I had the opportunity to talk with Keith Gentile who owns Agency Access, about marketing for my business awhile back. His company and others like it are vital to photographers marketing themselves, but I quickly discovered there was more to his business then just selling lists. I’m always surprised by the photographers I talk to who don’t know you can buy a list of Photo Editors, Art Buyer and Creatives who hire and buy photography. And, those who are on the list generally don’t know anything about this side of the business either. So, I took the opportunity to interview Keith and transcribe it for the blog. [Full Disclosure: I never ended up doing anything with Agency Access.]
APE: I wanted to just start at the beginning. How did you get started in this business and what was the beginning like for you?
Keith: Well, I had just turned 19. I was working for the two owners that created Agency Access back in ’96. I just jumped into the mailing operations. I was stuffing envelopes and helping out with the mailings. Back then, they only sold lists and did the mailings together right then and there. It wasn’t a company where you could buy a list and do what you wanted to. The mailings had to be done in house.
APE: Was it always Agency Access? Was always geared towards advertising agencies?
Keith: Yes, it was always geared toward advertising agencies. It was created by a rep and a businessman who provided the funding. They were two friends, and they targeted ad agencies because the rep. thought, “Wow, it’s so difficult to maintain your own database. Maintenance is a whole job within itself. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a service that would maintain the database and do the stuffing and the labels just for artists and reps?” In ’96, direct mail was a lot stronger. Lots of people were doing direct mail and it was very, very effective. It’s still effective now, but it was more effective before email hit the field.
So his theory was, “Wow, I don’t want to do it. I would love for someone to maintain and update my contacts.” The main goal was to keep a quality database and keep it as updated as possible, while tracking these people wherever they went. There is so much movement in the industry. People are jumping around from agency to agency and magazine to magazine.
APE: Now the lists, as far as selling lists and direct mail, that has been around forever, right?
Keith: Sure. Lists and direct mail have been around for a long time but they were not specified to the ad agencies, magazines and corporations hiring artists. In our industry, selling of Creative lists, the originator would be Steven Langerman and Creative Access. Steve founded Langerman Lists. At that time Langerman Lists had been around for about 15 years. He would produce labels and sell them. He was probably one of the inventors of the specialized list service and he made a really good business out of it for himself.
With Agency Access the partnership between the rep and the businessman eventually ended. Then the businessman was working alone. As a result, I took on more responsibilities and became more involved in doing direct mail, research, and sales. Then, I was actually managing the data. I just got into it and really enjoyed it a lot. At the time, I was also in school majoring in business and the business wasn’t doing that well. I didn’t think the business model was correct for the company. I ended up buying out the previous owner in 2000 and I was able to implement the things that I really wanted to do: building the website and turning the database into an online Rolodex. I felt that it would be more beneficial for people come in and maintain their own contacts and search independently. We also started selling lists on floppy disks, labels and eventually in email form. People no longer had to do the mailings with us and they could purchase a list to do what they wanted. This was the turning point for Agency Access.
APE: And there was nobody else doing that at that time?
Keith: Adbase, which is probably our leading competitor, was definitely doing it around ’96 as well. Denis Kane, of Adbase, had a partner who was very big into programming. They launched their site way before I even had the opportunity. There were others providing lists as well, Langerman Lists, Workbook, Creative Access. Those were probably the four main competitors who we were up against. It just kind of evolved from there.
APE: So, I’m gathering that you’ve got to have a passion for this type of business.
Keith: I guess I do. I was a worker. I was there at 7:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night. That’s what I liked to do. I was young and still living at home and had a lot of passion for what I was doing. I wanted to see it succeed. My farther once told me “good things happen to good people,” but I also know if you work hard good things happen for you as well. The deeper we got into this database, the more I started to realize that I didn’t want to be a database service. I wanted to have a database because I knew the importance of it, but I wanted to mold the company more into a promotional agency specifically for the artists and reps. This way, photographers, illustrators, and reps, could use our services to do more rounded marketing, not just, “Oh, here’s the list, go do what you want,” but rather “Hey, we have the lists, we can do your mailings, we can do your emails, we can do your printing, we can do the fulfillment,” and it just evolved more from there. Every year, we just kept adding more and more services, like the consultant services, telemarketing services, PDF portfolio services and creating this one-stop shop.
