How Art Producers Find The Right Photographer For The Project

- - Art Producer

canadian clubI’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.

There Are 45 Comments On This Article.

  1. So much more informations is transmitted discussing a specific project that talking about the selection process in general. This is a great way to show what’s behind the curtain on a project.

  2. All this recent talk of treatments lately… I think it’s kind of abusive in some way. I don’t know. On one hand, sure, hire the guy that gave us all those great ideas because he’s done so much of our teams work for us. On the other hand, let’s use those ideas that guy gave us, but have Mr X shoot it. It’s my job to make images, concept, creative direction and creative finding my way isn’t NECESSARILY my job. I’m happy to contribute and collaborate, but I don’t want to give it away. These days it’s more and faster for less. Should I retouch and layout and write the copy too, of course for free, I mean at least I got the job..?

    Yes, it shows something to the art buyer and the producer. No it’s not charged for – nor is it protected. Advertising is shady, you have to watch your ass.

      • @A Photo Editor,

        Yes, it is. I’m not adverse to change, but I’d like to make sure we aren’t getting screwed. I’m not financing a car shoot either. If the industry, advertising specifically, is changing, it has to go both ways. Things are going the way of more for them and less for us. It’s not cheaper to do business for us.

        • @A,
          many of the art buyers, art directors and photo editors are doing twice the work for the same amount of pay so I do think it goes both ways.

          so, on one hand it’s downright criminal, on the other, the people who are giving you the new terms of the deal are facing their own reality.

          financing a car shoot on the other hand is taking it way to far.

          • @A Photo Editor,

            True, but most art buyers and producers are employed by an agency and have the agencies best interests in mind. I work for myself. If the agency is making more money with less employees they are benefiting even more getting me, a contractor, to do their work also – let alone getting all the credit. The AD, AB and PEs get paid the same no matter what. So, I guess what I’m saying is, the people aren’t giving me new terms, the agencies are. A corporation is benefitting from free creative work. Plus, it doesn’t mean I get the job in the end..

            If someone wants to pay me a consulting fee for the treatment, I have no problem. I’m not even adverse to doing treatments. I enjoy being part of the process and not becoming just a button pusher who has the technical knowledge to get the shots. I have the ability for many many parts of an ad job, but if I’m working outside of the title of photographer, I expect to be compensated. If no one says anything, it will become the norm.

            • Liz Miller Gershfeld

              @A,I should be more specific about the definition of “treatment” as it relates to the productions I work on. This is a written description of a photographer’s unique approach that would accompany their estimate. This is not at the concept development phase, at this point the comp is client approved. It is not doing the work of the creatives, but rather articulating the approach you would bring as a photographer. This is not a required step, but I mentioned it as I’ve seen it slide decisions in the favor of photographers who have submitted them.

          • @A Photo Editor,

            It is unfortunate if the agency creatives are being squeezed, why would that be an appropriate reason for the image creator to do more work for less return? Do the image creatives pay for the art, or does the client pay for the art?

            The quintessential consideration for all sides is ROI. Does the energy, resources, and risk invested provide enough return, relative to other opportunities? One does not have to earn a living in these business to create art and meaning in their lives. This is true for the AB, AD, CD, & CW as well.

            I appreciate the opportunity to read through this process, thank you both. It really doesn’t seem like much of the process has changed in the last dozen or so years (aside from flickr/amateur access). One exception, the *estimate*.

            “We no longer work with 10 -15% variances allowed,”
            If this is the case, it seems using the word “estimate” is actually a euphemism for the term: ‘bid’. (I don’t want to make the assumption the agency would cover overruns based on things like weather, travel delays etc).

            • @Bob,
              I’m just pointing out that the person who is asking you to do this likely faced the same decision in their own employment and decided that yes, they will do more work to keep their job.

              I should stay out of a discussion on treatments tho because I know nothing about it.

              • @Bob “We no longer work with 10 -15% variances allowed,” If this is the case, it seems using the word “estimate” is actually a euphemism for the term: ‘bid’.

