by Skip Cohen
Some time over the next few months, especially as we get into the first quarter trade show season, you’re going to start thinking about sponsorship. You’ve heard a number of speakers over the years, who were sponsored by a manufacturer or vendor in the photography space and you’re asking yourself, “Why not me?” Or, you’ll just wake up one morning, and for whatever reason decide your work is so good some of the companies out there should sponsor you. Sound familiar?
Chasing the sponsorship rainbow can be a daunting task, mostly because there really is no rainbow! The manufacturers, labs and service providers in our industry are buried in requests for sponsorship. The economy and competition present the obvious challenges and virtually everybody is cutting back on expenses. That puts you in line for support along with hundreds of other photographers and projects. What are you going to do to make yourself stand out?
Let’s see if we can develop a starter list of things for you to think about before you go “fishing”:
1. 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 creating great images with our cameras. NOT! Companies are interested in what you bring to the party in helping them sell their products and increase awareness for their brand. I learned a valuable way to look at sponsorship from Beth Meyer when she was at Kodak years ago. With every sponsorship request she had one key question, “How is this sponsorship going to help me 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 one of the magazines or having a story about your work in a magazine are all key things a company will be looking at if they’re considering sponsorship. If you’re not a household word, then the issue becomes your potential. You might be a young gun and have potential for influence with newer photographers or you might have developed a unique application for the company’s products.
2. How are you using the products or services you want to represent? Companies today have thousands of photographers to choose from if they’re looking for somebody who uses their products/services in exactly the way they were intended. It’s your job to find unique applications or events that will give a company greater exposure. Often, you’ve got to be the one to plant the seed of an idea.
3. Long term versus short term? There are all kinds of sponsorships to consider. Long term means just that – 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 was only looking to borrow a particular product for a single application. Another example would be a charity event you’re about to photograph and looking for a lab to pick up the cost of prints in exchange for some level of exposure. The list goes on and on and often it’s great to start with a very short term project, prove yourself and as you build the relationship, work on something more long term.
Obviously everybody would love long term sponsorship, but you have to walk before you can run and until you’ve made yourself unique and a virtual legend, most companies have limited funding for extensive support. It’s also important to define “extensive support”. The max is staying independent as a photographer, but being paid by a company on a regular basis to represent their products. These are pretty rare today, but would mean being paid on a monthly retainer or for every program you taught using or promoting a company’s products/services.
4. 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, will often give a photographer access to all the great services they offer. The same would go for an album company, who would be willing to supply a photographer with product for his/her clients. Obviously at the sponsor level a barter for product/services trumps cash payments.
5. 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 furious because a company didn’t think they were good enough to be sponsored. Even more absurd is the fact that they protested too hard, aggravated everybody in the company and wound up taking years to recover. Nobody is interested in taking on your emotional baggage when it comes to handling rejection.
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 a rejection the more likely you’re going to stay in focus for future projects.
If you’re really stuck and don’t know if you’re ready to be sponsored, then it probably means you’re not ready. Sponsors are looking for exposure, confidence, quality along with your reputation, integrity and obviously skill set. Sponsorship is all about relationship building – so, don’t rush it, but work to get to know the people you hope to work with, their goals and products.
Even though I said there really isn’t a sponsorship rainbow, it’s still a great metaphor. A lot of great rainbows come just after incredible storms. Chasing sponsorship takes patience and sometimes you have to learn to wait out the “bad weather”!