Interview with a *Big Shot* Art Buyer

I like to think the discussions we have here about photography and the advice that’s dispensed is fairly universal but I know many of you are thinking “this doesn’t really apply in the advertising market and that’s where I really need to be, because this editorial shit is for the birds.”

Since I’ve never worked on the advertising side of this industry I called up a friend and offered her anonymity if she would speak honestly with me about that side of the business. You’ll have to trust me that this is a good source and I’ll go so far as to say, if you can imagine the biggest advertising agency in the country and the biggest “named” photographers then that’s where she’s worked and who she’s worked with.

[Side note on anonymity: Most corporate employees have to sign an employee handbook when they get hired that forbids giving away company secrets and in general publishing anything that has to do with the company online. They can use any evidence they find that you've done something like this to void contracts and avoid paying severance if you're ever fired.]

I’m always telling photographers not to worry about the design of the promo, portfolio and website and just make it about the photographs because in the end it’s never going to have an effect on you getting hired to shoot a job. I think many of them take it with a grain of salt because they believe that this kind of stuff really helps landing the advertising jobs. Since I’ve never worked in advertising I have no idea if it does or doesn’t but now you can tell us.

Their photos are what’s most important, and then the “presentation” of their photographs. I can expand here, like I like to see one photo per page if it’s their “print” book (i.e, real prints). Otherwise, seeing an editorial spread is acceptable as long as they like the design. If they don’t, then they should just put a print in the book. Their website MUST be designed well, and this is very important for several reasons. One being, it represents their taste level, two, I want to see large images…not a lot of anything else, and three, the site has to be built well to move quickly around it… all very important. It’s how we source and present photographers to creatives (art directors, stylists, clients, etc.) It’s just like anything else these days, how often do you find yourself on line for anything? So, in my opinion, very important.

I think you’re saying with regards to websites, functionality is most important and design should be of a certain taste level.

Yes, that’s what I’m saying…functionality, designed tastefully, Mainly all about the photos.

With printed portfolios do you care if the case is unique or is the plain black fine? I have to ask because photographers always seem to want the physical portfolio to be unique. I don’t know why.

Love Black books…sometimes it’s appropriate to be different, rustic leather Brown if the photographer is let’s say someone like a Kurt Markus, or if it’s a quirky book, maybe white gloss bound leather, you know? But nothing more than that…it’s annoying when the cases are an ugly color. If it’s a good book and I want to work with the photographer, I’ll know where the book is….

How often do you use magazines to source talent? Does the “old saw” about photographers using cheap-ass editorial to promote themselves and land high paying advertising jobs to make a living fall flat these days?

It’s imperative for photographers to always shoot editorially. This is self promotion, because it’s more spontaneous and they can create images without all of the layers in the ad world. There’s less collaboration and more creativeness from the photographer. It’s a fine line…if a photographer only shoots advertising, then they become too commercial…if they continually shoot editorial and ad jobs, it’s a perfect balance. Magazines are where everyone (in editorial and advertising) sources photography. It’s the imagery that’s most current and creative.

Do you prefer working with photographers who have an agent? There must be more benefits to going with an agency in advertising then editorial where I think it matters less.

I probably prefer working with an agent because the agent is not as close to the image making process so it can be less offensive discussing fees with an agent then with the photographer. As far as the difference between editorial and advertising, there should be none, except we all know that ad jobs pay more, so the agents will get involved more, because there’s money to be made.

What’s the promo volume like at the agency? It must be twice that of editorial. 100’s a week?

100 a week? 100 a day!

100 a day! what do you do with all of them?

Throw them out. If I like the work, and the link is on the promo, I’ll bookmark the site…but I don’t keep anything.

What about email promos? Does the spam from the list services bother you?

Yes, and no. There’s less paper promos, more e-mails. I think they should never send on a Monday, maybe mid week, mid day.

Is it helpful if photographers target you based on campaigns you’ve done recently?

Sure, but we never really know what the concept is next…maybe they should target by brand, like technology vs. beauty vs. cars, etc.

