How to be a better self-promoter in the creative industry
I was having coffee at a local coffee shop recently and came across one of the worse examples of in-person self-promotion I’ve seen in a while. This was a chance encounter and I certainly don’t know all the details of the situation but I left with a name, a URL, and a bad taste in my mouth. Because I’m sure this person wasn’t completely aware of their impact, I wanted to share the experience so you know where this kind of thing can go wrong.
Is was a Friday afternoon and I was in my favorite Fremont coffee shop getting some work done. A woman came in and asked if she could take a few pictures and when they were closing. The owner said “sure,” not quite knowing what he was getting himself into. About 30 minutes later, a photographer showed up, equipment was rolled in (equipment?!) and the “model,” an executive for a small, local software company arrived. The whole scene ended up being a bit surreal, for everyone in the shop, but I want to concentrate on the photographer.
Lesson 1: if you’re on the clock and representing your, or someone else’s, company, be mindful of the people around you. The difference between actually respecting your environment and just wanting to seem like you are is very clear to everyone else.
They were looking for the best spot for these photos and, as it turned out, it was right where I was sitting (maybe it was me and not the light … just saying). I was asked kindly if I would move and I said “no problem.” I moved to another table, got the laptop set back up, and went to the bar to order an espresso and watch the scene unfold.
I got back to my new place and the photographer and coordinator were hovering around. I knew what was going to happen.
“I’m SO SORRY! Can I ask you to move back? I’m so sorry… can I buy you a coffee?”
This was the coordinator talking. The photographer didn’t really acknowledge me or address me in any way. Hey, it was 5:30 on a Friday, maybe it was a long week, I didn’t think much of it.
I gave her a raised eyebrow and said “sure, no problem.” She offered coffee a few more times and apologized again and again. In my mind, really, no big deal. I was a bit distracted anyways and already got a lot of work done. And I could use the exercise.
Lesson 2: Attitude goes a long way. Bad days can happen but be mindful that you’re trading potentially good interactions with people just to sulk. Getting over yourself is not easy but it’s worth it.
But here’s the problem, something I thought about later. Not only did they scare off most of the customers that were remaining but they were shooting for free in a very nice coffee shop. The background, lighting, artwork, all of it carefully placed to make the kind of shop you’d want to take photos in. But there was only one person paying for that: the coffee shop.
The owner, someone I’ve gotten to know a bit over the last few months, came over and apologized, I said “really, no problem, this is entertaining.” I could tell, though, that this was not what he expected and the welcome was quickly becoming overstayed.
For the coffee shop, the problem was the company who contracted the photographer. They came in right before closing, scared a bunch of people off, and acted a bit like they owned the place. I’m guessing the owner wouldn’t have agreed to this if he had understood his required involvement.
Lesson 3: Make sure you understand the impact of who you’re interacting with. Do you know how many people a premium coffee shop owner knows? How about one that works near a Google and an Adobe campus? Do you know how much coffee tech folks drink?
The photoshoot lasted for about 30 minutes and, during that time, I thought up a great way for these folks to make up for my “extreme inconvenience.” As soon as they finished up, I said “hey, you offered to buy me a coffee, how about just a quick photo?”
The coordinator, truly in pleasing mode, said “what for? Like Facebook or something?” I said “yeah, an avatar photo.” As the coordinator was saying “I don’t think that’s a problem,” I looked over to the photographer with a smile.
She flatly shook her head no and looked away.
Feeling suddenly quite embarrassed, I said “well, couldn’t hurt to ask” and pretended like I was suddenly and deeply involved in my work. I glanced over at the owner and the regulars and they were all a bit wide-eyed.
Lesson 4: There’s a way to say “no” that doesn’t make someone feel bad for asking. It’s an art, to be sure, but it starts with not being offended by a question. There are people that ask for too much, I deal with them on a regular basis, but there are folks that are just asking. Like when you just ask to use someone’s coffee shop…
Now, let me be clear, I know what professional head shots are worth. I have a lot of respect for people who can take great photos. I can manage a good photo now and then but a lot of time, practice, and equipment goes into a great shot.
But, in this case, this photographer was being contracted so she was on someone else’s clock. Not only that, she used a great location for free.
Taking one photo of me would have taken about 2 minutes, resizing it down from high-res would take about a minute, and writing me a an email with a pitch to come in for professional shots (or to sell me the high-res) would have taken about 5 minutes. Good feelings all around and a potential new client. Instead, I’m writing this.
Lesson 5: It’s tough to do all of the time but independent contractors need to be aware of the sales opportunities around them. I’d say most people are not great with this and that’s OK. The rule of thumb is just be generous and it comes back in spades. There’s a long, wide grey area between an act of kindness for the sake of promotion and working for free; explore it.
At this point, it might feel like “making a mountain out of a molehill” and I’d tend to agree, except there are quite a few take-aways already. The thing that really rubbed me the wrong way happened right before everyone left.
The photographer came over and said “if you’d like to get some headshots done, I’m at blahblahblah.com.” I said “oh ok,” confirmed it, and started typing it into my browser. The site came up and I turned to ask her a question and she was walking away without another word. Nice sales pitch.
The rest of the group got to hear the whole story once the photo group left and we all had a good commiseration about the scene. Present were a web developer slash equity partner of a publishing company (me), a professional photographer and game illustrator, and a crew of baristas who make coffee for a whole community of creatives and technologists.
Lesson 6: You really never know who is in the room. Want to make a good impression? Do it all the time.
In the end…
I’m just saying, the whole thing could have gone a little better.