Get booked! Insider secrets to land your next big gig

Not every simple question has a simple answer. The question, “How do you get commissioned by ad agencies?” is complex. In this feature, Candide McDonald presents the advice of the commissioners – the agency creatives who choose the photographers they want to work with. In part two, we’ll share advice from the photographers who’ve nailed it.

The halcyon days for photographers, when half of the advertising campaigns produced were led by a print ad, and half of the power of those print ads was a striking image, are over; at least for the foreseeable future. Fewer print ads are being made, and unless you are a fashion photographer, even fewer are high profile, high prestige, and/or career advancers are on offer.

But the news is not all dire. Outdoor advertising and content are thriving. And really, when it comes to getting your foot in the door, the tricks of the trade are the same as they have always been. And they’re neither hard to learn, nor to use.

The House of Sterling. Client: Treasure Wine Estate, Sterling Vineyards. Agency: J. Walter Thompson. © Norman Jean Roy.
The House of Sterling. Client: Treasure Wine Estate, Sterling Vineyards. Agency: J. Walter Thompson.
© Norman Jean Roy.

Yes, there is a magic formula

An associate creative director at J. Walter Thompson in Melbourne, Jim Walsh has seen hundreds of photographers’ portfolios during his fifteen-year career. “I really wish there wasn’t a magic formula and answer to this question, but there is. The way to get commissions from ad agencies is through “cake”, lunch, and alcohol, or possibly all three, depending on your budget/need state, and the time of day. But “cake” is the first thing I look for – tasty, satisfying bodies of work that take me to a happy place.”

You’ll stand out more if you stand alone

The Holy Grail for advertising is “standout”. Few ads are created for unique products. But every ad creator is hoping to make his or her ad grab attention with its point of difference. Put something unique in front of a creative and you’ll have his or her attention.

“Unique in the sense that there is a narrative in it. The work is theirs and you instantly get a feel for their aesthetic and approach,” Walsh say. “I don’t care if the content is landscapes or fashion. What I do care about is that they have something in their work that I haven’t seen. That’s their eye. Isn’t that what it’s all about – your unique perspective and the way you capture that? It’s not my job to judge or critique. It’s my job to look at those images, consider the opportunities at hand, and how that photographer’s work might give a brand an edge over others.”

One thing that Walsh says that he doesn’t want to see are “just ‘on trend’ images, or someone whose book feels like that of five photographers combined because they’re ‘diverse’, which really means they’ll compromise on who they are as a creative to get a job. Do the ‘cake’, don’t do that.”

Have a point of view

If you think your personal work doesn’t get noticed, you’d be dead wrong. It certainly does to Sydney-based creative idea partnership YOLO’s creative partner, Justine Metcalfe. “I always look for photographers with a point of view. Photographers that have developed a style – or at least a point of view on the things they like to shoot,” she says. “I always like to see what photographers are shooting in their own personal projects. I think that can give you a great insight into what gets them excited, and what makes them tick. I see a lot of books that have ‘a bit of everything’ and it makes it hard to know what to use them for. If fashion is your thing, fill your book with fashion, and be proud of it. I understand that you can do a bit of everything, but more often than not, my brief is single-minded.”

Part of a campaign for Campos Coffee, shot on location in El Salvador and Costa Rica. Agency: YOLO. © James L. Brown.
Part of a campaign for Campos Coffee, shot on location in El Salvador and Costa Rica. Agency: YOLO.
© James L. Brown.

The right fit

Scott Dettrick, creative lead of The Monkeys, also emphasises the importance of a single-minded presentation. “First and foremost for me, it’s about showing me you have what I need to capture in my brief. Most photographers have a specialty, or special knack. Portraiture, landscapes, product photography, food – they all require a different set of skills,” he notes.

Aside from being able to deliver on the brief, Dettrick’s litmus test is a simple question, which he asks himself: “‘Can I be in close quarters, in a room with this person without wanting to punch myself in the face?’ My repeat offenders do fantastic work and are easy to get on with,” he says. “They’re open to collaboration, they know how to deal with clients, they know how to work with us, and they understand the intricacies and challenges of commercial photography.” And Metcalfe adds that life is too short to work with big egos and difficult people. “I don’t care if they’re the next Mario Testino,” she says.

Bernd Winter has been the owner of ad agency DDI for nearly three decades. He’s also the designer and strategist at top3 by design. “Never mind age, gender, or experience,” he says. “The most important thing for any job, is enthusiasm.”

A/W16 fashion campaign for Greensborough Plaza. © Jez Smith.
A/W16 fashion campaign for Greensborough Plaza. © Jez Smith.

The work behind your work also talks for you

Sharon Edmondson is a creative director at M&C Saatchi who looks for the work you do behind the work. “I really look at their body of work. If they have a particular style or a piece that resonates with me in the context of my project, then I’m in. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to see when someone has worked with big brands and agencies. I love when photographers have strong relationships with their suppliers and you can see they have a great support network,” she says. “For example, if a job has a significant amount of retouching, then it’s reassuring to know that the photographer you’re looking at has great relationships with retouching studios.”

Metcalfe appreciates that not all shoots are straight forward and easy, but one of the key factors for her is to be able to work with someone who isn’t afraid to be resourceful and creative with their problem solving.

