Social@Ogilvy's ACD: Pro Photogs Are Key to Mobile Ads, Branded Content

By Conor Risch

Courtesy of Maury Postal
Maury Postal, an associate creative director at Social@Ogilvy.

In our October issue’s Create feature, “Going Native,” we spoke with brand managers and creative directors about why the trend in native advertising and branded content can be a boon for photographers. In that article Maury Postal, an associate creative director at Social@Ogilvy, Ogilvy & Mather’s social-media advertising shop, notes that “a professional photographer will never be out of work” because their ability to “see beauty where no one else can see it” can make an ad that grabs attention on busy social platforms. Here is our full interview with Postal, in which he discusses the current market for mobile advertising and branded content, and the essential role photographers are playing now in producing both.

PDN: Traditionally advertisers talked a lot about the “stopping power” of an image, its ability to get an audience to stop and pay attention to it. Is the goal still the same in social-0media marketing and advertising, or has the role of photography changed?

Maury Postal:
Modern advertising, to be really effective, can’t simply be an ominous billboard looming over an alley. It has to be pure and thoughtful: Something somebody would show you when you’re sitting at a party and someone saw something so beautiful on the way over they can’t wait to describe it or show it around. When I think about what a billboard should be—it’s always that beautiful, bold image that captures people’s attention halfway down a freeway. Instagram is really like driving down a freeway: There’s a ton of noise and a ton of different things to look at, and if the brand doesn’t have a unique esthetic, then people won’t realize what it actually means as they’re rolling by. A brand has to have a focused approach to Instagram because people will keep scrolling if an image isn’t unique or beautiful.

PDN: So if we see social channels as highways and there is still the need to get an audience to stop and stare, it stands to reason that professional photographers are still the best people for this type of work.

That’s part of the reason a professional photographer will never be out of work, because there is always a need for someone to interpret a message in a certain way. There’s always a need to interpret a scene in an elevated manner. The more photographers that I work with, the more the difference between an amateur “Instagrammer” and a professional photographer becomes clear. What a professional photographer does is see beauty where no one else can see it. That’s what a brand can leverage. Oftentimes a brand will say, “I want a similar thing to what so and so is doing,” and a lot of this is regurgitative. It takes great minds to build a unique way of a brand speaking through pure imagery. The thing that I’m finding is that it’s always better to engage any sort of visual thinker very early on in the creative process, when all the strategists are sitting around and you’re figuring out what the brand needs to exist like in the physical realm.

PDN: How does the way images are shared, decontextualized and recontextualized by users on social-media platforms alter the way advertisers and brands think about the imagery they create?

A brand has to be visually fluent in everything that it does. There are so many opportunities and so many places where a concept lives, it has to be unique and stand out wherever it actually ends up. You have public platforms, like Instagram and Tumblr, where people share images and where brands share images, and then a plethora of private channels. There are the places like Snapchat and MessageMe and all these niche networks where people communicate visually, but the masses never see it. So it’s always fascinating to see what makes it to these private mediums, which is usually a simple conversation between actual humans solely through pictograms or images.

PDN: Aside from the obvious elements of the tools and the distribution, how does an assignment for mobile work differ from a traditional photo shoot?

From an advertising perspective it’s the speed that we’re operating versus a traditional shoot. It’s going into the shoot knowing how quickly we can get this out in the world to see how people respond. That way we know whether we can approach the [next] assignment in the same way or pivot to find another solution.

PDN: How do advertisers and brands measure the effectiveness of an image or campaign in the social space?

Key success indicators depend on the client, the project and the platform. How many additional fans did we pick up? What are the different conversations people are having around the images? That’s the most valuable. You put an image out there; even if someone reblogs it, what are they actually saying when they do it? That’s actually a dialogue that’s formed that begins with an image. How many people participate versus how many consume? That to me is the ever-present challenge: How much can you engage a following base, and what’s the challenge that you offer them? How can they participate in the creation of more stuff, and how do you let them take the esthetic that you started and go one step further.

For every brand the benchmark is different—in social media, success is judged by actions … So it’s not just having people sit there and share it, but how does that lead to something bigger? A purchase? A percentage point gained of positive brand sentiment? There are a lot of ways that imagery plays into that, but I like to think that it always starts with something that is beautiful—without that you’re not going to even get anyone to go further.

PDN: Are there certain qualities that make images effective in social media?

Because modern society and the marketing world are in such a frenetic state, I would argue that simplicity always stands out. Doing something simple is always the most difficult, because it’s coming from the most pure place, the most pure thought. To maintain that purity in the advertising space is still the element to hold near and dear, because that means that you have such a unique perspective, that the brand can confidently say: This is who we are, we don’t need to sully that with anything else.

: What challenges do photographers face in determining what to charge for social-media-driven work?

The challenges of operating in a social-media-driven world for a photographer is the frequency in which they work for a brand, i.e. what does that initial shoot look like and what are the opportunities to do more work, and what do the rights look like? Because typically if you’re licensing an image for social-media purposes, it’s most likely going to be used in many different places. Chances are it’s always going to be living somewhere in perpetuity. So I think it’s more difficult than ever to keep track of those licensing issues. That’s something that I think really has to shift not just in a marketer’s mind but also in a photographer’s mind: What sort of sub-elements will that image become? Chances are the original image isn’t being shot as a square. So is it OK for that image to be cropped, or how will that image exist on these different platforms and how long can it exist? That is always an interesting question.