APE: What’s the telemarketing service? I’ve never heard of that.
Keith: The telemarketing is basically where we make phone calls. Typically, once an email is sent out, we’ll call the clicks, opens, or we might possibly call the customer’s dream clients.
APE: You’d call them for the photographer?
Keith: Yes, on behalf of the photographer.
APE: [laughs] That sounds like a photographers dream. I think that the photographers would say cold calling is the worst thing, but anybody would say that right?
Keith: Yes, it’s scary. It’s not an easy thing. You have to have a certain knack for it. You have to have thick skin because for every ten people you call, you may only get one person who gives you a good response. We have a call cycle that we do. The photographer picks 25 people they want us to call and we put a script together. Do you want us to source portfolio reviews? Do you want us to source meetings? Do you want us to send the PDF portfolio? Do you just want to get your name out there and get them to go to your website? So, it’s up to the customer what they want us to do.
APE: That’s amazing, I never heard of that.
Keith: Yeah, and it’s a fantastic service, and it brings marketing back down to its roots, personal relationships.
APE: Well, no it’s no personal, because you’re calling on their behalf, but…
Keith: Well, they don’t know it’s us. We are calling on behalf of the client as if we are in their studio. So Rob, we’d be calling on behalf of your studio, and I would be like your studio manager.
APE: Wow, I’m just suddenly realizing that I’ve gotten those calls before.
Keith: Yes, so we call on behalf of the photographer as if we’re working with them. It doesn’t come off too well to say, “Hey, we’re from Agency Access, calling for this person.” By doing it this way you can develop a personal relationship. Once we make a connection, whether it’s setting up a meeting or a portfolio request or a PDF portfolio, then we supply a report to the client with the results. It gives them a breakdown of the people we called, the responses we got, and the people who want you to reach out to them with a portfolio, a PDF portfolio, or those who are interested in a meeting. Then the photographer jumps into an already established relationship. The photographer has an easier time communicating with the Creative because they have already accepted the communication. This service is our third step, implemented in our five-step program, of how we envision our service to work for a customer.
APE: Give me that five-step.
Keith: The five-steps start with building your list and sending emails. Then step two is evaluating your opens and your clicks. Your opens are people who may be interested in working with you. The clicks are the people who basically, checked it out and went to your site. In most cases these are warmer leads. Then we take the clicks, and we do what is called the “small lot print run”– where you can print only 100 cards, let’s say. They are very cheap, it ranges between $100 to $250 depending on the size. You can get 100 of these cards printed, and we do the fulfillment and send it to the people that clicked or opened your email. That’s one week later. One week after that, we do our telemarketing. So we’ve sent an email, One week later we’ve also sent a direct mail. One week later, we call them up on the phone. That would be, technically, step three. Step four, to us, is getting a leave behind portfolio book like a blurb book, or a paper chase book, or creating a PDF portfolio with Agency Access, or getting them a special promotion on your own. The telemarketing qualifies them to receive a portfolio so you can actually send that off to them. That’s what we would qualify as the fourth step.
APE: So you’re drilling down; you’ve had your big list, and now you’ve got a smaller list, and now you’ve got an even smaller list…
Keith: Exactly, you’re drilling down at each step and getting to the main people of interest. The fifth step is really an overall “have a marketing person.” Either it’s you, an assistant, your wife, your husband, or it’s Agency Access. We actually have a program called the “Campaign Manager,” where you work with someone in-house. You also work with a consultant on things like image selection and making sure the execution of this plan is done properly. It’s very, very, important to have a marketing plan, and sending an email is not a marketing plan. You can’t market like that. You need a solid plan with aggressive follow-ups as email is just not enough.
APE: [laughter] Yeah! You’d be surprised at how many photographers think it is.