                I agree Bob. In fact, on my last job, the agency wanted to hold us to every single line item. That’s OK, if everything isn’t cut to the bare minimum to begin with, but it is difficult to keep every single number from going over. On the other hand, if I was under in one category the agency wouldn’t allow me to move money from, for example, “Food Stylist” to “Wardrobe Stylist.

              • @A Photo Editor,
                I can tell you, from the agency side, that the “treatment” process is usually deployed when a certain dollar threshold is crossed. And that’s traditionally been film productions. When you’re dealing with a total budget, including media, north of 7 figures, directors and production companies are asked to provide treatments because NOONE wants any surprises on a production like that.

                That wonderful CC print campaign, I’d imagine, was a really expensive production, as far as print shoots go. Because of everything that had to be orchestrated to pull that campaign off effectively, you bet your ass I’d want a treatment process from the pool of potential candidates. Too much is at stake and on the line and the AD/CD is gonna catch it if it all goes bad.

                Are print treatments always required? No, I don’t think so. But the amount of trust and faith put into a photographer to pull off something like the CC campaign is tested at the treatment stage: if a shooter, when presented with the challenge like this one, doesn’t agree to a treatment process, it allows the creative dept. to make some swift decisions in the award stage…

  3. “Last minute declarations of enthusiasm are no longer appropriate.”

    Something tells me there’s a good story behind that statement.

  4. Very informative discussion. I’m curious to know how many photographers were in the final selection pool and what persuaded the creative team to go with Robert?

    Assuming the final choices had the goods…was it the budget/estimate, personality and enthusiasm, relationship or something else that got Robert the “congratulations” call?

  5. I enjoyed the Canadian Club campaign also. Sadly though, these type of surprises are becoming increasingly rare in both advertising and editorial photography today. In fact, I’m not sure that photography is even the proper term.

    Images produced, captured, and post-processed by committee don’t have anything to do with what I’m personally interested in, so maybe I’m not one to talk, but what does any of this have to do with photography?

    What kind of “treatment”, or say Avedon’s or Penn’s phone skills have to do with producing the great work that they are know for?

    I can’t tell you how many silly phone calls I’ve fielded over the years from breathless photo editors telling me exactly what the creative team has decided is the “money shot” for an upcoming shoot.

    I’ll tell you what, if I ever relied on just delivering their money shot, and not something better, I would have been done in this business before I even got started.

    I know advertising is much different than editorial. Everything is tightly story-boarded and planned out to the smallest degree, but is that really a good thing?

    I think the editorial side has so little respect for great content these days that they’ve abandoned it. They figure their audience is too dumb to notice. Could it be that the advertising side is making a similar mistake? We’ve all heard the statistics… you have exactly 1.37 nanoseconds to get a reader to notice your ad… well, maybe they don’t notice the ad because there’s no reason for them to do so.

    Advertising done by committee is just as disposable as editorial work done that way. Everything looks the same. It’s all shot by the same photographers and retouched by the same shop. Why should the reader stop and look?

    I guess this is one of things that was so good about the CC ad.

    This is only going to get worse. Why should anyone click on a banner ad, or watch the 15 second internet commercial if there isn’t some type of content that the reader feels that they will benefit from either through laughs, knowledge, or whatever (25% coupons I suppose)?

    • @Kenneth Jarecke,
      I’ve always said any magazine out there could be put out with half the staff if you simply eliminated the second guessing and decision by committee.

      Do you think the consumer would notice if I let the photographer pick the opener instead of the editor, creative director and myself haggling over it for a week and then producing 6 versions to take down the hall to show the owner of the magazine.

      • @A Photo Editor,

        Rob, No, I don’t think the photographer should pick the opener.

        I think the DOP should pick the opener, not the art director nor the managing editor (or heaven forbid the writer). In turn, I think the DOP should hire the photographer, give them either the finished words or whatever is available if the words are not finished, and let them run with the ball.

