They will, however, take their promo files with them.

Remember me?

For all you photographer’s assistants out there, if you’re on a set and the art director hands you a business card, don’t hesitate to send them something. Send them a printed anything with a note to remind them where you met. Art directors love to meet up-and-coming talent. If a low-budget, low-maintenance assignment comes across their desk, there’s a strong possibility you’ll get the job. 

Leave a message after the tone.

How often do art buyers and art directors return a photographer’s follow-up call? “Almost never. How do they feel about ambitious and tenacious photographers leaving lots of messages, trying to get their attention? “Annoying. My sources were almost in verbatim consensus on this. There’s a message here.

Calling to check in is not going to land you a job. If a job comes in that you are right for and the creative team has your promo on file, they’ll call you. If you happen to get an art director on the phone who has very little going on, they might agree to a meeting where you’ll get some feedback about your book, which is always a good thing. But if you’re leaving messages and no one is calling you back, don’t even remotely take it personally. These people are insanely busy all the time. Sometimes it’s hard to keep this in mind when you’re looking for work, because you have lots of free time to dwell on the fact that the phone is not ringing.

Your book, it’s so big.

Another way to get your work in front of art buyers and art directors is to publish it in the sourcebooks, or at least it used to be. 

Excuse me while I lock my front door.

For those of you not familiar with publications like the Workbook or the Black Book, they are basically giant directories of photographers. A photographer pays about $6,000 to $8,000 per page to be featured in these books, which are distributed to an enormous list of art buyers, art directors, and graphic designers nationwide. The biggest in both size and distribution is the Workbook. It used to comprise two volumes and has since been consolidated into one.

The truth about the sourcebooks came as a surprise. One art director said that out of ten Workbooks delivered to her agency, seven were discarded without being opened. Another said that when the Workbooks arrived at his agency this year, one was immediately enlisted as a doorstop. A worldwide-agency art buyer revealed that the big sourcebooks go out as soon as they come in some redistributed to photography schools, and the rest headed straight for the recycling bin. Another art director lamented, “It always kills me to get the Workbook, because it looks like they chopped down a whole forest.

The most common complaint about the sourcebooks was the sheer volume of photography with no selection criteria. Basically, if you’ve got the bucks, you’re in. This results in page after page of mediocre work. One art director made the analogy that the good work is like an orange juice commercial that gets stuck between a hemorrhoid spot on one side and an acne cream spot on the other; kind of makes the O.J. seem unappealing. On the other hand, the Workbook Phonebook directory is a great resource for locating a photographer. You can be included here as a simple text entry for free.

There are still a few sourcebooks that art buyers and art directors do look at. AtEdge is very selective about who goes into their book. They distribute several times a year, and the book resembles those mini Penguin classics, small enough to throw in a purse or computer bag. Communication Arts’ Photography Annual is hugely popular, mostly because it’s a collection of quality work that gets voted in. And it’s easy to carry.

If I can’t see you, you’re not there.

You’ll never get hired if no one knows who you are. Your work is your stamp, and it’s thrilling to learn that the powers that be are open to finding new and different talent. I never thought I would see the importance of the big sourcebooks diminish so precipitously. It just goes to show that as we advance and change as photographers, so does the ad industry that supports us. If you’re ever feeling settled because you think you’ve figured it out panic. Then go in search of the latest scoop.

In researching this story, I dispelled one of my own myths that I’ve been carrying around for years. I always assumed that art buyers and art directors hated managing all the promos that come their way. If I were them, I would. In fact, the opposite is true. They are passionate about good photography and about matching the right shooter to the job at hand. Just as you and I can look at a hundred of our own images and quickly edit the good from the bad, so can the creative execs. At all the agencies I visited, the promos were filed in an incredibly organized fashion. And as they come out for consideration, so do they go back, ready to be easily located next time.

So now I’m off to shoot my next promo. Right after I drop off a couple cups of coffee to the guys in the blue sedan parked in front of my house.



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