Keith: If people buy these lists and send out emails, and then say “Oh, it didn’t work.” There’s a reason why it didn’t work. That’s such a small piece of the puzzle, and there are so many elements. The five-steps break down spans from net-branding with an email to tangible branding with direct mail — something they can touch. The telemarketing would be referred to as the voice branding. Within those three sets, they’ve seen your name and your brand name, or at least heard your name and your brand name three times. By the time you’re qualifying them to receive a leave behind portfolio book, your actual portfolio book, the PDF portfolio or setting up a meeting, they’ve seen, heard or touched your name three times. As a result, you’re starting to build a relationship with them which is key.
The fifth and final element in “Building that Marketing Campaign” – is that you’ve built a relationship with the Creative and you didn’t just spam them with a lot of email. You actually went down the line and built a relationship. They may or may not have a job for you right then and there, but, Rob, in like five, six months when you call them up again and you say “Hey, it’s Keith Gentile Photography,” or whatever, they will give you the time of day because you have built a relationship with them. That’s what my company wants to do for the artist is build relationships, and not just throw spaghetti on the wall. We want to narrow it down to five core people that are going to give them jobs for the rest of the year. This way they can actually maintain and be a photographer, and survive in this kind of market as a business.
APE: It’s obviously changed so much over the years, I mean, since ’96 till now. Email came on and now email’s a lot of noise, right?
Keith: It definitely is.
APE: A couple of years ago it was too bad. A lot of people were not feeling like that’s a great way to market, but it seems like I hear a lot of stories of creatives getting 100 emails a day and photographers reporting not too many opens from their email campaigns.
Keith: Sure, sure. There’s always going to be that issue, and I’ve been hearing that for the eight years we’ve been doing email, “Are you sure it’s OK? Is it spam? It’s not effective.” We’ve heard Creatives say it, too. No matter how many Creatives say it, there are so many Creatives that use it and hire. They definitely do, and I’ve heard it before. I’m not denying the fact that it might have been better eight years ago when it first started, and more effective, but it is still a vital part of a marketing plan and it needs to be done. You’re just looking for one percent. That, to us, is a good effort on the email promotion and is effective, because now you’ve seized that one percent. Now you’ve got those 30, 40, 50 people that clicked, you have a base to work off of. Now, you’ve narrowed your list down and you could actually start getting more direct marketing on those core people. You can spend more marketing dollars on 40 people, than doing a direct mail of 10,000 people. I’m still a huge believer in email and I don’t deny the fact that there’s been some shift in it. Also, there has been a lot more noise lately, but it’s still an effective way to market, and I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere anytime soon.
APE: And do you see direct mail becoming stronger, now that more people email because is just so cheap to do.
Keith: Yeah, a little. The reason why people stopped doing the direct mail is because email was so cheap. Direct mail is still effective, from the standpoint of someone being able to touch something and pin it on the wall or put it in their cabinet to keep for awhile, but it costs more. I’ve dealt with consultants, that were art buyers, and they showed me all their printed pieces and these promos were 15-16 years old, so the life span on a direct mail piece is so much longer than an email where you can easily delete it. We see our mailing department increasing in the last few months.
APE: You do?
Keith: Yes. Not a lot, but a little bit. I think it’s the right move if they can call for it in their budget. But with direct mail, you can’t do it once a year. You have to do at least quarterly direct mail promos to the same people. If you can’t afford a larger direct mail four times a year, then you might want to go with the small lot and send the direct mail to only the people that opened and clicked on your email. I do recommend it, because I do see it — it just has a longer lifespan than email. I feel like the Creatives kind of missed the element of getting the direct mail and looking and touching it. Yes, it’s still a lot of junk mail to look through for a Creative, but believe me, a lot of these Creatives hire talent from these mailings, and they hire talent from email too, no matter what they say they do.
APE: OK. You’ve mentioned spamming and you’ve mentioned junk mail. Basically, you walk that line, that fine line, between being a spammer and providing a service that people need. How do you walk that line?