: In some cases I’ve seen people who aren’t really professional photographers, but may have big social-media followings, being asked to create content for brands. Why would a brand work with a pro versus an amateur with a big network?

I find it is always easier to start with a high-quality product rather than starting with something that might be mediocre and going back and saying, “Wow, we should have just had a pro in the first place.” When you think about the speed at which we need to operate, someone who knows what they’re doing can do that job a lot faster than an amateur.

PDN: Does it help a professional get social media, branded content or mobile advertising work if they have a social presence?

That’s the new model for artists. It’s not just what you produce, but who can you talk to about what you produced? Who’s your community and how does that community act? The rise of these social artists, the idea of artists that have a strong voice in the social space, I think is great because that way it’s kind of a different ad platform, it doesn’t feel like it has to be a paid media buy that gets the work out to an audience.

PDN: Can photographers working on social media projects expect to be paid more, less or the same for equal work?

It depends on the depth of the social project, but I would say if anything the photographers should demand a similar rate of pay for a similar amount of work. It’s just that the amount of work is going to be different for a social campaign than a traditional print campaign.

Oftentimes brands can lose sight of the fact that even though people may be viewing an image on a phone it still has to be that beautiful, show-stopping image that we talked about before. There is a great value to that, but I think it’s still going to take a little bit of convincing both from the artistic perspective, from the photographer and the intermediary, the ad agency, to get back to the brand about why this is truly valuable from a business perspective. Brands are starting to understand the value of not just the image, but everything that goes into it—the production value—that I think is where the difference really comes in.

PDN: In other words brands need to think about the production of social-media campaigns in the same way they thought about production of traditional print campaigns?

With social-media marketing initially you had this mentality of a factory, and that’s where I think the photographer lost. In the factory model, you have to produce as much as possible as quickly as possible, and it’s just there. You’re kind of devaluing the idea of what photography really is. In the model that we’re moving into, which is back to the boutique, back to the strategic release of content, there’s time to actually style something. There’s time to actually think about what the image is going to be, and in that case that’s where a professional truly shines, because it’s a more thoughtful image. That is an absolute necessity in the modern advertising landscape, because that is the marketer and the brand having respect for the viewer.

In the factory model, you’re just basically pushing things out. You’re producing as much as possible so you’re always going to have an artifact existing, versus producing something that truly is worthy of someone’s attention. That respect element works on both ends: both for the photographer who is truly the artist, the brand that is the ultimate steward and then at the end of the day the person who is reacting to it, the person who is allowing it into their life.

PDN: Images can come and go so quickly in social media. There seems to be a big risk involved in investing a lot in the production of an image that may not stand out, that may just disappear in someone’s Instagram or Tumblr feed.

In the modern advertising landscape you have to take risks. A brand that doesn’t take risks is a brand that will just never cut through the clutter.

I think the most breathtaking thing now is the speed at which other brands copy one another versus how many are going to stand out and say: This is always who we’ve been and this is always going to be who we are.

Since visual social channels are more crowded than ever, it always will take a great photographer to interpret what that time and place really needs to break through. As a marketer I always look for those perspectives, because I need to balance what the client’s needs are, my own interpretation of what’s happening right now and what the research is telling me is happening right now. In my opinion, there is no reason something should be created just to be created. It should always be a thoughtful end product.

PDN: I’ve had art directors and art buyers tell me they like to look at photographers’ personal work to get a sense of how they see the world. When you are thinking about social campaigns, does what a photographer’s shares on social media influence how you see them and their work?

It’s always a big sell if that photographer has a big social presence and shows what they’re thinking about outside of their client work. It’s always more interesting to see how these artists exist in the world. I find that’s an easier sell for me when I go to show a client or even the account team, “This is who this person actually is and this is the story that we can tell about them.”

PDN: In the social space, photographers seem to be acting almost as ambassadors for brands, because part of what they do, and part of their deal with a brand, is to share what they’re doing with their network and call attention to the fact that they are shooting a campaign for a brand.

Finding an ambassador for the brand who’s a photographer is always the crown jewel. I have a lot of friends who will end up shooting for a particular brand, but that’s because they love the brand, the brand has always inspired them—they know exactly how they want the brand to exist in their minds and they can explain why.

PDN: Presumably there are brands that photographers don’t care about. Can you still create this type of social, native advertising-style work, or do those brands have to come up with other ways to market?

The true answer lies in the person commissioning the work. It’s my job to find the interesting element within the “dull” brand. Maybe you haven’t ever been inspired by what this particular brand has done, but here’s an element that surprised me. So it’s finding that story in something that might not have an overt one. Oftentimes I find that you end up with better work in this instance because it’s something that is more thoughtful—you didn’t see it in the first place.

The geekier that you can get about the thing you discover, the more powerful it becomes. If you stare at a wall long enough you’ll find something interesting about the wall to tell people about. The duty of the marketer and photographer is to educate, to surprise and to captivate the public. People won’t be aware of certain aspects of a product or brand unless somebody fills them in on the beautiful secret.

Related Article:

Why the Native Advertising Trend Could Be Good for Photographers

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