The importance of a USP.

Friday, 30 April 2010 Every so often I get emailed by people, mostly students, asking me things like "do you have any advice on how one can become a successful photographer?"

That's a very good question. And because of the current economic climate and demise of so many magazines and newspapers, even harder these days to answer.

It's certainly way harder to answer today that it ever was when I started out.  But, in my years working in the advertising business, I learnt about the USP (Unique Selling Proposition). Wikipedia suggests it was the great Rosser Reeves that came up with the term back in the 1940s.  

Basically it means you have to identify and promote the one thing that's most different and compelling.  In advertising it'll apply to a product or service but it can probably equally well apply to an aspiring photographer.

One way to have a USP as a photographer might be to shoot in a significantly different way to everyone else - so that art directors and art editors then have to seek you out if they want that particular style.  This is a fantastic area of opportunity because most photographers don't have much imagination (any art director or art editor will tell you that).  But, fortunately, most art directors and art editors don't have as much imagination as you might think either.  Therefore they usually have to see the precise style they want in a photographer's portfolio before they'll commission anything similar.  Hence a big gap in the market for the truly different to jump into.

Another way might be to shoot in the same style as everyone else but find subjects no one else thought of.  For instance, if I was an art editor and I wanted to commission a series of photos of smiling, big haired girls with their thumbs stuck provocatively into the top of their bikini bottoms, I could just stick a pin anywhere in the map and I'd find a thousand acceptable photographers that have already done plenty of work in that style.  Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that sort of photography but there's a million GWC's in every country that can do it.  Therefore, I'd have absolutely no reason to pick you out and ask you to shoot that.  Unless you lived right next door.  If, on the other hand, I wanted someone to shoot the West Molesey Three-Headed Toad, there would be a far smaller number of photographers who might be able to do a good job.  I don't know if there is a three-headed toad living in West Molesey.  Probably not (though there are some very funny things in the water supply round there).  But the point is, if you look hard enough, there will be something or someone, somewhere near you that is in some way remarkable.  And which could be made into an interesting photo story.  It just needs an imagination and a willingness to see the possible.  You don't become a photographer like Sebastião Salgado by just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. 

In both the cases above, it comes down to having a USP.

There are undoubtedly many other ways to become a successful photographer but having some sort of USP is a decent start.