The Wild West (and East, North, and South): Photographers and Advertising.

factory_kitchen_201408-23Photo by Barry Schwartz

In the popular imagination, advertising work comes to photographers from a single source: the advertising agency. It is never really that simple. Assignments may emanate from communications departments in companies, from outside agencies, or, really, from anywhere.

The emergence of digital tools and media, simultaneous with economic changes, has democratized and decentralized the world of marketing. What an agency is called – advertising, branding, graphics, public relations, digital – matters less and less because the demarkation between specialties has blurred to the point of disappearing. Wherever an assignment comes from, the purpose is the same: to contribute to the marketing materials of clients.

Post-WWII, photographers defined their monetary relationships with customers by licensing their work, and it is a pretty straightforward way of doing business: images are used in specified ways for specified periods. Period.

No more. Photos can be used in so many different kinds of media that agencies – and their clients – don’t always know in advance how images will be used or even how many they will need. To be sure, pictures are still licensed for specific uses and limited time-frames, but that model is under stress. Agencies and their clients have to respond to changes in how their audience receives information, and photographers, being part of the marketing team, have to do the same.

There are endless variations on this theme; advertising can be made to resemble editorial work, called “advertorials”, or a more recent variation, “branded content”. The conceit is that an ad appears to be something it is not.

It sounds confusing because it is meant to be confusing; designed so the viewer will not easily be able to tell the difference.

For the photographer asked to bid on such work, the creative standards are not actually different than advertising, but the agency may want to contain costs by suggesting to a photographer the end product is similar to editorial, knowing that photographers charge higher rates to produce advertising imagery. Figuring out how to get advertising content in front of potential customers these days is like trying to get people to focus on a cloud in a hurricane, so it seems like the Wild West, but lots of things have not really changed since the days of pure print advertising. Photographers are still brought in to be part of the marketing team and expected to bring something of themselves – their particular voice and vision – to the final product.

True editorial work (the basis in style for advertorials and branded content) has always contained the following trade-off: less money in exchange for creative freedom. Photographers’ “pure” form of expression is eagerly sought by advertising buyers, who scan publications looking for exactly the kind of work that an advertising agency may be loathe to generate on its own because it is so expensive to produce. From the viewpoint of the advertiser, editorial photography is a demonstration – on someone else’s dime – of what a photographer can produce. That makes terrific economic sense.

Many commercial photographers don’t actually shoot much editorial work; however they are expected to prove they can produce “pure” forms of expression. Those images often take the form of personal work, or fine art, which can actually be very expensive to produce. For the photographer, the hope is that the ROI (return-on-investment), similar to producing editorial work, results in a well-paid commercial assignment. In other words, buyers of photography are intensely interested in seeing photography that goes beyond normal assignment work. The fact that a successful advertising campaign might result in fairly mundane imagery is beside the point.

Jack Warner, one of the founders of the Warner Bros. Studios, once called screenwriters “schmucks with typewriters”. Despite such evidence of disdain, even he recognized that without his writers’ ability to produce content reliably, on time, and on command, he had nothing to work with and therefore no movies to make.

Fortunately, such disdain is not a primary characteristic of most photo buyers. One of the attributes professional photographers (indeed, all professional creatives – including writers) bring to their relationships with customers is the ability to produce highly specific and imaginative work reliably, on time, and on command; just with a different set of tools.  It doesn’t matter what it looks like: editorial, advertising, or fine art.  Work is work.