Winning new clients in 2012

Guest opinion:
Len Grant considers the most effective way to develop your photographic business

New year. New start. It's the time when we all lift our heads up from our day-to-day responsibilities and try and see into the future. Where do we want to be and how are we going to get there?

For professional photographers, I guess, getting some new clients will be one of the new year resolutions. And this year that's going to be tougher than ever. Business development isn't everyone's favourite pastime but, if you're going to make it through this downturn, it has to be near the top of the to-do list.

Not so long ago I asked a group of final year photography students about their aspirations for the coming months.
"I want to be a documentary photographer," said more than one. Fine.
"And where would you sell your work?" I asked.
"Magazine supplements," they replied, "like Guardian Weekend." Fine again, it's great to have ambition.
"And who at the magazines are you going to contact, and how?"
The same was true for aspiring fashion and commercial photographers: only an idea of the sector in which they'd like to work but no plan beyond that, and this is just weeks before they step off the edge of the academic cliff and have to fly.

It's real people who commission photographers, not companies or magazines, and it's real people who need to know you exist.

So here's my top tip for 2012. Draw up a top ten of potential new clients and pin it up next to your computer. List the companies (or magazines, agents, galleries) you'd like to work for and next to each include the name of the person you need to influence. For a salesperson this is basic stuff, for photographers it's too often forgotten.

Your top ten is a hit list. Magazine editors, press officers, public relations consultants, graphic designers, architects, web designers, artists, the local flower shop/restaurant/that small factory on the edge of town where your dad's mate works. Anyone you might expect to get work from. But be realistic. It's fine to aspire towards the national magazines but remember you can gain confidence and experience from smaller successes first.

Yes, websites are crucial and yes, social media should be part of the mix but sitting waiting for the phone to ring is not enough. Some commissions do come out of the blue it's true but generally you won't win work unless you put yourself in front of your potential clients.

Start working through your list and develop a strategy for getting yourself noticed. So, for instance, if you think your work might suit a particular graphic design company, the first thing you need to do is find out who is the right person to influence. This is the easy bit: phone and ask. Next decide how you might contact them.

Some time ago I asked some graphic design friends what it was like on their side of the fence. One said they get a dozen emails each day and mostly ignore them. They would only see new photographers who had been recommended. Conversely, another said they preferred an email approach and web link. They try to see as many new photographers as they can because they never know what the next new job will be and what style of photography they will need.

So you'll need to try different approaches as not all clients are the same. Certainly if you can get recommended that's best. Maybe you know someone who can introduce you. I was once so impressed with a new photographer's work that I set up meetings with some of my own clients so she might pick up some 'entry-level' commissions. She did.

Whatever approach you take – email, phone, old-fashioned letter, flyer – be persistent but not too persistent. Stalking is a real turn-off.

You will go through the whole of your top ten hit list and, if you are lucky, get one appointment to show your work. You might need to replenish your hit list several times before you actually get a commission. It's not easy, but if you make business development part of your daily routine, and spend as much time on that as you do on Twitter, Facebook or aimlessly surfing the web (I'm as guilty as the next person), then 2012 will be a good year. Good luck.

Len Grant's home page:

Redeye, Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Market Buildings, Thomas St, Manchester M4 1EU, UK
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