The Year in Review - Advertising

Almost universally, advertising photographers have found the last year to be challenging, to survive both financially and creatively. But surprisingly, a lot of good came out of 2020 as well. Here is that story, told by photographers and agency creatives who conquered it. Candide McDonald reports.

Photography no longer plays the same role in advertising as it once did. The gorgeous, glossy image-as-hero full page, full-colour spread is not the campaign highlight it once was. At the D&AD Awards, one of the most prestigious international advertising awards, it still features with a category of its own even though this is no longer the norm in major advertising awards, and the same standard of excellence still applies during judging. German photographer Esther Haase was a jury member this year. She states, “During the process we were always asking ourselves in the jury, is the work worthy of recognition, was it beautifully executed, is it outstanding work, has it creative excellence, is the idea brilliant, ground-breaking, is it surprising and can it change my point of view, widen my horizon, does it awaken my emotions, does it touch me?” 2020 made those requisites even harder to satisfy, adding challenges of its own to those that have been building due to advertising’s ever-increasing exploration of mediums other than print, which this year have even included gaming and TV series.

© Dana Neibert.
© Dana Neibert. "This wasn’t what was scripted, but sometimes it is fun to experiment and find something new
on set." Campaign: Hard Rock Tampa. Client: Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
Agency: Redline Media Group. Art Director: Victor Ortega.

The photographers’ 2020

The greatest challenge, as Sydney-based advertising photographer Sean Izzard notes, was the same for everyone – no work at all for much of the year. “Lockdown saw productions come to a complete standstill, as social distancing meant no crews or locations.” For American photographer Randal Ford, an extra challenge was getting in front of potential clients and maintaining awareness. “We used to be able to send direct mail or do in-person portfolio shows, but that is no longer an option and, in my opinion, will not be for some time.” Randal augmented his social media, e-mail, and agent’s marketing efforts with a second book, and more books planned simply because of the awareness potential. One of the greatest challenges with high-end photography, he adds, has been work consistency. To deal with this, Ford invested in the fine art side of his business so that he is not completely dependent on getting the next big ad job.

Ex-art director and now photographer, Dana Neibert also found COVID a challenge. Commercial photography was largely shut down in the US in the middle of March, he recalls, and for the most part still was in August. A few productions started to emerge in the second half of the year, but many advertisers were wary of the risks during this time, he noted. Neibert’s first shoot for the year was in August.

Sydney-based advertising photographer Andreas Smetana says, “The whole year was a challenge; a challenge to survive financially and to survive creatively”. Now in what he describes as a fairly good position, he says that it took a lot of thinking. “What I tried to concentrate on, purely professionally, was what I wanted to do. I thought, ‘What can I do to get through this without losing my dignity’.” For Smetana, the answer was luxury goods, notably cars. He was able to do work for Lexus, Audi, and Hyundai.

© Pål Allan. The beauty of no artificial preservatives. Part of Burger King's The Moldy Whopper campaign. Agency: INGO Stockholm
ECD: Björn Ståhl.
© Pål Allan. The beauty of no artificial preservatives. Part of Burger King's The Moldy Whopper campaign.
Agency: INGO Stockholm ECD: Björn Ståhl.

The ad creatives’ 2020

COVID also challenged commissioners. Dave Brady, creative director at Colenso BBDO, recalls, “We’ve been incredibly lucky with the impact COVID has had here in New Zealand compared to the rest of the world, but it’s still been a tough year on top of an already tough environment for stills. More and more we’re being told digital first, and motion over static. The new billboard is a six-second YouTube bumper or looping video for social feeds. As a creative, I love these new formats and you can have a lot of fun with them, but for photographers it’s really challenging. If stills are required, ever decreasing budgets mean pulling them from audio-visual content or shadowing a film crew and shooting from the hip around a grip’s arm.” Getting desire and investment to come together for crafted single-image campaigns is becoming harder and harder to secure, he adds. “But when you do get an opening to make this kind of work, it can really stand out because the categories are far less crowded. There are still opportunities out there for great visual thinkers and crafters.”

In Australia, VMLY&R found COVID a little easier to manage. Creative director, Jake Barrow explains: “We had a few lucky escapes with some shoots happening pre-lockdown, some timelines had to shift, and sometimes, as with our OzFish campaign, we just adapted. One shoot for Ford was shot remotely, with the crew in a studio in Sydney and agency in Melbourne having input via video link. The production side of the advertising industry is probably one of the most resourceful industries on the planet, so we’re fortunate we haven’t had to compromise on quality.”

© Sean Izzard. Dedication You Can Taste. Client: Lilydale
Agency: M&C Saatchi. CD: Sharon Edmonston. Production: The Pool Collective.
© Sean Izzard. Dedication You Can Taste. Client: Lilydale Agency: M&C Saatchi. CD: Sharon Edmonston.
Production: The Pool Collective.