I think photographers get disappointed with the idea that you need to see something close to what you’re trying to shoot in their book before giving them a big assignment but I find it difficult to redirect people away from their established style and I disagree with the idea that a good photographers can shoot anything. What are your thoughts?

A good photographer has their own style and can’t shoot anything. Nor should they want to…because they’re so good at whatever it is that they’ve focused on, that they’re not shooting everything. Take any great legendary photographer, they didn’t shoot everything, they had a particular style, focus, interest, and then made it their own. When you look at these photos, that’s how you know it’s theirs and not anyone else. Photographers reading this should ask themselves “are they passionate about what they’re shooting and do they recognize the difference of their own work compared to someone else?”

Do you think the printed portfolio will ever go away?

I hope not, it’s like a hard cover book. They can’t go away. Prints are beautiful, computer screens are not (They look good…), But there’s still something fine art-ish, museum quality about a print, or print book.

Do you use sourcebooks?

Source books are really helpful to brainstorm….if you can’t remember “that” photographer’s name that you saw or you just feel like you haven’t nailed calling in the right book….they’re really helpful, because it’s like a reminder of who’s out there. I use the source books not only for the actual photography, but just to scan agents names and who they represent. Then I know I’ve called in everyone appropriate for the job, not leaving anyone out.

What do you think about contests like PDN, American Photography, SPD, CA? Are they helpful for finding photographers?

I think these are great and I think they’re getting better. American Photography and CA are my favorites. They can help source….they’re just great as a reminder.

How influential is the client in selecting the photographer for a campaign?

We narrow down and suggest (usually three). At the end of the day, we want them to decide because they’re paying and take responsibility of their choices.

How important is photo-compositing in advertising photography and do you hire photographers who shoot everything “in camera” to work on campaigns that will need load of retouching? Why is there so much retouching going on?

You should ask a photographer this question….they are the ones that are becoming less of a photographer, and more of a computer tech person. I don’t think it’s because the client has asked for this… regarding retouching…it’s obvious….cleaner, prettier, more perfect…sells.

Can you cite any recent advertising photography that you think is brilliant? What are the recent trends in advertising photography?

Brilliant, no. There’s not a lot of brilliant going on unfortunately. Our clients are so involved that the images have become so watered down that there’s no clear direction. We are not allowing for the artist to create our vision. Regarding trends, it’s pretty flat right now. Not a lot of risk taking, may have to do with our current economy. Just a lot of mediocre images.

My readers have been critical of editorial photography directors for hiring from a narrow band of photographers and styles of photography and suggest that if we would somehow remove our blinders we would see all this great work that we’re not utilizing. Is there any merit to a similar argument in advertising photography?

Yes, but honestly, if you’re really hiring the right photographer for the job, that’s what’s so exciting, it’s just right. It doesn’t matter if they are a living legend or a new young gun… they’re just right creatively. Ideally, that’s how I present to the people I need to present to. Otherwise, I will ask what the criteria is from the beginning. Whether budgets, name, style…all things can be considered.

Any ideas on how licensing photos for the web is going to play out? Is it really going to make up for the lost revenue from licensing for print?

Lost revenue? I sense some bitterness. Yes, the internet has changed media buys. It’s become it’s own media, which will allow for similar fees.

There Are 48 Comments On This Article.

  1. Hi Rob

    I actually work in a big London (UK) agency and yes it is about the photos but it’s also about my time. If photographers think that I have three hours to sit through their gratuitous use of image dissolves on their website, then they’re sorely mistaken. Sometimes we don’t have sufficient time to get all the books in that we need and have to use a website, making it hard to use and slow to load is a shot in the foot.

    I find it insane that some photographers think that heavy Flash sites with monumental downloads and fiddly navigation are going to be effective in ensuring that their work is seen.

    I’ve seen some well produced books and have wanted more and then ended up at a website that is just awful. It’s all about integration, photographers are brands and need to manage their identity and communications in a consistent and usable way.

    On a side note, I enjoy your blog, keep writing.

    Alex

    • @Alex, I cannot agree with you more regarding sites using heavy Flash. As a fine art photographer looking to casually review other photographer’s sites, I find poor site design and sites that take a bit of time to download annoying at best and time consuming at worst. I can only imagine this is a hundred fold for editors or other professionals looking at photographer’s web sites.

