Has the entire paradigm changed or are we just experiencing extended suffering from "the downturn"?

I had an interesting portfolio show with a creative director at a smaller agency here in Austin.  He and I have worked on fun projects with the agency and he's always been a proponent of my work.  I showed him a bunch of new photos.  Things I'd done in the months between our meetings.  He looked thru my large prints (please, everyone, keep showing your work on iPads while I drag around a box of 16x20's.  I don't mind wiping the drool off the protective sheets.....) and he said very nice things about my work.

And then we put the images aside and he became philosophical in the way that creative directors can be, sometimes.  He wanted to discuss the future of the advertising industry.  And as we spoke it reminded me very much of the earlier decay of the market for commercial photography.  While we had bread and butter assignments to sustain us the ad agencies had the profit from large media buys to wallow around in.  Over time the consolidation of media and the demands of clients have eroded what was once the profit center for every major agency into.......nothing.  Agencies can still charge retainers or by the hour to figure out where to place the media but no longer get much or any cut of the media buy.  That leaves the agencies two or three profit centers:  Traditional creative concept and production,  marketing strategy and branding strategy, and social and viral marketing.  And most of these charges are based on hourly expenditures/charges at various rates.  Which flies in the face of what Andy Warhol always advised; "Charge for the art, not for the labor".   And it also negates the model of doctors and entrepreneurs which is all about, "Charge for what you know, not for what you do." After all isn't a great idea worth a lot? Even if you think it up in a heartbeat? You know the brain storming might last weeks until the epiphany hits.

As the profits decline the agencies also find themselves smack up against the same kinds of market killers photographers have encountered.  There are fewer big placement, national ad campaigns because the demographics have become so splintered.  If the total market buy is fractionalized by multiple demographic customizing then the percentage for each ad production budget drops enormously.  There may be more ads than ever before but they've been, by necessity, cheapened and loaded with homogenous and warmed over concepts and given budget resuscitation by the use of dirt cheap stock instead of (sometimes) more appropriate custom assigned images.  Then it becomes an ever cycling and self fulfilling race towards the bottom.   And, with a decline of people with wide ranging (liberal arts) educations there are fewer on the client side who can tell good from bad, funny from banal and so on.  I remember trying to tell a client about an ad concept based on "The Rites of Spring".....He'd never heard of it.  Didn't think anyone else would have either.....It was a sad testament to the decline of western civilization via business schools.

If the ads only have to be "good enough" and "cheap enough", and if everyone else is doing good enough and cheap enough then gradually the whole industry succumbs to wretched visual and verbal deterioration.  At some point the clients will decamp toward in house suppliers, stock design templates and home made solutions.  It's easier now to make a website than it is to change the oil in your car.  The great middle of the market is seeking independent web designers who reject the overhead of the big agencies.  And yet I can remember the days of the half million dollar websites.  With Canon 5Dmk2 cameras every photographer who stumbles thru a client's front door is ready to do a "TV Commercial" and at prices that make traditional television producers shudder.

What was my colleague's position? He firmly believes that traditional, big broadcast, mass market advertising is on the way to the graveyard.  He believes everyone will eventually spend their days glued to one screen.  This one screen will bring them all of their content, become their workspace and their entertainment.  It will also be the de facto communications center.  Everyone will rush to create "killer apps" in order to cement their brand in the minds of loyal customers and would be customers.

Imagine this bleak, 2016 (riffing off George Orwell's 1984, or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World)  future where it might actually be illegal to go around without your personal screen device. It might the nexus of all your commerce.  All meetings will take place as conference calls on your screens.  All news and even television programming will flow to your device.  The apps you use will be branded in a frenzied attempt to keep your loyalty in a sea of cascading images and offers.  From the moment you wake till the moment you turn out the lights----and beyond--- you'll be locked to the screen.  Earbuds jammed in hard.  Oblivious to everything but the content.

