Sustainable Business Models: Issues & Trends Facing Visual Artists

- - The Future

Continuing on my post from yesterday where I wrote about photography as a commodity (Mark points out in the comments that a better term is fungible product) several of the panelest from the ASMP symposium on sustainable business models have posts up on the strictly business blog that I want to highlight. If you cannot attend in person there will be a live video feed (here) starting at 9am EST Thursday the 27th.

Richard Dale Kelly on organizing the event:

In organizing the Symposium, Sustainable Business Models: Issues & Trends Facing Visual Artists, ASMP’s Education Director, the late Susan Carr, and I focused on three key areas. We decided to start the day with working professionals who, through their own practices, have discovered sustainable solutions they are using today. Next, we wanted a conversation with users and distributors of visual content who are working at the highest levels of the publishing, advertising and technology sectors who could give us a glimpse of the opportunities behind the curtain. Finally, we brought in industry observers to discuss the challenges facing the professional in creating a sustainable career.

Liz Miller-Gershfeld, VP, Sr. Art Producer at Energy BBDO talks about the “new normal” at an agency meeting:

At the table were creatives and account people from the agency side and a team from the digital end of things. On the phone were teams from the promotional agency, the PR agency and international marketing counterparts. There were a few more voices on the phone.  I’m still not clear who they were, perhaps a wrong number, probably not…  Today clients have multi-channel marketing plans and multiple agencies to accomplish them…and we all have to play nicely.

I need a photographer who has deep human resources…
I need a photographer who can ask good questions…
I need a photographer who can simplify complexity …
I need a photographer whose producer can, at any given time quantify (in terms of time and money) what the inevitable changes and additions mean…
A photographer who is always thinking of the most efficient way to solve any problem and is able to articulate it from that perspective…

But perhaps most importantly, I need a photographer who can hold the idea that we brought to them – the one the creatives have spent the last few months and weekends developing, presenting, refining, presenting, selling, testing, presenting, resuscitating, presenting, refining and reselling…  A photographer who can hold it like a torch, amidst all the chaos and needs, in their unique style; the reason we came to them.

more (here).

Fiunally, Stephen Mayes CEO of VII Photo talks about the many business models being tested now:

But there’s a hugely expanded appetite for photography and with this comes new opportunities; the greatest obstacles to commercial expansion are the limits of our own imaginations and our fear of uncertainty. I see more and more brilliant business innovations, often sparked by young entrepreneurs with low overheads and little to lose.  Some of them are experiencing short-term success, some are not and it’s still too soon to judge which will sustain as the world moves forward.

Right now we’re experiencing the best of times and the worst of times.  There will be winners, some by chance and some by vision and sheer hard work, but there will be no rewards for the faint of heart.  We can’t step backwards, only forwards, even if it means letting go of some dearly held ways of thinking.

More (here).

thx, Peter.

There Are 23 Comments On This Article.

  1. Donnor Party

    Liz of BBDO is correct. I’m in strategy at a big agency now. These calls are insane. You get people on the phone, in different time zones, with different cultural norms about interupting, strange egos that need to be heard. Photographers need to stop thinking about delivering an image and start thinking in terms of solving a client’s problem(s). That means having an idea of the politics and conflicts among accounts, creative, clients’ in house brand managers, the digital side, and the strategy people. It is a very complicated environment, but at teh end of the day a photographer, or rather, an image maker, will get the job done and be paid well for solving a problem. If that means shooting motion, last minute changes to the brief based on input from the main office in Braunschweig, shooting in a different location than planned, you should help solve the problem, not put up road blocks. You need to partner with creative, offer solutions, have OK breath, not be a drunk, and don’t hit on anybody. Its a new game, and I see lots of aspiring commercial shooters think their job is to provide an image. That is just the beginning.

  2. Liz’ blog post about the cacophony of voices in a meeting in an world-wide interconnected conference call is impressive. I can see the next step to this: a wall of monitors with the top third of ethnically and culturally diverse people honing in their voices from all corners of the world.

    The photographer seems to be becoming more and more a still photography director who has to deal with script/screenplay/writing issues and who’s going to deal with huge staffs and a large number of people representing the client position.