    • @Alex,

      Interesting discussion. Content verses presentation. Sometimes slick presentation on websites suggests that the photographer is successful – in that they can afford a ‘flash’ website. The hope is that art buyers and designers will always see the basic quality of work.

  2. Firstly, nice interview, brilliant post – thank you.
    I like what she has to say about balancing editorial with commercial work. Makes sense.
    What would be interesting would be an interview with a younger, less experienced art buyer who is maybe not such a “big shot”. A lot of what she says here is, seems to me, like traditional art buying – the “cookie-cutter” approach to art buying if you will, that you will find at most big agencies.

    Any chance of an interview with a young, hungry and talented art buyer in a smaller agency, with big accounts, that produces less client-driven work?

  3. @ Rob: Probably not. Not the ones who grant COMPLETE freedom. (Although I have had creatives give me complete freedom on a shoot).
    There are art buyers out there (working with big accounts) who are a lot closer to the creative process, not afraid of discussing fees, engaging directly with the photographer and have a healthy disregard for corporate nonsense and industry trends. But alas, they are a rare breed :)

    • @Jono Fisher, I am an art buyer and I LOVE the creative side of what I do. I feel much more in tune with the creative I am working with, than I do the account people I am working for. Sadly, it’s true that the client is so involved these days that the work is greatly watered down by the time it hits the page. I have seen brilliant shooters take brilliant shots and a mediocre ad has been produced. I think a lot of clients have forgotten they hired an ad agency for a reason… to do great ads!

  4. ” [photographers] are the ones that are becoming less of a photographer, and more of a computer tech person.”
    “….cleaner, prettier, more perfect…sells.”
    “Our clients are so involved that the images have become so watered down ”
    “Just a lot of mediocre images.”
    “It doesn’t matter if they are a living legend or a new young gun…”

    it helps to understand why I’m getting depressed…
    The interview is , though, very interesting and useful. Thks.

  5. Martha Retallick

    Personally, I don’t mind being a tech person. It’s part of our modern life, and I consider life to be a continuous learning opportunity. I’m trying to become like one of those learning machines that Charlie Munger described during a recent commencement speech.

    Speaking of learning ops, today is still young, but I’ve already learned a thing or two about repairing the household plumbing. And I’ve also solved a “computer not talking to the Internet” problem.

    So, tech problems? Bring ‘em on.

  6. A tiny curiousity…

    I have come across several remarks lately, from art buyers, art directors, that they like to see big images on web sites. But what big is has never been quantified. So, what is big? on the long side–600px, 800px, 1000px …?

    I would assume size is relative to the monitor resolution. On a laptop you will have to scroll to see an image that’s 800px tall … I know that pat answer is to build a site that scales. What size monitor do you have Rob?

  7. The all in one iMac is popular at magazines and those are either 20 or 24 and the Cinema Displays are popular with Creative Directors and those are 20 or 23 and sometimes 30. I’m using a laptop at 14 and will upgrade my 17 inch desktop to a 20 or bigger very soon.

  8. Great content Rob. Keep it coming!

    Any thoughts on importants of how personal business relationships play in getting work?

  9. Id like to see the kind of work this person likes. A little but important side issue. Low cost higher res digital cameras allowed people, who, perhaps come from a less fortunate background to produce quality imaging, but for many of these persons the cost of producing quality printing can be beyond them, pretty much due to Epson’s crazy ink/paper price’s (UK) and the fact that printers like the R800, R1800 use the ink to clean the heads and third party low cost inks/papers have questionable longevity ! Now its been my experience that these are the kind of people who could/do really interesting work. I like to see costs on this front be reduced so they can produce decent “books” sorry thats not exactly the discussion on this one.

  10. The “large images” on the website has always felt like a precarious balancing act to me.

    On one hand I want to present the large images and display as much detail as I can for the viewers. On the other hand, I hate finding those large files ripped off and used to populate some kids flicker “portfolio”, or a microstock site.

