Guest post by Mason Adams

Compared to print and web, mobile advertising is cheap. A print insertion can cost $40 CPM (Cost Per Thousand) while popular sites like Gawker sell banners for $10/thousand. Mobile averages $2.85.

This summer Mercedes hired 5 Instagrammers with the mobile­-centric agency Tinker Street to shoot their own road trip in the new CLA class ­- the person with the most likes at the end of the trip won a 3 year lease on the car.

“Take the Wheel brings together some of Instagram’s most influential photographers including: Paul Octavious(432,000 followers), Tim Landis (523,000 followers), Michael O’Neal (487,000 followers); Alice Gao (538,000 followers); and Chris Ozer(503,000 followers). Each “like” from their followers will bring them closer to the car.”

It’s a direction many brands and agencies are experimenting with and it begs the question: are the photographers being paid for their images or for access to their followers?

According to the Mercedes social media lead, the CLA Instagram campaign reached almost 90 million impressions (number of photos multiplied by the number of followers on the 5 accounts).  At $2.85 CPM that comes to a media buy of $256,500, or a minimum fee of $50,000 per photographer (on top of the normal creative fees and expenses).  Except that engagement on Instagram is normally 18 times higher than other mobile services. On the upper end, that’s $900,000 per photographer. Even without knowing the exact numbers, it’s easy to speculate that by hiring Instagrammers, Mercedes got the deal of a lifetime in advertising.

Photography is still the most important and impactful tool for advertisers to spread their message. This isn’t just an opinion,­ it’s reflected over and over in the statistics of companies that use photos to promote their products online. If educated about the true costs of advertising, I imagine that photographers with a large online audience would think twice about selling their followers out for a 3-year car lease.

Mason Adams is an artist manager and freelance photo strategist for advertising.


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  1. I am betting they got paid <10K each.

  2. Four of them didn’t even get the three year lease.
    This is a very asymmetrical transaction.

  3. I’ve seen this coming for a while . . . and it just seems so fucked up. Basing validity on a high school popularity contest. A virtual one at that. The baby has been thrown out with the bath water. With this criteria, Tila Tequila would make an excellent photographer choice.

  4. But how effective was the campaign? How does Mercedes measure the campaign’s success? Did it sell any cars?

  5. I would bet that the campaign was not targeted or measured in specific unit sales. What MB was after (and what they got) was recreational eyeball time with a young and hip target audience, which translates into powerful brand identity. See MB is the brand for Old People and Foreigners, and is known for being expensive both to acquire and maintain. So it seems that they are working very hard to revamp their target audience to the very coolness-aware and financially upcoming technical middle class. These are people who actually do not watch TV advertisements, ever. You have to reach them where they are, on their smartphone, voraciously consuming social media.

    BTW, I also sincerely doubt that a three year lease on the car was the real value received by the photog’s. It was more likely just a marketing gimmick. Giving away the lease as a “grand prize” raises the campaign to reality tv entertainment level. It’s supposed to be a prize that the target market would consider worthy of bragging rights, and therefore worth following.

    Assuming that they were not paid well is a fallacy, unless you actually have their contracts in hand. I would guess that they were paid quite fairly at least, or they considered the media coverage (a lot of it apparently) to be good enough for their own brands to be worth a compromise on pay.

    • I’d much prefer several hundred thousand dollars over ‘media coverage.’

    • True, it’s just a guess as to what they are paid based on the fact that the grand prize was a car that lists for 30 grand retail. But, celebrity tweets can be bought for less than a grand each so I’m thinking it’s not more than $10,000 each.

      I’m hoping someone leaves a comment with the actual number.

      • I can’t speak to this campaign, but I can speak to reality tv. The actors in those shows don’t make that much money during their stay there, maybe 5-10k for a few weeks and they aren’t working their jobs. Some even quit there jobs hoping that something good will come out of it. If the rates are even remotely comparable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were, the photog may not have made much for the whole thing. But it’s definitely a “may not have”.

        • The only way this would compare is if each actor was chosen for the show because they had 500,000 followers on Instagram.

          It’s not about a fee for performing a service. It’s the money that people pay (on top of the normal fees) to get access to those 500,000 followers.

          • It’s 100% relatable when the show is Top Chef or another show like that. If it’s a show where the actor’s aren’t known, you’re right, it’s different.

            I worked on Top Chef last season and the “contestants” got paid almost nothing. They were hoping that it would help build their restaurant’s brand.

            It’s a very disturbing trend, especially for unknown actors who have talent and training. It’s a whole market slowly being squeezed out. And then people complain that their isn’t anything good on TV, except 3 or 4 well written, well acted shows.

            I relate this to the world of photography at the moment. I constantly open magazines and think, what the hell was the photographer doing here?

  6. What’s next is that people with lots of “followers” will essentially rent out space on their Instacrap or whatever. They’ll cut a deal with brands or agencies to take a percentage for product placement. The agent will go to the sucker, er, company and say “Hey, we can place this on Tila Tequila’s page . . . $xxx for production, $xxx for the talent, $xxx for us and $xxx for Tila . . . .”

    • It’s more complicated than that. Instagram photographers also have their own brand to maintain. With the CLA campaign, none of the photographers posted any images that were not up to their own standards. Native advertising only works if there is a certain amount of overlap between the photographer and the brand.

