I’ve always thought this Canadian Club print campaign was genius, partially because of the vibe but mostly because I couldn’t figure out if the images were 40 years old or shot recently. When I discovered that Liz Miller-Gershfeld, VP and Senior Art Producer at Energy BBDO (the agency that made those ads) reads APE I asked her to tell me how the photography for that campaign went down. Here’s what Liz told me about the campaign (Robert Whitman shot it btw) and the important steps that go into finding the right photographer for any project:
When the creatives approached me about this project they told me they wanted to use real snapshots from the 50’s and 60’s. They were committed to these images feeling absolutely authentic and felt they needed to be historic. The challenge with that was twofold:
1. Liquor advertising has to depict models who are a verifiable 25 years old or older.
2. We already had specific headlines so the images had to match those.
We found some great images on Flickr, but they weren’t fitting the headlines and I couldn’t verify the subjects of the photos were 25 when the images were taken so, we decided to produce photography.
APE: Ok, hold on lets talk about Flickr for a second. Did you immediately go to Flickr when you knew you wanted authentic shots? You’re basically looking for old album shots and shoebox shots so I guess that’s the only source for that kind of material. Right?
I can understand why the topic of Flickr is a contentious issue. Thousands of photographers are in business struggling to create some stability in a marketplace and Flickr is largely made up of amateur photographers, so why are we looking there? I don’t generally look for stock photography on Flickr although a lot of creatives do. With this project in particular we looked everywhere. I reached out to a lot of photographers, but they were looking through their shoeboxes too; we were looking for snapshots that probably would have been taken before a lot of them were pushing a shutter release button. In the end it was too problematic to use Flickr images for this because of model releases and the 25 or older issue.
The Flickr issue is a bigger one however. When we need stock, creatives want access to a wider range of photographers’ work; they don’t always feel the way the big agencies curate their collections fit their visions. In the past, every time we had a project requiring stock I would reach out to as many photographers as I could in the time I had, in addition to larger stock sources. This problem inspired me to start an all-photographer Twitter network that I use to Tweet my stock needs. It’s cool because I really enjoy the chatter, the references and the images people post in an informal way. A lot of equipment chatter I follow to get more informed about, for example, the Red camera, etc. No one really hears from me unless I need stock and then I Tweet it over and over. In theory it’s an attempt to democratize the access to our buying needs so more people get a shot. It’s still an experiment, but why not?
APE: Ok, fair enough. What’s next?
Step one is the creative conversation. This is a step we go back to again and again. The initial creative conversation between art producer and creative attempts to flesh out the nuances lacking in a layout. Layouts convey an idea, but rarely the entire visual story. This conversation gives a map for the search.
Next step: photographer search. This project in particular needed a photographer who had the production chops to authentically pull off a recreation of the past, not only in content but also in the look of the photography. They needed to have a dynamic enough range that it would be believable that different people authored the images. The next piece of criteria was perhaps the most important to us, the most difficult to ascertain and reminds me of a recent APE post when you wrote that you were a fan of luck and unexpected results in photography: we needed someone who had a portfolio filled with lucky shots which were no accident. At its heart, and this is something I look for a lot, I wanted to find someone who is masterful at creating conditions that allow for real human moments to happen.
Next, I look at portfolios and cull what doesn’t apply. Often this process occurs online, but for this project we called the books in first. I then review portfolios with the AD. This isn’t always possible, but I think it is an important step. It tends to slow down the flipping of the pages, gives me a chance to express what I saw and why I’m showing it and most importantly lets me hear honest feedback about what is working and what is missing. With Canadian Club this process went on for a few days; not because the books weren’t hitting the mark, but because there were some really good ones that all went in different directions.
The next step is the creative call with the photographers and it plays a crucial role in deciding who gets the job. It’s really like a job interview. I’ve been a part of many calls where a photographer who was a front-runner disqualified him or herself. I’ve also seen the opposite. It is important to note that to get to this stage a creative team has usually been back to a drawing board several times, has given up weekends and evenings, has sometimes been through focus group testing and has often had strategies and creative briefs changed. They would like to hear that you would like to do the job. They would like to hear what you like about the project. No obsequiousness, just a positive word or two to set a tone and communicate sincere interest.
