Sponsorship: Some Questions Answered.
This post was instigated by reader GKB who asked me to speak to the issue of sponsorship. Before I say anything I should say that everything I learned about sponsorship I learned from Matt Brandon, The Digital Trekker. Matt is my colleague and co-conspirator on the Lumen Dei tour, he should be writing this.
There are a number of variables that go into a successful sponsored relationship. No matter what the nature of that sponsorship, the first thing that the potential sponsor will look for is credibility. If you do not have a level of perceived professionalism, cachet, or talent, the sponsor will look elsewhere. When a company sponsors talent of any kind it is because it sees an advantage to linking itself to them. To be really blunt: if you don’t have the talent, or the perceived talent, they’ll probably pass. It’s a cruel thing, but companies want to be associated with the best. So make sure your chops are up and you have your best foot forward (and polished) before you even think about knocking on doors.
Secondly, there are no free lunches (ok, there are some, but I’ve already eaten them and they are few out there). The perception is that sponsorship = they give you free stuff. Not so. It’s a business exchange. The terms of that exchange are what make one deal differ from another. You need to anticipate their needs, know your skill set, and be willing to do whatever you can do to bring value to the relationship. There is no reason they will "give you free stuff" unless there’s a compelling reason to do so. Usually thats seeing their logo on websites, having product reviews, and being able to say "we sponsor this guy". Sometimes it’s photos of their gear in use in some dusty corner of the world, sometimes it’s writing articles for the website.
Don’t misunderstand me – there are some very generous marketing folks out there and sometimes sponsored relationships feel a little unevenly win-win in favour of the photographer – I don’t want to imply that sponsored relationships are only a matter of return on investment. The companies which I have dealt with in the photographic industry have been universally kind and helpful, even when the answer to my inquiry is "no" or "not at this time."
Which brings me to another point Matt Brandon mentioned recently – that timing is everything. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting the right person at the right time. If you fail once don’t let it be a sign to give up. Give it a couple months or a year, then send another inquiry asking if things have changed.
Sponsorships are generally found with the manufacturers, not stores or outlets. It’s just way cheaper for the manufacturer to give you stuff. But that does not mean it’s unheard of – baby, if I could get sponsorship from Air Canada or my local outdoor/technical clothes retailer, I’d be there in a heartbeat. If you can find an angle and propose something that makes you both happy, there’s no reason not to do it.
I value my sponsors and do what I can to make our relationship a long-term one. I write articles, send pictures, keep in touch as much as I can without being a pain in the ass. I make suggestions, and where a product really shines I am relentless about making sure others know it. My sponsors also get to partner with me in my humanitarian photography – their sponsorship keeps my overhead low and allows me to remain a little more accessible to the agencies that need me.
I’m relatively quiet about sponsorship because I think it’s a thing that requires real diplomacy. It requires as much (or more) a mindset of "what can I give to them" as "what can I get" and I think that’s rare in people who pursue sponsorship. But if you’ve got that, and you genuinely have something to offer – then do some research, find out who deals with sponsorships or marketing, and get in touch. Test the waters. If you live in the same city, offer to take the marketing guy to lunch to have a conversation. I think most opportunities in life begin with a conversation, so take the chance.
Got questions? Feel free to leave a comment.