      Also – the important takeaway is that the current version of Instagram allows photographers to be the media channel. Facebook offers advertising via Sponsored Stories, so it gets paid for the impressions. Instagram doesn’t offer advertising, so the photographers should be the ones getting paid for the impressions. Essentially, the photographers have control of the channel – they just have to understand the value of CPM and charge accordingly. Otherwise they’re leaving money on the table.

  7. Super Zimmer wrote, “What’s next is that people with lots of “followers” will essentially rent out space on their Instacrap or whatever.”

    That’s what newspapers and magazines do. Their “followers” are called “subscribers.”

    • Agreed, and the next big thing in advertising is elimination of the media buyer. Your ad appears on blogs, online magazine, tweets, instagram, facebook, linkedin, etc and software watches the clicks and engagement and all metrics you can think of to optimize. Advertisers don’t care where the ad appears just what the numbers look like.

      • Media buyers are being replaced by teh digital strategy team. Media placement is part of the strategy, and the digital teams can do that just as easily, and more creatively, than media buyers.

  8. A Photo Editor wrote, “Advertisers don’t care where the ad appears just what the numbers look like.”

    I think it would be more correct to say that, “Advertisers don’t care where the ad appears just who saw it and did they click through to my site.” This is the lesson of AdWords.

  9. So should we start bundling image posts to our own Web sites plus social media as part of proposals? The math here certainly suggests advertisers have a lot to gain from our followers. If you do an advertising shoot for a client, should you charge extra to post images of that shoot to your Instagram account? If you have a lot of followers, that’s a lot of extra eyeballs for the client. This is an interesting turn of events. Most of us post things for self-promotion, but is not getting paid extra for posting things leaving money on the table?

    • A. Noninoni wrote, “If you do an advertising shoot for a client, should you charge extra to post images of that shoot to your Instagram account?”

      Instead of asking for permission to use the client’s images to promote your services you’ll be charging them to use their images to promote your services. Seems fair.

      There may be an opportunity for aPhotoFolio here. How about it Rob?

      • Actually, what I’m asking is whether we should consider posting a clients’ images to our Web sites, or social media accounts, as a promotional opportunity for the client and expect additional compensation for doing so? For photographers with a lot of followers I can see a business case for making that argument.

        • Any photographer with a lot of real followers should take this into consideration when estimating – the client certainly does.

  10. “Advertisers don’t care where the ad appears just what the numbers look like.”

    Well, maybe but not entirely. To some extent business always wins, but branding is also intensely about the context in which the message appears. Advertisers care how effectively they reach the emotional and habitual mentality of their target market.

  11. But does it sell product?

    I’ll bet that 3 year lease is nice, taxable income as well. Hard to put aside 15% of a lease for tax payment.

  12. A popularity contest?

    Who gets the most votes is the best?

    Or just the most common denominator?

    • Yep. Excuse me while I light myself on fire and film a twerking clip in order to generate a fan base.

  13. But how many teenage girls are in the market for a new Mercedes?

  14. ”Are the photographers being paid for their images or for access to their followers?” This is the most important question here! So what is more important? To be a good photographer or be flooded by followers?? (You can buy those followers now for five dollars on Fiverr). I think companies and brands have realized the enormous power of viral campaigns and especially the relatively lower costs. They use all of us as consumers of telecommunications and Internet.

  15. ‘Begs the question does not equate to ‘raises the question. Please so not use phrases in your reporting that you do not understand.

  16. I wonder if the “agencies” that employ this short-sighted business model like Tinker Street t understand that it is only a matter of time before their jobs will be crowd-spourced as well and their value will be diminished or eliminated.

  17. “According to the Mercedes social media lead, the CLA Instagram campaign reached almost 90 million impressions (number of photos multiplied by the number of followers on the 5 accounts).”

    Anyone else see the glaring problem with this equation? I’ll bet only a tiny percentage of ALL of the followers of those photographers actually saw at least one of the posted images. Hell, I only follow a couple hundred people, and there’s no way I can see everything they post, every day. Some people follow thousands of people.
    On top of that, I wonder how many of those followers even active on Instagram anymore. 500,000 followers is no way near the actual number of people who actually see everything you post.

    • So what is an impression worth?


    • this is why digital impressions are so cheap compared to print and television.

      • But, problematically, Instagram can’t even guarantee or report on the actual number of impressions. It feels odd, since I’m not sure Mercedes would have put up with such fuzzy math from AdWords, for example.

  18. ”Are the lensmans being bought their pictures or for access to their followers?” this is often the foremost necessary question here! therefore what’s additional important? To be an honest photographer or be flooded by followers?? (You should purchase those followers currently for 5 greenbacks on Fiverr).

  19. On a far smaller scale my young assistant (18 and 20k followers) gets sent clothes for him to model and namecheck.

    He keeps the clothes.

    He loves it :-)

  20. Mason, did you contact Tinker Street and inquire about how the photographers were paid? The three year lease was a part of the Mercedes promotion and another incentive to get followers to “like” the images. I think with a bit more research you would have found that the photographers were actually paid very well – this wasn’t a sell-out.

  21. I wonder if the “agencies” that use this short-sighted business model like Tinker Street t perceive that it’s solely a matter of your time before their jobs are crowd-sourced similarly and their worth are diminished or eliminated.

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