A few weeks ago I was in Hong Kong, enjoying dinner with some fellow photographers. The conversation turned (as it often does) to running a photographic business. In particular, my friends were wondering how to make a name for yourself and attract good clients in a crowded market like Hong Kong.
The Snare Of Sensible Strategy
As I sat and listened to them talk about marketing, branding and the like, I reflected on the plans and schemes I’ve cooked up over the years. Everything they said, like much of what I’ve tried, was eminently sensible. But, was it also a little wrongheaded?
It’s very hard, for a small creative shop, to be strategic. At the start, you are mostly going to be reacting to opportunities and it’s your ability to react well, that will determine your initial success, more than detailed long term plans.
In this sense, I agree with much of what David duChemin had to say recently in his piece, Planning Is Just Guessing: But With More Pie Charts and Stuff,
“…you can only plan for one what you’ll do, not for what life will do to you.”
Here’s A Strategy – Stand Out
When I think about the breaks and opportunities I’ve had in recent years, they’ve almost never resulted from my plan or strategy. A lot of them were just chance; a case of being in the right place at the right time. Apart from consistently trying to put my work out there in the public, I’m not sure much of the efforts I’ve put into branding and marketing have really paid off.
Almost always, when I’ve asked clients why they chose me, two things have stood out. One is the quality of my work (whether it be music, photography or writing), but more often it’s simply that what I do and they way I do it is a little “different.”
And, I really believe this difference, call it oddness, originality or weirdness if you like, makes my work attractive, far and above anything else.
As I said goodbye to my photographic friends and walked into the Hong Kong night what I wished I had said was – be weirder.
Sure, do all the branding and marketing stuff, get your website and your business cards all perfect, sort out your pricing if you must, but more than anything else, be weird, be something no one else has the talent, or courage to be, step outside the mainstream, every day.
All too often when I see videos of singer songwriters trying to make it, photographers trying to draw on audience on some site like 500px or even bloggers asking for links and traffic (and, heaven forbid, votes for blogger awards), I’m usually struck by a gnawing, soul numbing sense of sameness and conformity. It all just looks so alike it’s not only hard to care, it’s hard to notice.
Of course, it’s a delicate act. You need to be different and you need to be reliable. You won’t get paid, develop a following or be sought after if you can’t be trusted to deliver and keep developing as a creative voice.
I remember visiting Chile when I was young. I was born there, but grew up in Australia, with no real memory of birthplace. Keen to see the big rivers I had heard so much about as a child, I remember the shock of surveying one as it tumbled out of the forest at the foot of the Andes. I was expecting a big wide expanse of blue, but instead I saw a raging torrent of silt-laden water relentlessly charging down the hillside. It was awesome and fearful in equal measure, the thaws of the high mountains tearing through the countryside on a their march to the sea.
Our ideas about business strategy often assume the mainstream will be like a placid body of water we can fish in as it suits us. I think it’s more like a raging, brown torrent, clogged with snares we can barely see in the turbulent and troubled water. And, everyone is jumping in and thrashing about, just trying to survive.
The more we focus on the clogstream, the more delicate our creative position becomes. The more what we offer must be adapted to tastes not our own, which in turn makes it harder for us to judge our own work. The more we will worry about the effectiveness of things that really should be secondary to our craft. And, the more we will be forced, again and again, to compete on price and often to do so with people willing to deliver work far below the standard we set for ourselves.
The So-Called Future
Along with this, there is the challenge of creating a strategy that will allow our craft to grow and develop. It’s something I’m adamant about, the centre of any career strategy should be, become a better person, better at our craft and better in our place in the world.
But, recent research is suggesting we are mostly quite bad at predicting what sort of person we will become, or how much we will change in the coming years of our lives.
“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”
What if the person you could be in ten years was bolder, more original and frankly more amazing than the person you are right now? Have you thought about that? And, more importantly, are you building a business that will accommodate that amazing talented person?