    I love the idea that the photographer is becoming more and more a partner in shaping an idea, and is no longer a mere image executor. Looks like my years as a writer may come in handy one of these days…

    APE, great that you have such a good focus on this. This is a truly amazing subject. And I hope this New York conference wills spawn the creation of a book with a lot of illustrating material. If there was a plan to this, I’d pre-order it this minute.

  3. Liz stated it so perfectly. Being a photographer is only part of the job. Understanding what it has taken to get to the shoot is really important and being able to elevate the ideas, balance the creatives desires with the clients and keep focus in the chaos is vital to success. Well said Liz!

  4. Liz Miller-Gershfeld said:
    “I need a photographer who can ask good questions…”
    “I need a photographer who can simplify complexity …”
    “A photographer who is always thinking of the most efficient way to solve any problem and is able to articulate it from that perspective…”

    She’s looking for a problem solver. Someone who asks the right questions to get at the hart of the problem. And than quickly and efficiently solves the problem. Someone who can “think (and act) on their feet.”

  5. We have been employing the ordinarily legal term “fungible” in our lectures and articles since the late ’90s as a warning to creatives. Our use coincided with the larger stock agencies including Corbis, unabashedly characterizing photographs as “commodities”.

    The ideal example of a fungible item or commodity can best be explained by talking about a short order cook who is tasked with making an omelet. He/she simply grabs the eggs out of the container and doesn’t bother to examine the quality or even look at the shell. 12 eggs in one carton may come from one chicken or a dozen different ones.

    The brand of egg is typically of no concern to the customer and few if any make any inquiry to the server. The cook assumes all eggs from the carton to be alike. If upon cracking the egg something looks rotten – a very rare occurrence – the eggs are simply trashed and the cook starts again. (To you cynics out there – we are aware that eggs are graded at the retail level – just let it go for the moment)

    Stock agencies commenced using the word “commodity” to devalue the work of photographers as well as the images they create. If photos are “commodities” you have commenced your ride on the very slippery slope of all images and all photographers having the same value – little. If the commodities and those who produce them are fungible or “all the same” there is no need for the agency to pay or give a bigger cut to Sally “Big Shot” Photographer than to Joe “just out of photo school” Shutterbug or Dennis “the hobbyist” Dentist. If there are no super stars on a major league baseball team the owner’s payroll is cheaper than a team like the Yankees who carry several on the roster.

    Photographers accepted the language and terminology of their negotiating enemies and thus assisted in devaluing their work as well as their own reputations. They helped in diminishing or in some cases destroying, all of the efforts they made to brand themselves and/or their work. Photographs are unique and are – with extremely rare exceptions – distinctly NOT fungible. Once someone calls photos fungible then you know they are likely to be in the process of negotiating the underpants off of an unsuspecting photographer.

    If photographs are indeed fungible, then shots taken by anyone whose IRS Form 1040 lists their profession as “photographer” as is as good as the shots taken by Richard Avedon, Mel Sokolsky, H. Newton or any shooter with a cell phone. Using the term and getting photographers to believe in its legitimacy was part and parcel of the effort to reduce the cut stock agencies had to pay their contributors. The tactic has accomplished its goal.

    • scott Rex Ely

      Great quote:
      “Photographs are unique and are – with extremely rare exceptions – distinctly NOT fungible. Once someone calls photos fungible then you know they are likely to be in the process of negotiating the underpants off of an unsuspecting photographer. ”
      Thank you beyond.

  6. Now that someone has finally mentioned the name of Helmut Newton, he would have been the first guy to tell you to eff off if you tried to make him part of “the team” and told him it was his job to solve problems and not just take photographs.

    • Donnor Party

      He would have. And he is dead. So is Penn and Avedon. That era is gone, and that sucks, but it is the reality.

      • I think what separates the icons of yesteryear from today isn’t talent. There is a lot of talent around, good talent.

        What these men and women had though was guts, vision and determination. From the Gods of commercial work like Avedon, Penn and Newton, to editorial and documentary shooters like Gene Smith, they were compelled to do what they did because it sprang from inside. Even if they hadn’t been successful, I can’t see that any one of them would have changed.

