Interviews With Pro Photographers

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Interviews With Pro Photographers

Tero Sade: Portrait Marketer


Interview first published October 2006

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Tero certainly knows how to market. He was the Australian ‘inventor' of the children photo books that are currently sweeping the country and being promoted by portrait photographers. So what makes Tero tick? Where did it all begin?

Country Queensland

Twenty two years ago, Tero began work as a contract photographer in outback Queensland. In those days, there was a whole swag of companies that would canvas the country areas, going door to door, selling everything from brooms to photography.

"The studio I worked for would send me around the countryside to shoot the sittings, and then send in a salesperson a few weeks later to sell the photos. For three years I shot home sittings, sometimes 24 sittings in 24 different homes in a single day. I'd set up a canvas background, a monobloc studio flash system and a Mamiya RZ67. A sheep skin was thrown over the camera case for a posing stool.

"I'd photograph the family together, individually and in pairs, pack up and be outside in half an hour. It was a great experience and although the photography left much to be desired, I learnt how to deal with all sorts of people.

"Also, being on commission, I also learned that the better the experience my clients had, the greater the reward for me. I learnt that while the quality of my photography was important, if people had a positive, enjoyable experience when I took their photos, they were likely to order more prints.
"I clocked up around 10,000 sittings in less than three years and wore out the RZ67. It was very good grounding for working under pressure and it might explain why now I have trouble slowing down!"

Eventually, Tero decided to set up his own studio and chose the country town of Cooroy. He thought a Yellow Pages advert would bring in the business and he applied for a $3000 interest free loan from the government along with an $80 a week income subsidy. But did he get sufficient work from the Yellow Pages?

"Of course not! For the first couple of years, I used to pick ginger on a nearby farm to make ends meet. Then I realised I needed to learn how to market myself. It took me six to eight years to work it out, but suddenly the light bulbs started going on.

"When I began my studio, I didn't understand the difference between marketing and sales, or the difference between branding and a ‘call to action' in advertising. I was doing lots of branding, but I had no call to action and consequently very few people made contact.

"It took me quite a while to get my head around this and one of the turning points was when I joined the Institute. The AIPP in Queensland had a recruitment drive in Brisbane, a $10 seminar with 10 speakers. I think around 300 people turned up and the Institute signed up 60 new members.
"Just being exposed to photographers I looked up to as legends was fantastic, people like Wayne Radford and Rob Heyman. I wasn't game to talk to them, but just listening to how they presented and sold their work was eye-opening. For instance, I saw them using slide proofs instead of paper proofs and suddenly my business went from good to great."

Kodak Prism

Another big turning point for Tero's business was the introduction of the Kodak Prism preview system. The Prism combined a film camera and a video system with a two-way mirror, so when you fired the shutter, you recorded the image simultaneously onto film and a floppy disk. After the sitting, you could take the floppy disk into a viewing room and display your work immediately. According to Tero, two things happened.

"First, I could sell my work straight away, eliminating a second trip for viewing and selling. Next, it also eliminated the cost of paper or slide proofs, so while typically my cost of sales was running at around 25%, it dropped to 15% with this system. And if I didn't make a sale, the film went into the bin as there was no point processing it.

"The system was also great for cashflow because I had the money in the bank before the order went to the lab.

"I cringe a little now, but I saw a big opportunity in glamour photography. I figured if I could tie in the Prism technology with my experience as an itinerant portrait photographer, I could go back to the country areas with something new and exciting. The biggest hurdle was organising finance which, back in 1992, was around $35,000.

"Other photographers thought I was crazy, so did the banks who couldn't understand what I wanted to do. I got lots of practice giving presentations to financial people."

Tero used the Prism system for three years and during this time he honed his marketing skills, especially the ‘call to action' messages. However, he tired of travelling and living out of motel rooms, so he set up a permanent studio in Brisbane.

Third Party Promotions

It was in Brisbane Tero developed his third party marketing promotions. He would use another business's database or client list and create a joint promotion to sell his photography. It was important to identify businesses that had a similar target market to Tero, such as beauty therapists, hairdressers and fitness centres.

"We approach our marketing in waves as this allows us to manage our workflow. For instance, we had a pretty good handle on our conversion rate, so we knew that if we sent out 100 offers during the week, it would convert into 10 to 15 sittings. When the business expanded to a team of 12 staff, we needed 40 sittings a week, so we knew how many direct mail pieces to send out - I think it was around 400 a week.

"Of course, to get the 40 sittings we might have to do 50 or 60 consultations. Not every direct mail letter gets a response, not every consultation leads to a sitting, and not every sitting leads to a sale. However, by understanding our KPI (key performance indicators), we could (and can) pretty accurately plan out our year in terms of workflow. Then, by knowing our cost of sales and operating costs, we can work out how many sittings we need to do per week or per month to achieve our goals.

"The key ingredient in marketing portraiture (and many other products) is to have a ‘call to action'. A call to action is something to encourage people to act within a time period, such as a special offer. For instance, ‘Ring in the next 10 minutes to get a special price'. The call to action must tell them what you want them to do, when you want them to do it, and what they receive in return as a special offer.

"When doing marketing with third parties, the special offer is best delivered by the business you're working with. For instance, if you're marketing with a gym or a beauty therapist, they might give a special photography gift certificate to their clients as a celebration for being in business for 12 months. You need to have a genuine reason for the offer and naturally there also needs to be a time limit. You want people to pick up the offer and contact you straight away.

