Frank Meo is a charismatic guy. He excels at making connections with people, whether they’re photographers, art directors, or a young German student who would later become his wife. “I was walking down the Champs-Elysées in Paris, when I spotted her coming towards me,“ he remembers. “So I took off my watch and, when I got to her, I asked her what time it was. The rest is history.” With his twinkling smile and industry savvy, Meo has built a reputation as one of the best in the business. The photographers’ rep turned founder of thephotocloser.com, an online database of photographers in seventy cities around the globe, now shares his expertise through a series of APA-sponsored seminars titled, “Creative Estimating,” in which he teaches photographers how to get more out of the bid process, form industry connections and put yourself in a position of success. Resource sat down with Meo to talk talking shop, personal touches and the power of a phone call.
How did you get involved with the photography business?
I started working at an ad agency—that was about thirty years ago now—and then I took a trip through Europe (where I met my wife). And then I came back, I had always wanted my own business and somebody said to me, “You know, you should be a rep.” So for about twenty-eight, thirty years now I’ve been repping photographers. Always loving it, the ups and downs of the business is just great. You’re around terrific people all the time: photographers, art directors, all kinds of creative people. So it was something that just came naturally, and I love it as much today as I did when I started. Being around that environment, and helping photographers. It’s a tougher business now than it’s ever been, but always having a nice camaraderie with the photographers, that’s always been the motivating force for me. I had my own company called Meo Represents, and then I started the Photo Closer, which is now three and a half or four years old. It’s an online search engine of photographers, which we market to art directors, art buyers and editors. You can look for a photographer by location or by specialty, and that’s working really well. We have 150 photographers in seventy cities around the world.
The one thing that I’ve always tried to do, and you see the benefits over time, is just to have a good reputation, being a decent guy. And I find, just being a decent guy, is like heads and tails over so many other people. And this other upside is people will send you an email, and you call them, and people are just blown away. Wow, you called! From that moment on, you’re immediately in love. It’s the weirdest thing. And for me, as you can tell, it’s such a natural thing to just talk.
So I have a good reputation, I enjoy what I do very, very much and everything I have, I owe to the photographers. My house, putting my kids through college—it’s all because of photographers. So I have a tremendous loyalty and respect for them, because without them, I wouldn’t have a thing. And I wouldn’t have so much fun. These thirty years, I’ve never worked a day in my life. I only hope that something moves, so that everyone can stay in the business, because it gets harder and harder. Everybody and their sister is a photographer. And so many of those people are terrific! There’s no lack of high-quality photographers, and that becomes the real challenge, for everyone today: how do I succeed, even though I’m as good as you, but you’re a better marketer. That’s really where the seminar I teach comes in.
What is “Creative Estimating?”
Photographers get lost in numbers. The whole: “I have to be cheaper than you; that’s how I’ll get the job.” And I really try to turn that on its head in that it’s connecting. So when you’re on the phone with an art buyer or an editor, you need to connect with them. Because if your numbers are a thousand dollars more than me, they’re going to come back to you and say, “Listen, we’d really like to use you; you’re just a little bit high. Can you work on your numbers?” And you of course would say yes. But if you hadn’t connected with them, then they’re never going to go with you. So this whole seminar that I do, I go through some estimates and I show the photographers all the different ways that they could possibly connect with a potential buyer. So if you’re working with this ad agency, it’s really your job, as the photographer, to go to their website and see who their clients are, so when I get on the phone with you as the art buyer or the art director of the agency, you can talk a little shop. “I saw you guys have Nike, or you have a Jeep account or the bicycle account.” Whatever it is. So you’re sharing ideas instead of just being a numbers taker. And trying to explain to them the process. That’s where working in an ad agency was really helpful, in that you understand the process. Too many photographers think you show them the book, you send in an estimate, and that’s it. But when the day of reckoning comes and they’re sitting in a conference room, and the client says, “Well, which photographer do you want to use?” You better have an advocate in that room. Because otherwise you’re just one of three and a sheet of paper.
So that’s really the sweet spot, to convey to the photographers, “Don’t get lost in your numbers.” Like I tell my kids, and I tell everyone, “Be interested and be interesting.” That should be tattooed to everyone’s chest. That’s the great thing about life—everything is sort of like a first date. You really want that second date or that third date, but if you’re sitting there like you’ve got nothing to say, then who wants to date you. So it’s that piece to get people to open up.