        With this recipe, do you believe the photography would be stronger or weaker in each and every magazine that is currently published today?

        The bottom line is this;

        Whether it is for editorial or advertising, without great content there’s no reason for the viewer to take notice.

        Yes, the Canadian Club campaign is a perfect example of great advertising content, but judging by most of the ads out there, it is also the exception, not the rule.

        The current rule seems to favor mediocre images which fail to impress anyone, yet somehow are approved by committee. In the end, none of us reading this are needed to produce the 25% coupon.

        Maybe that’s why I no longer get TIME magazine, yet the four color IGA grocery flyer continues to arrive each Wednesday without fail.

  6. OK, this is priceless man. Many Many Many thanks to you and Liz for putting this out there.

    It’s always been a big topic among photogs…what goes on in the time before the call comes…or doesn’t and why. And more importantly to those who thought they knew, how that is changing in this new era.

    Absolutely wonderful article. Thanks for continuing to share what’s in the black box.

    Keep on, keepin on Rob!


  7. Posts like these is why I keep coming back to read APE. Thanks Liz for the insight on such a great campaign.
    My brother-in-law, a big lad, who hunts and drives a pick-up, has these ads posted in his garage. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone identify with an ad, and pin it up at home.

  8. Great discussion, Rob. Liz sounds like she’d be a great person to work with — savvy, considerate, a straight shooter.

    i think i remember hearing that many of the actual photos were produced on old cameras, processed at drugstores. any info on the tech aspects of the shoot?

    thanks ape


    • Liz Miller Gershfeld

      @hd, Thanks for your kind words. Robert Whitman will have to weigh in on that as I’m protective of the proprietary aspects of any project and he owns his approach. I will say there was a huge commitment to authenticity from everyone involved and that meant many cameras and many formats and many eras involved. We had a great producer, Dan Halprin from Team Halprin, who knew in real time how much film had been exposed and where we were on everything. Having a production so buttoned up with so many moving parts really allowed it to be a creative process.

  9. Another great discussion.

    I have been on both side of that phone call after I have done treatments. The “congratulation” calls are much better. I started to do these treatments only as way to express how I saw the production going. I know it is not for everyone, but I wanted the agency to feel confident about my execution of the project.

    Thanks for the information Rob…Cheers!

  10. @A Photo Editor,

    “I’ve always said any magazine out there could be put out with half the staff if you simply eliminated the second guessing and decision by committee.”

    Amen to that. I have lost count of how many magazines that I have worked on or for, but that decision making by committee is everywhere. It’s a risk avoidant behavior that spreads the blame and chips all the edges of off the work until it is safe enough for someone to say “let’s run with it.” In one place they called it “Putting on your underpants,” as in cover your ass.

    The more likely a Creative Director or Photo Director or Editor is to be called into a spit flying post mortem over something inconsequential, the more likely they are to avoid or delay taking decisive creative action until forced to by circumstance or deadline.

    With someone at the publisher’s level who appreciates and supports creative visual action, you could easily run a significant monthly magazine with half or less of the current staff on board. I know because I have designed the systems that can do it–if everyone shows up, makes their decisions, works as a real team, and delivers.

  11. Yeah this is all good and well, budget decreases etc, but whats with Art Buyers slashing our budgets and increasing their media buys , which go into the hundreds of thousands to millions, and we get reprimanded for wanting an extra assistant or some money for the 60, 000 dollar camera system we have a lease on?

    Its just another advertising agencies way of exploiting the artists and profiteering.

    Its sad.


  12. Part of the job of a photographer on a conference call is figuring out how much a creative team wants you to bring to a project. Some have worked so hard on their vision of the images that they just want someone who will reproduce their vision and they want you to talk about how you will do that. On other calls, the creative team really wants you to bring something to the project. Then the call becomes a delicate balance between saying too much and not saying enough of how you would do it.