        Even though he was a Life magazine shooter, Gene Smith was a pauper for most of his life because he spent way too long on assignments in order to get to the heart of a story – and he wasn’t paid for all of that extra time.

        There are still a few people like this today, but they don’t generate the kind of heat that fads, fashions and bandwagons do.

        Too bad, but that’s life. It is said that we get the governments that we deserve. Maybe we get the photographers and photographs that we deserve too?

        • Donnor Party

          Andrew, I agree. My take is that it is expensive to live an interesting life, and the consequences of failure, what with everyone enrolled in debt and health care so expensive, may not be something that can be shrugged off.

  7. It seems to me by my experience, that no matter what size business is looking for a photographer these days, they want is fast, they want it cheap and they want it by 1:00pm the same day. Where the problem solving, being able to adapt to changes and additions, being able to articulate and simplify complexity stems from lack of planning clear insight to the final vision from the company that is hiring you. They want photographer to solve their problems because they either have inexperienced and/or incompetent people working for them. This is only added stress on the photographer in question. A photographer who has that experience is most likely seasoned from years of working with and seeking out those who have their act together prior to the days of digital and instant gratification. I agree these are the best and worst of times. I can work well under stress and find most of the time where I can be creative. But like anything, too much of something can be detrimental to ones’ physical and mental health. Everything in moderation, even moderation.

    If you are a person who can:

    “I need a photographer who has deep human resources…
    I need a photographer who can ask good questions…
    I need a photographer who can simplify complexity …
    I need a photographer whose producer can, at any given time quantify (in terms of time and money) what the inevitable changes and additions mean…
    A photographer who is always thinking of the most efficient way to solve any problem and is able to articulate it from that perspective… ”

    You should apply to be the CEO of the company and actually run the company properly where as the photographer can do their job and not everyone other persons too.

    • Donnor Party

      Its not always incompetence on the client end, its a different world with more voices having binding input. This is the new normal. Things are very political in the ad world, more so than I ever knew whan I was shooting. There are conflicts among the client, accounts, strategy, creative, digital, the agency’s client’s internal conflicts among treasury, marketing, brand managers, from all over the world. Its a circus, and what may seem like, to a photographer, utter idiocy is the result of long and hard battles behind the scenes over how to spend 10’s of millions of dollars. I used to itch about changing briefs and misteps, but this is how the things are. As a vender, a photographer must adapt. If not, there are other fields of photography.

      • I agree with you Donnor Party, As a society we’ve created this marketing monster, because marketers have done their job extremely well. There is a lot of pressure to make it better/different these days. Every day we are flooded with ad’s. Visual over stimulation. When I was in New York in May, I walked around Manhattan. Near Times Square I saw an ad campaign for Evian. To me it was successful with larger that life images of models wearing t-shirts with baby torso’s printed on them in a way a person did a double take. I watched those walking by and how they stopped to look at them where as other ad’s were never given a second glance and only looked at for a fleeting moment. Sometimes I think it sad that we live in such a consumer driven society and more so seam to miss the really important things in life.

  8. I am curious what Melvin Sokolsky think about all of this. Last time I heard him speak at an event on his last book release, he didn’t seem troubled by the changes taking place albeit he is not fungible, never was.

    I will be listening in, I really want to see what models are being tested, used… thanks Rob, there are going to be some photographers that get around the corner in the right direction. Thanks for caring about the industry.

  9. Donnor Party and Liz of BBDO bring something interesting here….

    I worked in ad agencies for over 10 years… it changed a fair bit from the late 90’s, big dip after 2001, and another oddball mess after 2007-2008….

    Agency meetings are like Liz describes, sometimes even odder and more full of randomness. There are often a few different sources of “new ideas” and/or “important changes” that suddenly happen, the smart people in an agency are usually trying to control the clients expectations and steer things towards the original business goals, their central insights into the target market, and of course, keeping the stakeholders happy and trying to do it all under budget.

