High Value Content. The Returning Market. All Change is Ephemeral.

I think I'll start with a single declaration that may or may not be true and will, no doubt, drive many people a bit nuts.  The advertising model we grew up with as photographers is dead.  Officially dead.  There will still be a residual blurble of work being created in the old paradigm but the change is pretty much complete.  Here's how it used to work:

A client would need to move more product, get more market share or make a bigger profit.  He would go to an ad agency and they would advise the client to advertise to certain demographics and to use certain media to effectively reach the market.  In the early days the medium that was most cost effective was print.   There were lots of magazines,  everyone read the newspapers in their towns and the cost to mail promotions was reasonable.  Sure, ad agencies also spread around the marketing dollars to TV and radio but for most businesses print was king.

Once the agency and the client agreed on a creative approach they hired an illustrator or photographer to create the visual messaging that would drive the campaign.  A large part of the effectiveness and value of the print ad campaign was and is based on the allure and impact of the image.  Photographers charged fees that took this value into consideration.

Eventually, television took a bigger bite of the budget and there were the typical economic ups and downs that effected the photographic industry but the basic paradigm remained unaffected.  Right up until about 2001.

At that point "Social Networks" emerged,  the economy collapsed in the face of the "9/11" attacks,  and the entire business and industrial marketplace paused to reflect.  At that point a group within advertising who were convinced that all advertising would move to the web and to screens made their move.  Over the last eight years they crowed louder and made more glitter and flash about their "grand ideas" than adherents of other media did.  The old guard was caught flatfooted. They'd never had to make a pro-active defense of their media's basic value proposition.  The momentum built against them and even non-players took up the cry that "Magazines are dead."  "Newspapers are dead."  "Print is dead."

And businesses, who are no smarter than any other entity, took these "new prophets" at face value and shifted more and more of their marketing budgets into "Social Marketing" and "Web Based" marketing.  The promise was quick access to a world market at fractional costs.  Businesses had already beaten a lot of the profit out of traditional media buys from ad agencies.  The days of 15% commissions for media placements are nothing but a whimsical memory of an era that ended in the late 1980's.  Now everything is fee based.  And a fee base is an arduous thing to scale.....

Internal Marcom departments saw the move to the web as a way to gain more control within their own companies.  In no time newly appointed CMO's (chief marketing officers) were driving new and unproven initiatives in every part of the their host's businesses.  Catalogues went from paper to the web.  Direct mail became e-mail blasts.  Ad campaigns became microsites and viral Youtube videos.  Annual Reports became blogs.  And downloadable PDF's.  And at every turn the pronouncements were:

1.  It's only for the web so we no longer need to pay more for "production value."  It's only for the web so we shouldn't have to pay more traditional usage fees.  It's only for the web, it doesn't have to have depth, only splash.

2.  If we remove production value, depth and usage we don't really need all the services of an agency.  Nor do we need traditionally expensive custom images.  We can almost always use stock.

3.  We can crowdsource this.  That way we can get what we want pretty much for free and even if it's not the same quality we used to get we don't need to care because it's just going to be on the screen and no one will really look at it that hard.

4.  While we are losing our brand's individuality we'll make it up in the volume of new "eyeballs" that we'll get.  Hey look, over 2 billion people are on the web and if they're not on the web we don't want them.

But what if the whole shift of the market is all based on something that's not really true?  Or, not really true at this time?

And here's what companies across America are starting to realize, almost in lock step with the nascent economic recovery,....they've been sold a program that was unproven, doesn't bring in sales results, is destroying market share and it largely uncontrollable.

An article in Ad Age Magazine (online) http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/pepsi-burger-king-news-signal-end-social-media/149523 basically echoes what I'm saying.  That a wonderfully popular and viral campaign in social media for Burger King coincided with SIX QUARTERS OF DECLINING SALES!!!!  In another  article in the same magazine an industry expert makes the case that corporations with more diverse media campaigns all did better in the last year than their rivals who invested more in online marketing to the detriment of conventional media.

What brands need in order to survive is not to build a more intimate conversation with consumers but to build a call to action that moves consumers to go into stores and buy.

