I asked SF and New York rep Heather Elder to be a POP interviewee and was very honored when she said yes. Elder is the founder of Heather Elder Represents. In addition to representing some of the top talent from the Bay Area and across the country, she is among the thought leaders in the Bay Area who are helping to move the industry forward with an innovative approach to doing business that is rooted in transparency, community building and true partnership.

Elder’s agency website features the only rep blog to host conversations between reps and art buyers, namely the highly successful Dear Art Buyer series that ran earlier this year, a unique specialty portfolio section and a stock site. She also makes herself available as a consultant to the larger community and photographers not on her front-of-house roster.

We had a very inspiring conversation about the evolution of the photographer/rep relationship, the importance and impact of open communication, the value of blogging and personal work to an art buyer and much more. Thank you Heather for taking the time to share your experience and insights with POP!

Photo by David Martinez

POP: You’ve been a rep for 15 years. What is your background and what do you enjoy about being a rep?

My father worked for Polaroid for many years while I was growing up.  He would bring home cases of film and let me play with the camera and take all the pictures I wanted to take.  That was unheard of then.  Film was so expensive and photography was not for children.  I like to think that my love for this business started then.

I majored in marketing and communications at Boston University and graduated convinced that I would work in advertising for my career.  My first job was at a very creative advertising agency called Leonard Monahan Lubars and Kelly. There, I learned about client service and the value of the creative process. I worked mostly on the Polaroid and Hit Or Miss accounts. Both were very photography heavy and allowed me to fall in love with photography all over again.

Then, scandal hit and I fell in love with my boss (who is now my husband). It was totally frowned upon at the agency so I decided to reach out to my photography friends for networking opportunities. A photographer that I was very close with at the time suggested that I become an agent. I was not interested in that at all because in my mind no one liked agents!

She convinced me to meet her agent. Who in turn convinced me to meet Carol Kaplan, a children’s  and still life photographer in Boston that needed a rep, producer and studio manager. I will always be grateful to her for taking a chance on me and providing me with a safe environment to learn.

Your question makes me look back on that time and realize that all the things I love about being an agent were imprinted long before I ever was one; a love of photography, an appreciation for creativity and a mutual respect for the people who make it all happen.

Photo by Ron Berg

Photo by Jim Smithson

For full interview, please click on link below.

POP: How important is it that your photographers market themselves in addition to your efforts?

I feel like a broken record now when I say this, but it is so true. Marketing commercial photography is no longer a straight line. I am generalizing here, but it used to be that a photographer could shoot good work, hire a rep, advertise in a source book or two, send out some mailers, win some awards and be successful.

Not any more. The days of having your rep do all of the work is over. Now a photographer needs a rep to do all of that PLUS they need to be doing it on their own as well. Add to that social media, blogging, travel and multiple events. I tell my photographers all of the time that when we add them to the equation, the results increase exponentially.

I realize that not all photographers embrace this idea 100%. They are photographers first and foremost and they just want to shoot images. What we tell those photographers is that they do not need to commit to 100% of the marketing efforts for themselves. But, they do need to find something that they can embrace.

Photo by Hunter Freeman

Photo by Andy Anderson

POP: How often is video included in the brief and are you encouraging all your photographers to build a motion portfolio?

Video is definitely an important part of a photographer’s business. We believe that we are in a time where clients can be very forgiving with how much a photographer knows about the technology since they themselves don’t always know how they want to use it.  This window to learn is very small. As more photographers learn the technology it will close the window for others very quickly.

As a way to learn and gain more experience, we are encouraging our photographers to offer it as an added value to their clients.  It is a win/win situation because our clients can experiment without breaking the bank and our photographers can learn more.

POP: I want to ask you about your blog. It’s the only rep blog that is used to foster conversations and an openness between art buyers and reps. You also feature in-depth discussions by your photographers about the stories behind their personal and commercial projects. It stands alone as a much appreciated resource. What was your inspiration for taking this approach and what feedback have you gotten?

When we decided to start the blog, we had many conversations about what our vision for it would be. We did not want to use it as a sole place to brag about our photographers. While we do utilize it for that, we knew that it could be something bigger if we could provide interesting and relevant content.

The challenge was to not make it just a blog that other photographers would want to read. Our goal was to make it a place that an art buyer, photographer, creative director, producer or anyone else in our industry might want to link to while they took a break from their day. If that were to happen we would need to provide across the board content and what better way to do that than to treat it like a conversation.

The feedback we have gotten has been very positive. I have heard from many of the people we hoped would be reading our blog—both offline and on—that they find it very valuable. They use the words that we used when we developed the blog and that makes us proud.

I love that we are connecting with not only more and more art buyers and creatives because of it—but also photographers and other reps. We exist in such a vacuum that I am encouraged by all of the new connections we are making.

When we first posted our Dear Art Buyer letter, we were not sure how much response we would get. There were so many valuable comments both online and offline that it encouraged us to keep it going.  When Bonnie Brown and Kat Dalager offered to write replies, we knew it had succeeded. I loved that it got everyone thinking about each other and the challenges we all face. We heard from many art buyers that they rethought a few of their practices because of it and from just as many reps with the same thoughts.

