Agency Access Joins the Email Blast Conversation.

As I explained in my blog post on Tuesday, I am very interested in starting a productive conversation about email blasts.  So much so, I enlisted the help of Keith Gentile and Amanda Sosa Stone of Agency Access.

Keith started at Agency Access as a researcher and quickly rose through the ranks and believed in the company so much he eventually bought it.  He is fixated on creating a positive customer experience and is committed to keeping this conversation going.  Amanda is the Chief Product Officer at Agency Access and  her role is to make new and evolve current Agency Access products to ensure they are always strong and deliver results that help artists get seen.  So, you can imagine how committed she is to this issue.

Back in October, I had lunch with them and a close art producer friend for our first conversation on the state of the industry. Since then, there has been much back and forth about ideas and ways to engage the community.  They were more than willing to answer some of my questions and hope that in doing so there is a deeper understanding of what their company is all about.

Here is what they had to share.

You have built an incredible resource for the photo community but some people have strong negative feelings against the photographers that use the service.  Do you see a solution for the photographers that would like to continue to use your service but at the same time not want to be part of the noise?

A:  Having what we consider to be the best database available is one thing, using it wisely is another. I always said getting a database is like getting years and years of research handed to you on a silver platter.  That’s all great, but it’s what you do with it that counts.

If you want to have 3-4 solid channels of marketing happening, using our database is only one element.  The most important element is first creating a platform so your work speaks for itself.  When I hear buyers complain, they are complaining not only about the volume of work they are getting, but also the quality of promotions.  “It’s not my market…the design is weak…the imagery is weak, etc…”.   I want to make sure our industry first takes responsibility for having a solid visual voice that is worth marketing.  Once they have done that you have to put together content and imagery in a way that speaks to your “target market”.  Then you move to building that list of “targeted” individuals and companies you want to approach.

K: Every year we spend thousands of dollars on research and development to give our members tools to customize the perfect list so that they can make sure to send relevant content to the right creatives.  Unfortunately, there are still ways for artists to cast a wide net and this still happens because it’s easier approach and takes less time.  It’s important that users of the site take their time and use the tools our system provides to build a relevant list. Assuming that if a recipient is not interested they will just opt out is not the most effective way to build a list or utilize the site. Not taking the time to build the list properly contributes to the noise.

This is exactly what has led us to the conversation we are having today.   Realistically, building a relevant list is a hard task.  It takes work and time, but it’s a much needed process and important for all business owners to take seriously, not just in our industry.  Once you have taken those steps, a database can be used in a proper way.

Helping artists to stop the noise and to start speaking clearly to their markets has separated us form all our competition over the years, especially ADBASE.  Form day one we have always claimed we are more then just a list and that is absolutely the truth. Over the last 18 years in business we have focused on a multi channel approach with a heavy focus on the body of work.  Email is not the only avenue.  Yes, I believe email is important but important if utilized in the way just explained.  One email a month is actually 6 more then we recommend to our members (8 for reps). We only recommend 6 a year but we incorporate other channels such as print and mail and phone marketing.  Now that we all find ourselves in a difficult position the task is harder and It’s not an overnight fix, but we work on it every day and it continues to be our mission to help artists and creatives connect in a way that works for both parties.

Some helpful tips:

  • Build a smaller email list of people you have researched
  • Send emails out between 9am-5pm
  • Keep focused on visual communication of your brand….Ask yourself…Am I sending the right messaging of the type of work I want to get hired for and is the creative on the other end looking for this?

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Recipients argue that the email blasts are not filtered or relevant.  They claim that photographers send too many blasts, too often.  Knowing this, what can photographers do to better use your platform for marketing?

A:  Yes, we can all always do better.  It’s a lonely industry and it’s very scary sending those emails out into the dark.  We provide artists easy and available tools to research the agency and find appropriate people.  It’s a task to do the research, which is why people avoid doing it, but it’s all there and the homework needs to be done..  When you login you can search by agency categories, company specialization, titles, location, awards, hiring frequency, promo preferences and much more.

Once you applied these higher-level filters then you have to review each company individually.  If an agency has 5 art producers then most likely it’s not worth sending to all the art directors and creative directors, as it’s probably not their responsibility to source the talent anyway.  In this case you need to cherry pick the titles and contacts that are influencers and eliminate the ones that are not.  Once you have applied those selections, look at their websites, at their client list we provide (and they provide on their sites) and narrow it down even further. This exercise does not only address the issue at hand but it helps educate you as to where to best market your work.   Creatives are people too and if you are going to market to them why not take the time to learn a bit more about what they do.  The education alone will be priceless and it will make your business stronger.

What are you doing currently to speak to the concern of the creative community that receives the email blasts? 

