The Year in Review - Advertising in 2015
Over the last 12 months, the advertising sector has been characterised by continued pressure to deliver more services at a faster pace. No longer the ‘post-GFC’ world, the current environment is driven by competition, client expectation and universal access to rapidly developing technology. And while the demand for images continues to be solid, challenges for photographers remain in the way advertisers source and use images. Paul Clark reports.
“We have gone from the first conversation being about the photography to it being about the photographer,” says Heather Elder, who represents eight professional photographers from offices in San Francisco and New York, and follows the advertising industry with a close eye.
What Elder means is that while there are many photographers who can produce great images, in 2015 the advertising industry was looking for photographers who could deliver a more diversified range of services, including, but not limited to, motion.
A new and public world
Amir Mireskandari is M&C Saatchi Australia’s operations director in Sydney. From his perspective, ‘social media realism’ remained a dominant trend in 2015. The use of image libraries has also continued to be a major part of the environment, with these being used to allow advertisers to tell their market a story. While Mireskandari sees fewer “highly manufactured”, or styled images, these are still used, and not every market is the same.
Mireskandari describes the realism style as part of a broader change in human behaviour. “People live their lives more publicly on social media now,” he says. It is the social media world and the images used within it that makes this style so attractive to advertisers. The younger generation of consumers relate more to this style of story telling, as this is how they tell their own stories on social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat.
This mass sharing behaviour also enables practices such as crowdsourcing, where images can be sourced at almost no cost from people who are happy to simply see their image published. And Mireskandari says that this is one of many developments that can have downstream consequences. “Photo libraries may, in some cases, need to consider their cost models,” he suggests. “If a client is looking for images of real people, they may be able to obtain them by crowdsourcing.”
The advertising industry is not one monolithic entity, and there are diverse sectors with subtle differences in the way image needs are met. “My work has a narrative style,” says Melbourne-based photographer, Lynton Crabb. “I shoot a lot of lifestyle images,” he says. “These need to be ‘local’ and they need to be refreshed.”
US-based photographer Tim Tadder agrees that not every market demonstrates the same demand. “Different markets have different aesthetics,” he says. “China, for example, is ‘hyper-real’, while the US is a more Instagram/hipster vibe right now. In Europe, there is a lot of CGI composite work.” In some ways, these stylistic differences determine who, or what kind of service, is in demand right now.
From Elder’s perspective, the current commercial reality is that clients need to get as much value from an assignment as can be practically achieved. “Clients are requesting a library of images with each shoot, and with that comes trying to make the most of a shoot day, and schedule as many images/scenarios as possible,” she says.
While there has been a huge increase in the demand for still images online, the commercial consequence is that each of these images has a lower ascribed value. The requirement for large numbers of images has led to some other industry shifts. London-based Adrian Weinbrecht notes that some companies change the material in their online catalogues so often they have brought still photography in-house.
Automotive specialist Easton Chang says that the practice of centralising image libraries by shooting and collecting images in major agency hubs such as Shanghai, Munich and Detroit, is becoming more common. “Larger hubs, such as Shanghai, are responsible for managing their local countries and region. It is common practice for the main set of images to be shot in Shanghai, with only additional collateral, if any, being shot in a small market like Australia,” he says. “The resulting effect is that there is less work in Australia than there is in the major markets or hubs,” he says.
The issue is that in some sectors, supply is exceeding demand. “On one hand, there are a large number of providers entering the market, so there is a large supply of image makers,” says Tadder. “On the other hand, there is less demand for stills, with so much demand for moving images. Economic theory suggests that to stand out you need to add more to your service offering.”
Tadder believes that it is still possible to stand out. “In terms of the amount of work, I’m pretty happy with where we are,” he says. And attributes this in part to the ability to add to his service offerings and do complex work that not everyone can do. “We solve difficult image-making problems,” he says. Being a highly specialised professional with a very recognisable style and skill set is certainly one way to differentiate oneself from all the others in the market.
In many ways, technology has made it easier for anyone to enter the profession, thereby increasing the potential number of suppliers. More importantly, it does also makes it easier for professionals to work faster. “The capability of cameras and image processing software is getting better, and easier to work with,” says Tadder. Compared to the old and complex days of film processing, now photographers can “shoot RAW and tweak the hell out of it.” There is more being shot now, but processing times are shorter and Tadder is comfortable that the technology in cameras is aiding photographers. “I can go out now and shoot at ISO 3200 and know the image will be fine,” he says. In years past, professionals shooting only medium format digital were restricted to very low ISO which ether entirely restricted what they could shoot, or added an additional layer of complexity in terms of supplementary lighting requirements.
What can you bring to the table?
The trend towards video was evident in 2014 and it shows no sign of disappearing. There also remains the challenge to traditional media generally. “The relevance of the paper magazine for a younger person has diminished,” Weinbrecht says. He’s not suggesting that print is dead, but rather that it’s a smaller part of the overall market for the consumption of images than it once was. “The commercial relevance of the still image has decreased in line with the decline of print media,” he says.
Tadder agrees that the trend of shooting more video will continue. He also thinks that, in some markets at least, there will be a shift away from ‘lifestyle’ images to a more complex, layered image. Either way, photographers need to be able to offer a well-thought-out concept and execution to meet the commercial brief. And they also need to be prepared for the commercial overhead to compete, according to Mireskandari. “Part of that is working with the best people: retouchers, designers, and illustrators in order to add value.”