But, beyond the art buyer/rep conversation, we encourage our photographers to start their own conversations.  Whether it be the story behind an image or a shoot or tips on how to shoot video (coming soon!), the content is valuable.  Since a picture is worth a thousand words, we don’t often get to hear from the photographers. It is a nice forum for them to share the soul of their work.

Photo by Leigh Beisch

POP: Many of the ways in which you run your agency are about furthering the conversation. How has this impacted the relationships you have with art buyers and the dialogues between your photographers and agencies and clients?

The conversations we started have stemmed from the great relationships we have had all along. We are not discovering anything new or revealing anything proprietary.  Instead we are sharing knowledge and experience and because of that we are very approachable. People like working with us because we are reasonable and try hard to understand their point of view. We want to be problem solvers and help them to help sell our photographer to their clients.

The only difference now is that we are public with our conversations and people feel compelled to connect and keep them going. For that we are grateful.

POP: With blogging and an interest in personal work, there is a deeper understanding of the photographer and their creative process. Have art buyer’s expectations changed as a result? And has this had an effect on the way photographers contribute to the creative process? Are photographers producing different work?

I am not sure that art buyer’s expectations have changed as a result of blogging and their increased access to personal work. What I think has changed is what information an art buyer has at his/her disposal when trying to sell a photographer to a creative or a client.

It used to be that if you had great work, that was enough. Well, now so much more could be required based on the project. Can they shoot video? Have they shot something like this before? Do they have other relevant experiences? Blogging about personal work and projects make all of this information much more accessible to an art buyer and creative team. It goes beyond just the imagery and into a much deeper area of what a photographer can provide.

I am not sure yet that blogging has affected the way they shoot, but it does affect the way they market. Now, instead of just putting an image out there for people to appreciate (although we do that too sometimes still) we try and think of the story behind the image or the hook that makes the image more interesting.

As a rep blogging is a fantastic tool. I find myself referring back to posts that my photographers made all the time when I explain why he/she would be great for a project. Art buyers seem to appreciate the added value.

Photo by Ann Elliott Cutting

POP: You represent nine photographers, several with overlapping specialties but all with differing styles. What was the strategy behind building your roster?

First and foremost we think of ourselves as a resource for our clients. We want to have a roster that can fill most any specialty request. We want a creative team to know that they can come to us and we can help point them in the right direction. And sometimes, it is even to someone outside of our group!

We recently wrote a blog post about how we decide how many photographers to represent. We wrote about how we look to add quality and relevance without losing the personal connections clients appreciate. We built our reputation on personal service and we will always stay true to that concept.

Photo by Kevin Twomey

POP: The Specialty section on your site is an innovative way of presenting your photographers. Are art buyers finding this helpful?

When we redesigned our website a few years back, we made sure to add functionality that allowed users to search by specialty as well as photographers. We created portfolios for each specialty—such as people, animals, children, still life, lifestyle etc. Each portfolio contains images from that specialty from everyone who shoots that type of work.  So instead of seeing all of one photographer’s still life images, you can see a collection of still life images from our group in one place.

Art buyers tell us all the time that if they need a photographer but just don’t know who, they often go to our site and browse through the specialty categories for inspiration. Those conversations tell us that we are doing something right.

Photo by Richard Schultz

POP: You’ve been a rep for 15 years, how have you adapted to the challenges of tighter budgets and evolved how you work with clients and agencies?

Tighter budgets make for smarter productions. Regardless of the economy we like to think we have been working smarter all along.

The more access we have to information—such as budget, client vision, what the creative team and the client value and other shoot related details—the stronger and more competitive we can be during the bid process. We work hard to ask the right questions that get everyone thinking.

It is so important, regardless of the budget to be strong communicators. We need to listen well and be able to translate what we hear into language that our teams can understand and vice versa to the agency and clients. We need to be confident in our recommendations, respectful of the players and the process and assume goodwill.

Our office is all about client service and we try our hardest to be partners regardless of the budget. Tight budgets make for very exciting jobs as well!

POP: There are a lot of agencies and many talented photographers based in San Francisco. What percentage of the jobs you bid on are for out of town agencies and for local agencies?

Overall, the majority of our business comes from out of town clients. This is not surprising as I hear the same from my Chicago rep friends and even my NY rep friends. Photographers that grow up in their own back yard often find that they lose opportunities to the out of town expert. However, that is ok because we are often the out of town expert to the Chicago and NY clients.

I’m very proud to be a part of this community. There are so many talented photographers and crews based here. And there are so many great agencies doing really creative work. All we can hope is that buyers remember this when they hire for local projects.

What recent campaigns have your photographers shot for Bay Area agencies?

When our local photographers shoot locally, we often find that they turn into long-term clients. It makes sense because clients have access to us that out of town clients would not have on a regular basis. It gives us an opportunity to get to know them on a different level and be there for them on an on going basis.   Some of the local clients that we have shot for recently are:  DAE Advertising, Apple Computers, Ghiradelli Chocolate, DDB, Levis, Dockers and AT&T.

Another big thank you to Heather for her time and for such an insightful interview!

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