K:  We are speaking to the community and trying to hear what they are saying.  As you know Heather, we met together with a senior art buyer to start a conversation about the current situation. Even though I took a few punches I was open and willing to listen to any feedback because the comments were valuable and honest.

Since then we have had many more conversations and we have heard many suggestions as to what could come next. All are creative and interesting, but we are not quite there yet. We are still searching for something that would be universal and easy for everyone involved.  My responsibility is to make sure the creative side is happy with the content they receive but at the same time I’m also fighting for my clients because they depend on our services to help them grow their business and survive in a very competitive industry.  I am not looking to reinvent the wheel, I am just looking for an evolved solution to what we are doing currently so everyone benefits.

We are committed to this dialog until we do find that solution. In the spring, we are partnering with The Community Table to continue the conversation. It industry professionals like yourself that are positive and encourage a healthy conversation. We are looking forward to what will come from that event.

There is an unsubscribe option on every blast, so why do people think it is so difficult to remove their name from your list? 

K: It is very easy to unsubscribe to an artist using our system.  One clink of a button and they will no longer receive an email from that artists.  Although, my guess would be because there are over 50,000 photographers in the world (maybe 6% uses Agency Access) that many of these emails are coming from personal lists.  You need to remember that our database is very mature and a mature database has already removed the email address of creatives that choose not to receive email and prefer other formats.

So where are non Agency Access members getting these names?  From one of the other 6 major creative database providers, LinkedIn, company websites, award books, magazines, corporate directories like the old AdWeek directory?  Even if they are using a provider you have to remember that even Agency Access members have their own personal database they use.  When you have that many artists with their own database and hundreds of email providers like Constant Contact, Mail Chip and My Emma, you are going to get emails.  It’s a great channel of communication, it’s easy to do and extremely cost effective. Creatives can change a photographer’s life by giving them their dream job. If Agency Access stopped email today I doubt there would be much of an impact on the amount of emails creatives are getting because photographers want and need to get in touch with creatives.  Basically, I’m saying it is easy to be removed but I feel strongly our system only accounts for a small portion of emails in the grand scheme of things.
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You get a lot of slack for being the “list”.  But, you are so much more than just a list.  Who is Agency Access really?  What would you like to be known for?  

A:  For me, Agency Access is a company that is passionate about getting clients exposure.  It’s why I got into the business and it’s why I got involved with Agency Access back in 2000 when I was at an Agency.  It’s a place for artists to come and get the support they need.  We have consultants who are all former buyers, reps, creative directors to photo editors.  We have an in-house estimating department.  We have a design department (which our work is featured all the time on aPhotoEditor to winning Addy’s) and a print department that is printing Mini portfolios to promotional material everyday for our artists.  We try to support our artists in every way we can with our available resources.

We are a group of caring individuals who first and foremost care about the artist.  Oh yeah…and we have a database to use for all of the other services noted above.  And ironically we have creatives asking us to purchase our database, when looking for new agencies to work for.  It’s not a dirty thing we do, it’s a job that takes lots of research and care. It’s something we are proud of and when we hear one of our clients getting a job because of the work we did together, nothing else matters.  We do everything for that win between the creative, their client and our member.

I have always thought that email marketing provides some of the best marketing data available to reps and artists.   Do you agree with this?  Do you think recipients understand this?  And, would knowing this make a difference to their point of view?

A:  We 100% agree with this.  Where else can you get data that shows an open rate or a click-through rate?  We all joke about the artist who calls up and says “Hey we know you clicked”…that is our biggest no no and we talk about it all the time.  It’s not about cyber stalking the creative, it’s about building up data to gauge an image’s success and to research contacts for additional channels of marketing.  Email is just a foundation layer for other channels or marketing and figuring out your target audience.  Once you know your target you can spend more time and resources getting a creatives attention with something like a beautifully printed promotion that speaks to the creative on a different level.

Agency Access purchased ADBASE.  What is the difference between the 2 companies? What are the benefits of the two companies merging for photographers and creatives?

K:  We were competitors for years.  ADBASE was a great company built on killer technology, a solid US database, wonderful people and focused on self-serve.  Agency Access is a great company, built on good technology with a solid global database, professional caring support, with the main focus on full-serve.  The marriage was beautiful in the sense that Agency Access members received better technology and ADBASE members now had opportunities to purchase added marketing services in one place and everyone benefited for the merge of two strong databases.

ADBASE’s business was tech driven and highly focused on list building and an emailer engine, but that was it because they didn’t offer any other services.  If I remember correctly many issues started to happen with email because the ADBASE tech made it very easy for artists to email blast on large scales and at the same time. While this was happening little Agency Access was controlling email marketing by allowing only 3 emails a day to be released?

