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The PRO-Files: Take An Old-School Approach To Attracting Clients

“It’s so easy getting work when you put in a little effort.”

So says young Travis Carroll, two years into a budding career as an advertising photographer. We initially spoke to the Kansas City-based Carroll back when he was first making the transition from assistant to shooter. We checked in again recently to find out how it’s going. What has he learned that might be helpful for other young professionals? Expecting some reticence about industry changes, perhaps, or the challenges of social media marketing, we were surprised when the quote above was the first thing out of his mouth.

“It’s a lot easier than it seems, with a little effort and as long as you genuinely care,” Carroll says with a smile. “I love saying it that way because it throws people off. Everybody wants to know the answer to the same question, which is ‘how do you get work’—especially as an advertising photographer in such a small market in a very competitive climate. It’s funny because I say it all the time: ‘it's really easy.’ I say that because with a little bit of effort—as long as you’re focused, putting the time into creating your personal brand, staying persistent and finding out who the right people are and reaching out to those people—If you can get somebody on the other end of the phone it's usually pretty easy to get a meeting. And once you get a meeting, it's almost easier, I think, to seal the deal.”

Authenticity Matters

The essence of Carroll’s sales and marketing approach is simple: don’t concentrate on sales and marketing. Instead, he says, dedicate yourself to your passion for photography. Surround yourself with the kind of people you want to work for and with. And most important, be yourself. Authenticity rules and clients want that for their brands as well as from the people they work with. As long as you’re wholly invested in what you’re doing and people want to be around you, they’ll want to work with you too. Then landing gigs is a snap.

“If I can sit in front of somebody,” he explains, “it's almost a guarantee that I’ll get the job. I radiate how much I genuinely care about this. And from what I've been told by numerous sources, that is my greatest selling point. For example, a few weeks ago we had a meeting with a potential client in the GPS business. They came through the studio, they saw the work, we had lunch, and I just kept asking a lot of very specific questions about things that I'm genuinely curious about. And the next day the studio got a call to send me out of state on a four- or five-day project, and two weeks later we did the shoot.”

Do The Research

“Figuring out exactly what I want to do,” Carroll says, “that’s step one. Then doing the research and figuring out who's doing it. That comes through a lot of LinkedIn and Google searches and Behance creeping. And a lot of asking around: ‘Hey, who's doing this?’ Asking anybody and everybody, ‘Hey, do you know anybody at that agency? Great! Who led this team project?’ Research. I've become really good at that.”

Carroll doesn’t then solicit work with a sales pitch. Instead he simply reaches out to express interest and gratitude. The side effect is that sometimes work comes his way. Even when it doesn’t, he’s surrounding himself with people he admires.

“I've never even gone as far as mentioning ‘I want to show you my work,’” he says. “It's more like, ‘I just really appreciate what you've done. I just want you to know that I'm paying attention to the work that you're doing because I think it's really good. And I've pulled it for inspiration. I'd love to grab a coffee with you and just ask you about your process.’ And then nine times out of 10 that's successful. Because that way I'm approaching it as somebody who just appreciates what they're doing instead of, ‘Hey, I want something from you.’ Because at the end of the day I don't want anything from anybody. I just want to be surrounded with the people who are doing what I want to do so I can absorb that.”

Let Your Interest And Enthusiasm Come Out

Instead of cool and aloof, Carroll goes all-in on excited and interested. It makes sense, then, that a client would want to harness that exuberance for their work. It’s something he realized while assisting other photographers, some of whom simply weren’t very interested in what they were doing. (To this day Carroll emphasizes that one of the most valuable things a young photographer can do is to work as an assistant because you learn what to do as well as what not to do.)

How Graffiti And Pizza Can Strengthen Your Brand And Approach

Carroll’s genuine excitement for his chosen profession comes naturally, but it’s been aided along the way by lessons learned in decidedly non-photographic pursuits. He’s learned about branding, primarily, and positioning oneself uniquely in the marketplace. “What’s more unique to you,” he says, “than you?” He’s learned this thanks to experience as a college student, a pizza chef and a graffiti artist.

“I come from graffiti,” Carroll says, “street art, where we would go and just tag whatever we wanted. I wanted my name out there so that someone could see it from way over there, no matter what. By the way, I learned more about branding through graffiti than I have through advertising. The main thing I learned was consistency. Everything has to be consistent. Talking about graffiti, if you're not consistent and you’re all over the place, that's garbage. It’s nothing. But if you can consistently put the same straight letters in different places with different challenges and overcome those challenges all while remaining totally anonymous. That’s something. With consistency comes everything else.”

Carroll also learned the importance of consistently delivering on a brand promise when he was just a kid working in a pizza chain. “I actually learned this from Papa Murphy's pizza,” he explains. “It was my first job. They would measure out all of the ingredients so that the pizza would taste the exact same every single time. It was highly specific and done very deliberately. I saw that the intention to be consistent like that also had a subconscious side to it. It was being ingrained in all of us working there. Creating that consistency wasn’t just measuring ingredients, it was something that genuinely mattered. That experience has translated into the meetings I have with potential clients and where I’m exuding nothing but passion and excitement for all this stuff. That's just who I've become as a person. It comes naturally and consistently.”

The bottom line is you can’t fake it. Be personable, be genuine, and let your clients know this is who you are—whatever that may be. And be bold, Carroll says, because that sense of pride, the desire to own what makes one unique and valuable, is crucial. No one is going to care about what you do until you do and that has more of an impact on building your business than any complex multi-layered marketing scheme.

See more from Travis Carroll at his website: carrolltravis.com.

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.

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