I’ve been on a career counseling jag lately. With bloggers asking me how they can “monetize” their blogs at every turn, and established food writers lamenting the lack of work, I’m looking for ways to generate income on all food writers’ behalf.
Ever wanted to become a spokesperson, to supplement your writing? Lots of food writers do it, and some have been very successful. Here’s an interview with two writers who have taken that path.
Mark Scarbrough, with partner Bruce Weinstein, has published 21 cookbooks at six publishing houses with over three-quarters of a million copies in print. They have been national spokespeople and developed recipes for The U. S. Potato Board, JIF, Smucker’s, The National Honey Board, and Bacardi. In 2010, the California Milk Advisory Board sent them on a two-week, ten-city tour to promote their book Real Food Has Curves: How to Get Off Processed Food, Lose Weight, and Love What You Eat.
Amy Sherman is a San Francisco–based writer and recipe developer. The publisher of the award-winning food blog Cooking with Amy, she has also blogged for Epicurious, Glam and writes frequently for Cheers and Gastronomica magazines. She is the author of Williams-Sonoma New Flavors for Appetizers and WinePassport: Portugal. Amy has been a spokesperson three times for two brands.
1. Let’s start with a definition. What is spokesperson work?
Mark: Bruce and I consider ourselves to be spokespersons whenever we endorse a product, commodity board, national, or regional food association. We might be asked to write editorials that will be placed in papers or on a wire service, host a radio show, develop unique recipes, be available for media interviews, or host a webinar.
For example, two years ago the California Milk Advisory Board underwrote a ten-city tour for our book Real Food Has Curves. In exchange for such generous support, in each of 29 media appearances, we had to say something like, “Milk is real food–and California milk is some of the nation’s best.” And we had no problem doing that, since we believed every word true.
But in contrast, we did a cooking demo last year at an annual goat fair, a large festival underwritten by several large goat dairies. We did not endorse any of their products, not because we didn’t want to, but because they had no money for endorsements–and thus we were not their spokespeople. We would not even say whose chevre we were using in the demos.
Amy: Spokesperson work is where you receive a contract specifically outlining duties, such as being available for media opportunities in newspapers and on radio and TV. As a spokesperson you are representing the product and communicating whatever talking points the client has identified. The PR folks pitch the media outlets with story angles, but ultimately it is up to the journalist to decide on the story. You might be interviewed or do a cooking demo, for example.I was once interviewed on the radio for Dannon about Passover recipes using yogurt.
2. How do you get paid, and is it always about the money?
Mark: Some gigs are lucrative, paying our mortgage for half a year; others are more modest, the start of a good vacation fund. And yes, for us, with over 20 books under our (ever-widening) belts, it’s about a balance of ideals and money. We are not about to say anything for pay. But at the same time, we won’t endorse a product or board without pay. In other words, no freebies. An honest day’s work demands an honest day’s pay. And to be blunt, we are quite picky about who we endorse.
Amy: Some opportunities pay a flat fee with a limit on the time and number of appearances. Another way it works is by the specific opportunity, such as a day rate. One of the best benefits of being a spokesperson, in addition to money, is receiving professional media training.
3. Is it luck or about building a relationship with marketing, public relations, or advertising people that leads to this kind of work?
Mark: For us, it’s about “none of the above.” It’s about an agent. Ours makes the pitches, opens the doors, negotiates the contracts, and handles the legalities (of which there are many). And by the way, our spokesperson agent is different from our literary agent.
Amy: I think it’s about your personal image and expertise. Are you and your persona a fit for the brand?
4. How does someone get in front of the people who make the decisions?
Mark: Again, we start with an agent. But after that, it’s about doing the absolutely best job for a client that we can–and realizing that this is a business relationship on both sides of the equation.
Amy: I have never pitched myself as a spokesperson. I have always been approached by PR folks who then pitched me to their clients.
5. What are the pros and cons of having a spokesperson agent, and how do you find one?
Mark: There are no cons. Somebody’s got your back, your best interest. An agent can call the client on a problem–and then you can show up smiling at the next event without ever having entered the fracas. However, you don’t want to abuse the relationship, calling “Mom” in every time you feel overwhelmed. And you do have to realize that a spokesperson agent is only as good as her or his contact list.
You can find spokespeople agents with a simple internet search. However, almost all the good ones require recommendations or introductions.
Amy: I couldn’t speak to this as I don’t have one.
6. How do you find the right fit with the product and job?
Mark: Basically, we find a fit with the contract. We work out all questions inside the legal agreement: what we will and will not do, what our rights are and what the client’s are, how long they can have an exclusive on us and/or our recipes, how long the agreement lasts.
But before all that, we have to decide if we can live with what we’ll be expected to say. And that involves some homework–checking out a potential client, looking at their press materials, and assessing how our vision fits in with theirs. We’ve been lucky enough to represent some fine farmer cooperative boards over the years–and feel we can honestly give it our all when supporting family farms.
Amy: I did turn down one opportunity because it was not a product I felt comfortable being associated with or promoting.
7. What kinds of conflicts can come up?
Mark: Your “voice” will not necessarily be what your client desires. Sure, they want your personality for on-camera work. But they also have a corporate PR strategy and voice–and will expect you to meet them halfway. For example, you might have a snarky voice in your own writing, but they certainly don’t want that on camera.
Once you sign one agreement to be a spokesperson, you’ll turn down almost all other opportunities for a year or two, sometimes because no other corporate entity will want to work with “the competition,” and sometimes because your legal agreement will forbid you from taking on other work.
Amy: Well, obviously there is a great need for transparency! I haven’t personally experienced any conflicts.
8. What kinds of spokesperson gigs should food writers run from?
Mark: Avoid anything that compromises your ethics. For example, a chemical giant may really want your “expertise” as an organic food specialist. They’re looking for you to give them a patina of respectability in your community. Run.
However, even in those agreements that seem to meet your specific ethics, go in with your eyes open. Almost all corporate entities are not going to be as idealistic as you are when you’re at your desk, writing a blog post, an article, or a cookbook. They are not interested in your success as a food professional. If at the end of a spokesperson agreement, even a successful one, you are never able to land another [spokesperson gig] or even another book contract, the corporate entity that hired you will not be all that interested in your fate. From their perspective, the pay is your compensation, not any further career development on your part (which indeed may well happen from the spokesperson gig).
Amy: I strongly believe you should only be a spokesperson for a product or service you actually believe in.
9. Any last words of wisdom, particularly for bloggers?
Mark: I see a lot of bloggers “giving it away”–and it makes me sad. Their expertise is crucial to the modern food scene–and they are devaluing it by agreeing (often not explicitly but in truth implicitly) to endorse a product on their blogs. Sure, it’s flattering when corporate entities want to make use of your platform–but that’s what they’re doing: “making use.” A case of soup mix or wild rice is not just recompense. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. And it didn’t turn out well.
Amy: A particularly good opportunity for food bloggers is being sponsored to attend conferences. I have done this several times. While you are not an official spokesperson and it does not involve media, it typically requires personal outreach and dispersing collateral or swag and representing the brand in a positive way. I have also attended conferences where I was sponsored by a brand or commodity board. In exchange for money, I handed out goodies, coupons and offered to connect attendees with the sponsor if they wanted more information or product samples.