    Since I refuse to watermark my website images, it comes down to finding a reasonable size that looks good to the viewer, yet is too small to allow reproduction.

  11. Rob, I appreciate the information provided in the interview. This is exactly what us newer professionals need as we move from Assistants to Photographers.

    I just mailed my first postcard last week and kept it very clean and it contained one image. I’m a food shooter and my mailing list is quite focused. Keep up the good work.

    Tony
    http://www.tcphoto.org

  12. Rob –

    Excellent post! You just keep giving the down and dirty, nitty gritty info we photographers crave. And info we can use to build our careers. Can’t say thank you enough.

    And congrats on the recent press in PDN, Digital Photo Pro and elsewhere – you deserve it all.

    Cheers, Michael Clark
    http://www.michaelclarkphoto.com

  13. thanks for that Rob, I’m about to get my site designed and this has been a good “heads up”.

  14. Peter Wilde

    your *big shot* loves large web images (implying higher data transfer, auto size scaling, flash), while buyer/agent in @1 above wants low data transfer & no flash… (although his point on photographers shooting themselves in the foot by creating multimedia productions with mystery navigation, instead of simply showing their work, is one i 100% agree with)

    i was disappointed that (from the interview) someone at the top of the game working with the best talent in the business couldn’t think of a single recent inspiring project – “Just a lot of mediocre images.”

  15. Great interview, Rob. This stuff is gold, and so hard for us photographers to find out. Together with your own insight, these added perspectives on books, websites, etc. are really useful.

    100’s of promos per day! Yikes.

  16. Anonymous Too

    Rob-

    Boy what a hard hitting interview! Man she really blew the covers off of art buying. I can really see why she wanted to be anonymous.

    Anonymous Too

  17. Great interview but noting too surprising (I’ve learned a lot from Leslie Burns DA) if you think about it.

    I was really happy to hear the art buyer say there’s not a lot of fresh work out there. I wonder if it’s because by the time the job gets shot the vision gets so ‘safe’ the whole fucken thing turns to oatmeal.

    I love what she said about mailers and how she throws them away. Saved myself $400 today (seriously) because I chose a different coating on some promos. Hey if the coating is only going to keep the promo in her hand for a second more before it hits the trash I’ll keep my chedda.

    Interviews like this are why this site is my #1 all day long.

    Bravo

  18. anon three!

    @20: I’m with you. Nothing really groundbreaking here. i feel like this is mostly common knowledge what she has said. i didn’t really get anything out of this….most of this info has been gone over on apanet ten times over.

  19. Nick The Click

    Anon thing 2 and Anon thing 3, if the crumbs Rob and his guest have presented you don’t add up to much for youins, why not ask a question? Sorta like: Rob, does your special guest take into consideration, if a talent they are considering from the editorial world, has any gallery representation for their work? You know as an extra sales pitch like; Nick the Click has a show right now at the Snooty- Putoff Gallery in Hoyteetoyteeville? How’s that?
    If i was you two I’d would ask Rob for your money back……

  20. @ anon: the questions I asked came from photographers so even though you are incredibly well informed other people wanted to know the answers to those questions. Since you know so much about art buying why don’t you start your own blog or better yet instead of leaving comments like that tell us something we don’t know about art buying.

  21. anon three!

    oh come on Rob, you gotta be able to take some criticism. my post isn’t any less valuable than all those above giving you empty praise. All I’m saying is I was expecting more. The delivery didn’t match the build up or the reputation this blog has. This is a top art buyer at a top agency working with top photogs and she is answering stuff anonymously. Nothing she said could get her fired or blackballed imho.

    I expected something equivalent to all the interesting tidbits you would reveal about the industry when you were first starting this thing. i was expecting somes story of steven klein and kate moss doing lines off the set cart or just info on some of bullshit politicking that goes on in agencies with photographer selection and budgets. or what about licensing. I’d be curious to know about what type of usage is being doled out in real life. everyone is always preaching stand your ground w/ usage in public but, in real life i bet that’s not always the case. What are people really doing and getting away with that you don’t hear about. That’s what I want to hear about from someone in that position.

