Promo Pieces That Work

May 16, 2017

Successful self-promotion is all about being at the top of a client’s mind when they need the kind of photography you shoot. It’s a timing problem solved in part by creating promotions that creatives remember because they hang them on the wall or display them on a shelf. We asked art buyers about the promotions they’ve saved in recent months, and they told us about a number of examples. Here we feature five of those promotions, with information from the photographers about how they designed and executed them. The amounts the photographers spent to produce and distribute the promotions vary widely.

Producing a book or mailer is a creative process, so there’s no recipe for success. But the most memorable often feature personal projects, the better to show clients what you are most passionate about shooting. “You hope to find an assignment that connects with that, hoping to capture that spark for the magazine,” says WSJ. magazine photography director Jennifer Pastore, who was impressed by the passion project that Martien Mulder published in her book, The City Beautiful.

Good design is another element common to most successful promotions. Savvy photographers understand the pitfalls of DIY design, and hire good designers instead. (Question: You wouldn’t recommend DIY photography to a designer, would you?) All of the efforts we feature here were professionally designed, because clients aren’t judging promos just by the photographs. The presentation also reflects the photographer’s taste, their care for the projects they worked on—and it helps separate the promos that creatives save from those that go straight to the bin.

© Martien Mulder

© Martien Mulder

Martien Mulder’s The City Beautiful

Martien Mulder’s 2016 self-published book, The City Beautiful, celebrates the architecture of Chandigarh, the Punjabi city designed by Le Corbusier after Indian independence. Mulder, who shoots portraits, fashion and travel, had first visited Chandigarh on an assignment 15 years ago. “It’s rich in color and graphic shapes,” she says. “I wanted to go back to focus only on the poetics of the architecture itself.” In 2011, she spent ten days exploring the forms of the concrete buildings in the harsh sunlight, guided by Le Corbusier’s principle: “Architecture is the skillful, correct and magnificent play of volumes assembled in light.” She says of the project, “It was the first time I went on a trip saying: I just wanted to create work for myself.”

Back at home in New York, she felt she had the makings of a book. After editing and reediting her images, she consulted Hans Seeger, an art director, “design fanatic” and friend who has published dozens of books. He asked Mulder what her budget was. She had set aside $20,000 to cover printing, binding and Seeger’s fee. His design, to be printed on uncoated stock, incorporated gatefold pages with cutouts mimicking Le Corbusier’s architecture. The juxtapositions of images made the book “like an architectural walk through the city.” In her spare time, Mulder adjusted the sequencing, and Seeger made more revisions, “until we were satisfied with all those elements,” she says.

Fox Company in Milwaukee printed 750 copies. Seeger kept some, Mulder sold some through Dashwood Books in New York, at a booksigning in Paris, and through a European distributor. The rest she gave to creatives she admires and clients who have worked with her over the past 15 years. She says of the gifts, “This is to say: This is who you’ve helped me become.”

Among the recipients was Jennifer Pastore, photography director at WSJ. magazine, who had previously assigned Mulder to shoot fashion and portrait stories. “It’s just a beautiful book. The photography is beautiful and the way she’s presented it is singular,” Pastore says. She likes seeing photographers’ personal projects, she says. “You see what sparks their passions. You hope to find an assignment that connects with that, hoping to capture that spark for the magazine.” Pastore says WSJ. recently assigned Mulder two “biggish assignments,” as yet unpublished, that suit her sensibility and harness her love of design, architecture and travel. Mulder had previously talked about her interest in architecture, Pastore recalls, but the book “helped refine our sense of the work she most wants to do.”

