How to Get (And Keep) a Photography Sponsorship with Skip Cohen
My June article was about becoming a photographic educator. Near the end, I talked a little about sponsorship and the importance of recognizing your sponsors. This month, we tackle sponsorship itself.
At some point in your career, you’re going to be thinking about sponsorship, especially if a sponsor actually contacts you. Here are several things to consider.
What do you have to offer?
In my previous life at Hasselblad, I used to get requests from photographers who thought they should be sponsored just because they were using our cameras. Companies are interested in what you bring to the party to help them sell their products and increase awareness of their brand. I learned a valuable way to look at sponsorship from Kodak years ago. With every sponsorship request, they had one fundamental question: How is this sponsorship going to help us sell more Kodak products?
Being a great photographer is only a qualifier. Being a requested speaker, being active in social media, having a blog, writing for a magazine or having a story about your work in a magazine are all key things a company looks at when considering sponsorship. If you’re not a household word, then the issue becomes your potential. You might be a young gun and have the potential for influence with newer photographers, or you might have developed a unique application for the company’s products.
How are you using the products or services you want to represent?
Companies have thousands of photographers to choose from if they’re looking for somebody who uses their products/services in precisely the way they were intended. It’s your job to find unique applications or events that give a company greater exposure. You’ve got to be the one to plant the seed of an idea.
Long term or short term?
There are all kinds of sponsorships to consider. Long term means you’re looking to represent the company with some level of support or compensation for a year or more. A company with a fully supported mentor team is at the top of the list for long-term relationships.
At the short-term extreme would be a photographer who is looking to borrow a particular product for a single application. Or maybe you’re shooting a charity event and want a lab to pick up the cost of prints in exchange for exposure. The list goes on and on. Start with a very short-term project. Prove yourself and begin to build the relationship.
How are you willing to be paid?
Are you looking for cash reimbursement of your expenses and speaking fee, or are you willing to take support in trade? Being sponsored by a lab, for example, gives a photographer access to all the excellent services the lab offers. The same goes for an album company that is willing to supply a photographer with product for her clients. Obviously, at the sponsor level, a barter for product/services trumps cash payments.
There’s another way to be sponsored that so many artists forget about. Companies need images captured with their products/services. Years ago, my buddy Scott Bourne sent me images captured with the Hasselblad X-pan. I didn’t know Scott back then, but the work he sent was stunning. A photo magazine contacted me looking for somebody new for an article on the camera. I sent them Scott’s work, and they wound up doing a six-page story that led to more business for him down the road.
How’s your reputation?
Some of you are going to laugh about this, but I’ve seen some of the most obnoxious people on the planet get furious because a company didn’t think they were good enough to be sponsored. Even more absurd is the fact that they protested, aggravated everybody in the company and wound up taking years to recover. Nobody is interested in taking on your emotional baggage.
Play it cool if you get turned down. Take the time to thank whoever you were working with for their time and consideration. The more professional you handle rejection, the more likely you’ll be considered for future projects.
Don’t just be a hired gun.
Hired guns are a dime a dozen. Anybody can find someone to endorse their products. Approach companies whose products and services you use and believe in. Be careful how many sponsors you line up. A problem develops when you go beyond three or four companies, and their messages get lost. Your bio/description at a convention program starts to look like NASCAR logos.
Pay attention to whom you’re contacting. Years ago at Hasselblad, a well-respected photographer sent me a letter requesting sponsorship and sent the same letter to our competitor, Henry Froelich, then president of Mamiya America. His big mistake was sending Henry’s letter in the envelope to me and my letter to Henry. Henry and I laughed about it, and it turned both of us off to ever sponsor this photographer.
Stay in contact, but don’t be a pest.
This is critical to chasing sponsorships. Everybody you approach, if you’re a class act and your work is good, would love to sponsor you in some way, but funding is limited. The staff at any company is also limited. You’re sending in work or contacting overworked spread-too-thin managers for support. Give them time to review your project. Don’t get in their face. If you don’t hear back after a few weeks, no news just means no news. Be patient and don’t be a pest.
If you’ve been turned down, put the company on an active list of booths to visit at each convention/trade show you attend. Don’t pitch them each time you see them—just wander by and be friendly.
We’re a small industry.
For those of you living in small towns where you know every photographer within 50 miles, our industry might seem huge, but we’re relatively small. Virtually every manufacturer has staff who have worked at other companies. We’ve all been to the same rubber-chicken retirement dinners, and multiple companies often share an industry icon.
This is an industry where we all know each other. Don’t assume because one company can’t bring you on board now that your name isn’t going to stay out there for a little while. Outstanding images are outstanding no matter what.
Be consistent in your message.
This is one of the most significant areas that gets missed all the time—more so with an already-sponsored speaker than a new photographer. For whatever reason, they forget who’s sponsoring them. Now and then it’s arrogance, but most of the time it’s just getting too busy and too involved and forgetting to plug their sponsors.
I mentioned this in my May article, but it deserves to be repeated: Find creative ways to mention your sponsors and their services/products in programs where you’re speaking, blog posts, tweets, etc.
Most important of all, be patient and don’t give up.
Being sponsored is about building your brand and relationships. It’s about people getting to know you, your work and what you represent. It’s also about the strength and quality of your network. Today’s most supported photographers never approached most of their sponsors—their sponsors approached them.
If you’re stuck and don’t know if you’re ready to be sponsored, it probably means you’re not ready. Sponsors are looking for exposure, confidence and quality—along with your reputation, integrity and skill set. Sponsorship is all about relationship building, so don’t rush it. Work to get to know the people you hope to work with, their goals and products.
Lastly, don’t compromise on the quality of your images or your relationships. Create the very best images you can. Make yourself habit-forming to your clients and the vendors you work with—and always exceed expectations.