Selena. Singer with "Rosie and the Ramblers."
It's interesting and bit depressing to understand how the role of photography has changed in the realm of advertising. I know many of my readers are hobbyists and don't really care how some art director in San Diego or Miami intends to use images in the course of her work but there is a shift in the basic understanding of how photography works in advertising that affects its role and value to each of us across our cultural map.
In the days of limited and expensive distribution which defined print advertising it was impossible to cost effectively provide consumers (and specific target audiences) with new visual content that changed daily. The mandate then was to create advertising that had a temporal stickiness to it so that the visual impression an ad created would have enough impact to provide results over the span of weeks or months. The strength of an ad's impression was also a determined by how many times people passed along a magazine, newspaper, brochure or direct mail piece to another audience member.
Since advertising agencies and their clients had limited and expensive vehicles for their advertising it was important to the process to develop a truly creative message for delivery. This meant that quality time was spent conceiving and testing their "one way" communication with a target market. Since photography and illustration were the primary sources of stickiness a lot of time (and money) were invested in getting just the right image to carry the message and branding for the client.
In a time when national advertising placement in magazines could cost as much as $100,000 per insertion, per magazine; and when multiple magazines and newspapers needed to be used to effectively hit a complete target market, the costs of media always exceeded, by an enormous multiple, the cost of image production. But because each volley of ads was (relatively) so expensive and needed to have a long shelf life no expenses were spared in really fine-tuning the photography or illustrations used to market client's goods and services. Even for a simple, industrial shot in the studio we might have a day of pre-production meetings, several days to acquire or build props, followed by a full day of photographing in order to squeeze out the absolute best image possible. The image was the lever that made the expense of advertising work.
After our jobs as photographers were done the final images were sent out by the advertising agency for color separations which were then delivered to the magazine or printer. Good color separations were always a blend of art and science and, with retouching, could cost thousands of dollars. The negatives sent to each individual magazine could cost hundreds of dollars per set. No wonder art directors paid so much attention to detail and to a workflow that gave ample time for fine-tuning and quality control at every step.
And, I am sure that a digital variation of this exists at the high end of national advertising even today. But I'm equally sure that the dollars spent on traditional placed media are a tiny fraction of the share they used to command in the overall pie of advertising expenditures. Access to the web changed everything. Advertisers have trained consumers to expect daily (and sometimes hourly) engagement; complete with spontaneous feedback loops. Now that "placement" on the web is just about free there is far less concern with getting individual messaging absolutely correct and able to withstand a long run cycle. It's been replaced with the need for constant content constantly supplied to an ever hungry audience. Trading a quantity experience for a quality art product.
If advertisers needed to make each image as creative and well produced as they did back in the time when print was dominant the cost of production, because of the demand for quantity and diversity of images, would be insurmountable and not sustainable. Now the image is secondary to just "having the door open" and rotating new visual inventory to the daily audiences on the web. The need for quantity is also driven by the granualization of the overall media landscape; even on the web.
We are rarely called upon now to make one glorious and remarkable image for clients these days. Instead, we are called upon to work quickly, with minimal pre-production, and to make a wide range of images (an image library) over the course of one engagement such that we can provide an inventory of diverse images which can be pushed into the ever hungry delivery channels as quickly as "content providers" can package an image with a terse little marketing story, whipped out at speed by an "associate" copy writer or a copy-writing app.
Often, when I show current work to old school photographers they (rightfully?) grouse about little details that would not have passed through the previous workflow process without correction or retouching. A wisp of hair out of place, a wrinkle in a shirt, a hanging thread at a seam, a less than perfect composite, a slight color shift, all things which would be critically deficient for an image destined to lead a month long or quarter long campaign, lingering like fine perfume on the market. But none of those things are now deal breakers (or even speed bumps) in the current hourly manufacture and upload of content for the web.
