There’s no such thing as a free lunch – Sponsorship of photoshoots


Sponsorship of Photo shoots, Event and Press.

For a while I have been debating whether or not to post this blog, however I think many others regarding the ‘Sponsorship’ of work for photo shoots, events and indeed press, may share my thoughts.

This is a post for both suppliers and press alike, from anyone needing ‘props’ for photo shoots, as well as for the photographers and stylists. And also for suppliers to start thinking twice before we hand out our nurtured expertise, free of charge.

Free pitching in design

To understand where I’m coming from, I should touch upon a topic that really runs in parallel to this, which is ‘free pitching’ in design. When you are starting out in a design business you could be forgiven for thinking it’s ok when companies or private clients ask you to just ‘whip up a design’ for free and then they will decide if they would like it, or indeed decide that actually, after 2 solid days of your hard work, they’re not that enamoured by it after all. Ashamedly, 10 years ago, being 20 something’s starting a business, we thought this was the thing to do for a short while and of course, wandered whether the clients attitude of  ‘they need to see what we can offer before paying’, was actually right? Wrong. Not only for the obvious sense that they are asking for your expertise for free, but also it lets the industry down, if you do it, that’s what customers begin to think of the design industry, that free pitching is ok, when in fact what you are now offering is free design. It’s a blurry subject, but we chose many years ago, not to offer free pitching to anyone, we began to understand it was bad practice.

Collaboration and photo shoots within the wedding/event industry

So how does this relate to the wedding/event industry world? It is a slightly different stance, however almost in the same vain, and I hope you will see the dilemma that is so often at the face of design practices, and other disciplines, including the photographers, today.

When you are asked to contribute to a photo shoot which is sure to be amazing, it is exciting, your work out there in bright lights with the possibility of making it to print into the press for the big wide world to see. Quite often this is exactly what does happen and in turn you have wonderful feedback, great shots of your work and generally a warm fuzzy feeling to boost you to keep doing what you’re doing. Quite often you are also given creative freedom, which is the golden clincher when you say ‘yes’ to contribute your wares to a shoot. At this point I must also state that I am all for collaboration, I think you get the best results from collaboration, and I do find it very hard to say no, when the opportunities arise to have free reign and the possibility to create a new product, but it’s how it’s executed as a mutual, positive and lucrative end result where I find things are getting a little blurred in the wedding industry.

Profit or Loss?

I wonder though, let’s put our business heads on and see, quite simply, do we make any money out of it? Do you gain any new clients? Do you make good relationships? Getting exposure, is it resulting in your profit….or loss? This sounds incredibly cut throat however, if you are in a business, with overheads, this is how you must think, the most important scenario and worst-case scenario is are YOU out of pocket and has this ‘job’ cost YOU? It is a fine line, a very, very fine line.

Why you should do a photo shoot

So I will start with the positive take on the photo shoot and what I feel you should be gaining from it. Other than just exposure, you should always look to gain new business from a promotional photo shoot, exposure and indeed the ‘promise’ of exposure, is simply not enough. Look at your marketing budget, asses if this shoot is worth eating into your budget or even going over your budget if you’re nearing the end of the year, you have to pay for materials from somewhere.. I see the photo shoot as an opportunity to create new products for the business and in turn you get them professionally photographed, and when agreed credit and image distribution rights are arranged with the photographer you can then use those images to gain new business. We have created new collections and some amazing and more interesting bespoke installations for shoots that have no doubt helped us win new business. The other positive spin on the photo shoot is to submit a new collection you have done as then, again, you have the opportunity for it to be photographed professionally in a styled shoot, this is then a really sensible reason to do a shoot and then in turn added exposure is a bonus.

If you are a company who has products in stock on the self, then absolutely throw them at sponsored jobs if they want you, it costs you no time and you get the product back.

When you should consider carefully about doing a photo shoot

On the other hand, quite often we need to create an entirely new piece of work for a photo shoot, so, for bespoke work, your time, materials and labour costs simply MUST be considered. You have paying clients, they must come first. I’m not sure how many people realise in press or when asking for ‘props’ for shoots, that actually, in our case and other tailor made areas in the industry, we don’t have product hanging around, what you ask us to do, we do for you. From designing, to paying for your card stock, to laser cutting time, to hand finishing. Often sponsored jobs take up to a ½ week of our time; fine if this is for a great end results in new clients and good for relations but not so fine if all you get is one image in one blog post. We now have samples of work to send to press, yet often they ask, ‘can you just do it in this colour way for us’? Well yes, but that is 2 hours later, finding the time to dig out the artwork, possibly have to order new card, set it up for laser cutting and then cutting and hand finishing. 2 hours, or more, for the possibility of it to go into a magazine….hmm. There was a time when press would pay for samples, times have changed.

