The Year in Review – Advertising
If last year was notable for its absence of any really discernible change in advertising photography, this year has been the complete opposite. The challenges that were seeded during 2016 bloomed, and there were clear shifts in response to them. Candide McDonald reports.
More, more, more for less, less, less
Acclaimed British photographer, Rankin’s review of the last year will, most likely, feel very familiar to many. “The industry is shifting, more so this year than ever before,” he notes. “The old format of three images and a 30-second film isn’t enough anymore. Clients want multiple assets and more than just two types of executions. They want more content for smaller budgets, without losing the quality or tone. They want instastories, gifs, cinemagraphs, still lifes, animations, and then the traditional stills and film, and lots more of them, plus BTS and testimonials. All in one continuous style.”
There are two ways to respond to profit stresses. One is to whine. The other is to adapt yourself. Rankin chose to adapt. “I’ve tried to embrace these new industry requirements by doing something called the Super Shoot. In just one single space, we can have a number of sets from films to stills, interviews to still life, and so much more,” he says.
The mobile movement
While outdoor advertising did an admirable job of substituting for the ad reading that people have ceased to do in print in 2016, this year the mobile phone completed its dominance of people’s attention. Maisie Willoughby, art buyer and creative producer at creative pacesetter agency, Wieden+Kennedy London, states, “The biggest change is the way in which people are viewing advertising photography – with a huge shift from people looking up at billboards or down at print to now looking at their phones, ushering in a shift from physical print to digital formats.”
Amee Wilson, an art director at Ogilvy Brisbane notes a change in how people communicate, and that the rise of social media has also affected the kind of photography that is used in advertising. “Imagery used to be influenced by photography filters and fashion trends, but how customers use different social platforms now shapes brand styles. Advertising remains a disruption in our personal networks, so brands continue to look for ways to join the conversation subtly while retaining their own character. We’re taking cues from social media users’ photos as much as they take inspiration from us.”
Those photos are very often, very normal. “I feel like the new generation of photographers in the UK, such as those like Chris Rhodes, is bucking the stylised trend in favour of the everyday, normcore,” Willoughby adds. “Jack Davison, at Mini Title, was an absolute standout for me this year. His work is instantly iconic, while still feeling extremely fresh. Rhodes, at East, has a painterly feel to his work, which also stood out.”
The same movement is apparent in Australia. Wilson calls it “gritty realism or relatable personalities. Retouched aspirational images replaced with attainable inspiration.” She says that brands need to show they understand their audience. “High-end fashion photography is no stranger to challenging beauty perceptions with atypical models, but high street brands are now joining the fray. Plus-size models, imperfections, androgyny and a blurred line between gender stereotypes and conformity.” Diesel’s new global campaign, Go With the Flaw, for example, used models with braces, a lazy eye, a monobrow, and locations chosen for their seedy, urban realism. Stills were by youth and pop culture photographer, Tom Sloan.
“Less stylised photographers with more natural work are getting bigger campaigns for sure,” notes Sydney-based advertising photographer, Stuart Miller. “Real, more natural photography fits into the commercial world a lot more than it did five years ago. Lifestyle used to be a dirty word to photographers, but now it feels like the height of advertising.”
Nicholas Sellars, senior creative at JWT Melbourne, feels that the lifestyle photography trend is about to be overtaken. “The movement of lifestyle photography has nearly run its course and the tipping point of ‘just use stock’ is here. So the importance of creating actual real world scenarios is greater than ever.”
For Wilson, stock photography presented itself as one of this year’s big challenges for photographers. “Improvements in stock imagery sites are a double-edged sword. The availability of better photography when working with tight budgets is always a win, but it also means some savvy clients are less inclined to shoot [in order] to conserve funds.”
Discovering the undiscovered
Smaller budgets, the need to adapt assets across a seemingly endless variety of formats, and the competition for audience attention in increasingly cluttered media environments have also made advertising agencies cast their nets wider when looking for photographers. “Instagram and Pinterest are more important than ever for discovering new photographers,” Willoughby notes.
Wilson has also observed that sourcing photographers and imagery is no longer limited to industry networks or mainstream image sites. Platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and Reddit have become springboards for new talent, and sites like Behance and Squarespace are brimming with fresh portfolios, she says. “Undiscovered photographers often add something very real to the work as they focus on what is important to them, which can go above and beyond what’s in the brief. This is an important asset to attain and maintain,” Willoughby adds.
Moving into motion
Simon Harsent has noticed a radical change in his work – towards motion. “I think, in the past 12 months, I’ve shot only two jobs that didn’t involve some kind of moving picture scenario. Along with this, budgets have decreased dramatically and the print aspect is seen as the poor cousin to film and content.”
Rankin has noticed it too. “I saw this shift coming 10 years ago, and I’ve marketed myself to embrace this. Luckily, I love shooting film almost as much as I love taking photographs, and I’ve always thought that technological advancements were what photography was about. So, it was an easy change for me.”