Silver linings in 2020

The silver lining this year seems to have been time away from the camera, what Neibert describes as a “not self-prescribed sabbatical from commercial photography”, and it’s his view that you can learn and grow creatively by pursuing other interests. “I spent much of 2020 flushing out ideas that have been on the back burner.” Smetana discovered something very similar. “The greatest opportunity was to spend more time with my family. From a commercial point of view, it was also the release of pressure, the release of work, so I could sit down and think about what I really wanted to do. Before COVID, I had a huge amount of work across a very broad spectrum and when that went wobbly with COVID, I really concentrated on going back creatively to simplicity and soulful photography.” Izzard also used the time to re-evaluate. “Sometimes you can just get washed along without too much regard for whether it’s the direction you actually want to be going, so I regarded this as an enforced ‘time-out’ where I could reassess my photographic journey, both professionally and commercially.” He also used down-time proactively to restructure. “I reconsidered old working systems and looked at how to re-invent them.”

Izzard also discovered that from a production point of view, it reshaped how casting is done, creating online portals rather than face-to-face. And shooting with skeleton crews in studio also enabled his clients to create work during this time.” Izzard also revived a number of personal projects that had been either in his head or on the back burner. “I got a new book out and generally sorted my website and Instagram account into cohesive bodies of work,” he says. His prolific passion project, a football podcast, made Izzard educate himself in web design, editing, and sound production – new skills which he says will be of benefit in future work.

Ford saw the opportunity to play to his strength. “I think the greatest opportunities are for artists and photographers who bring more to the table than just a good image. Great communication and being attentive to client needs are now more important than ever. When I’m on set shooting for a client, I’m there for them, not me. I check my ego at the door and create the best possible images for their campaign. If I get a cool portfolio shot out of the shoot, it’s icing on the cake, not the objective.”

© Randal Ford. Shot for InnovAge. Campaign: We Help You Be You
Agency: Karsh Hagan, Denver, Colorado.
© Randal Ford. Shot for InnovAge. Campaign: We Help You Be You. Agency: Karsh Hagan, Denver, Colorado.

Drivers in 2020

For Izzard, the most obvious trend this year was the ever-shrinking budget. “Late last year, I shot the cover of AdNews, which incidentally won its Cover of the Year competition. It depicted various agency folk – creative and media, marketers, production companies, and other suppliers all vying for a tiny piece of the advertising dollar (pie). A banquet table surrounded by these people with the tiny offering set in the middle. The image showed a veritable free-for-all, a no-holds-barred scramble for what has become an increasingly shrinking advertising/marketing budget,” he explains. “It’s amazing how prophetic this notion has become, especially in light of COVID, which nobody had any clue about when the idea was born.”

In this financially uncertain time, countless photography businesses have suffered –some going under, and others generally struggling tremendously, gasping for air. Izzard also notes that COVID brought many Australian directors and photographers back to Australia from their overseas bases, making the competition for limited work even greater. “From a creative standpoint,” he adds, “I’m not seeing that many ‘big’ ad campaigns – the ones that required big set ups and a lot of post production. Work seems far more aligned around real lifestyle-type imagery. This is an area I’ve gravitated towards as it’s what I love shooting personally anyway; plus, it’s way more satisfying getting something in camera than having to rely on multi-part comps in post production.”

© Andreas Smetana. Part of the Audi S3 campaign, The Car You’ve Always Wanted Agency: BMF. Chief Creative Officer: Alex Derwin
Group Creative Director: Ant Hatton.
© Andreas Smetana. Part of the Audi S3 campaign, The Car You’ve Always Wanted. Agency: BMF.
Chief Creative Officer: Alex Derwin Group Creative Director: Ant Hatton.

Smetana has noticed the lifestyle trend also. He has a different feeling towards it. “I personally think it’s utterly boring and I’m amazed by the longevity of this lifestyle trend – people trying to capture the moment and sell it to us as a product. There’s an absence of ideas.” On the other hand, he noted that people had time to concentrate on doing good work. “I had less work, but was able to concentrate harder on the work I did, so I got a lot more joy and a better result,” he recalls. “I felt the same from art directors. Everyone was a little more humble and a little more grateful. Suddenly, it was about the quality and doing really good work and pushing harder, because people had more time to think.”

In judging great work this year, Esther Haase notes: “My feeling is that the straight and honest photography campaigns were the most convincing and touching. No chichi; the ideas are plain, strong, and perfectly executed like the Colgate ad [with images by Belle Verdiglione], for example. It transports pure, honest, believable emotion.”

© Cory White. Shot for the OzFish campaign, It’s time to focus on our waterways. Agency: VMLY&R Melbourne. Executive Creative Director: Jake Barrow. Production: Humble Projects.
© Cory White. Shot for the OzFish campaign, It’s time to focus on our waterways. Agency: VMLY&R Melbourne. Executive Creative Director: Jake Barrow. Production: Humble Projects.