So, ad agencies, driven by a need for more fee income, drove their clients with vigor into investing more and more treasure into social media, social networking, viral online videos, on line campaigns and large, complex and passive web promotions.  And in  the process their trained their clients to disparage the products and services the agencies had become experts in for many decades.  Experts in products that actually caused the sales of real products.  And each of the recklessly abandoned media were and are proven performers.

Agencies, losing the income from print production and placement rolled over on the writers, producers and photographers and rolling-pinned the profits right out of them.  And as a result the print campaigns that they grudgingly produced were less effective than they could have been had the corners not been cut, had the value to stick eyeballs to pages had been present.  In short, if they had provided High Value Content the metrics would have proven the mix.

Instead what we got was a trickle down creative coma.  Everyone from the CEO's to the coders was petrified to do anything new and different.  Everything hinges now on how many click throughs you can get on whatever we promotion you have in front of consumers.

Here's a nasty little truth.  We think a new generation of ultra millionaires is sitting out their right now gaming on the web and cruising the websites and generally participating in the "ether markets"  but the real truth is that the largest concentration of sheer wealth in this country right now resides in the pocket books of people over 40.  And a large part of it resides in the hands of people over 50.  And the majority of these people (65% of the real money in the system, and liquid to boot) still acquire their buying information and impetus from a mix of media that includes traditional and web based.

We think that Amazon.com rules commerces because we as photographers and consumers of trendy digital stuff frequent the web looking for reviews and opinions about products and that's where we buy stuff.  But Walmart sells in about a day what Amazon sells in a year.  And that includes digital cameras.  Target sells more in a day in their stores than they do on their website in almost a year.  And so it goes.

I'm not postulating that the web is totally ineffective and I certainly don't deny that it's a growing window into the buying motivations of consumers but right now, to a large extent, big companies are getting exactly what they paid for out of web marketing, not much.

And so this leads me to declare traditional commercial photography to be dead.  Does that mean it's gone and we should hang up our Sekonic meters and take up the happy hobbies of coding endless lines of code drivel to make the next "My Pretty Pony" app?  Or brain surgery?  Or retail coffee preparation?

Not at all.  But we need to understand that everything changed when the marketing trendsetters flipped the switch and asked people to believe in the web instead of in print.  Because even though they envisioned a landscape where they could transfer the old ads onto a cheaper and unlimited media they never really understood that it was just a matter of time before video became first possible and then impossible to do without.   And they initially envisioned content on the web to be 480 by 640 at high compressions and didn't visualize a time when everyone would have a 30 inch monitor on their desk and the ability to stream 1080i video at the click of a mouse.  No, at the sweep of a finger.

Now we come full circle.  In a matter of months production quality will be back in vogue.  Because consumers will demand it.  Think about it.  If your target market sits in front of 50 inch flat screens, digesting full HD programming with incredible production values, remarkably good sound and content they are willing to pay for will they be happy to sit at their kitchen tables looking at 1000 pixel wide, binary animation banner ads and static pages?  Gosh-arooni.  Probably not.

And while it's easy and cheap to throw cheesy videos onto YouTube and every high schooler can animate his own banner ads it's not so easy to provide really High Value Content.  The agencies will need to go to the people who have an institutional memory of what High Value Content looks like and they'll find the suppliers who can give it to them.  And when it requires incredibly complex editing the dollars allocated to the projects will go back up.  And when it requires $2,000 microphones on quiet sets the dollars allocated to the projects will go back up.  And when it requires ideas that fit the media and really hit with specific target markets the budgets will really go back up.  In short, when advertising makes the current leap from blah internet with tiny videos, bad sound and dead type to highly kinetic, brilliantly created and compelling content that delivers, all the creative markets will be re-energized.

But what does that mean for photographers? We need to be pro-active.  If we are truly "of" the medium we need to create the ideas that best leverage the power of the medium.  We need to step up our games and become more involved in every step of the process.  Because "desk coders" can't do this.  The agencies are killing off their inspired and inspirational creative people and replacing them with drones who code.  Drones who follow the pack.  Drones who fill orders.  They are the factory workers of the creative industry.  When it became more important for a creative to check of the blanks:  Adobe Premier? Check.  DreamWeaver? Check.  SQL? Check.  AfterEffects?  Check.  They lost the people who read novels, looked at paintings, went to challenging movies, enjoyed something other than pizza, and generally translated culture into  advertising.  Now there's a growing void, driven by the market.  Created by misguided budget allocations and misperceptions about media and reach.  And we have become the visual translators.  We are the creative conduit from reality to the media.  We are the ones who drive trends how and agencies look thru flickr and endless photographer's websites in order to discover the "new look" the "new sensibility" and their path to the next ad.

