Thursday, July 9, 2009

Markets, Marketing and Fees: some thoughts.

Hey Kirk,
I want to compliment you on your blog. It's very informative and entertaining. I am an editorial and commercial photographer based in the Midwest. I have shot quit a bit of architecture in the last year for a few editorial clients. I find it very rewarding and am looking into shooting more architecture. I am wondering if you would be willing to share a little bit about your business model? My clients in the past have all been either magazines or advertising agencies. I am wondering who I should start marketing for architecture work. I'm also wondering how most people are charging? Day rates, project rates, usage?
Any info you can share would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for the kind words. This is a big topic and I will add to it over the next few days so check back in. Who do you market architectural photography too? Who needs it the most? Architects, builders and "shelter" magazines. My largest volume clients are magazines, then architects and finally builders (and occasionally ad agencies). Part of that order is choice. I find builders to want the most pedestrian images and want bid photography, so they are my lowest priority (not always for sure, but generally speaking). Magazines have the most varied projects, which is stimulating, but generally don't pay great (not always though). Magazine work is your best advertising, so the low fees notwithstanding, magazines have their silver lining. Having studied art at the university level, architects and I speak the same visual language. I understand their needs the best and they value creativity. Hence, they the most
challenging and pay well.

My original strategy 30 years ago was to build a clientele amongst the less demanding builders as I built my portfolio, equipment and expertise. I then used that base for leverage to gain more lucrative and visually sophisticated design and magazine clients. For instance when shooting an important building for a contractor I would call the architect and ask if they need some photography too or want to share in the shoot. This strayegy worked so well that Iwould do it again if I had to start over again.

Variety is important from a economic stability point of view. When one market like residential may be down big commercial buildings may be stable or advertising in magazines may be booming. Right now residential is in the dumps but commercial is holding its own. That may switch next year as residential climbs out of the hole and commercial, which has a much longer lead time, starts to slow down. With residential seeing the light, magazine advertising (which pays for editorial) may boom as clients start to position themselves for the end of the recession.

Variety is also important in terms of keeping the creative juices flowing. A large office building is a very different challenge than a residence and I find those different challenges very stimulating.

There is no single fee strategy that works in all these markets. A national manufacturer will expect to pay far more than your neighborhood contractor. Day rates are still very common out this way, but even for me those vary tremendously depending on the size of the client and usage required. Fees for small local clients would make your skills suspect for large clients from major metropolitan areas. You need to know what is happening in both and position yourself based on your expertise and competition.

Without going into personal details, for a regular architecture documentation shoot, I have a shooting fee/day rate (which varies greatly depending on client), digital capture and processing fees (per image, multiplied for stitches, this is aimed at paying me a reasonable hourly rate for all the computer time), assistant fees, travel fees (if required), multiple copyright user surcharge (like say the architect and contractor want to split the shoot-it runs about half the shooting fee per additional client) and miscellaneous charges. These days we do approx. 30-40 images a day when documenting architecture, far more than we ever did with film (largely because digital is far more forgiving in mixed light situations so we can work faster). Art directed shoots for say a magazine will produce far fewer images.

Before the recession I was able to charge pretty much what I wanted without oftentimes even being asked for a proposal or estimate from established clients, but that has changed drastically. Recently I have even initiated significant fee reductions with some key magazine clients that are having trouble. Why? My business is largely built on long term relationships, some 30 years old now. We have gone through the highs and lows together and I want them to know I have not gotten so established that I'm inflexible and that we are still in this together. My general rule of thumb when the economy is growing? If you are established with clients that don't need to be educated about the value of AP? You should be having to do a hard sell about a third of the time to justify your charges. That way you are maintaining your base but always pushing the fee boundaries of your clients expectations. When no one is complaining about your charges-time to raise prices. We will get back there again, but if we are lucky it will be in two years.

New Mexico has not been hit as hard as many states and municipalities. A recent newspaper article indicated that house sales here were rebounding much faster than the national average and that stimulus money was already interring public sector construction in "shovel ready" projects. I feel for all you in some of the worst hit areas. I have a successful AP friend in the Midwest that is working at Hobby Lobby. Really tough. But I admire his flexibility. Do what you have to do.

A painter friend has an interesting recession strategy. With art you can't really back off prices without devaluing the purchases of previous clients. He raised his prices 20% and then told his galleries to offer a recession discount of up to 20%! It seems to be working for him.

More thoughts to come. I am buried with work so the strategies must be working.

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