Self-Promo Likes (and Pet Peeves)... From the People You're Sending Them To (Part 1 of 3)


Just to drive everyone nuts, I've been talking to photo editors and creative directors about what sort of promos they like enough to keep. As you hopefully know, most of the print promos they receive go straight into the recycling bin (and most e-promos aren't opened). What makes a promo stand out enough to get pinned up on the wall of chosen ones? What promos get forwarded to the other creatives? What turns people off?d And why should this drive you nuts? Well, as with anything creative, it's highly subjective. Ask 5 different people, get 5 different answers. That said, there are some common themes throughout. Everyone agrees that overly gimmicky promos can't make up for mediocre images. There's also some consensus that personal project images make the more interesting promos.

Over the next three days I'll be posting creatives' thoughts. Today's installment is magazine photo editors. Tomorrow check back for opinions from the entertainment industry (record labels, TV and book publishers). Wednesday will feature ad agency creatives.

Today's panel:

Rebecca Crumley, Director of Photography, The Knot "I’ll peek at the promos as I walk from my mailbox to my desk. But honestly, 99% of the time, they go straight to the recycling bin. I’d rather see an updated blog to convey the current work. This way, I know a photographer is actively shooting, staying on top of their business, and get a better sense of his or her personality. I also work in a different manner than most photo editors; I’m seeking existing images from which we’ll produce editorial content. So this ties into taking time to send promos to creative professionals of relevance to your work and of applicable needs."

Sacha Lecca, Senior Photo Editor, Rolling Stone

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DSREPS late last year (i think) sent out a large oversized set of images by Deborah Schwartz's amazing roster of talent (see pictures of the promo in action). It certainly made an impression getting such a large set of promos. My favorite in the bunch: Fucking Flies On My Wedding Day by Jason Nocito. |

Cole Barash is a photographer whose work I've been checking out for a few years. The promo card itself is very simple. Simply designed promos stand out to me where logos, slogans, unnecessary graphics on a promo card can distract. I was able to work with Cole this year when he shot surfer Clay Marzo for us, which was great.

Mark Murrmann's day job is photo editor of Mother Jones magazine and he  is also a talented photographer. We sort of got introduced recently and he sent me his card. His live music work is great.

Giant Artists very recently sent out a beautifully printed book showcasing the artists they represent. I'm a big fan of Giant Artists and their roster so this is an obvious keeper.

...speaking of printed books, pamphlets or zines, Phil Jackson, is a documentary photographer out of Philly largely shooting his fellow skaters, every once in a while puts out a small zine.

...also, just this week I got a booklet by Eric Kayne featuring his work on the band Arcade Fire (-ed. note of full disclosure: I produced this promo). I like the pics though some of the design elements take away from some of the shots. (ie the white vertical lines cutting into them.) (-ed. note: fair enough!)

Alex Lake/Stem Agency: I met with a rep from Stem Agency and this card was one of their leave behinds, a photo by Alex Lake of Florence Welsh of Florence and the Machine. It's such a gorgeous image feeling more like a cinematic film still.

Brenda Milis, Director of Photography, Men's Health

I very much like to get promos in the mail since I check each piece of mail every day. I am much more likely to miss emails: I may open an email and get a call or have someone walk into my office and completely forget about it, having never truly looked at it. That promo mailer, in contrast, is sitting right in front of me on my desk. I feel very strongly that not a lot of money needs to go into making a good, impactful photo promotion. I think it’s important to include more than one (and hopefully several) images in your promo, be that on one card or several pieces/cards. If it’s just one great shot I might not get as strong of a sense of your shooting style, your range, and in fact you may have just gotten lucky shooting one great image!

I am really turned off by overly clever, overly produced promos that I receive (and more about that in my discussion of promo 2, below). Please have the confidence in your images to let them speak for themselves. I don’t need to make a keychain out of your promos, nor a luggage tag for that matter. Also, I really want to be able to recycle your entire promo if and when I get rid of it. I don’t want a lot of plastics and doo dads that are bad for the environment and add to waste. Our industry is wasteful enough as it is.

1. Angie Smith Was not aware of Angie’s work until I got this promo book which is in the form of a notebook. It’s lovely and clearly wasn’t inexpensive to produce. Redux reps her and produced the promo. If Angie had sent me a single card with 3 or 4 images on it, I would have been just as happy.