For many clients, multiple deliverables remain essential. The multimedia environment means that there is potentially more for photographers to manage or integrate with. Crabb says that photographers have to keep up with these trends. “There has been an evolution of what we’re delivering: online and motion are both serious components now,” he says.
What the trends mean to Elder is that the critical emphasis has shifted from looking at a portfolio of images to considering the operational capabilities of the photographer. “Now, instead of scrutinising your work, it is about how much you can shoot and your vision for the photography.” Increasingly, she believes that the jobs will have a number of moving parts and clients will want to know how photographers will produce the project.
The way to stay ahead of the game is to see stills in the context of the overall campaign and have the ability to pull it all together, if required. The trend identified last year of clients looking for photographers who can be multi-skilled ‘creatives’ remained with us in 2015. To be able to bring creative direction and flair to a campaign is one way to stand out. “It’s ideal if you can be strategy based in your approach, as this allows you to work with the agency and their initial idea much earlier in a project,” Crabb says. “Essentially, you become a collaborator in the whole image part of the solution, instead of someone brought in at the very end to purely take pictures.”
Promote, promote, promote
Over the last year we also noted that photographers need to be highly visible. Today’s photographer needs to market actively to stand out and Mireskandari believes that professional representation is one means of achieving this. “It’s also good to frequently have exhibitions and events, to gain more exposure and build a network,” he says. “Share personal stuff: it’s important to be able to see this as it may show art buyers what they are looking for as a fresh approach.” Mireskandari also suggests investing in collaborative projects with high creative value to showcase photography work, even though it may not bring an immediate financial return.
The marketing investment seems to be worth it for emerging talent. “In my opinion, art buyers are changing the way they source creatives in the industry,” says Chang, who has been shooting in India, China and the USA for a range of automotive and aviation clients. “In the past, art buyers might have sourced photographers through direct networking with reps, books and elite directories. These days, I find much of my work has been derived from art buyers finding me on social media.”
Chang’s Facebook page currently has over 1 million likes and he’s active on Instagram as well. “I think this digital marketing is why I’ve seen a trend towards younger photographers lately,” he says. “It’s not only a natural progression of the industry over time, but it is also helped along by the fact that young photographers are generally more social-media savvy and have developed their online presence over the years,” he says.
Issues and pitfalls
Some issues remain to be worked through. The value of image rights is one. The value of photographers’ work has to be protected, but assigning value through rights and usage agreements that were common in the past may be more difficult in future. Mireskandari describes the current market requirement as “a new era for all content, not just still photography.” He sees the requirement for a social media image library as one issue that the whole industry is still coming to grips with. Photographers need to understand how best to quote for a job that includes social media usage, and the old conventions of national/international and time-based usage rights may not be the best approach.
Once an image goes online, on social media or otherwise, it may be shared and viewed globally and for a lot longer than the initially intended usage period. “The client has their requirements, as does the creative talent, and balancing these is the challenge,” Mireskandari says. A willingness to negotiate, or perhaps to build the image value into the price may be parts of the solution. “Consider what’s important. You many need to compromise to win repeat business,” he says.
There is also the possibility of keeping the image linked to the specific campaign project so it is not released for ‘unlimited’ use, but the client has what they want for the campaign. Crabb agrees that the rights issue is a complex one, particularly when there are other rights involved, such as talent in the photo. “We try to be flexible and gently educate clients, especially ones which are not experienced with licensing,” he says. “It is important that photographers and clients understand image use is a collaboration.”
Consequently, there is a continuing need for education for photographers in how to properly price their work in order to be competitive in the market. “I’d like to see the young guns getting paid more,” says Tadder. “There are lots of tutorials [on the internet] about how to do things technically, but nothing about how to charge for work.”
Towards the creative partner
The advertising photography sector needs to be considered in the context of creative work as a whole. Campaigns are likely to remain multimedia and images, both still and moving, will be required for multiple platforms. This in itself represents an opportunity, as there is a growing requirement for images. The shift to online means that there is a real thirst for fresh, new content.
Crabb points out that with so much material out there on numerous platforms, the challenge is now for advertisers to find the best images to cut through the noise and get the message across. In Crabb’s market sector at least, that’s good news. “The more platforms there are, and the more people using these platforms, means better quality is needed to achieve cut-through,” he says, “and this can only be a good thing.”
Photographers still have the opportunity to stand out, by means of visual style or by the nature of their service offering. Promotion remains important and is not going to become less important any time soon. Standing out is not just about technical capability. It’s about imagination and being responsive to the needs of the market. “We need a fresh approach,” says Mireskandari, “and keeping an eye on emerging talent is part of that.” He believes that these are exciting times, and the way photographers can respond is to be open to new ways of making images, and open to new technology.
The last year has been a tough one. Overall, the outlook for 2016 is brightest for photographers who can promote themselves as skilled creatives who can bring together complex work streams to tell the client’s story across multiple media platforms. To do well, photographers need the understanding of their chosen market sector to know which clients to invest in, and how to price the job to give those clients a sense of value. Perhaps, if the modern era values the individual image less, it is the photographer themselves who must become the valued brand.