Sunday, February 1, 2009

I don't think I've pissed anybody off lately, so here goes.

Of course, I hope I don't. Because I'm friends with a lot of photographers. And I know the difference good photography or illustration can make to a concept. So, no offense intended.

Let's start with a story.

We recently completed a photo shoot for a client who, at the shoot, asked the photographer if the two-year rights clause meant he'd have to take the image off his truck in two years. The answer was that to keep it there, he'd have to pay an additional usage fee. How much? he asked. I'll have to think about it, was the answer.

The photography in question is simply wonderful. I can't wait to see it in print. What the client paid was, I think, a fair price. That's not the issue. It wasn't easy for me to convince my client to use original photography that was going to cost as much as this did, and my client trusted my judgment when I told him that I wanted to use this particular photographer for all sorts of good reasons. Him feeling like he was going to have to whip out his checkbook again in two years -- that was the issue. But that was the deal going in, and everybody knew it. That didn't keep me from wincing a bit.

Still, I wonder if it isn't time for photographers to think about embracing the reality of what a lot of their agency clients have to deal with today. Look, I know how this works. I totally understand the concept of purchased usage rights. But I'm not saying that I think it's a good system or that I even understand why it is what is. Only that I know how it works.

We're living in a time when some clients are wondering if the need an agency -- or photographers -- at all. Sometimes we have to work pretty hard and change the way we think to stay relevant. Almost everybody knows a "graphic designer" of some stripe, and many are hiring some pup right out of art school to work in-house. Google "create your own ads," and you will get 82,000 results.

There is a perception in some quarters that all you need to do is buy the equipment and the software and you're good to go. Some clients are making themselves comfortable with what they can do themselves -- and here's where they are starting: most of them know you can get royalty free photography pretty cheap.

And in this environment (especially when money is tight) it's getting harder and harder for an agency to be the middle man and convince a client that he or she needs to invest in original photography or illustration. That difficulty is multiplied by a factor of Ooopty-X when they discover that even though they pay a premium for original photography, they usually have only limited usage rights.

I think investing in original photography is usually a damn good investment. And I'm not one to deny anybody the chance to make as much money off their talent as is fair, reasonable and possible -- assuming the three things don't cancel one another out. But I, for one, have never understood why a photographer wants to be paid more money if the image they provide is used in more than one market or a wider circulation or however you want to define it.

Seriously, an image in an ad in a magazine with X circulation costs Y amount. The same image in a magazine with X-times-3 circulation or in magazines in several cities costs more. Even though the photographer didn't have to do anything extra.

I'm not sure how the value of the photography is increased beyond the value of any other part of the process by virtue of wider exposure. And, of course, the agency that, um, thought up the concept, convinced the client to use original photography, sold the client on a specific photographer, art-directed the shoot, and was involved in model, wardrobe, prop and site selection doesn't get any more money.

Most photographers have reps. And it's the rep's job to sell the agency or direct client on the abilities of their shooter. But it usually falls to the agency to sell the client on using original photography at all. It's up to the agency to convince them that it's worth the extra cash. And we usually don't get a hell of a lot of help from the photographers or their reps with this part of it.

Sometimes it's hard to explain to a client that well, yes, you're paying $10,000 for photography and yeah, we shot 200 images, but you can only use two of them and you can only use them in a certain number of places for a certain period of time unless you want to pay more.

No wonder so many of them take the "Screw this, I'll settle for less. Go find some royalty free something that will work" approach. So maybe the big advertisers with the big agencies don't play that. But I don't have many money-doesn't-matter clients, and reality is that few agencies do.

And before anybody sits down to pound out an "agencies should sell their work as usage rights too, you buffoon" comment, let me say I'm not in favor of that either. I know some agencies have tried, and a few years ago, there was a group around D.C. called Admine that tried to broker the resale and licensing of work. It flopped. It doesn't work.

Here's a news flash: Most clients aren't happy about the concept of limited rights. They're going to like it even less coming from their agencies. At which point we'll become ex-agencies.

What I do believe is that it is possible for a client to afford the kind of work he or she needs while all the various providers involved earn fair and reasonable profits. Without having to resort to royalty free.

The advertising world has changed. Conventions like agency compensation based on media commissions and markups are going away or are already gone. Fee- or results-based compensation are not uncommon. Hell, even the idea of sending a hi-res PDF to a printer or publication instead of film or boards was foreign not that long ago. And the technology bar has been raised for everybody.

I think it's time for photographers to change too. And make it easier for us agencies to sell our clients on using your work.

Again, just so there is no confusion here, I am not saying that photographers don't usually add a lot to any project. They do. But the way they charge for their contribution is often counterproductive, dated and hard on the agency that has to be the sell it to the client -- the agency without whose ideas, said photographer wouldn't have anything to shoot.

The truth is, most clients really do see the creative benefit of original photography most of the time. It's the cost-benefit that gets a little fuzzy for them.

Feel free to forward this post to anybody you want. But you'll have to send me a dollar every time you do.

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