Needless to say when our ‘off the shelf’ collections launched last year, handing over product to press and for shoots is now a dream and far more sensible option for exposure.

 Part sponsored photo shoots/projects = win win

I have the utmost respect for people who come to us and are willing to pay for our time for an item which others would consider promotion, we have had a good few clients who could’ve easily pulled the ‘you will get a lot of publicity for this’ line, but thankfully, these clients recognised that at the least, our time and materials needs paying for, in return they got a part sponsored job by us, for this we still go to town as they have acknowledged that we are business and they will get the best from us. The end result is a stunning piece of work that both brands can cross promote = great relationships and hopefully new business.

I say this, then I may find that when we next do an event ourselves, we need to pull in suppliers to be a part of it and need their time, not just product, and it has made me re-think, if we need to do this, I want to make sure there is something concrete that will benefit their business in the future if we are unable to pay in ready cash. Of course there will be exposure, but exposure isn’t always the thing that pays the bills…for instance some of our work is sponsored by our paper mill, it works 2 ways, they let us have a quota of paper, we create a stunning unusual piece with their name on but more importantly I know we are sending business, real business their way on a daily basis throughout the year.

I could go on, there is so much to consider for your business, your brand, your business values when taking on ‘sponsored work’, but I hope this has triggered a thought to perhaps stop and think about who you loan your time too, and considered the others in the industry.

So my plea, please be considerate as to what you are asking of a company when ‘persuading’ them to sponsor a job, and no more ‘this will get you great ‘exposure’…..Exposure simply isn’t enough as so often promises are not met. People like me then feel guilty and lose sleep over it if we have to say no, as our clients have to come first. And on the flip side if you are a supplier, think twice before handing over your wares, think twice for you and your industry, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

 Disclaimer and positive outcomes of shoots we’ve done

That all said and done, this post has no reflection on the sponsored jobs we have done in the past, we have been very particular about the type of shoot and who we work with that we feel honoured to be apart of all the shoots we have contributed to this year. See below for some results of some really successful projects and shoots we have done over the past couple of years which have gained us great exposure and ultimately new business.

It was the sheer volume of shoots and events that we have been asked to do which has triggered this thought and has thankfully made us re-think what we do in the future. So our answer is this….we will now be offering a limited amount of sponsored jobs so we can give them our full attention and time required to create something special, if the slots are taken, and our marketing budget is fulfilled, then our time is taken too and no more will be allocated as quite simply our clients, and paying our staff, must come first.


Would love to hear comments, be kind…

Thank you to Anne-Marie, our senior designer, who created the brilliant info-graphics above! This is available as  PDF checklist for you should you require when making the decision about photoshoots.

Masked ball laser cut mask invitation

Shoot styled by Savoir Weddings, photography by Sarah Gawler

wedding installation

Shoot styled by Always Andri, photography by Segerius Bruce photography

Paper bouquet

Shoot styled by Always Andri, photography by Segerius Bruce photography

Christmas window display

Part sponsored job by Cutture and Phillipa Lepley

Laser cut installation

Part sponsored job by Cutture and Phillipa Lepley

Place name card

Shoot at Fetcham Park, photography by Eddie Judd

Menu card

 Shoot at Fetcham Park styling by Couvert, photography by Eddie Judd 





28 Responses to “There’s no such thing as a free lunch – Sponsorship of photoshoots”
  1. Jane says:

    So very well and eloquently put Helen… I know a few people who should read this….

  2. Great post Helen!
    I am a firm believer that styled shoots are a great way for suppliers in the wedding industry to practice their craft, showcase their talents and new ideas & maybe even get some free press. However I similarly agree that the benefits of the time, effort and money that you put into these collaborations needs to benefit everybody equally. I get approached, probably at least once a week by people wanting me to work on shoot with them… people i’ve never heard of – or in the nicest possible way – dont have the experience or connections like me to make it worth my while. at the end of the day this is business – time is money and all that – and sometimes we have to look out for number one. working JUST for the promise of some potential ‘exposure’ is foolish.

