For most first-time influencers, working with a brand like Starbucks would be a bucket-list goal. For Chicago-based photographer Tom Phillips, it was his first-ever campaign. While working full-time in digital media activation at Walgreens, the new dad decided to turn his Instagram photography into a side hustle and pitched himself to the coffee company last year. His feed—and his authenticity—spoke to them, and he’s been a part-time content creator ever since. 

“I have my master's degree in digital marketing, so I understand trends and how everything works on that end,” Phillips tells me in a phone call. “I just started posting pictures of Chicago because that's what I like to post, and then I guess other people liked them and started following me. I became more active with people, interacting with them, going to different meetups just to kind of meet people who are interested in photography.” 

In April, when Phillips hit 10,000 followers, “‘the floodgates kind of opened.” Due to the pandemic, however,  everything also shut down. But that didn’t stop Phillips. Here he shares tips for pitching brands, knowing when to walk away from a negotiation, and getting creative during the pandemic. 

Brands value authenticity

I would say in the pitch, you want to make sure that you're staying authentic to your feed. That’s the most important part of it because you don't want to start posting content that doesn't feel authentic to that. So mine was actually with Starbucks. They wanted to promote a new drink and I was like, “I can take a couple of pictures throughout the city and show how it's a great on-the-go drink.” And that's how I kind of pitched it.

Every time you go through a pitch, you try and be authentic to yourself, but you also want to show the value that you can bring to a brand. I think it can be tough to balance sometimes. And I think from that standpoint, it's important to not just be doing sponsored posts, because then it just turns into a giant sponsored feed. The first thing I gut check myself with is, would I use this product if I wasn't getting it for free or if I wasn't getting paid to do it? And then from there trying to figure out how you can put it into your feed so it feels natural. 

Sometimes negotiating doesn’t work out

With some campaigns it's a fixed fee, but you have to consider the amount of work that you're going to be putting into it. Is there anything you have to buy to make the post work? And then I don't think you're wrong to start the negotiation high and go from there. You also have to consider if you're gonna include Instagram stories into it, you can upsell that as well when you're in the negotiations. 

I'll say one time there was a pitch I threw out and I gave my rate, there was a little bit of negotiation, and then at the end, all of a sudden they said, “Well, we can only offer you a product.” At that point I was like, “It's just not worth it for me to go forward. I appreciate you, if anything changes, let me know.”

Influencing is about relationships

If someone comments I definitely try to engage with them just because I think it's an important part of helping build your brand. I've been able to meet people because of comments that have moved to DMs and now we just chat about things that are going on. 

You’re probably being too much of a perfectionist

Since I was mainly taking pictures of around Chicago, [the pandemic]  kind of shut it down and I didn't really go out. So I was digging through archives and realized that I was probably way too picky in what I was posting before. So from that sense, it helped. I've definitely gotten more creative with developing content and figuring out how things work.