The Year in Review - Advertising
A review of advertising photography over the past 12 months reveals a pleasing plethora of working photographers, and confirms that the end is certainly not nigh. Candide McDonald reports.
Conventional wisdom might tell you that there is a lot less interest in photography for advertising because there is a lot less interest in print and press advertising. Conventional wisdom would be wrong. “Press and print advertising are being somewhat replaced with digital campaigns, which still use images and stills as the visual element,” explains Jonathan Kneebone, co-founder of Australia’s creative advertising collective, The Glue Society. “So, while we have not necessarily been busy creating print campaigns, many of the projects we have contributed to have featured digital online or outdoor photographic images.”
Conventional wisdom would also be wrong in assuming an image decline in massive advertising markets like the UK. “There are more OOH [out-of-home] sites in the UK than there’s ever been and with digital sites, there are more opportunities for photography and motion than ever before,” notes Mark Elwood, executive creative director of ad agency, MullenLowe London. “Great photography can live just as well online as well as in print, in my opinion.”
The same is true in the Americas and Asia. “Interest in magazines and printed media is ending, although interest in images will not end anytime soon,” states Milton Menezes, an image creator at global visual content company, Lightfarm Studios. “Even with the possibility of using videos on channels like Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, people still use images. Images have more impact than videos because they are easier to make, they are lighter to watch, and create faster communication with the user,” he says. One change Lightfarm has noticed is that the demand for super high resolution is becoming less common given that most work is published digitally.
Making a move into moving
What constitutes advertising is still being challenged. Both video and still image advertising now have to share their roles with anything from an app to a product also featuring advertising. Today, almost half of all advertising does not appear via TV, print, or radio. These are now invariably promoted using traditional and/or social media. So photographers throughout the world are still doing advertising work. “There are more marketing possibilities than before and short motion online clips are really trendy, but there is still a consumer and client desire to have print in their hands,” notes German photographer, Andreas Hempel. “High-end print advertising campaigns are still highly requested, and, even more importantly, combine with the mostly too fast and short-lived motion commercials, adding something special, like a brochure with high quality papers, or the presence of a mega-poster.” Most of Hempel’s work this year has been published in global print, web, and social media campaigns.
“There is more emphasis on digital placement of assets now,” says Australian photographer, Cory White. “I still put the same emphasis on production process though, and, at the end of the day, it’s more about how much you put in, rather than where it ends up. Gone are the days of people considering digital assets a lesser medium, in my view.” Most of White’s work this year has been published in out-of-home advertising. “Traditional print media is definitely declining but there are still lots of pages of print advertising these days. It’s not something to ignore. That said, we shoot for multi-format for nearly every shoot. We have to cover all bases and possibilities.”
New York City-based William Strawser says that he finds the evolution of advertising photography “quite freeing”. “Fewer productions seem to be locked into tight layouts, and social campaigns have a bit more room for experimental creativity, which can be nice. One of the main trends that I see happening with my business is the need to shoot both stills and video, especially for any social campaigns. Clients are certainly looking for shooters who can produce both high-end stills and motion work with matched styles.” The majority of Strawser’s work this year has been for social campaigns. “They are not necessarily always the biggest jobs, but they usually have the largest media buy and quantity,” he adds.
The importance of being able to work in stills and motion is echoed by US photographers, Thomas Chadwick and Zack Seckler. “Advertisers may be buying less print media, but they have increased what they are doing online and on social platforms. So as one form of work has disappeared, another has appeared. The possibility to add motion to jobs has also arrived,” says Chadwick. “The move away from stills-only productions is as clear now as I’ve ever seen it. Integrated productions are now the norm. These days, if you don’t do motion on some level, you’re missing out on opportunities. Photography will always be powerful and important. It’s not disappearing. But in today’s marketplace, you need the video tool in your toolbox in order to compete,” notes Seckler.
Most of Chadwick’s work has been published either online on web banners, in magazines, or social media. “I also do a fair amount of pharmaceutical work that appears in collateral, and sales aids that target doctors and patients,” he adds. Directing has been a driver of work for Seckler. “This year has seen a large uptick in the amount of video projects I’ve won. We’ve had everything from large global campaigns to smaller regional projects come across our desk. I’ve been competing on jobs often as a photographer/director, but more and more as just a director.”
UK photographer, Alex Telfer believes that embracing change is important. “I’ve always been very proactive within my industry by pre-empting trends. For example, I shoot and direct a lot of content films myself. I also direct TV commercials. I think it would be foolish to stick purely to any one medium, particularly in today’s visual landscape. However, we still do a lot of print and press work. Maybe that’s because I do get agencies and clients who return time after time.” Telfer has worked across all media this year – outdoor poster campaigns, online films, TV commercials, and installations. “I’d say that the majority has been outdoor and print,” he says.
So for photographers, the evolution that challenged them to adapt and update in the last few years is still in progress. Moving into video may be seen as an opportunity by some, but is considered essential by others like Jonathan May, who joined Flint this year, which specialises in photographers who also direct film. “I think the major challenge that any stills photographer is facing nowadays,” adds Strawser, “is making sure they are fluent in both stills and motion, and can tell a consistent story and have a consistent style between both.”
Seckler realised that he had to break down his reticence to update to video a few years ago. “I felt conflicted about getting into a new medium just for business reasons,” he admits. “After a lot of research and some soul-searching, I realised that I did, in fact, have a nascent passion for video, and decided to follow it. What interested me most was the creative potential from directing commercial spots and longer form content. I decided to skip past video content, which was more in demand from photographers at the time, and put my energy into building a commercial reel. I’ve now directed several spots and am seeing a lot of room to keep growing as a director. I find it a really exciting time to be a director.”