Keith: Well, I guess I use those terms because we hear them so much from our customers. The people in our office, we don’t look at it in that way, but we hear it so much because that’s the fear of the photographer. “Oh, if I’m sending all these emails, they’re going to think I’m kind of spamming them.” But, these are people that are opting-in to receive email promotions from talent. These are people that are industry-related. If you’re going to take our lists and try to promote something that has nothing to do with the photography or the Creative industry, that’s what we consider spam.
If you’re going to send a photography promotion with a good image, and well-branded design, we feel that to be real marketing; that’s real marketing emails. That, to us, is not spam at all.
APE: Do you kick people off the list if they’re not using it in the right way? I don’t know if you can do that.
Keith: Yeah, that’s kind of a fine line. What we’ll do, is we’ll contact the customer and we’ll try to offer them help. Especially, if we see someone marketing and we don’t think they’re going in the right direction with their branding or design. It’s a very difficult phone call to make, but we feel like we owe it to them if we’re going to be providing this service.
APE: I mean, don’t you have to protect your list? You have a list of opt-ins, and they can opt-out, right?
Keith: Yeah, they can. You need to protect the value.
APE: You have to make sure that people using your lists aren’t causing Creatives to take their names off it, right?
Keith: Correct, and I think that’s why we decided not to quickly jump in to a self-serve service like our competition does. When you do emails with Agency Access, you deal with a real person — an email engineer. They produce your template with you. They help you brand it. They really see everything before it goes out. So if we actually see some issues, we can address that issue before it goes out. We don’t want to send out an email promotion that isn’t going to be effective for the customer or for the Creatives on our list.
APE: How do you verify your list? You have 50,000 contacts worldwide.
Keith: The verification is a process that’s set up with the research department and we have about 24 native-speaking researchers in-house. We have half of them here in the US, and half in Glasgow, in the UK, who do the international data.
APE: So you have 24 people whose job is to simply research.
Keith: Yes, and their job is to call these companies every 12 weeks. We have a system in place where every morning when we come in, it shows us what companies are 90-days old. This indicates that they “haven’t been called in 90-days.” That’s our 12-week cycle.
It’s their responsibility for that date to call those companies: update their addresses, emails, contact titles, new people, people that aren’t there any more, changed websites, phone numbers, faxes, whether or not they hire illustrators, hire photographers or purchase stock photography or illustration. They go through a scripted method for each company that is due to be updated that day. That’s just a continuous daily battle. The companies that were updated today, now they’re 1-day old. Tomorrow, when they come in, the ones that were 89-days old are 90-days old. You won’t find anything in our database that hasn’t been called in a 12-week cycle.
APE: That’s pretty amazing.
Keith: Yeah, it’s a big task. It’s probably the biggest challenge here.
APE: Is that where people will opt-in or opt-out of the list?
Keith: Correct. If there are people there who are already listed with their email address and they ask to be removed from the list, then yes legally we have to remove them from the list. Typically, not many people will opt-out of direct mail, but they will opt out of email.
APE: I’m curious, because it seems like direct mail is so much different than email, because with direct mail you can’t really opt-out can you?
Keith: Yes, the Creative can send a letter to the photographer and ask to be removed. The photographer will have to take them off their list. They can also call us and ask to be removed from the database too but we will fight to keep them. The value in our service is the more data we have, the more opportunities we provide for our customers. We explain why we’re doing it and nine times out of ten, people will say “OK, leave me on the direct mail, but maybe on the email, take me off.” If they want to be removed from the list, we do have to remove them. We have to respect that.
APE: One thing, just from having been on the other end of the list. It just was never clear to me about removing. I mean, you want to be removed from some photographer’s list, but you want to still be open to receive people you’ve never heard of. You get a few emails from somebody and you’re like, “I really don’t want to ever get another email from that photographer again, but I would like to still be open.” It doesn’t really seem to be an option, does it?