2021’s promise

Advertising photographers have opportunities that are immutable says Brady. “Our job as art directors hasn’t changed. The desired consumer outtake is always, ‘I like it, what is it?’ If you can stop people, then hold their attention until the message has been delivered, job done. If you can do it and leave a smile or reward, perfect. From quick visual ideas to long copy or editorial, attracting and retaining people’s attention takes a lot of craft and skill, however I do think it’s becoming more and more undervalued.” He cites three ads that do all this. “Mouldy Whopper [by Swedish photographer, Pål Allan] was a gift of an idea, but the photography elevated it beautifully. KFC’s Finger Lickin’ Good campaign by Sam Wright, with effortless style and such a beautifully simple concept. And NZTA’s Belted Survivor series was really arresting for me. Powerful visual communication.” Barrow adds, “What has always been the heart of advertising photography is the beautiful artistry in bringing an idea to life. One minute the idea is a sketch on a layout pad, the next it’s eliciting emotion. So, while it may no longer be the ‘leading feature’, there will always be photography in advertising.” He also cites three pieces of standout work. Mouldy Whopper stars again. “Arguably one of the most beautiful photos to come out of advertising this year,” Barrow says. “Finding beauty where it shouldn’t exist – now that’s the power of good photography.” Also on his list are Mothers Smile Strong for Colgate by VMLY&R Dubai. “A single photo with just two words, ‘smile strong’, and I get chills from a toothpaste ad.” And Try Not to Hear This for Coca-Cola.

2021’s desires

If the gorgeous glossy image is no longer a leading feature of advertising photography, what is likely to matter in the future? Randal Ford is very clear in his answer. “A beautiful picture will always matter. What has shifted is that audiences no longer see a super retouched image as genuine or authentic. So, gorgeous imagery is timeless and will always matter so long as it’s handled delicately in post production. I believe we’re heading to a good place in the style of ad photography where snapshots and overly retouched photography are taking a backseat to more timeless, cinematic, beautiful images.” Neibert’s answer expands on the importance of authenticity. “Concept and authenticity seem to be king. Just an image of a shiny sports car is no longer enough to break through the clutter. If your image has a concept that sparks an interest in the consumer, then I feel they are more likely to remember and identify with the product.”

Smetana now does 70% motion to 30% photography. “But that 30% is getting better, and the C-word (craft), which was really unpopular for a while, is coming back because photography is still an expensive medium. There has been an underlying attitude of producing massive amounts of content, but I feel it’s the opposite now. People are happy to pay more money and get good work. I think that goes back to the need to stand out, because there is so much of everything.”

© Dana Neibert. Shot for an over-landing series for the Chevrolet Colorado.
© Dana Neibert. Shot for an over-landing series for the Chevrolet Colorado. "We brought the vision in the art director's head to reality." Campaign: Chevrolet Colorado Bison. Client: General Motors.
Agency: Campbell Ewald. Art Director: Lewis Baker.

Photography that made the work, work

For Brady and Colenso there was GoStrong for Anchor milk, with photographer, Al Guthrie. “Based on the idea that the physical strength obtained from milk leads to inner strength enabling you to give anything a go, we profiled some amazing people who we felt demonstrated huge inner strength. Guthrie captured stand-alone portraits as well as stills around the film shoot.”

For Les Mills International’s ultra-intensity group fitness programme, Grit, Colenso wanted to convey the heat of the class in the images. “We collaborated with Mat Baker who wanted to capture the heat in-camera and used a long exposure combined with separate flash shots to great effect. For Skinny Broadband, its customers became the talent for Friendvertising, the thinking being that with the NZ population being pretty small, if we shot enough people, the chances of you knowing one of them were pretty high. The idea was to have all of the cast do the same thumbs-up happy customer pose, but put their own spin on it. A mottled orange background gave the photos an awkward school photo vibe. This could so easily have been really bad, but the styling and awkward poses really made the series for me,” Brady says.

For Barrow and VMLY&R in Australia, it was the photography-led campaign for OzFish, an organisation of fishers who look after the country’s waterways. “It needed to connect with the fishing world to establish more chapters and recruit more members. Our idea was based on the insight that anyone who catches a fish, proudly takes a photo showing it off to the camera. We flipped this notion and instead shot the images with the focus being on the water in the background. The shots are designed in a way to make people look again and figure out what’s wrong. A small headline reads, ‘It’s time to focus on our waterways’.

Cory White was chosen because his work is uniquely Australian in its visual language, yet not over-produced. The outdoor ads were supported by a cover take-over of Fishing World.” For over 50 years, the cover of the magazine has featured a person holding their catch to camera. Now, for the first time ever, the image was out of focus. Just one month after the magazine came out, OzFish had people apply to start eight new chapters across the country and membership went up 590% – the majority of which came via the magazine. All that just from a simple idea but executed flawlessly through photography.”


Jake Barrow

Dave Brady

Randal Ford

Esther Haase

Sean Izzard

Andreas Smetana

Dana Neibert


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