"I love watching those marketing shows on television. Sure, I have a bit of a chuckle, but the marketing we do is no different. You can learn a lot from those shows, just take the tackiness out of it and you'll find the basic elements are the same."

Book Project

"The book project was born while sitting around a table, having a cup of coffee and asking ourselves how do we make people phone the studio. I had been toying with the idea of a short-run coffee table book, but it has only been in the last five years that printing technology and digital photography has allowed us to do it economically.

"The idea we came up with is that every parent loves to immortalise their child and the thought of having them published in a high quality book would be very tempting.

"I also have a soft spot for the Make A Wish foundation, so I had a meeting with the local branch in Queensland and identified some issues we could work on. At the time, they believed their public awareness wasn't as high as it could be, so we designed a promotion that would raise their profile.
"We did newspaper and radio advertising, donated our session fees to Make A Wish and over the life of the project we've generated over $80,000 in donations. The project continues through Tempo and there are one or two other people doing their own versions of the book.

"However, the book project is a high risk business because people are coming to us without necessarily thinking of ordering portraits. Unless your sales and marketing skills are there, it can be difficult to convert them into a meaningful sale, but you have to. When we produce the book, we close the studio down for three to four weeks, so there's no other source of income during that time and we're relying on the portrait sales made earlier to pull us through. It's a big job and if you don't get all the components working together, it could get ugly.

Change Of Direction

"We built our business using third party promotions to a very successful level. We would shoot 40 to 50 designer shoots in a week (the goal was always 40) and I had a staff of 12. Then three years ago I was forced to take a step back from my business and ask myself what I was doing.
"I was diagnosed with clinical depression. The doctors wanted to put me on some crazy medications, but I decided it was better not to work as hard. My wife and I sold the business and moved to Tasmania for a quieter life, but I'm still working like crazy.

"I guess the difference now is that I don't have the same pressure I had in Brisbane. When we started business, we had a set of goals and a vision for what the business was to look like. I think we achieved all of those goals and I found myself on auto pilot. I didn't really have anymore goals. Perhaps this prompted my depression.

"I used to scoff at depression, but it's a very real condition and it took others to get me to do something about it because when you're in it, you don't recognise it.

"However, I love business and I love marketing, so I'm back into it in Tasmania. In fact, we've had some of the biggest weeks in twenty years down here, even though it's described as the poorest market in Australia.

"I see domestic photography as a speculative market. Unless we can get people in front of our camera and take their portrait, we have nothing to sell, so we have to create reasons for them to have their portrait taken.

"Everyone talks about having a family portrait taken, but creating reasons to do it now is what we need to be good at.

"My wife Julie and I are good at strategic planning. We map out the whole year and Julie is great with the figures. I love reading and understand financial reports, but I don't have the patience to sit down with MYOB and actually do it. Julie on the other hand has a very analytical mind and so, as a team, we can produce very accurate cash flows and budgets.

"For instance, I'll suggest a plan to, say, raise the average order and cut back the number of sittings we do and Julie will be back in five minutes with what this would do to our profit and cash flow.

"I guess this is our strength, combining marketing with strategic planning. When we work, we work hard, but then we take time out for holidays and enjoy the fruits of our work.

"Having that strategic plan underlies what we will do for the next 12 months. However, I don't actually have a written, long term plan, but I do have goals and aims and I'm always achieving and setting new ones. Certainly we have personal goals and our business goals are based on the personal ones.

"I realised in Brisbane that I had both business and personal goals, but the two didn't meet. Now I really harp on about achieving a balance, taking a step back from time to time and making sure that the two work together. In many ways my depression was the best thing that could have happened to me because it forced me to sit back and look at everything."

Selling Portraiture


"Photographers shouldn't look at each other as competitors. Our real competitors are the plasma televisions and overseas holidays. What we're really fighting for is the discretionary dollar. People don't need us, so we're competing with Harvey Norman and Flight Deck holidays.

"In our marketing, we create an image of being artists, as opposed to a supermarket photographer. From the first telephone call we're educating our clients about what we do. We explain every stage of the process and what they can expect. It's all about creating an experience for them. Of course, you have to produce the results as well and if your photography isn't up to scratch, you won't go far.

"My own photography style hasn't changed much since Brisbane, but everything we show a client has been tweaked a little in Photoshop. We don't show images straight out of the camera.

"We've just invested in a 60 inch plasma screen for the viewing room. In family portraiture, there needs to be a huge wow factor. Everything has to be great from serving good hot chocolate and coffee to a plush, comfortable lounge.

"I think we were one of the first studios to use a data projector. When clients walked in, they'd see the laptop on the table, but couldn't work out where the projected image was coming from. It was a big ‘wow' factor, but now that has mostly disappeared because a lot of clients have their own projectors.

"The next big thing is the 60" plasma screen, the biggest possible, so when clients walk into the viewing room there is a ‘wow' factor. They know roughly how much the screen costs and then you add in the impact of their photos combined with a sound track and the effect is fantastic.
"I use Peter Howlett's ProSelect software for sales and it's a fantastic tool, just awesome. It makes the whole process so easy to manage.

"I guess selling family portraiture is almost theatrical. It's about building up to the moment, creating some suspense so your clients are really keen to see the images. You almost play hard to get, offering them a coffee, chatting a bit and finally you run the slide show. Often the mother starts crying and we always keep tissues in easy reach.

"Children are constantly changing and I tell my clients you can't capture today tomorrow. These images are a moment in time."
"Really, business is all about systems. Once you get it right, it's so easy."

Tero Sade is available as a consultant. To contact him, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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