    On about 25% of conference calls I’ve been on, it is difficult to hear, even from a land line. (And At times, Art Directors have thick accents that make it even more difficult to hear. NEVER take a conference call on a cell phone, unless you have to!) But I have to say that perhaps I’ve lost a job or two because of the crappy conference call connection. ( I don’t think it would be any better if I had them call back because it seemed to me it was the phone on the table and the acoustics in the room.)

    Finally, about 25% of the time on my estimates, Art Buyers never called me or my rep back to tell us anything about the job. It is always, “Hurry up, we need the estimate by 10 tomorrow morning.” And then after a week we hear nothing. Often times, my family would ask me everyday, have you heard from the AB? “No.” Family: “Are we still going to visit your family in Idaho or should we cancel the flights?” Me: I don’t know. Lets wait another day and see if my rep hears from the AB. Until we just give up and go…. and hope we don’t get a last minute phone call. Or maybe we do hope we get a last minute phone call.

  13. thanks rob and thank you liz.
    i would like to hear more about treatments please.

    this has happened to me where talks and even a pre production meeting on how i would handle and produce the job led to losing it . i heard later the agency did what i had said and how i would have produced it with someone else. how do we protect ourselves from this?
    thanks again


    • Liz Miller Gershfeld

      @jonathan beller, clearly those are negative experiences which dictate caution. On one hand you and others, I imagine, have had experiences like you describe. On the other agencies need to understand that a photographer has a plan for solving problems and a unique creative vision they will bring to an idea. A useful framework for discussing any project is in the context of your portfolio. “In my portfolio you may have seen the image of ‘X,’ we plan to handle the lighting in a similar way and will work with the same crew.” This doesn’t give too much away, but is very descriptive. Regarding written treatments,this is a good opportunity to let a creative team know you get where they want to go. If they want the idea to be expressed in a dark and moody way and told you that in the call, you can reference an image in your portfolio which captures your expression of that mood. I also think that less ethical people would think twice before taking an approach from a photographer that they received in writing.

  14. Thanks Rob,

    Every time Liz stated something that had me saying “what?!?” , you did me the favor of immediately addressing the question. great interview!

  15. I am a little surprised to find out that “treatments” are not already a part of the process. That might be because coming from a design and illustration background, the way I learned to write creative Proposals (never called them bids nor estimates) was to include an explanation of the creative approach. The practices I started in illustration, and then graphic design, I moved into my photography.

    One thing this interview further reinforces is that the creative team put a great deal of thought and effort into the concept long before they discuss it with a photographer. I have often heard from advertising professionals that the “pitch” is the big start, and it is usually done without compensation, much like a photographer doing “spec” work; definitely a bad idea, but I can understand how the agency wants a fairly good explanation of an approach prior to making a decision. Agencies do put out a “pitch” for a client, and end up not landing a project or account.

    In all fairness, I suppose photographers could follow that lead, but not without sticking firm to our fees and rights. I would never do “spec” work, but I have no problem writing a creative approach into my Proposals. The agencies might have much to lose, but they need to understand that we also have much to lose.

    One thing we could do is to have a recording system for our Proposals (or Treatments) to cover our creative ideas. Much like screenwriters cover their ideas to prevent someone using an idea without hiring them, there may be a way for photographers to create a system that would minimize potential abuse of ideas. Legal and/or monetary implications of “borrowing” ideas would limit using the ideas of photographer X while hiring photographer Y. Perhaps APA or ASMP can create something to address this.

  16. Hey Rob.
    Do you think you could get some of your photographer friends to share copies of their treatments? Is there a standard format? Wondering how much technical vs. creative writing goes into these things.

  17. Great interview. Liz is a great friend of all photographers- she is honest, loves photography, and supports photo orgs.

    That campaign was killer. When I saw the first ad – it made me smile, it was done so well… great images, great copy….. Bra- freakin-Vo!

  18. I would like to know how to find/get onto Liz’s all-photographer Twitter network. :)

    Thanks, Rob, for another great behind-the-scenes piece.