    I want to know about the inner workings of the agency. like, why are there 200 AD’s and do any of them really have any decisionmaking power or do I really stand a chance at actually being considered for job if an Assistant Art Buyer at TBWA was willing to see me for a portfolio meeting.

  22. 'Avin a Laugh

    Nice interview but have to agree with #25 – nothing new here.

    Did laugh at this tidbit on folios though:

    “…it’s annoying when the cases are an ugly color”

    Yeah, and its annoying when Art Buyers don’t all look like Cindy Crawford (oops showing my age) too. I mean, come on. If its all about the images then who cares if I’ve got a polka-dot folio case.

    All this bending over backwards and taking it up the rear for people who hire you (after you spent your truck load of money on promos) and then tell you what to shoot because the campaign been designed and sanitised by seven different committee meetings.

    What’s the point of choosing a photographer based on their folio – only to turn them into an on-set glorified button pushing monkey – and then to produce and ad via a retouch house that bears little or no relation to the original photographer’s book in the first place!

    We’ve all seen this happen. “X shot that campaign”. But it looks nothing like the work on X’s site or in X’s book.

    In fact X “pushed the button once X’s assistants had lit the set to the AD/CD/Client’s approval”.

    Big wow. Where’s the creativity in that?

    Agency people: Why not just hire a crew and shoot it yourselves? …. ;)

    Sheesh.

  23. ho hum. so yes the questions came from real working photographers who surprise, surprise wanted to know how to get hired to shoot advertising. I don’t offer anonymity to people so they can talk shit about people. You seriously don’t think her employer wouldn’t be disappointed to find out she thinks all the work they do is mediocre? Anyway, now that you’ve asked the questions someone can answer them.

    I’ll agree there’s some serious button pushing going on out there. I guess Art Directors will take more pictures now that digital has made it easier to operate a camera.

  24. Great interview!
    I have to say hearing the anon Art buyers views, really solidify my belief. As a photographer, I believe that we need to be confident in our abilities and craft, only using these tech tools as tools, not repair kits. Tech is wonderful, but craft is respected.

    Great questions, and thanks for the answers!

  25. Brilliant. great honesty. A lot of art buyers in the industry feel the same way. Art buyers do the job they do because they love photography.

  26. @24: Rob, don’t be discouraged. Your efforts are absolutely worthwhile, as they help give some perspective on professional photography. It’s refreshing to hear things from the client (formerly: you) end, even if the information is too “sugar coated” for some of your readers.

    It’s something that photographers don’t hear enough of. We are in a business like anyone else, and have to understand the habits and desires of our customers.

    RE: Print Mailers: I heard firsthand from the head art buyer at one of the top LA ad agencies that she demands that all of her underlings look at EVERY print mailer (though they may toss them).

    I’ve also heard art buyers and photo editors say that they organize their printed mailers by Specialty (ie. “Lifestyle”, “Still-Life”, etc.), and a Creative Director will ask to see them when they’re deciding who to hire.

    So don’t think your printed mailers are not being considered! That said, emails are essential, too. You never know which method is going to hit the right person at the right moment.

  27. How does one become an art buyer? What kind of opps are there in Portland / Seattle / Vancouver?

    I’m a graphic designer, but ready to make a career change. Working with images has always been my favorite part of the job; I love photography!

    Thanks very much,
    Alyson

  28. Anon Art Buyer

    Hmmm. Interesting. I was a producer for famous editorial/advertising photographers for 12 years, then became an art buyer and worked up to senior art buyer….easy transition.

    We filed promo’s if we like them under the photographer’s name, and if we didn’t like them, we binned them.

    In one agency (#4 in the world!) we had a library filled wall to ceiling with every photography book, graphic design book, architectural book, magazines, etc available that we think are worth something! Plus, all the droll picture library books.

    Some days, we could be working on a dozen jobs, and call in up to 100 portfolio’s. Luckily though, for the most part, you just call in 3 portfolio’s for the job, either you know the client, and style and work from there, or you know what the AD/CD likes, but for the most part, I find, it is just as much based upon my knowledge and taste too, although I’m sure nobody would admit to that.