By self-publishing, Mulder was able to craft a book that expressed her “best self,” she says. “Everyone who sees it sees that this is so me.” —Holly Stuart Hughes

Related: Promos We Kept: For the Love of Making Something

© Zen Sekizawa. Photo by Theresa Raffetto for <i>PDN</i>

© Zen Sekizawa. Photo by Theresa Raffetto for PDN

Zen Sekizawa’s Posters within a Poster

Zen Sekizawa’s printed promo comes in a shiny gold envelope. Inside is a 16 x 23-inch poster, and wrapped inside that is a set of six “mini posters,” each about 7.5 x 10.5 inches. Sekizawa produced it and sent it out last fall at the urging of her rep, Maren Levinson at Redeye. As a former photo editor, Sekizawa knew that too many promos are easily disposable, so she wanted to make hers feel “as special as I possibly [could].” To that end, she asked Jesús de Francisco, a director and a trusted friend, to design the piece, and they spent months contemplating its final form. “We just nerded out so hard on what we thought this promo was going to be about,” she tells PDN.

The brainstorming mostly involved looking at design books. Among the inspirations were Swiss Photobooks from 1927 to the Present: A Different History of Photography, and a copy of mono.kultur, the quarterly Berlin magazine that takes an unconventional approach to editorial design, which Sekizawa came across at the LA Book Fair. She and de Francisco settled on the idea of nesting posters. Sekizawa sent him a folder of images to work with.

Once de Francisco designed the piece, Sekizawa paid around $3,000 to print 2,500 copies—“really a friend deal,” she says—at Pacific Graphic International. She spent an additional $800 for the gold envelopes, and $1,300 for postage to mail 1000 copies. Before she could mail them, though, she had to sort, fold and package the pieces. So she threw a party and asked friends to help. “I don’t know how many favors I’ll need to return,” she says, but adds that she likes that the promo was a community effort.

Although the piece features her commercial work, “We wanted to send something that felt more personal,” says Sekizawa. “It’s not personal work, but it’s the work that feels most like me.” One person who received the piece was Lana Kim, executive producer at L.A. creative agency Ways & Means, which had worked with Sekizawa on projects in the past. She put one of the mini posters behind her desk. “To me, I look at these and I see the artfulness of Zen’s work,” she says. Rather than show her a different side, “It reinforced the way I felt about her work already.” —Rebecca Robertson

Related: Promos We Kept: A Peek at the Photographers’ Point of View

© Douglas Adesko. Photo by Theresa Raffetto for <i>PDN</i>

© Douglas Adesko. Photo by Theresa Raffetto for PDN

Douglas Adesko’s Portfolio Mailer

Photographer Douglas Adesko’s 22-page, large format (12 x 15-inch) mailer is “a mini ‘old school portfolio’ in many aspects [with] simple design, great color, beautiful images, all well laid out in single page and spread format,” says BBDO senior producer/art buyer Cameron Barnum. Although Adesko’s goal is to produce a printed promotion once or twice a year, it had been several years since his last promotion. “It was overdue,” he says. He explains that he’s been busy with a lot of work he enjoys for tech clients, including HP, Microsoft and Google. But he was starting to worry about being pigeonholed. “The goal of this promo was to feature work that wasn’t focused around tech,” he says. “I was conscious of not wanting to be thought of in that narrow way.”

Adesko hired San Francisco designer George McCalman to design the piece. “We’ve collaborated before, and he does a lot of promos for photographers.” Adesko sent McCalman a selection of about 40 images, some of them from personal projects, but most of them shot during assignments. “My work tends to be more commercial, and a little less fun than what I would want to use in a promo, but I can usually find moments [to shoot] around the edges of jobs,” he explains.

Adesko left the final image selection and sequencing to McCalman. “I deferred to him on that. It’s great to have a different perspective. He chose things that weren’t [my first choice], but that I ended up liking,” Adesko says.

He mailed 2,500 copies to art buyers and art directors at agencies and design firms around the country in late November and early December. The total cost, including design, printing and postage was about $15,000, Adesko says. “That might be more than I’ve spent on a single promotion before, but [the expenditure] seems reasonable to me. Over time, the benefit is a ten-fold [return on investment].”

