The Good Stuff.


To understand where commercial advertising photography is going you also have to understand what's happening to advertising agencies and their cousins, in-house marcom teams.

Amy and Renae. 

It's entirely disingenuous to talk about commercial photography without acknowledging that a part of our momentum and trajectory as artists derives from what's currently afoot at advertising agencies and other clearinghouse constructs for our commercial (non-retail) photography. From what I can see the agencies have been locked in what is more or less a losing battle with themselves. They used to be in the business of doing research about consumers and interpreting that research, translating it into visual and verbal concepts that used creativity and a unique visual DNA to motivate audiences to buy goods and services from the agency's clients.

About twenty years ago we started to see a new trend, motivated somewhat by the dropping price of computer and software tech. Clients had the perception that about 50% of the money they spent on creative advertising campaigns actually worked while 50% was just wasted effort and resources. The number jockeys convinced the clients (and a huge portion of executives in agencies+ in-house MarCom) that they could create programs that would measure the correlations of expenditures and results and divine a new and better formula that would make ad spending more effective and better targeted. In some sense this was done so clients could figure out some way to profit from "free" advertising like social media, YouTube, Instagram, blogs, and affiliate associations.

Chasing the numbers has become the "Holy Grail" or "Magic Bullet" of the advertising industry and every big agency that deals with clients who are converts to the cult of measurement spends more and more time and resources figuring out where their advertising dollars should be spent while spending less and less time considering the (powerful and vital) content that ultimately drives consumers. They believe it is more important just to show up than to show up with something exciting and compelling for potential customers.

Ad metrics can point to where and when advertising should appear but statistically have been largely blind and deaf to what sort of creative content ultimately drives consumer behavior. We know this to be true when we listen in on endless agency debates on how to make something go viral.... ( sorry guys, it's a Zen thing. The harder you try the more elusive the target becomes....). 

 Most agencies have largely given up trying to create brilliant content. They seem to find it easier to sell things like SEO Management, Social Media Ad Targeting, and tossing money at whomever is leading a large group of people on Instagram which matches their numerical client profile.

If creative content is consistently deemed to be secondary to measurements and audience profiling (hi Facebook! We see you!) then the value of new and exciting content drops in the eyes of the clients and the people making the measurements. To admit that, almost inevitably, the ad with the best content draws the most eyes and the most buys, would be to admit that the metrics of advertising are in no way infallible and so they agencies (and the clients' own chief marketing officers) have been selling clients a bill of goods. Or, at best, a half finished product. They're building cars without decent engines. They are delivering the equivalent of cold pizza.

I watch as more and more agencies depend on threadbare stock photos because they fear having to sell their clients a better solution, albeit at a higher price. I watch more art directors pick up (as source material) the homogenous ads of everyone else in a given field and ask their creative partners (copywriters, photographers, illustrators) do do work in the same vein and with the same currently popular colors, visual stylings and verbiage. Is it any wonder that the results are uniform in most industries and that success and failures for the companies involved are less driven by their marketing than the ability of smarter executives to be more efficient and less prone to hubris and waste?

The bright spots for us as photographers are the clients who want to build unique identities or visual branding. These can be smaller, regionally based companies and a fair number of start ups. Often they'll come to us because they've seen personal work that we've shown out in the market that seems to resonate with their brands and represents a good differentiation from the routine visual work being done in their industries. A strong style, when working with these kinds of clients, is a definite plus.

Everything in the marketing business (every business?) seems to be ins service of either parabola based or cyclically based industries. In the parabola model a completely new industry is created to meet a contemporary (not pre-existing) consumer need. Over time the need peaks and then, ultimately, the product is fully replaced by a newer technology or need. See the video rental industry. See the pre-commodity market for desktop computing. See CD-roms. The velocity and size of the ascendant curve in a parabola market is just about equal to the rate and size of the eventual decline. A smart company sees the impending collapse and rushes new products and new stuff to market. Sometimes it works and sometimes you are Blackberry.

A cyclical market is a long term and sustained industry that seems to be consistently needed or wanted by consumers. Think housing inventory, cars, medical insurance, clothing, television sets, food and, to a certain extent, entertainment. The cycles result from the overshooting of production capabilities which causes a flooding of markets with an oversupply of products or services which causes profits to fall or vanish, which causes a strong pull back in the markets, which is almost always overdone, and pushes some companies to fully exit falling markets, only to over-correct into scarcity which drives the next increase in the markets. It happens cyclically in housing. It's the same in the oil and gas industry. Even the entertainment industry has cyclic corrections. The cycle were the genesis of car rebates and after holiday sales...

Parabola business models ( no one ever goes into this sort of model on purpose ) represent good clients for visual artists while the industry is ascendant because the client and artists are working together to invent a look and a point of view for something that never existed before. Because of that all the work can be fresh and innovative. It's only when the vertex of the parabola for the industry is reached that fear grips the guys in suits and a call goes out to make "safe advertising." That's when the creative teams start getting replaced by the metric minions. That's when you know you are heading for the shuttering of your VHS rental facility.

The cyclical industries tend to have longer lifespans and over the course of their tenure advertising is made more and more bland and routine. One has only to look at the average ad for a pick up truck from Ford or GM to understand how reticent these dinosaurs are to embrace a more challenging market evolution. The creative people servicing these industries at the top are doing well financially but there's no longer much creative fire to their work. They are copying what's been done before, just with better technical tools.

