Building Blocks: Advertising and Communications with Skip Cohen


Building Blocks: Advertising and Communications with Skip Cohen

Each article in this “Building Blocks” series has been about a specific component of building your business, but this month I want to hit on developing your style. I’m not talking about your photographic style, but the way you communicate.

So many of you insist on beating a dead horse. You’re too verbose or just plain wasting your money on ego trips via advertising. Whether you’re writing a blog post, policy statement, email or paying for advertising, this month I’m putting all of them under the overkill umbrella.

Stop wasting your time writing novels. Stop writing policy statements that you share on your website that would scare an IRS auditor. Stop wasting money on big ads when a smaller one would do just as well.

Let’s take a look at your business and how you can slay the overkill dragon.

Policies on Your Website

Your website is about you, your products and your services. Your blog is about sharing what’s in your heart. The word policy should be forbidden on either one. Policy statements are for contract discussions.

Most of the time when I see a policy statement on a photographer’s website, it’s about deposits and cancelation fees. When I question the artist about the history of the statement, there’s always a story about getting “burned once.” I’m all in favor of policies, just not the minute a potential client walks through your door, and definitely not in long, tedious paragraphs.

Stop managing by the exception. Just because you had a problem in the past doesn’t mean you have to scare away new clients before they’re even in the “family.” Put your policy statements in your client’s contract, and discuss them when you’re negotiating your services.

Written Communication

Most of you see yourself as an artist, and that means you’re probably more right-brained than left. It’s hard for you to express your thoughts in writing. That also means you might need somebody to proofread what you write. You might need to read what you’re about to send or post out loud several times.

You need to work on being more direct and getting to the point. Stop writing like you did in high school when you were told to write a 500-word report. There’s no room or need for fillers in business communications.

I love It was suggested by a good friend, and it helps me find run-on sentences and other mistakes. Put that together with spell check, and you’re golden. But it’s even better to have somebody else read what you wrote; if that person has a flair for writing, even better.


Advertising might seem like a completely different topic, but it all falls under the overkill umbrella. Pay attention now—because my goal is to save you money. At some point, you’re going to consider advertising in some sort of printed material, usually a local magazine.

Now and then a photographer shows me an ad and says, “It got me absolutely no business. What did I do wrong?” While every situation is different, here are some things to think about the next time an ad rep chases you down.

– Ask about the demographics of the publication. Who’s the readership? Remember, 98 percent of the decisions to hire a photographer (in the portrait/social categories) are made by women.

– Never react to sales reps who want to tell you what your competitor is going to be running. It’s unethical, but more importantly, it’s a tactic to get you to run an even bigger ad. And bigger isn’t necessarily bigger.

– Stop thinking you need a full-page ad to have a presence. Bruce Landau, who I first got to know when he was VP of Bogen Photo (now Manfrotto), was the master of fractional ad space. He’d run two to three consecutive 1/3-page ads in the magazine, always right read (the right page when the magazine is open).

Fractionals can have an impact. I know your ego wants a big full-page ad, but you can request a fractional on a page with editorial content in most magazines. That assures there are no other ads on the same page if you’re running a half-page ad or even a third.

– You need consistency. You’ve got to run a minimum of three times in print advertising. So when you’re negotiating, keep that in your back pocket. Negotiate your best one-time run and then go for 2x and 3x. Whatever you decide to do, you’re wasting money with a one-time hit.

Here’s a quick story about how my ego got in my way back in my first few months as the new president of Hasselblad USA.

We had a new ad campaign that was reaching out to the serious hobbyist. I had inherited the campaign from the previous president, who had passed away. Even if I had thought it was a bad idea, I never would have been able to challenge it as the new guy. But I thought it was incredible.

We had double-page ads in National Geographic, Time magazine’s top zip code editions and the Sunday New York Times Magazine. When the ads came out, I was blown away. It was a complete and total ego trip, and here’s how it failed miserably.

We had enough money only for those publications, and I think it was for just two issues of each of the two magazines and one New York Times. That meant all the photography magazines were off the schedule.

While the data all showed strong pass-along readership, we never really saw any extended results. The publications came out, the ads created a little noise and then just stopped. There was no consistency in our presence. We were the new kids on the advertising block, and then we were gone.

While most magazines want you to think editorial is always objective, it favors advertisers. When we pulled our ads from all the photography magazines, all our editorial support stopped as well. We had focused on the serious hobbyist, who back then was a third of our business, but we suddenly got no ink in front of the other two-thirds, the professionals.

Your budget and the importance of building a solid reputation and brand needs to always be ahead of your ego.

Let’s look at a few additional things you can be doing to make any advertising, whether in print or on the Internet, more effective.

– As I mentioned already, editorial content isn’t always objective, online or in print. Here’s an idea to try, but it won’t work with every magazine. Often as a new advertiser, especially with a commitment, you can negotiate for some additional ink in the form of editorial. Think business profile or a story about a fundraiser or community event.

– Get to know the staff at the publication. Knowing the sales rep is fine, but you want to get to know the editorial staff on a first-name basis. This is about relationship building, and you’re not doing anything except developing friendships.

– Stop thinking you have to be a solo act. Overkill comes in all forms, including your ego getting in the way when it comes to any outgoing communications. Don’t be afraid to look for partners to share the costs. A wedding photographer, for example, can work together with a noncompeting vendor like a florist, venue, caterer or wedding planner.

Overkill comes in all forms, and it’s usually driven by ego or fear. Both are huge liabilities in building your business and brand.

Don’t let your ego drive your spending. Don’t let fear of “what if” create negative self-fulfilling prophecies about the outcome of any project or event. And, on sensitive written communications, whether letters, blog posts, website content or even a comment on Facebook, take the time to think through what you’re about to publish.

Get the full story

To read the full article, launch the digital version of the October 2015 magazine.

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