Keeping up with client expectations, generation after generation
There are very, very few photography businesses with the kind of longevity enjoyed by Fred Marcus Studio. Founded more than 70 years ago after Fred Marcus immigrated to the United States during Word War II, the studio has been serving an upscale clientele from the same location in New York City ever since. Fred taught the business to his son, Andy, who in turn taught it to his son, Brian. And through the decades the Marcuses have built up a reputation and a client base to rival any wedding and portrait outfit in the country.
Times change and so, too, has the photography business. As the world around them evolved, Andy and Brian, who run the studio these days, have changed with it. They’ve taken the traditional family studio model, pulled and stretched it, and created a burgeoning business that’s been amplified many times over. Today, seven photographers work under the Fred Marcus umbrella, helping the studio photograph more than 200 weddings a year, along with dozens of portrait shoots and a healthy dose of commercial work.
The key, say Andy and Brian, is building an expansion system slowly and carefully while nurturing a select group of photographers into positions of great responsibility.
“Nobody has the ability to just start out shooting for us,” explains Brian. “What separates our photographers is the ability to understand our clients.” And that’s no small thing. Fred Marcus Studio has always thrived on the strength of its long-term relationships with clients, and many of those relationships span generations. That’s why it’s important to help the entire staff understand why clients keep coming back to the studio.
“We don’t look at a booking as one job,” adds Andy. “We look at it like multiple generations of business—clients coming back to you over and over again, their children coming to you, other members of their family. So we’ve been focused on finding and training people who understand how to work with these high-value clients.”
In today’s hyper-competitive photography marketplace, booking a job isn’t something that comes easy, even to a well-established studio like Fred Marcus. Earning the trust of a new client is even more difficult. Today’s consumers are used to a global shopping experience that allows them to compare products and prices across an endless spectrum of options. Pitching a high-end photography experience is tough, especially since there are no true apples-to-apples comparisons in professional photography.
Aside from relying on reputation, what can photographers do to attract the next generation of clients?
“It’s critical to recognize that every generation has its own expectations,” says Andy. “We could have a new client who’s in her 20s and came to us because her parents and grandparents were photographed by our studio. But this new client has completely different expectations and wants something entirely different out of the experience.”
The Marcus team gathers as many details as possible during the initial consultations, taking nothing for granted. A daughter might have entirely different tastes than her mother, so photographing one doesn’t necessarily mean success photographing the other. Andy, Brian, and their team of photographers, don’t make assumptions; they treat each new client engagement as the next chance to earn a customer for life.
“This isn’t a game,” says Brian. “People are paying us to photograph one of the most important days in their lives. And they keep coming back to us because of the quality of work and the level of service—people know what they are going to get.”
That surety has value. Clients don’t want to feel that they’re taking a chance on their wedding. They want to be confident that the longest-lasting aspect of that day is going to go off without a hitch.
Client expectations include the style of photography they’ll be getting. For the photographer, that means delivering consistency without stifling one’s creativity.
“Our studio has a definite style,” says Andy. “People look at our work and recognize it. It’s visible and real. It also sets us apart.”
Perpetuating the distinctive Fred Marcus style is a matter of constant, hands-on training with every new photographer. It involves in-studio instruction in posing, lighting, composition, and the overall approach. Andy and Brian review images with their photographers every week, looking at what could be improved. “We try to give people the confidence to bring their unique strengths to the table,” says Brian. “On the other hand, we teach a common structure and style that we want to impose throughout our work.” The combination of that individuality expressed through an established construct is what gives Fred Marcus Studio a style that’s identifiable, yet flexible and highly relevant.
Maintaining the style and growing the business has been a matter of buy-in by all parties. The photographers buy into the idea of being part of a collaborative company. And Andy and Brian buy into their photographers, investing time and resources to help build their careers. “I’m their agent, so to speak,” says Brian. “Most photographers are not willing or able to open their own studio in New York. It’s a big risk and expense. But our photographers have a dedicated salesman and an established business representing them, selling them, promoting their name as part of the studio. That allows them to focus on their craft and excel at what they do.”
Quality worthy of investment
Most of all, the evolution of a successful studio takes constant attention and a work ethic that doesn’t allow settling. “The business has changed a lot, even in the last five years,” says Brian. “It is a lot more difficult these days to gain the trust of new clients and prove that we are worth the investment. It takes working harder each day to gain that trust.”
Building a business that stands the test of time means understanding who your real clients are and catering to their needs, say Andy and Brian. Start with just one client who is ideal for your business.
“Do whatever it takes to build off of that one client,” Brian recommends. “There are so many ways to do that. If you photograph a wedding, that can spawn many new things. Stay in touch, and stay in front of them. If they’re starting a family, you’re in a position to do family portraits and much more. Do a holiday card for them, then it goes out to 200 people, and those are 200 new potential customers. Don’t stop thinking about how to present your work and your best qualities. And don’t let them get away.”
“Not only that, let them work for you,” says Andy. “You can create emissaries out there who can spread the word and help bring more business to you. To do that you need to set yourself apart from the competition, be consistent, and continually impress your clients. It’s not about doing one great wedding or one great portrait; it’s about doing each one better than the last. If you can accomplish that, great things start to happen.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.