In our individual photography businesses we need to focus on creating messages that sell our most compelling feature set; our ability to visual differentiate the work we provide from our clients' competitor's work. It's the ability to do work that separates our clients from the crowds in their industries that make our work valuable. We need to be less like the legions of order takers and more like the creative directors. We can push stronger for a certain vision. We can show our clients (and their clients) the value of "new and different."

It's not about gear or building giant teams or finding new software actions. It is about growing a mindset that gives priority to a creative spirit. We need to re-understand that a unique vision has the power to move the needle for our clients. Our work should never be a commodity or an afterthought to an SEO calculation. It should be the reason the metrics and SEO exists in the first place.

We help clients make their best first impression. Research and numerical algorithms have their benefits but they will always be limited or enhanced by the value of the content they deliver.

Bottom line? If you do this as a business you need to find the people with the courage to make good, original and thoughtful creative work. Everything else is secondary.

Shorter version? Stop looking at what everyone else is shooting and follow your own vision.

I do see a consistent and constant erosion in the business. More and more content is being replaced by video. More campaigns are created by committees. It's a change. But it's also a cycle. The problem with this cycle is that the parameters for financial success dissipate with each turn of the cyclic screw. The remedy is to figure out what is next and to be standing in the right place at the right time.

I see photographers becoming more like ad agencies. Not that we'll be buying ad placement or calculating the CPM of our client's ad buys but we'll function more like the creative agencies of the 1960s and 1970s; focused on creative solutions in collaboration with larger partners. Tight teams with designers, photographers and videographers who combine to create a uniform creative approach that leverages the strength of a team totally focused on creative solutions without compromise.

That's the promise the creative future in a time of relentless homogenization of public visual dialog. 


  1. I follow fashion photography, to an extent.

    Fashion is one of those cyclical things and is maybe unique in its advertising approach, given that the bulk of the company's expense actually IS marcom. They are almost pure marcom shops, with a little sideline in making clothes.

    There is so much fantastic, creative, beautiful stuff constantly flowing out of these places, it's mind boggling. I mean, it's a narrow envelope. In the end, you've got a pack of skinny models with whatever Look is popular these days, looking vaguely bored, dressed in completely ridiculous clothes. But within that envelope, there's huge bursts of creative energy.

    I live to imagine what the Forum Heros would say about a lot of these thing. "Why, that one's completely out of focus!" and "underexposed!" and "overexposed" and and and. But some of the players are creating these wildly distinctive looks. You can recognize a D&G ad *from* *space* practically.

  2. Contrast the advertising campaigns for Geico - entertaining with a strong brand identity - with pretty much every other insurance company in the country. That’s the kind of creativity that everyone should strive for. In contrast, every single automobile ad could work for any other brand. There is no uniqueness, no brand identity.

  3. When I was a product manager I spent about half my time in the field with salesmen, saleswomen and customers. Saleswomen and salesmen spent most of their time with customers and about 20% (the successful ones) provided useful and thoughtful feedback. Almost all customers were thoughtful and gave (for free) important and actionable feedback about our products and marcom.

    That is all the input we needed and we were successful.

    I understand why a soap company or food company or car company wants to do surveys and track market share vs the competition to a fraction of a point -- its their job. It's how they get paid. But it's not how the company advances. "Ooh! Our customers don't like the color purple on our packaging. We lost a quarter point. Order new boxes!"

    I recently completed an on-line survey about a new car I'd owned for three months. It included a page where I was to rank 15 (!) different features of the car from most liked to least liked. There were two items on there I didn't even know were on the car but I ranked them anyway.

    Every time I dragged a senior manager to a customer site so they could talk to an actual customer and see how our products were used they came back surprised and amazed. We really knew what we were doing because we knew what our customers were doing.

    As much as I enjoyed time with customers, time doing photo shoots was maybe better. Get the shots we need and get them fast. Then we can fool around for a few hours getting creative. Doing the hard stuff. Taking a few risks. It always paid off. And it was fun.

    Marketing was fun.

  4. Love your portraits.

    (Is this an inane comment?)

  5. Kirk, you are on a roll! Two substantial pieces today. Obviously the hiatus has done you good. (But don't take one too often.)

  6. Wow, another post that pokes deep into the heart of the matter, in this case that being the effect of the Data Age on creatives. When you're driving business by the numbers you tend to get pulled towards normalization. You expect the results of marketing, social media efforts, product launches, or any other business activity to clump towards the same range as your competitors. Management style, technology investments, marketing approaches all become homogenized, as you point out. VC and publicly traded firms are trying too hard, as it were, to match established performance curves. This often results in a race to the bottom, or at best just collectively buzzing around the middle of some curve.

    The bright light on the horizon is that there is a new generation of future creatives, business leaders, political leaders, and innovators that are going to blow past the numbers. The generation of my two youngest, who are 11 and 15, are looking at the world through very different optics than the generation in charge right now. We're less than a decade away from complete disruption as a generation who leverage technology more as an instinct than conscious thought see past the illusion of big data and steer us back towards a more human existence (ironic for a generation raised on texting and social media, no?).


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