Menezes adds that they pushed themselves from still imagery to video animation and live action two years ago. “Being able to provide full video services as well as print is an important reality for us now,” he says.
Adding strings to your bow
Menezes is not the only image creator reconsidering business structure, although CG and digital are not new possibilities for Lightfarm. It opened ten years ago following the digital fashion, mixing 2D illustration with CGI, photography and post production. “Photography doesn’t dance alone anymore,” Menezes explains. “Most photography work is married to post production or CGI. This multi-discipline philosophy has allowed us to keep going during years of market crisis, or demands. I feel the market demands more generalist studios than specialists nowadays. That’s because budgets will always be smaller, timelines will always be shorter, and clients don't like dealing with multiple vendors. Studios that can provide multiple services within one package will have an advantage over the rest,” he says.
Hempel adds that “creatives and clients are always looking for something new and never seen before. This is now really difficult to find. Budgets are getting smaller and smaller, but in my eyes, the new techniques and the CG world allow you more possibilities to realise your creativity and achieve shorter production schedules.”
Telfer has embraced digital wholeheartedly too. And that, he says, has been “great for business”. “I’ve also had an in-house post production department for many years, which has helped me develop as a photographer and film-maker. I have invested heavily though, with five full-time staff. However, I suppose that this is another reason for my ongoing success in the business.”
Knowing what’s in your toolbox
Cameras continue to become more sophisticated. New technologies enable things unheard of before. That has opened the doors to a new field of talent, Seckler notes. Competition is fiercer. For others, new technology means new creative opportunity. “The new CMOS sensors for medium format allow me to work with handheld cameras even in dark situations,” Hempel says. “Faster computers make post production more efficient,” Chadwick adds. “And I recently sent out a promotional piece by direct mail that included a thumb drive with my logo printed on it and had a new motion piece that I did for Gatorade loaded on it. Five years ago, promoting myself like this wouldn’t have been an option.” He has also found that using GIFs, rather than stills, to promote his motion work has captured attention. “The easier technology becomes to use, the more it enables productions to focus on creating smart, engaging content. That’s wonderful news for directors and audiences alike,” Seckler concludes.
Marketing a photography business, though, is changing for the photographer trying to meet the “all media” demands of the new work on offer. Telfer’s British Heart Foundation work was published across outdoor, press, point-of-sale, and digital. To pitch for it, Telfer created a detailed thirty-page treatment which outlined his broad vision for the work. “That’s the same for most jobs now. You need to be able to be eloquent and write about your work descriptively. In fact, I joke about how I spend more time writing about my intentions that actually creating the work itself.”
“Instagram is huge, and as much it stinks sometimes, the reality is that most initial views of your work will come from Instagram,” White states. “If you look at your analytics, you can see how often people click into your actual website. Far more time is spent in your Instagram account.”
It’s not over yet
As for what’s on the horizon, well, that was visible before this year began. The six-second video is still a rival to the print ad. AR and VR are still finding their feet, but gaining fans as their sophistication, and therefore their usefulness, grows. “I don’t see them as threats at all,” Elwood comments. “It’s still all about the right idea in the right channel. If that means print and press, then so be it. We need to be creatively better (and bolder) than ever in every channel. The noise has gone up, the attention span has gone down, the skip button is never far away, or just the turn of the page.”
White’s specialities are contextual portraits and lifestyle or observational work. That’s not something he intends to change. “My work is inspired greatly by Australian life, so it suits a lot of clients. I keep my imagery as honest as possible given the constraints, and I feel this is a good long-term strategy because it’s my favourite way to shoot commissioned images, even though it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
“The visual trends that I enjoy are mostly coming out of Europe;” White adds, “a return to a more rich and vibrant film look with very intimate images that are more likely to be seen in a print folio. I am confident that more briefs in Australia will embrace this more considered and crafted approach more often once the ball starts rolling. Small steps in Australia though, as our clients are very conservative for the most part.”
So where is it all going in general? Nowhere that photography can’t. Even in Australia. For May, the essential requirements are still rock solid. “Advertising photography is about four things,” he says. “Having inspiring work, strong relationships, trust with deliverables, and having a good name and reputation.” You still need to work on all of these constantly to keep busy in the industry, he adds.
“The biggest threat to advertising photography is probably conservatism,” White notes. “We have such a great opportunity in Australia to live up to what people think of us globally on so many levels, but we fail to use that opportunity. The lack of female commercial photographers also remains a big issue. I’m hoping the boys’ club generation disappears a little quicker than it has been, because there’s a distinct lack of female representation in commercial photography in this country.”
The thrill of new media is waning, Kneebone adds. “The desire to use a particular social channel or thread, simply because it was untapped or new, has disappeared.” He sees the priority for advertising now as a return to connecting with audiences in a meaningful and longer-lasting way, “as opposed to just shouting and hoping that someone hears.”
The authenticity fad is losing its oomph too, Kneebone says. “It’s possible to fake authenticity, so I think a new level of reality is going to emerge under the banner of sincerity. Creating sincere communication has to come from a heartfelt place. It requires you to have a point of view, a real purpose, and a clearly defined opinion. Bringing that type of communication to life will rely on creative people who are able to bring their own personality and passion to the project at hand.” May is finding the same trend. “The current trend is less about high-end, polished, concept advertising, and more about real emotive lifestyle photography,” he says. “Clients want someone who can tell a story, connect with the talent, and understand their brand.”
The return of the unique photographer? One can only hope.