2. Joseph Escamilla Wow -- I almost never took the time to open this promo. It’s a good example of overdoing it: This came as a package in a clear plastic wrapping. It was hard to make out the images because of the stuff that was attached to the images themselves. The base of package was the anatomical head figure, mostly covered with what looked like key chain tags.

The promo card was part of the package as well. The star of this promo was the stuff included which basically obscured the images which I really quite like. Very intriguing and unique imagery of artifacts which we may be able to use for stories about medically-related topics, etc.

In sum, a very annoying promo that I’m glad I took the time to open and unpack in order to see the photos. I wish that the photographer had just sent me promo cards -- would have been happier and he could have saved a lot of money.

Promo Specs:

The promo was a collaboration between Rachel Ma ( and Joseph, with prior identity and branding having been done by Owen Gee ( Most of the components were straight out of office supply stores, all the printed material was done in small 500 print runs by 5 4x6 4/4 offset postcards.  And 100 8x10 digital prints.  Everything else such as labels and personal notes were all done on his laser printer. Joseph created 100 promos and have mailed about 40.

3. Dorothy Hong Dorothy Hong's promo cards show an intimacy, a freshness, and youthfulness that is lovely and I'm looking for the right assignment for her. She sent me a packet with 3 cards, each one had one image on it.

Promo Specs:

Designer: Dorothy designed them herself with a template she created years ago, just dropping in new photos each time Printer: Print run: 1,000 total (4 different photos, single sided 4x6 postcards, 250 each) Distribution List: Mailed all 4 out in 1 envelope, to 250 people. So every envelope contained 4 separate, different photos. 4. Hollis Bennett This is a simple tri-fold mailer promo with three images on the inside and his name, website, contact info on the back. Gorgeous, medium format pix---could use for travel, documentary. Simultaneously lovely (which makes me happy) and yet appropriate for a men's mag (which makes me happy).

Promo Specs:

5,000+ emails 6 times a year through Agency Access Designed by Hollis and printed by Nashville-based Jive! printers. Print run around 350 tri-fold cards.

Molly Roberts, Director of Photography, Smithsonian



I live with photographer promos surrounding me and keeping me company during my work day. I recently changed my wall and posted an image by Alex Masi. Prompted by his postcard to check out his work, I found out that he had photographed the Buddhas of Bamiyan earlier and was heading back to that area. This led to my assigning Alex for a feature in the December 2010 issue of Smithsonian.

Although I love having some of these postcards and prints around me, I also lament the waste as over 70 % probably end up in the recycling bin. I prefer digital mailers at this point for conservation purposes.

Allyson Torrisi, Director of Photography, Popular Mechanics "I think the simpler the promo the better. I have a prejudice that the more elaborate the promo , the more it is to make up for talent. Great talent will stand out on a single postcard with two images. The goal is to drive me to your website to see your work. It is more important to to have great work. Invest your time and energy into test shots, collaborating with friends. Shoot a personal story, that tells me more about who you are than a vellum envelope."

Contributor Bios

Rebecca Crumley is one of the industry's leading experts in wedding photography and style. In her role as Weddings Photo Director at The Knot, she is responsible for producing hundreds of Real Wedding stories featured each year in The Knot Inc. media properties through managing thousands of wedding photography submissions. Her daily interaction with photography also predicts trend forecasting and industry insight.

Sacha Lecca is a Senior Photo Editor at Rolling Stone, with over 16 years' experience in magazine publishing, including stints at Newsweek and CMP Media.

Brenda Milis began working with photography as an art historian, receiving her B.A. at UC Berkeley and studying photo history on fellowship in the graduate division of Northwestern University. Getting her start in photo editing at Jane magazine, Brenda eventually helped launch, then moved to Santa Fe, NM to work as a photo editor at Outside magazine. She is currently the Director of Photography at Men's Health magazine. Shoots she has produced have won awards and been featured in American Photography, SPD and the PDN photo annual.

Molly Roberts has been working in the newspaper and magazine biz for 30 years. She is  currently Photography Editor at Smithsonian Magazine.

For more inspiration, feedback and contradictory opinions about self promos, check out these resources:

Rob Haggart's archive is a treasure trove of self-promo write ups.

PDN hosts an annual self-promo contest. You can browse the winners galleries by year for lots of inspiration and some ideas for graphic designers and printers to contact (when that info is listed which it isn't always...)

The No Plastic Sleeves blog is all about great promos and portfolios. Tons of inspiration.