Never underestimate the power of a surprise

“Recently I’ve had a photographer proactively come back to me with a written treatment supported with reference images,” Metcalfe says. “I didn’t ask for it, but I must say it impressed me. When commissioning a director for TV or films, providing a treatment is standard practice. And it’s a really important part of the process. A treatment not only shows you that the director has understood an idea, it shows you what they can bring to a project. The photographer’s treatment showed me that he really understood what I was trying to do. It showed me that he really wanted the job, and that he could bring a lot to it. Suffice to say, he got the job. I’m not suggesting every photo shoot needs a treatment, but if I was a photographer, it’s something I’d consider doing,” she suggests.

Dealing with rejection

Getting one knock-back is rough. Getting a string of them saps your will to exist, let alone put yourself out there again. But the road travelled a helluva lot is, in fact, the road to success in very many cases. And more often than not, you’ve just got to suck it up, brush yourself off, and just get on with it. Besides, some of the most successful creatives and entrepreneurs have had to deal with, and overcome, considerable adversity and obstacles. Something else worth bearing in mind is that just because you get knocked back by an agency on one job, it doesn’t mean that they never want to hear from you again.

In this game, persistence pays dividends, as does being “top of mind,” according to Walsh. “We’re very fortunate in advertising to be approached by talented people all the time, and more talented than us. Just come and chat, and get your work in front of as many people as possible. I love seeing new work and the different interpretations of subjects.”

The House of Sterling. Client: Treasure Wine Estate, Sterling Vineyards. Agency: J. Walter Thompson. © Norman Jean Roy.
The House of Sterling. Client: Treasure Wine Estate, Sterling Vineyards. Agency: J. Walter Thompson.
© Norman Jean Roy.

One handshake trumps ten e-mails

As busy as they are, creatives are always interested in meeting new creators, so don’t be backward in coming forward. “Build relationships and become a face, not just a name,” Walsh advises. “Don’t be nervous – the people you’re meeting want to see your work and hear your story. If your work is good, it’ll speak for itself, and the rest is getting your beautiful face out there. So just get contacting people. It’s that simple,” he says. “Getting something confirmed is the hard part, but that’s only because we’re busy as all hell. We work in advertising, for Christ’s sake! We don’t eat at regular intervals, our partners hate us, and we watch our kids grow up on Skype. Just keep pushing to meet us. And send ‘cake’.”

If you’re a control freak, forget about ad work

Most agency creatives are used to working in teams. They always have. They look for people whom they can bounce off creatively and be inspired by. You need to show that you do too. “I like photographers who are excited about collaborating,” Metcalfe explains, “and don’t care where a good idea comes from. If a client has a great suggestion on set, embrace it with open arms and put your ego to the side.”

Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion, and hopefully the environment in which you’re shooting is one that welcomes open and frank discussions. Remember, your role as a professional photographer is very much about being the visual problem solver. “I like photographers who are happy to offer a different point of view or a different way of looking at things,” Metcalfe says. “Photographers who are always thinking about how we are delivering on the brief – not just making pretty images.”

Is advertising a boys’ club?

We’ve saved the burning question for last. You’ve heard the rumours. Well, this time, the rumours are true. But things are changing. “In my experience, advertising is a boys’ club, but it’s getting better,” Walsh notes. “And it’s not the case at JWT Melbourne. Whatever the gender balance in advertising, let that not be a deterrent to anyone looking to get into the industry, or in the case of photographers, working with agencies. Let nothing that has come before you hold you back, and make sure who you are is in your work. The rest is just phone calls and e-mails, and ‘cake’.”

“Each unique person brings different qualities to every job,” Edmondson says. “I’ve never noticed an identifiable female lens across the work I’ve done with female photographers. However, I do notice that each photographer I work with, regardless of gender, or age for that matter, brings their own unique style and experience. This is what draws me to work with them.”

Now what?

If you’re wondering what all this means and where to go from here, one of the most important things to note is that talent, coupled with tenacity and perseverance is a potent mix. And don’t let a couple of knock-backs throw you off your course. When Mario Testino was presented with the Clio Fashion & Beauty Lifetime Achievement Award in September, he admitted that he had been knocked back more times than he could remember before things got easier for him. And if there really is a magic formula to getting booked, it has a lot of ingredients. The best you can be is true to yourself and your strengths, open to collaboration, and able to demonstrate that you want to be part of what the agency has been commissioned to do – solve a clients’ problem. 

"Australia vs Australia - Nobody Wins". Campaign for the film, "Down Under". Agency: The Monkeys. © Toby Burrows.

The Don’t List – a consensus of opinion

  • Big egos and bad energy; I avoid them like the plague.
  • Photographers who ask, ‘What’s the budget?’ in the first 20 seconds.
  • Photographers who ask you to speak directly to their producer first.
  • Photographers who want to talk, rather than listen, in the first conversation.
  • Photographers who stalk you. I get that we all need to network, but it’s about finding that balance between ‘reaching out’ and ‘hounding’.
  • Photographers who send a blanket e-mail when it’s obvious the name has been cut and pasted in a different font and size.
  • Intransigence. Be flexible, available, open, and honest. Get a foot in the door and build trust.
  • Nobody has time for prima donnas any more. Everyone has to deal with what they can get. Yes, you’re talented, so be humble.
  • Arrogance. Things change constantly in the creative life of a project. If you don’t have partners to collaborate with, that can move as the job moves, major problems arise.


Scott Dettrick (The Monkeys)      

Sharon Edmondson (M&C Saatchi)        

Justine Metcalfe (YOLO) 

Jim Walsh (J. Walter Thompson) 

Bernd Winter (DDI Australia)