Agencies must re-invent themselves by bringing back what they really had to sell: Creativity.  And that means creating a different look for their clients, not copying a prevailing idiom or trend.  It means re-growing the balls to say "no." Or to say, "this is challenging and it will work."  And having the ovaries not to just roll over and let clients pick one from column "A" and one from column "B".

And until they do that it's an open invitation to ignore them in the creative process.  To throw down their self appointed "gate keeper to the clients" status that they had earned in decades past and squandered in this decade's love affair with "free marketing on the web."

Now, when I approach a client I'm not just selling photograph.  If they just want that I'm happy to comply.  But I want to know who's writing their creative,  who's doing their television, who's overseeing their brand, who's their designer.  And I want to have as much control as I can get.  Because it makes business easier for me.  And it makes it more efficient for the clients.

You might not be a writer but you can team up with one.  You may not be totally conversant with video yet but you can find collaborators to fill in your blanks.  You can find an editor to make your camera work sing and a sound guy to make your audio beautiful.  Everyone should know and cherish a graphic designer because, done right, their work is present in everything you do for a client.  You build a team of collaborators and the next thing you know you're going toe to toe for the good stuff.

But this means we need to stop being passive.  Stop just sending a mailer out to the art buyers and AD's and CD's and start looking for the end clients who might adore your creative vision and your organizational vision.  Your holistic ability to translate marketing messages into visual poetry.

Because, if you haven't figured it out yet, everything changed.  And it won't come back together again in the same way.  The money will come back.  And the need for clients to move products and services will come back.  Hell, a taste for beautiful prints might even come back.  But it won't be as part of the old paradigm of waiting for a rep or an art buyer.  It's time to saddle up and be part of the new process.  And that means taking ownership of your direct relationship with clients.  You need to introduce them to your creative stuff.  You need to own the HIGH VALUE CONTENT and share it with them.  For a price.

The old web is dead.  Be the first wave of the new, high production value web, translate it all to print and even television and you win.  Sit back and wait for the that ad agency mailer to bring in results and pretty soon you'll be destined to hear,  "can I have that to go?"

And remember:  Good print.  It's the new differentiator.  Everything comes around  the circle.


Glenn Harris said...

Great post Kirk. Glad to hear this new version of the old "King isn't wearing any clothes" tale finally called out for what it is. Social networking on the internet is not the only thing, but just a new part of a different way of reaching people. Popular opinion can be powerful but it isn't always correct. Unfortunately it has taken some time, and talented people losing their jobs, for corporations to realize the web is not the only way forward and quality is still valued, and has a value. Now I can get back to reverse engineering the lighting in a full page ad in a magazine I am reading.

Dave Jenkins said...

I think your advice is, as usual, right on target. However, to be perfectly honest, I'm not going to follow it.
Remember commercial slide shows and
filmstrips? Slide-based audiovisual production
provided about 75 percent of my income
for nearly 20 years, writing, photographing, and producing training and PR filmstrips and two-or-three-projector-
with-dissolve slide shows. That all died rather quickly around 1990, and video seemed to be a natural progression for me. I did it for two or three years, and frankly, I hated it. I love still photography, and if I have to do video to survive I'll go ahead and retire.
I realize that is not an option for many of your readers, so I would advise them to follow your advice or to find some niche market that works for them.
Personally, I will continue to market business headshots and architectural photography directly to clients. I've never worked much with agencies anyway, so not much to lose there.

Here's a link to an article about the business of photography that I wrote for Rangefinder Magazine two years ago. Much of it will overlap with what you've written. http://tinyurl.com/ollews

Ken Norton - Image 66 Media said...