    • Helen Sharland says:

      I think it’s really interesting to hear your stance on it Kat as you are essentially loaning yourself, which is still you time and you have to consider branding that much more. I too think photo shoots are great which is why I find this a hard subject to tackle, I worked for 10 yrs for our other company trying to get people to collaborate but in the design world people do it less due to protection over their work, so the wedding industry is brilliant in that it brings a heaps of creatives together. It’s a hard balance between doing it for the love and then thinking about the money!

      • yeah totally… and without wanting to sound like an utter my myself prick – my face! My face (well ok my hair!) is my brand, and quite a recognisable one at that – being involved in a shoot i essentially endorse that company & everyone involved to hundreds of thousands of brides and grooms to be!

        i recently had someone at a party who was desperately trying to get me to hold a sign she’d made in the photo booth but i had to refuse! i didnt know or or her company and if i had its not just me having fun holding a random sign its basically me saying ‘i endorse this!’ esp if she then went onto use that photo in her marketing… OK im starting to cringe now so im off….

  3. Laura Caudery says:

    A great post Helen and I lagree wholeheartedly; from working with you on our launch invitations to our recent shoot, I have always carefully considered what I am asking of contributors and what it offers them in return. It gives me great pleasure to know that visibility and placement of your products is leading to bookings so here’s to a successful, collaborative relationship! L

    • Helen Sharland says:

      You are the perfect collaborator Laura, you recognise we are a business and we want to create work for you as our brands work well together plus we get results as I hope you do too. Hopefully in turn this becomes a mutual gain for both businesses which is win win! x

  4. Great post guys and such a tricky subject to address.

    I feel I have to wave my ‘guilty as charged’ flag a little – you being one of the very supplier’s I approached recently to seek your collaboration on a project, but all being well, that project will result in actual decent exposure and potential sales leads.

    I have to admit though, I don’t feel 100% comfortable about the idea of making the same approaches to suppliers in the future should another project arise. I actually very much *do* value the work of suppliers – very, very much so, and know just how much love, sweat and tears can go in to creating a one off design for use on a photoshoot. This is why I’ve not got too involved with collaborative photoshoots in the past (except for one I did for charity, when all suppliers very willingly and generously supplied their products and services), because t I feel it can be a lot to ask of suppliers if you cannot guarantee excellent exposure and resulting sales enquiries. I absolutely love collaborating with others but I think the message I’ve taken from this is don’t take others for granted (not that I ever thought I did, but you know what I mean), as we all, as you say, have bills to pay and knocking up something ‘awesome’ almost always costs £££ – costs absorbed by the designer usually – and these things take precious time too and of course, time is money!

    Annabel x

    • Helen Sharland says:

      Not at all Annabel, as I say we consider everything we do and it is our responsibility to create a ‘new product’ when designing for these things, plus we do enjoy it! We are going to turn some of the designs we did for you into new collections, a great example as to how you gain from sponsored work then exposure is just a bonus. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Great post Helen. It’s always difficult to know which of these will work out well and which won’t. We had one last year with a British wedding movie we were invited to contribute product for. It took 2 days to sort and cost us a hefty chunk in materials. Not only does our time cost us, but it also means we lose time that we could use to generate more revenue. It’s important to make sure you are the only supplier in your category supplying product before you start work. You don’t want all your hard efforts to just to become an option that ‘might’ get selected. You also need to check the calibre of suppliers involved. Are you in with the right group? The movie did end up hitting cinema screens this Summer, and although it wasn’t a block buster it has been great for PR and orders. You guys do a great job with these promotions and I’m always impressed by how many you manage to fit in!