With the seminar, I go through real jobs that I produced and show them how it wasn’t the numbers that got us the job; it was connecting with the clients that got us the job. There was one job that I use in there where we got lay-ups to shoot these ads for crystal meth prevention. And it was a San Francisco ad agency, and they were bidding five photographers. Usually it’s only three; five is a little bit crazy. And the other people who were bidding were two in L.A., one in San Francisco that the agency had already worked with, and two here in New York. So I said to the photographer, “Here’s the job: When the day is over, how do you get them on a plane to come to New York? That’s it.” And the other sweet part about it was they told us how much money they had in their budget. The budget was 50K—not great, not bad, but a chunk—so we knew all the numbers would be the same, more or less, which narrows it down even more in that, “How are we going to get them on this plane?” So we talked back and forth with the art buyer, and the photographer really wanted it. We knew it’d be a great campaign. And then the light bulb went off. I said, “You know what we’ll do? We’ll put in the estimate for a drug consultant. Who better to direct the talent, and the photographer, than a recovering drug addict?” So I put it in the estimate, they called me up two minutes later: “What’s with the drug consultant?” And I had this woman almost crying. I still get goose bumps. I said, “Who can tell us what it’s like to be on this drug that they stole from their mothers, they cheated, they were so depressed, they had no hope in their lives…” I just went off on this whole thing. I put us out on a limb, telling them, “It doesn’t matter where this person comes from, but I am telling you, you have to have it.” So they knew how committed we were to that idea, and we got the job. And then they ended up using the guy on the set of their TV ads, too. I will tell you, that is one of the highlights of thirty years in the biz. That was solely my idea. And reps don’t usually get that moment, because it’s always about the photographer or the talent or this or that. It was the simplest idea, now that I tell you, but that’s what got us the job.
And it doesn’t have to be as dramatic that, but there are other ways to make that connection and make yourself stand out. If you’re on the phone today with somebody out of Cleveland, you should know that the Indians were in the playoffs for the first time in thirty years. Just so you’re talking a little stuff. And if you connect, your chances go up a lot. Because another piece of it is, if I have to work with you for a week, do I want to work with a dud? You want something that says to them, “Wow, she’s going to be great to be around.” Those are the social things. Some photographers may say, “Oh, I don’t do that,” but there’s no chance these days for you to be aloof. You gotta do it. And that’s really what this whole seminar is about.
Do you think that’s something that’s always been true, or have you seen a shift in the thirty years that you’ve been in the business?
Well, it’s yes to both. It was always that way, but now it’s even more important. Some of the most successful photographers I have are some of the most social people I know. They can talk to anyone, about anything. And certainly now, you need to do it more than ever. I tell photographers, “When you’re with an art director, remember they wanted to be you.” Nobody grows up and says, “I want to do ads for Colgate!” Seventeen year-olds, getting high in your room, saying, “One day, I’m going to do Rolaids ads.” Everybody was saying, “I’m going to get a photography studio. I’m going to get high all the time and fuck everybody that I can. It’s going to be a party.” That’s what they want. So that art director wanted to be doing what you’re doing. Engage them in this creative space. If you’re doing a mailing or a promotional book, even if you could probably design it yourself, get them to spec the type. That takes them into their sweet spot. And that’s another way of connecting.
Are photographers generally receptive to your advice? Or is it something that doesn’t come naturally to them?
A lot of times, I’ll sit with a photographer and I’ll give them an idea, and I swear, it’s like I was talking brain surgery. You see the light bulbs going off. I guess I had the business/creative head, and some people just don’t have that business piece of it, or how to marry both of them. Because things that appear to be common sense to me, people will say, “Wow, that’s a great idea!” That never crossed your mind? That you should follow up? If you’ve done a job with someone, send them a little card to say thanks. Of if you remember that when they looked through your portfolio they liked a particular image, send them a little signed print. Especially now, that print is cheaper than taking the guy or gal to lunch, and now they have this beautiful print of a rubber ducky that they can put in the bathroom that their kids can giggle about. That kind of stuff, it’s just striking, because it seems so simple.
All of this is part of creative estimating, and how to separate your self a little bit. Your work still has to win the day, but there’s another big piece of this, the social piece, that people need.
Catch Meo at his next talks:
SCAD-Atlanta, 1600 Peachtree St. NE, Room 515C/Photo Studio
Students free, APA members $12, Non-members $20 (additional $5 at door)
Meo will also provide portfolio consulting sessions before the presentation ($75, 45 min., by appointment only). Email firstname.lastname@example.org, Subject Line “Atlanta Portfolio Consult.”
UNC Center City, 320 E. 9th Street
APA Members $10, Non-members $25, Students $5, APA student members free
1301 K Street NW
Members and Students: $10 online/$20 door, General Public: $15/$25
RSVP at apadc.com