    I love photography. I “see” images all day long in my minds eye, or walking down the street, or just by existing in the world. I was the photographer that never was!

    I would say that a passionate art buyer FIGHTS for you. All of you. For your rights, for your creativity, for you to be on the job. I’ve had CD’s tell me that so and so photographer cannot do the job anymore, because they are TOO OLD!! How crazy is that. Some of my favorite shoots have been with shriveled up wrinkly photographers who are the best, even if they are about on their last breath!

    I know my background is different, because I came from the photographers side of the fence—maybe that’s why they called me The Robin Hood of Art Buying! I never screwed you, and everyone I worked with knew that. Sometimes, we simply didn’t have the budget to shoot say, David Beckham, in a European airport for a quickie for Adidas, and I would still get the $25K a day photographer to shoot it for nothing, (editorial rates), because he knew that I was being honest and he wanted the shot. I was given a budget of $50K per photo one time, to buy existing b&w photographs for a big camera client. One of the images belonged to an old man in Wales, who had shot it for The Telegraph in the 1970’s. Man…..I had every account exec who could still breath in their tight fitting suit, telling me to screw the guy, and pay him hundreds. I couldn’t. I mean, you have to do your job well, and maintain your integrity. I told the old man I would pay him $25K for the usage, and asked him if he would like the brand new camera we were buying the images for…………….(yes…you might be thinking…she still screwed him), but I didn’t. The account exec. wanted me to give him approx. $500. The old man got $25K (he said he would use it to put his grandson through college!), and the modern version of his original camera that he shot that on 30 years ago. It felt good—his joy was the best moment in my art buying life.

    My first art buying job blew me away, weeks before Christmas. I have never received so many gifts in little blue boxes from Tiffany’s in my life. I didn’t understand it. It didn’t help “X” get the job.

    I have to go home now, so if you have questions, I will happily answer them.

    Peace,
    Anon Art Buyer!

    • @Anon Art Buyer,
      Can you help me get some work please? I’m loving the whole integrity thing. I’ve recently started representing a lovely man who adores keeping it real while producing lovely images. I respect him very much and believe he is as good as any high end photographer out there. Christ this industry is depressing. We continue to work on projects, perfecting our web site, etc, blah, blah, blah. I think I’ve heard “it’s not what you know it’s who you know” a million times and it pisses me off. I’m a fantastic, honest, dignified agent who respects the photographer i represent. In addition to this I’m a scrupulous agent (we get such bad press) who loves working and liaising with creatives, simply because I’m a people’s person. If i could get one bloody appointment to show some work I’d be over the moon. I feel like I’m trying to a get a record deal, which lets face it is like a one in a million situation. HELP!!!

  29. Editorial is important for many reasons, the one I find the greatest is when changing or updating a book or website it is a great source of content. When on an ad shoot we tend to shoot one set up or one image. On an editorial shoot we shoot tons of shots and tons of set-ups. When it comes to messing around with a website or new promo it’s the editorial stuff that seems to come up trumps most often.

  30. I would love to see some “good” website designs. No flash is what I heard. So what do you want to see?

  31. Hey,
    This is a great interview, a bit scary, but a great interview.
    It’s helpful to hear someone’s opinion from the other side of the table.
    I’m looking at approaching some agencies and possibly agents in the near future, so this interview has proved very helpful.

    Thanks :)

  32. Everything is great. any comment is great. but photography still be photography, there is no help on making it by computers -softwares . If you do it, you are not a photographer before, even less now.
    let’s continuous to put our soul throughout the lenses and make our picture as reminiscence of our being. search, breathe and capturing them.
    that is photography. passion, dedication, light and awaiting the image comes…
    nice to be among of you, as a photographer

  33. hi all,
    this may sound really stupid but what does an art buyer do? is it an american term for photo producer? i’m hoping to move from photo editing into production but don’t dare at the moment since i’m not very familiar with it, have researched a bit but end up with art dealers sites. if i could get a straight answer here i’d really appreciate it. also if anyone could recomend any sites/ books that would be great, have found some stuff but a lot is linked to tv/ film production.
    thanks