The response is difficult to gauge, Adesko says, but he adds, “I’ve definitely had more calls than normal. I think I get an average of three or four calls a month [about assignments], and in the last couple of months it’s been seven or eight calls.” Another indication that the promotion is paying off, he says, is that a lot of the calls have been from clients he hasn’t heard from before. —David Walker

Related: Promos We Kept: Bigger is Better

© Justin Fantl. Photo by Theresa Raffetto for <i>PDN</i>

© Justin Fantl. Photo by Theresa Raffetto for PDN

Justin Fantl’s Calendar Promo

When Justin Fantl set out to create a new promo last year, he thought—as many photographers do—about making something that wouldn’t get tossed after the recipient looked at it. “You hope that these promos end up living around the art buyer, whether that’s on the wall of their cubicle or on their wall at home, or wherever it might be,” he says. He had the idea to create something that served a purpose beyond simply promoting his work: a calendar. “A lot of [promos are] really cool to look at and to hold, but then that’s it; they have a pretty short shelf-life,” he explains. “The aim was to do something that would be useful and be something that [people] would actually keep around for a longer period.”

For the design of his calendar, Fantl turned to Tom Crabtree, creative director and founder of the San Francisco-based design firm Manual. Crabtree had hired Fantl for a project that reminded him of a calendar, so “he immediately came to mind,” Fantl says. He gave Crabtree a wide selection of recent images and, with one exception, went with the creative director’s edit for the calendar. The 12 photographs include food photographs and conceptual still-lifes, landscapes and aerial images. They mix Fantl’s bright, colorful studio work with moodier images made on location. Fantl’s eye for shape and pattern is evident throughout. The calendar has a simple blue cover with Fantl’s name, and a page that includes image titles and contact information for the photographer and his agent.

Fantl, who creates a couple of promos per year, sent the calendars to 1,000 people, spending roughly $9 on each piece for printing and postage, which he says is “pretty pricey” for him. In addition to getting his name and work in the hands of clients, his promos enable him to “put together my work in an interesting way.” He’s produced zines and posters in addition to the calendar. Fantl says he received a “particularly good” response to this promo. He’s noticed it on the walls of art buyers’ offices when he’s gone in for meetings, and his agent told him that a couple of clients asked during a meeting if he was going to produce another calendar. “The short answer is, Yeah, I’m going to make more calendars,” he says. —Conor Risch

Related: Promos We Kept: These Are Useful

© Ryan Young

© Ryan Young

Ryan Young’s Winter 2017 Email Promo

Editorial and commercial shooter Ryan Young fills his quarterly email newsletters with images and summaries of his latest projects. His most recent email blast, titled Winter 2017, opened with a snippet from a timely project called “Christmas Eve with Raiders Fans for ESPN,” and also included previews of five other projects from late 2016—most consisting of two photographs and a short summary of the assignment for each.

He produces the newsletter using an application called Campaign Monitor. “I used one of their templates and tweaked it to feel like my website,” he says. “I like to keep everything from my portfolio to my promos clean and minimal.” Young pays $9 per month for the service, which allows him to send email blasts to up to 500 contacts.

“He keeps it light and breezy with his positive and enthusiastic voice, and then he simply lets the work speak for itself,” says freelance photo editor Audrey Landreth. “It’s a clean design that’s easy to scroll down through. His energy is excited and he showcases a nice range of both professional and personal work, which also speaks to his love of shooting all the time, not just for jobs.”

Young sends the newsletter to a targeted audience of 272 people, “a combination of people I’ve worked with, wish to work with and friends,” he says. That contact list has taken him roughly four years to develop and includes a mix of connections he’s gathered through Agency Access, his rep (Redeye), friends and personal research. Once the newsletter is sent, Young doesn’t do much else to promote it. “I already use social media to post updates, so I like to keep the newsletter exclusive to those email contacts,” he says.

Young can’t say for sure whether he’s received assignments directly from his newsletter promos. “I never really ask if the job was the result of my email blast,” he says. But he does receive feedback—usually along the lines of, “Work looks great!” or, “Thanks for sharing!” His Winter 2017 newsletter drew encouraging replies from contacts at Wieden + Kennedy, MullenLowe and others, he says. —Stacey Goldberg

Related: Promotions that Get Clients’ Attention