    • Helen Sharland says:

      Thanks Jeremy, that’s a really good point as to making sure you are within the right collaborators to suit your own brand. It’s hard to know if things will be right for you or not, that film for instance, how could you know if it’s going to be a hit, but you were savvy enough to realise that of course it will be great PR either way, and I guess that’s another point to make there is always an element of risk as to when you decide to do these things as to whether it will benefit you as a business or not, so that’s my point I think it’s our responsibility to make sure it can do by designing products that can be re used in a commercial sense in the future. I do need to listen to myself here from now on though as often we do far to elaborate things that then aren’t viable!! See you soon x

  6. I whole-heartedly agree with this Helen. Over the past few years the “trend” for styled shoots has exploded. Whilst it’s great that the industry is embracing collaboration, from my view point every shoot needs to have a point and purpose and his is a question I ask whenever I’m approached to style one (something I no longer do for free as these take a LOT of time). In most cases budgets stand at little to nothing therefore if I’m asked to source products I have to be absolutely clear as to what the benefits and outcomes would be for those I approach because, as you say, “you’ll get great exposure” simply isn’t good enough. Shoots can be a great amount of fun and nurture relationships, but I do tire of the less than adequate quality of some of them, the must be carefully considered to have any kind of impact.

    I wonder if designer/makers started to look a little more into the pros/cons of producing props and began charging whether this would force those requesting them to rethink their ideas, thus paving the way for a higher quality?

    Either way, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with you and the team on the few I’ve requested 😉

    • Helen Sharland says:

      That’s a really interesting thought, I wander if it would be better as then you will most likely spend more time on it rather than trying to squeeze it into your day, often we are also asked v last min which I find frustrating as we like to design things with more of a concept behind it rather than something that’s just ‘whimsical’! As I keep saying I am all for shoots, it’s just I do think thought into design and quality do need to be considered and it’s your own business’ responsibility to make sure it’s right for your brand and that you create new pieces that you work with in the future. I’m glad you’re charging for your time more, time is the biggest commodity that is undervalued, just yesterday we had a client who we’ve worked with before wanting us to just whip up a design for free without paying the design fee, no clue as to what might happen if they change their mind once we’ve done the design, who pays for half a day of our designers time then? Anyway, I diverse…thanks for you comment Tiff xx

  7. What a great post, really interesting. As White Knot is only a year old I feel really flattered when someone asks me to provide bespoke stationery for a photoshoot or for the press. I do then as you say spend quite a lot of time (and money) in order to be a part of the shoot or feature in the hope of exposure.

    Making an estimate of the time and costs involved on each project and weighing it up against my advertising and publicity budget is something I really should have done from the start rather than getting carried away with the excitement of being asked.

    Hopefully within time I will be able to decipher the requests that are more likely to lead to orders than those that aren’t.

    Some great advice here, thank you for deciding to post as I think it is a really helpful article.

    • Helen Sharland says:

      I think when you are starting out the opportunity to do these shoots is brilliant and it’s not often in a design industry where you get the opportunity, it no doubt helped us out as when we first got pro photography done in the studio for our work it is expensive and a big investment but necessary, so to be able to have lifestyle shots of your work for a reciprocal photo shoot is brilliant. I say do it, but do keep an eye on costs and start budgeting each year and try to create a new product every time you do one! Your work is lovely btw! x

  8. Bernadette says:

    Brilliant post Helen. I’ve only been involved in one shoot for a new venue and even though there was not a lot of ‘design’ needed as we wanted to show the venue not trends etc, I was shocked how much of my time it took, easily 2 full weeks. I therefore hav e no inclination to organise future shootsd as I just don’t don’t have the time! When getting suppliers on board I choose those I have worked with before and trusted but even so was very appreciative of their time given.

    Whenever I am asking favours either for Dream Ocassions or UKAWP I am concious of ensuring the supplier get ‘value’ from what I’m asking of them.

    Lots of love

    B x

  9. Great advice. I also used to work in the design industry, and unfortunately it was all too common for prospective clients to ask you for three or four design ideas to pitch to them. This took loads of time, and they were getting free inspiration from a number of companies.

    On another note, I had a really bad experience last year with a photoshoot. All my cakes and cakestands had been bundled into the back of a car after the shoot, and all were returned to me damaged. A massive amount of work, money and time out the window.

    I am now extremely careful who I will collaborate with, and will ask the organiser of the shoot to sign a contract that they will any if any of my cakes or stands are damaged. Maybe the organisers should ensure they have insurance to cover them for damage for goods loaned to them.

  10. Take 2…

    Perhaps it’s different for myself, but for me working on a ‘styled shoot’ is actually an opportunity for me to see how suppliers work, work with their products and see the quality of both. It’s important to do this because then I can make some great recommendations to my own clients and those on my blog which will in turn help not just with exposure (though that is also quite important I feel, especially for new companies – I’ve done this a lot, worked with someone new and then they’ve become ‘known’ in the industry and hence got more work this way) but also with sales too!