APE: I’ve heard some grumbling about the creative call, so I just have to ask, what does the phone personality have to do with taking pictures? Have you actually had situations where you went with a photographer who performed miserably on the call and the shoot was bad. Is this truly an indication of something important?
It is a fair question to ask what the phone personality has to do with taking pictures. The first part of what I mentioned, about finding something positive to say really has nothing to do with taking pictures. What I have observed more than once is that it created a competitive edge because it communicated to the AD an emotional investment in the project.
I’ve never had a situation where the call went miserably and the shoot was bad, because if the call goes wrong they don’t get the job. That is why I prescribe listening; many photographers express themselves more eloquently with a camera. Less is more on the call. If you have ideas you want to share at this point do so, but listen first.
You asked if the call is truly an indication of something important. It can be. If it is just a personality showcase then it is a worthless call. If the call is done well then it can elicit responses which indicate creative compatibility and a willingness to collaborate…on both ends. In addition to giving the photographer the information they need to generate a smart estimate, those are the biggest things for everyone to get out of the call.
I have been in situations where we are deciding between two photographers. When we had the calls one said, “Hey, I really like this ad. I’m happy to have a shot, I think it’s going to be great.” The other did not express that sort of sentiment. At the end of the calls the AD said, “Hey, that one guy was fired up, let’s work with him!” It is a good idea on these initial calls to ask the AD to take you through their vision for the project. Layouts don’t tell the whole story and it is a good opportunity to hear what is important to them. Listening also demonstrates collaboration skills. Ask the AD what they saw in your portfolio or what it was about your work that brought you to this phone call. It is a good way to bring the conversation to look and feel in a way that is relevant to the project. It is also a good way to gauge true interest. If they don’t have an answer they aren’t really interested. Ask questions; it shows how you are thinking about things. I have heard more raves after calls where photographers deeply listened and asked intelligent questions than when they did all the talking. It is not that the agency is not interested in the artist’s vision, but it raises the comfort factor that what is important to us is being taken into consideration. If you went into the call with ideas you wanted to share this is a good time for it. If not, that is fine. Tell them you want to think about what you’ve talked about and you will follow up with an estimate and treatment.
APE: A treatment? You think photographers should provide a treatment?
Absolutely. It is not expected of photographers, (it is of directors and with motion and still colliding it is probably a good idea to start that habit) but some photographers do it and if it lines up with and pluses the idea it helps to sell yourself in. I have seen several people move from last to first by submitting a written treatment. A treatment which actively incorporates what was important to the AD (further reinforcing that this will be a collaborative process). It is also important for us as an agency to have confidence that you have thought through the process and the potential problems and that you have solutions. This is not to say you should include proprietary information like lighting specifics, but speak to the look, mood, what you hope to capture with the talent, etc. A treatment also is a clear way in print to attribute your unique ideas to you.
The next step in the process is analyzing the estimates. This is the blueprint. It is important to me as an art producer that the usage language is clear and up front, that there are no hidden costs (with disclaimer language in a very small font size telling me expected items are not included in the bottom line) and that everything we discussed is represented. It is important that the estimate goes into detail. It is important that whoever would be producing the job is involved at this point and can answer my questions which will be very detailed. I have learned the hard way that sometimes agents or other third parties generate estimates. This is making a promise for someone else to keep and almost always leads to a conversation where a producer tells me that they would have put a different plan together and they are just trying to move things around to try to make it work. We no longer work with 10 -15% variances allowed, a sad victim of the economic “downturn.” Those tolerances are gone so it is important to me that you have a stellar producer and that they generate the estimate. (unless the job is small or of limited complexity).
OK, this is the point where people often start calling. Make sure the art producer is clear and specific about when they will award the job so you don’t drive your self crazy waiting to hear. Last minute declarations of enthusiasm are no longer appropriate. Meetings often get moved so give the agency a day, if you haven’t heard send an e-mail for a quick decision status. If you submitted an estimate it is always appropriate to receive a call saying “congratulations!” or “thanks so much but we’re taking this in a different direction.”
I really hope all your readers get a “congratulations” call for projects that fit their talents.