No more shared experiences.  No more face to face socializing.  Oh sure, you might virtual "face to face" with someone while you wolf down a dinner your GPS enabled screen  sourced from the crowd sourced food approval list.  But probably nothing beyond that.  And since no one will want to read anymore all the programming will be moving pictures, video.  And rock music and more video.  Books as we know them will be used as fuel for power plants desperately churning out juice for a zillion battery chargers.  By 2020 everyone will have reading glasses from the 18 hours a day of screen viewing.  Exterior decoration will be a thing of the past.  People will no longer care what they or their surrounding compatriots look like because no one will be inclined to look up from the screens.

Of course this is such a cynical point of view.  The other way to look at this is to understand that the ad agencies are trying to find their footing much the way photographers had to a few years ago.  I think that the economic slowdown is much to blame for a lot of what ails the advertising communities.  Surely it is always profoundly changing but the more it changes the more it stays the same.  The new concept and the new idea kicks out the old.  Only the delivery methods change.  Everything will recover in lock step with the money.  The basic currency will always be the value of the human connection and the power of the ideas.

Looked at from a third point of view the destruction of traditional paradigms of ad agency/client relationships means that the agencies are no longer such powerful gatekeepers for their clients.  Clients understand that creative ideas and productions can come from almost anywhere.  The barriers to direct client assigned work are being torn down, campaign by campaign.  If the photographers and video producers focus their pitches they can supplant much that agencies control now.

It's all mixed up and it might get worse before it gets better.  I think the conceptualization of the app as the next step is overstated and will, in fact, be no more than a small tool in a big tool kit.  I think HD TV and other re-creations of technology mean television is just coming into its golden age.  Enormous clients will still want enormous agencies to handle a cohesive look and feel  to brands.  And the photographers with vision and staying power will remain.

When the economy recovers the creative campaigns will return.  They'll be different.  The media may be different.  But we'll figure it out.  We always do.

Bottom line?  Follow the money.


Anonymous said...

I'm already seeing some of my friends becoming digitized-out and pulling back from so much online time. Right now we are in a digital or mobile renaissance, and it's all very new and interesting and exciting, but over time things will settle down. At least I hope so.

I wonder what today's ad guys think when they watch Mad Men?

Dave Jenkins said...

Most of my work is client-direct, so I don't have much of a feel for the agency scene. As you say, things will probably level out and reach a new normal when/if the economy recovers.

I hate to interpose a mundane question on your philosophical meanderings, but I've been wondering about something for quite some time. How do you protect those large prints you show your prospective clients?

kirk tuck said...

Hi Dave, I have one answer and one question for you. Answer: Mylar envelopes in 16x20 and 13 by 19 inch sizes.

Question: Can I post the link to your article in the magazine? I loved it and want to showcase it. Let me know on or offline. It's beautiful work.

John Krumm said...

There's kind of an app bubble right now. Still have an old crappy cell phone (little black clamshell) that makes me feel almost Amish these days. I was thinking it would be neat to get the new ipod touch for all the goodies without the bills, but then started thinking about my total screen time. Too much, really. So I'll resist at least until Christmas. By then the Visual Science Lab app will be out, I'm sure. : )
Good post, Kirk, enjoyed it.

kirk tuck said...

John, Since you asked about the VSL app I thought I'd make public my thoughts. I"ve sold a ton of books for Amherst but I still haven't written the book I really want to write. I want to do a small book about street shooting. How, why, what and the style of being in life and recording it. Unless I hear from another publisher (not Cengage!!) soon, I'm going to start a publishing company and do it myself with a target date of Dec. 15 as a Print on Demand book at Amazon or Lulu. I'll keep you guys posted.

Right now I'm working on a St. Emilliion Grande Cru.....

Kurt Shoens said...

It's hard to know what effect the trends you've described will have. Imagine it were going in the reverse direction, that campaigns were going broad instead of focused and that ad agencies were marking up media buys more.

It would be pretty easy to project that those trends might squeeze creative people out as well.

One of my mathematical friends gloomily told me that whatever happened, he was screwed. I told him that meant his life was ideal now. He had to laugh.

If you self-publish, I hope you'll unleash the power of all this social media to promote it like crazy.

kirk tuck said...