    Just want to put the perspective of a stylist across… we often are approached by companies/photographers to work with them, very rarely do I get the opportunity to do my own thing purely because I have paying clients that I have to prioritise but if I had a quiet month then that may be different!

    Stylists doing shoots also work for free (obviously) and organising a shoot is by no means an easy task. Overseeing the co-ordination, logistics, suppliers, contacts, PR, images etc is in itself a lot of work and that doesn’t include the creative side of things or the actual shoot day. Also, quite often I end up hugely out of pocket from expenses such as models, extra props, postage, food and travel so it’s also very much an investment of our time as well as financially.

    I am in agreement that, as a stylist with experience – if I were to ask a supplier for anything that involved them doing something bespoke that either took up a fair amount of time, or was a request that meant they had to pay for supplies that I would help put ‘something’ towards that. I say something because this would be coming out of my pocket because as I explained, we do everything for free too! I think the general rule of thumb is everybody should be equally benefiting but if a stylist isn’t being paid for something then I guess it doesn’t always seem fair for them to pay others (unless it wasn’t benefiting mutually and they were getting more out of it).

    I do however think for new companies who want to get their name out there, that it is part of life to work for free. We’ve all done it, because it really is the best way to get your self out there, meet people, network, open up great opportunities and add to the portfolio BUT once you have experience I think people should value this and respect the quality of what you are offering or providing.

    I’m often asked to work for free as a stylist for a shoot, when that is a service I actually would normally charge for, so I often have to say no to things, if I don’t have a creative input because as you sum up above, if it won’t benefit you or your company then really what is the point – you are just working for free.

    I see so many stylists (and even photographers!) doing shoot after shoot and I honestly don’t know where they find the time or money as both are extremely draining! I also get embarrassed asking too many favours off suppliers so am very aware that I don’t take the pi**!

    Either way, I’m fully conscious of ensuring the value of anyone’s hard work is paid off, and will always do my best to promote it and provide full credits to those that have been involved.

    • Helen Sharland says:

      Thanks Charley, I think it’s really important to highlight that of course everyone involved is working for ‘free’ in most of these things, other than the part sponsored jobs I mention. I am all for doing these shoots as we of course have benefitted from them when starting out which was my point in the blog about me being pro doing shoots, however my main point for all involved in photo shoots is to make it your own responsibility to make it right for your business once you have agreed to do a shoot. This extends beyond the valuable PR but it is up to us to think about it when we are deigning and create what could potentially be a new product. For you you gain portfolio pieces, new business contacts and therefore inspiration to you clients which will help you win jobs, for suppliers it is therefore paramount to just think a little before designing that you can re use these designs in the future. Not for one moment would I want to be negative about collaboration, it’s my favourite thing and I’ve been wanting to create our own event where we will need to pull suppliers in one day, it’s just being mind full as you say, and not to take liberties of suppliers but equally suppliers have their own responsibility to be savvy. See I love your comments! x

  11. A very interesting and important discussion.

    I shall think on. In an industry where the same shoot appears to be recreated ad nauseum it is very interesting to hear a view from a supplier.

    As always your discussions are thought provoking.

  12. Liz Gall says:

    Helen, you are spot on and this post was so needed as the number of shoots happening lately seem to have exploded, and I too always feel really guilty if I say no! I’ve done a few previously, and I’ve got to be honest its always the ‘favours’ or ‘exposures’ that are the biggest headaches. I’d still get involved with a collaboration but the shoot needs to have a purpose as Tiff said, and there has to be something tangible now in return.

  13. Fabulous, fabulous post and much needed! Bravo!

  14. Very interesting article. Having worked in the graphic design industry for 14 years prior to starting Paperchain Wedding Stationery, I was used to having to work on ‘free pitches’. They could be really frustrating, but only until we won a great pitch and them it all seemed worthwhile! Like you say it was like a breath of fresh air when a client was willing to pay for a pitch, although it didn’t happen very often.

    I now find that it’s a lot harder to quantify the rewards when creating wedding stationery for a photo shoot, but ultimately is a great way of showcasing new designs.


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