But smaller production companies are including the print part of the job as an added-on extra at very little charge, Harsent warns, and, more often than not, will give away usage on the stills. “Basically, what it boils down to is a lot of the smaller, lesser-known production companies, who are trying to make a name for themselves, forcing a price war by undercutting, and in turn are creating an unsustainable market. It’s a very short-sighted way to run a business,” he says. “They aren’t, as they think they might be, building relationships. What they are doing is under-pricing people’s talents and giving clients work for cheap just to get the job.”
A specialist in drinks, liquids, and still life, London-based Jonathan Knowles has maintained a consistent work load – and promoting himself is unchanged, “but the placement of our work is much more online,” he says. Like Harsent, he has been feeling the squeeze of tighter budgets. “Now, there seems to be a requirement to deliver outputs for more channels for the same money,” he says.
And Knowles has also noticed a shift towards motion. “Most briefs now have a motion component. Fortunately, we started on the motion journey about six years ago, and so are now very comfortable about how we will achieve most requests.” He has noticed, too, that more of his work is being commissioned for social media, although “anything we put out there must reflect our quality and brand in all channels, digital or otherwise,” he states. Sellars feels that the process [from stills to moving images] is moving away from being budget-driven and is beginning to be recognised for the skill sets that come naturally to a photographer.
Harsent is finding that his competitors are changing. “There seems to be a trend with younger image makers to be jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. They consider themselves, and promote themselves, as photographers/directors/cinematographers/editors. This is obviously a bonus for clients, but it undermines the industry and the back-up services that we have always relied on. It also means these image makers are taking on a lot more work for a lot less money. So the only people winning are multinational agencies and their clients.”
Of course, becoming a jack-of-all-trades oneself is an option. “The jack-of-all-trades who work to a high level are getting all of the work,” Rankin states. “It’s all about having a varied skillset to meet each client’s unique needs.”
Being what the market wants
How Harsent markets himself has changed. “I’ve started to direct big brand TVCs, so how I work is constantly changing, as is the market. There are challenges and different approaches that come with that, but essentially, at my career stage, people come to me because they want my style and they trust me to deliver.” A founding member of POOL Collective, Harsent relies on the company to market him, but he puts his own effort and money into exhibitions. “For me, this allows potential clients to see me for who I am, rather than what ads I’ve done.”
Stuart Miller has also transitioned more fully into directing and changed how he markets himself to maintain his work momentum. Previously, he didn’t market his motion work. It was either something he did for personal work, or a motion job would come to him off the back of a stills shoot. “These days I market myself as a photographer and a director,” he says. “I’ve shot and directed motion work a little over the last few years, but this year has been a big year of change to the point that it’s easily 40% of what I shoot.” He has also adapted his style to keep work coming in. “My work has become more specialised and unique, and I’ve developed as an advertising photographer. I feel this has been a big part of my getting consistent work with better budgets. Lead times have often been shorter than ideal, but this is no different from the past few years.”
Change for the better
All change presents both challenges and opportunities, so what opportunities do ad agencies see for photographers? For Sellars, it’s using one’s creativity – and initiative. “This year, I’ve found photographers responding to briefs in much more detail, with treatments as a director would, and offering up creative solutions. As a creative, I love seeing a response to a brief that extends on our initial thoughts. Even if it’s completely wrong, it will still get
a callback from me.”
Wilson adds that the flexibility and transience of digital means agencies can be more experimental and daring. “Everyone follows the same trends, and that’s a good excuse to push for a shoot that’s different. The speed and timeliness of social, digital, and technology allows for flexibility and testing.”
A peek at what’s next
Predictions are a little like a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but as most trends take time to develop, some emerging preferences are likely to consolidate in 2018. “People like to feel moved, regardless of the medium, so as long as we can achieve this through photography, it will still be essential,” Willoughby says. “I have also noticed creatives looking back to shooting on film [stock] and reviving the iconic imagery of the great photographers. This could potentially come back into fashion on a wider scale – even if it’s only for cheaper rates and a quicker turnaround.”
Wilson sees that people have become wise to subtle photo-editing and retouching to create perfection, and suggests that brands may start to go to the other extreme and rely on completely raw images.
Sellars knows that how he finds photographers is changing already, perhaps in response to the increasing deluge of spam e-mail he is receiving from production companies. He says the photographers he really wants to work with are those who are being recognised for great work, advertising or not. “I don’t make my decision based on clients they’ve shot for or how many times they’ve e-mailed me this week,” he says.
Miller has already begun to put himself in a place to capitalise on this. “Personal photographic projects have become a significant direction for me as a photographer and an artist. My next project is ambitious, but I can’t wait to get it started. The biggest challenge is to block out an extensive amount of time in advance. Then you cross your fingers and hope an ad job doesn’t land in the middle of it.”
A new working environment emerged in 2017. It’s a work in progress, but don’t expect the old rules to return. Only those who adapt will thrive. As Rankin notes wisely, “I think the only way to work is to meet those challenges head on. I always assume agencies and clients want modern solutions to problems, which is why I welcome change often before anyone else. But I also really enjoy it, and I think that’s the key to keeping up with the industry.”