    One thing to note! The “aura” both of the agency and the photographer are of nearly infinite importance….i.e. once your “aura” or “halo” fades, the number of random requests for changes and general lack of trust on the most minor items may overwhelm the process…. Clients are not evil, but sometimes they second-guess the agency and photographer in a way that makes them SEEM evil…..

    For a photographer, the importance is to be as thoughtful as possible, but not so “spineless” as to let the “aura” fade, you have to remain an artist AND a troubleshooter, willing to work with people but somehow not water down the secret sauce. yes, it seems like a bunch of contradictions, but it isn’t… panache and personability can save the day.

    Just remember that you are representing the agency to the client, and you’re also part of the relationship between the agency and the client, so it’s a great idea to get some heart-to-heart talk in private about the client-agency relationship from a smart and thoughtful person from the agency before you actually go into a meeting with the client present. That way you won’t accidently say something that torpedos your “aura” … for example, be very careful about suggesting ideas, as the agency and client may have already rejected a few hundred “great” ideas for reasons that may be beyond anyone’s understanding….

    have fun, it’s a relationship and trust and integrity and artistic “aura” business all at the same time…. it can be done, but it’s not to be done with too much cavalier attitude….

  10. On the flip side, what photographer doesn’t need…

    -a realistic budget to realize the client’s needs
    -a brief that doesn’t turn into a multitude of additional shots or entirely different concepts on set
    -a client that doesn’t demand unlimited worldwide usage in perpetuity because THEY don’t know how what’s being produced will need to be utilized
    -a client that can answer simple questions
    -a client that doesn’t turn simplicity into complexity
    -a client that pays the advance, the overages and the invoice in a reasonable time
    -and most importantly, a client that can manage THEIR client and staff to allow the photographer to execute the concept all their agency people have worked on for however long.

    Photographers are horrible at cannibalizing their own industry with the , “If I don’t do it, someone will.”, attitude. Photographers work out of fear and necessity because the agencies hold the checkbook. Agencies are now doing the same. They work out of fear and necessity of their clients because their clients hold the checkbook and there are many other agencies ready to step in without a second thought. Agency ideas are now being literally turned on end at the point of execution by their clients or even worse by the non-creatives in an agency acting on behalf of the client.

    With all due respect to MS. Miller-Gershfeld, what you put forth is that what you need is to have the last person in the mix (the photographer) make up for the inefficiencies and convolution due to the business practices of your agency.

    That may very well be the new reality but it’s doubtful t it will be sustainable.

    • Donnor Party

      I don’t think it is unsustainable for the agencies, but the shooters who can rise to this (Herculian) task without going insane will thrive. When I was shooting stills the issue of rights drove me to distraction. I was often apaplectic when I would see they wanted all rights, and they didn’t know why, and the media plan was changing and vague. In the end its about flexibility, because things move so quickly, and media plans come and go, are marked up, amended, budgets change, etc. Production companies are better at these things than individual shooters, because they are run by producers who are used to large scale collaborative efforts and the business side of getting things done. They are also used to handing over more rights than stills shooters, and, as I’m sure you know, they expect those same rights from stills shooters. As things go more towards motion, it will get worse.

      Your point about the politics upending the creative at agencies is true, but I think its been going on for a while. My agency has tight teams working on accounts, and almost everyone (accounts, strategy, creative, media) can on most levels do each others job, to varying degrees. Every person, even accounts, have some creative background. Accounts pushes back on the clients regularly, mainly the Brand Stewards somewhere deep in the corporate mothership in the Mid-West. The result can be surprising. Often their objection is based on some deep fear about their brand, their own position, their insecurity, miscommunication, or they are just dorky and out of touch.

      It is harder to change agencies than it appears. There are so many linkages between agencies and clients, on all levels. Finding another AOR takes time, and usually the relationship has been souring for years and its no secret that a client will leave. Maybe I’m wrong, because I’ve only been at a desk for a few months.

  11. A cornucopia of business opportunities will present themselves to those willing to learn how to shoot and stills and video at the same time. Surf’s up dudes and dudettes, as the technological waves keep advancing, and rather than standing upon the shore and yelling at them to stop (as it seems pro photographers too often do), one is far better off learning how to surf them. One must learn how to shoot stills and video at the same time.


    Dr. E :)