Kurt, If only the people who have been subscribed to the blog buy a copy it will be a real success. If they buy and extra copy for their moms. Wow!

John Krumm said...

I think you should give self-publishing a shot. Our one well known photographer in town prints all his own books, and says that he makes a lot more because of it (he sells mostly statewide and does his own marketing, I think). Of course, he's selling to tourists and locals who want nature photography books and calendars. Selling to penny-pinching photographers on the internet might be harder, I don't know. I'm surprised, though, just how fast the prints sell out when offered over at TOP.

Don said...

I think the paradigm has changed already, but lots of larger firms with traditional top-down flows don't get it yet... and that is both understandable and regrettable.

The agency model is/was based on traditional interruptive marketing... create an ad or commercial and place it in different media. Take a commission off of the placement and repeat.

Accountability was never really an issue. I remember the award winning Lexus ads that had a 6% memorability rating in viewers - that means that only 6% of the people seeing the ad knew it was for a Lexus, and fewer than that knew what a Lexus was. Diet Pepsi had a campaign that had a wiggly camera, and focused on hands or body parts while the witty "30 something" banter was overlaid. Won a ton of awards, Diet Pepsi sales fell precipitously... the ad was created for the ad folks, not the actual people.

Sad, but.. as they say, you reap what you sow...

My agency was committed to real metrics to find out what worked, what didn't and how it would benefit the client. Not to win awards.

Recently I did a campaign for a local boutique. We went from startup to top 3 in franchise for sales with an ad 'placement' budget of under $1200 a month. Competing stores in the area were spending $6500 a month on a single full page ad because it 'looked good' to have the ad. They couldn't attribute a single sale to it, but their 'agency' kept pushing them to do it. And that was only one placement...

We did it with email, twitter blasts, event hosting and other non-traditional sales tools. Cool thing was, we also used REAL photography. We had the budget to make that happen, and then we leveraged the new channels.

Traditional large agencies are too bloated with management and meetings and projections and placement and 'billable' hours. It isn't a slam on them, it is simply what they are.

Newer media groups are jumping in and filling the voids left by time... faster, more measurable, metric-centered, hands on marketing and advertising.

The paradigm has changed, but I am not sure it is altogether a bad thing... or a good thing. It is only the constant change of the entrenched and the rogues... who may one day find themselves as the entrenched.

Justin said...

Interesting perspective on the future of commerce in the visual arts. You know it strikes me that one thing we've lost in the wider commercial world in which everything is controlled by multinational standardization is, in fact, the truly truly bad. Fewer and fewer people get to have the experience of transcendently awful truckstop coffee when driving long distances because there's a Starbucks everywhere serving middling joe. Nobody takes a chance on what could turn out to be a truly terrible local Italian restaurant because there's a Macarino La Olive Garden in every shopping centre coast-to-coast warming over the exact same average tasting pasta thing.

What I wonder is, does this middle-of-the-road, everything's okay-but-the-same-everywhere-ness rob us of our taste for anything better? Do we need uneven experiences to truly appreciate the really good food, art, images, experiences we come across?

Mel said...

Hmmm. I've done the marketing client side and met some truly brilliant agency creatives. Been part of great advertising development that never made it to print/screen/radio because management feared it would confuse/disconnect consumers. Overall I fear we're in a leadership drought across the board as sellers rely on polls to confirm their messages, messages consumers already agree with. Where's the selling in that? Regardless of how you define it, isn't the purpose of art to lead/expand/alter the way we see ourselves and our world? Haven't good commercial images always led and never followed?

OK, assuming all that, we're still in the conflict of how to get leadership to use art effectively. Just because being wired means greater democratization of content doesn't mean we have to put up with crap. Where's the bleeding edge in commercial imagery? Let's put our support behind that.

Matt Perko said...

Great insights Kirk. I have to believe that things will get better for everyone. The economy is going to get better, and everything will rise. At least that is my hope. I'm basing my future on it ;)

kirk tuck said...

Could God exist without Satan? Light without dark?