Kirk, I think it was 1998 when multimedia development dried up almost overnight and that migrated over to web development. It could be said that multimedia started the trend away from print, but I don't think so since it was such a parallel marketing method addressing the needs of the direct sales efforts. The web development took everything away from direct and broad market advertising methods. It may be possible to blame the dot com bubble burst on this marketing shift.

That portrait is among the most beautiful I've ever seen! Simply perfect.

Ringo said...

I haven't read the text yet, but this picture is marvelous!

Anonymous said...

Didn't anyone every tell you no one reads stuff anymore? That's like.....more than 500 words. Who will ever be able to finish it? I guess those top ten recommendations for bloggers are also full of poop because I love reading long, smart stuff....

kirk tuck said...

Having a blog is so much fun. I got to write this will I was waiting to get my car repaired. I try not to understand much about my car. When I'm ignorant I don't know about all the stuff I should be worrying about but it needed "compliance bushings" which sounded very kinky to me so I couldn't resist taking it in.....

Love my Honda dealer. They have fresh kolaches and coffee. Considering how much things cost to repair I should stop by more often just for a quick breakfast.....

Ron said...


Spot on.

This topic reminds me of internet dating - it's just another way to draw attention to someone/something. But once you sit down across from someone at the coffee shop, there needs to be some compelling reasons to stick around, even for a couple minutes, let alone a lifetime.

I think the "convenience mentality" makes it tempting to want to believe that social networking was going to replace the entire process - "faster, better, cheaper." And the ramped up pace of life creates a false urgency that rewards rapid movement.

Gandhi said "there is more to life than just making it faster." There is something to be said for just slowing down a bit.

MGO said...

I just turned 32. I am suppose to be from the new pack. But i like words. Even if there is a lot of them and there are no pictures:)

Anonymous said...

interesting perspective and just about my favorite of the pictures you've started your blog posts off with lately. by the way, if you added up all the time you spend ranting and complaining about The Industry and other photographers, and instead spent that time working on the mastery of the art of photography I'd be curious to see how that affected your pictures.

Frank Grygier said...

Without the web I would not have been able to enjoy the portrait. Wonderful!

kirk tuck said...

Frank. Thanks. The web is not evil. It's very, very useful. I love the web. It's just not the final, critical piece for all marketing and advertising....

Anonymous, you'd be shocked at how fast I write, how little time I spend (relatively speaking) "ranting" about The Industry and how much more time I spend writing books, shooting portraits and swimming.

Frank Grygier said...

Kirk, I agree. I use tools like Power Point and web based meeting software everyday to reach many more customers then I ever could making calls. I miss the eye to eye contact though. It is tough reading people when you can't see their faces. The web takes the life out of what I do and returns more for my effort. I guess there is some Yin and Yang there somewhere.

Arch Noble said...

Very thoughtful piece. Deciphering important trends is a very difficult thing to do, and you've captured a lot of issues I want to think about. But you didn't tell us anything about the picture that go out attention in the first place.

Dave Jenkins said...

Kirk, don't defend yourself against Mr. (or Ms) Anonymous' very obvious troll. Instead, let's invite him/her to show us some pictures so we can assess his/her mastery of the art of photography.

MGO said...

Ranting proberbly affects photos and swimming in a posetive way and the other way around. why should you limit your self doing the same thing every day all day. For me that is what the "ranting" is all about. keeping diverse:) Its ok only to look at the pictures. Some days they interrest me more than the content, but then i try not to comment on the content:)

Mary Dean said...

Kirk, it's been a tough time to be a "creative" and I hope that your predictions are spot on. As usual I love your "rant" because I don't see it as a rant at all. Here's to a new era when concept AND production value make advertising an art again. Gosh-arooni, wouldn't that be great?

kirk tuck said...

Wow. A comment from a famous creative director. Mary is the owner of KickSkirt Advertising, one of the preeminent shops specializing in connecting with female consumers. She's spoken about advertising across the U.S. and Europe to advertising executives and trade groups. To say she is "award winning" would be to diminish what she's accomplished.....

Patrick Dodds said...

I like the post but I love the (timeless) photo. Thanks for both.

kirk tuck said...

I never dated the model. She was a friend and a family friend. Still is many years later. We talked about "ideals fo beauty" and we laughed and played photographer and model. But what we wanted most was to make beautiful portraits....