We now have clients who bring iPhones to the shoots with the stated intention of shooting everything we do during a shoot and sending the BHS images off to a remote designer who packages them and inserts them at Medium.com, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, often creating a buzz campaign before we've even taken a break for lunch. This is not surreptitious behind-the-scenes behavior; it is mapped out as part of the shoot experience at the stage of preliminary negotiations.
A recent shoot for a theater featured me shooting marketing stills, a video production company shooting a BHS video for immediate upload, and a photographer from the daily newspaper shooting the same BHS images and uploading them in bursts to his editor. The press photographer's images didn't hit print, they were delivered directly to the daily news feed on the newspapers website. And, of course, as soon as I got back to the office and started post production on the primary marketing images I was busy selecting my favorites and uploading them to this blog and to Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn so I could grab a tiny bit of attention while the stuff was still fresh......
When each image has a lighter load to carry, and each image is desperately disposable, then each image is far less valuable. They become less like distinct art objects and more like the nightly local TV news. Bland stories, competently (barely) told, there to act that the mortar between bricks of advertising, and gone stale five minutes after the sign-off. Whether you admit it or not this downward appraisal of the value of individual images permeates through the collective psyche of our social structuring/ our culture. The endless flow diminishes the value and the attention paid to each individual pin prick of photographic presentation.
The most interesting aspect for some of us is the way a diminished level of production value is rationalized; the way the shortcoming are re-packaged to become features. Any flaws (either in conception or image making ) are supposed to have been done intentionally in the pursuit of "authenticity." The idea being that flawed or poorly constructed images or messages will be more positively received by their intended audiences precisely because they "appear" to be a more honest message capsule. Less a corporate message and more just a slice of life.
Am I depressed or "bitter" about all this? Not really. I presume that the overall market will rush to the bottom and soon nearly all web-ad images will be made quickly, mostly on the way to lunch (which will be recorded), by whatever phone is handy, and will become so bland and undifferentiated that data analysis will come to determine that all the energy wasted in loading up the web is ultimately inconsequential to sales which will bring a new generation of ad pros around 180 degrees, hellbent on creating a brilliant, standalone message that will be printed beautifully on thick and expensive card stock and then hand delivered to intended recipients, with a flourish. All of a sudden the mantra will be: They were so innovative. They were the first agency to reject the homogeneity of the web and embrace a whole new category: We're calling it "High Touch" marketing. Carefully crafted messages, exactly delivered.
The new marketing will be touted as a break through, hybrid approach that combines state-of-the-art data-mining of demographics and combines it with quality messaging that is unique in both creative power and delivery.
This may be critical marketing theory once we come to grips with the fact that the demographic over 50 years old controls over 75% of all wealth in the USA. And they may remember a time when advertising was delivered to them instead of just pushed off onto a screen. And they will probably remember that they liked feeling as though they were getting quality message, aimed directly at them, in a medium they enjoyed engaging with. Not all products and services will be able to slice down into the most cost effective slivers of the markets so there will always be mass market advertising that depends on the cheapness of the web.
It will all be moot when video routs the final still imaging holdouts. The only thing that was holding video back was bandwidth and most of the fertile consumer markets have long since jumped that hurdle. Are we "looking forward" to a time when advertising just stream content 24/7? I'm not so sure but I may be outside that demo as well....
What does all this have to do with the image at the top of the article? Not much, except that I still like to see beautiful images that stand on their own. We may be the last few generations of people who share that regard. It makes me sad when photo reviewers like Thom Hogan write that the biggest impediment to success for companies like Nikon is not having software on the cameras that will easily and automatically send images immediately to the web. Why? So those images can join the millions of others queued up in the firehose? Seems like two concepts battling each other; the idea of a necessary and immediate flow of poorly considered images, flooding to the internet, versus brilliant concepts, careful planning and a process that would result on in glorious and stunning images that stand the test of time.
Sad, if you believe that we can't have both. We can. Just not in the same wrappers....