Keith: With us there is and I’m glad you asked that, because that’s one thing that not many people know about. We don’t really market it, but it’s one thing we’re very proud of, because I think we’re the only company in our industry that allows this. We have a double opt-out system on our email. Any email you receive using the Agency Access system, when you opt out, it says “Would you like to no longer receive promotions from this photographer?” Then, underneath that, “Would you like to unsubscribe from the Agency Access database completely?” This gives the Creative the option to stay on the list while removing themselves from the individual’s list.
APE: Wow. Are you the only ones that have that?
Keith: As far as I know. Other companies that do not do this have a huge unsubscribe rate because they don’t allow for it. It’s funny, what you said is the mentality of the Creative on the other side “I don’t want email unless it’s good email.”
APE: Yeah, only good email. [laughs]
Keith: That’s why email will never die, it’s still effective.
APE: My fear of opting out was that I would never get anything again. Yeah. So I just never opted out, and ended up deleting them, and it’s one of these things where it’s like “Argh.”
Keith: We did that right from the beginning, and I think that’s why we were able to keep such a strong email database. What’s great is that the system recognizes that, and the next time that person goes to send an email, even if they put that person on the list, it will not allow it and it automatically scrubs the email out.
APE: YDo you think you’ll start collecting Facebook and Twitter addresses for Creatives?
Keith: You may have just given me a good idea.
APE: Yeah, it’s basically the opposite of direct email. You put something out there and you have no idea how many people saw it.
Keith: It’s funny. It’s totally true. To bring it back to personal communication — blogs are great to learn more about a photographer, as a person. Of the people that we’ve spoken to, and we have done some research, typically it’s the art directors/creative directors that are more interested in Facebook and blogs. Where the art buyers and the photo editors don’t necessarily have that much time to read the blogs, and look at Facebook, and stuff like that so they stick to more traditional promotions such as direct mail, email and portfolio sites.
APE: Tell me about the videos and white papers that you’re doing inside the site?
Keith: That’s the “Inspiration Section,” it’s a member’s area where we have white papers from different consultants, and different marketing experts in the industry. They’re very small, very basic, easy to read, simply and they get the point across quickly. We also did some telemarketing dialogue guides, because we do understand that not everyone is going to hire us for telemarketing. These are simple scripts to show the photographers and illustrators what to say when they call up, if you are going to start doing calls on your own. Then we added some educational audio MP3’s too.
APE: How can you help photographers with the face-to-face meeting; landing that, and what’s your ideas behind that?
Keith: First of all, the idea is getting the point across of what our database can be used for. There is still this blockage out there that companies like myself and others are only for email and direct mail. It’s so much more than that; to know what art buyer is at what agency, to know what company has the Dell computer account. That’s such important information.
APE: Do you have that information?
Keith: Oh, absolutely. The brands in our database for ad agencies allow you to look up Fed-Ex and we’ll let you know BBDO in New York is the lead agency on that account. You can look up any of the major brands in our database. And, they’re linked to what agency is working on those accounts. So, it’s like this huge, online “Rolodex” of information, and I think we need to get our customers more comfortable with calling and setting up meetings but that is how we help them get the meeting. If they know this information, they can book the correct meeting. We have this success story with a photographer who wasn’t really doing much email or direct mailing. He was just calling and calling. The guy set up so many face-to-face appointments. Within three months — it was weird because it was so crazy — he got 10 jobs; 10 assignment jobs within a three month period, from calling up and setting up appointments using the rolodex and brand database search.
APE: I’ve met guys like that, too. They get you on the phone and you can’t “not” take a meeting with them. Then, they get in your office and you can’t “not” give them a job.
Keith: That’s what photographers need to add to their marketing. I know, not everyone can do it, like you said. The more they get familiar and comfortable with that, and realize that, “Hey, I’m not just a photographer, and it’s not just based on the talent. It’s also based on how I can run a company, and how I can do marketing, and how I can do sales. And, how I can talk to these Creatives and actually communicate with them, and show them that I’m an organized, business person that would be right for the job.”
APE: How do you reach your customers? It’s through direct mail?
Keith: Sure we do. We practice what we preach.