The downhill of email marketing was on our mind the day we launched our service because it was such a great tool and it was so exciting, we didn’t want to get greedy because greed would damage the medium.  Yes, we only allow three email sends a day (out of all our members) to be released.  We were always trying to control the amount of email sends in a day form the very beginning.  Unfortunately, we had to make the decision to up that to 6, then 8 then 12 and so on.  In order to survive we needed to modify our ways or our customers would have left us for ADBASE.

It was around this time we got heavier into added services to offset that the aggressiveness of email marketing. We did this by implementing more print and mail and phone marketing to set up in person meetings for our members. It was around this time we develop what we now call the Campaign Manger Program.  It was a three-prong approach to using our database to marketing through email, direct mail and phone marketing and it incorporated consulting services to be sure the members work was ready to market.

To sum up your question the Campaign Manger (full-serve) was suffocating ADBASE as there was a need, desire and we made it affordable and it was clearly more efficient then the self-serve options of ADBASE. An opportunity came up to acquire ADBASE and combine great technology and database to our already strong database and aggressive full-service plans. Agency Access changed the ways artists marketed to creatives and merging the companies was a good move for our members.
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Many photographers or reps purchase access to your database and create their own email lists and send blasts out on their own.  You also offer a service where Agency Access will curate a list for the photographer and handle the blast from start to finish.  How does this work?  

A:  Well, depending on what program join, we do offer support from our Campaign Manager program, where we build a list to get them started. The artist always has access to curate their own list.  Take JP Perlmutter for example. Being a former rep herself she lived and breathed Agency Access data for years.  Now that she is on our side, she really owns and engages with her artists to own their lists.  It’s not an easy fix.  We still require and recommend our artists dive in deeper and own their lists because it is important for them to understand their market and how to utilize the database in the best way for all parties involved.

In addition to the Campaign Manger services we offered a full service program for our Emailer clients. This service is highly used by non-techie member in a way of guidance to using email correctly.  The member is assigned an Email Coordinator to help them through the process of sending an email.  The email coordinator is a highly trained professional and helps them code emails, set up campaigns, gives advice in template design, times to send emails, subject lines, etc… This service has helped control mass market email sending as it’s allows users to think before they send.

Where do you want to see email marketing go in the future?

A:  I want a space where Artists can spend their marketing dollars wisely on an affordable electronic promotions with good data/results to Creatives that are open to receiving emails.  I wish for creatives to have a place/space for emails to be filtered and received and looked at when time allows.  I am an optimistic and I believe it’s a space that exists, we just need to bridge the gap and work with our industry to find balance.  I am actively speaking with agency/magazine/in-house creatives.  I welcome the conversation.

K: I don’t see it moving too much.  I would like to say it will evolve more and I would hate to say it would fall off more because it’s such an important way our members promote to creatives.  I think it has flat lined and the medium is still widely used in our industry today and it’s just unfortunate there are challenges around its control. It’s kind of like our industry and triple bidding and reduced rates.  Once you turn a ship this big it’s almost impossible to shift it back to what it was.  Creatives have spoken and it’s getting in their way and we have to look for other ways to get noticed and respect their wishes.  I still firmly believe if our members and our non-members not using our service get smarter with their list building and research at least it can be more effective then it is today. It will help us all to understand that email is a good medium to promote, educate and communicate our audience through and maybe it can move in a positive direction.

I know we have talked in the past about our idea, but what are your thoughts and feelings about it now that you see it live?

A: I think you are a driving force for change.  I am not sure what will happen, but I hope it creates a good place for conversation so we can all evolve.  I do not want to see email die, it’s a viable marketing channel, but I do want to see it evolve and give creatives space and artists a solid platform/channel for marketing.

K: When you first mentioned it to me I have to admit I was skeptical and I was worried about the proprietary database you spent years building.  Building a database is not an easy task and the thought of you starting over left me concerned.  Although, the push for change is great and I commend you for listening to creatives and buyers around the globe and trying to come up with a solution.  Starting over will be an extremely difficult task but with a dedicated website and a strong PR and social push to opt-in at, my views are changing quickly.

Do you have any predications regarding our experiment with oneemaileramonth?  Do you hope that our post will do anything in particular? 

A: I believe that you will have a gap where it takes time to build up momentum/exposure to get creatives signing up to this space. That build up time is torture, but I believe in your mission and I hope it gets exactly what you want for your artists, proper exposure.   But I do believe the traffic you get will be good traffic.  And at the end of the day it’s all about the right traffic.  My hope is that your post will start a dialog between the 2 ends of our community: the creatives and the artists.  We need to find a common ground.  We service and care for the artist, but ultimately building the right vehicles for both spectrums is our ultimate goal we share.  Thank you Heather for being bold enough to start a wave and bold enough to bring us into the conversation.

K: There is something to say about being first in line and with that in mind you will greatly benefit form this and so will your roster.  They are lucky to have such a bright, passionate and wonderful person you on their side.

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