Clients and their ad agencies are looking to photographers to help them come up with new, creative ways to reach busy and distracted consumers. To land these assignments, photographers have to demonstrate not only a comfort with the medium in which the work will appear, but an understanding of what the brand is trying to communicate. PDN has interviewed a number of creative directors and art buyers who have collaborated with photographers on social media marketing, native ads, branded content and other efforts to raise brand awareness, and also talked to photographers about how they’ve pitched their work to brands. Some of these interviews are excerpted here. PDN subscribers can read these and other stories in our archive on PDNOnline.
This was not your typical ad campaign. Matt Alberts shoots wet-plates, and wanted to do a road trip, shooting his portraits of people “who eat, sleep and breathe skateboarding.” He contacted Fleishman-Hillard, the PR firm for the carmaker Cadillac, hoping to get a vehicle. He ended up with a year-long sponsorship that included funding for three month-long road trips, with an assignment to produce “The Seasons Collection.” Alberts describes it as “a multimedia photography collection of adventure sports-driven stories about people who push the limits in pursuit of their passion.” When Alberts pitched his project, Cadillac executives saw how it could dovetail with Cadillac’s then-new “Dare Greatly” campaign. The campaign is an attempt to revive the brand by associating Cadillac with artists and activists. “We really admired what Matt was doing, and the network he created,” says Eneuri Acosta, Cadillac’s Lifestyle and Luxury Communications Manager. “We’re looking for new avenues to talk to new customers and new demographics in a way that’s credible. Matt gave us the opportunity to do that.”
Hum’s projects for clients such as Atlantic Records, Penguin Books, Washington Film Works and Seattle-area favorite Cupcake Royale run the gamut from web and app design, to illustration, photography and video. When Hum works with photographers, they’re often creating brand libraries of documentary and lifestyle images that clients can use in a number of ways. “It’s basically teaching a brand or company or organization how to start building a good library of images, and what images fit into their brand story,” says Ann DeOtte Kaufman, Hum’s strategist and account manager, who also acts as de facto art buyer for the small staff. “We are audience- and client-driven, and we come to every project without a prescriptive style and no ego…. We actively look to be open and to hear other people’s perspectives and feedback.” Hum wants the same from the photographers—and other creatives—they work with. “We look for people who are willing to consider themselves part of a team and not just a hired vendor for the day.”
Jacob Pritchard, one of three photographers hired by advertising agency mcgarrybowen for a year-long assignment to shoot social media content for Verizon Wireless, interviewed one of the creative directors on the project, James Wood. Discussing the challenges brands face in creating social media content that grabs and holds the attention of viewers, Wood noted, “You’ve got to give somebody a reason to be a fan of your brand in the first place. I think all too often brands don’t really offer much other than throwing out some resized image assets from their other media channels.” For the Verizon project, Wood said, they hired professionals to deliver the “stopping power” they needed. When it comes to making content for social media, he said, ad agencies can’t rely on stock shots or repurposed print or banner ads. “Relevant content is going to be more and more important in the years to come as people’s consumption habits get more and more fractured. Figuring out how to get the tenets of a brand into content is always going to be a valuable service.”
As the head of creative and strategy for Cornerstone, a multidisciplinary agency in New York City, Jeff Tammes says a large part of what he does is help his team develop stories around a client’s brand. The agency’s clients include Budweiser, Converse and Diageo. In many cases, he says, clients want to do more than simply sell commodities. While some of their assignments incorporate product shots, Tammes says, brands want to convey to consumers what makes them special, and it’s up to Cornerstone to find where consumers are, and reach them in new and interesting ways. “In most cases, photography starts to really play a role in not only what you would call traditional advertising, but how we’re integrating [it] into point-of-sale materials, to even the kind of daily storytelling we’re doing through digital channels,” Tammes says. To find photographers for these assignments, he says, “More and more we’re looking at social media, and looking at Instagram pages for photographers. We’re looking to see if they’re telling a story that’s connecting and building an audience. That’s always incredibly compelling to us, maybe more so than the [technique]. If they have a unique perspective, and when they shoot something they tell a story with it, and it seems to be resonating and people react to it—that’s where social media audience is an interesting gauge of [whether a photographer] would be worth bringing into a campaign.
“To me, authentic storytelling is the best brand marketing,” says Jane Sievert, director of photography at Patagonia. “We’re far more interested in the spirit of the photo than if the person is wearing our latest style or the logo is apparent.” Chatham Baker, creative director at Smith Optics, which makes high-performance sunglasses, goggles and helmets, says, “We want world-class, authentic imagery in print and digital ads, point-of-sale, catalogues, websites and social media.” Photographers shooting sponsored trips have to be able to switch between covering the action and looking out for images that present the sponsor’s brand well. Most of the work that photographer Garrett Grove does for sponsors has to be shot like “editorial stories,” he says. “I guess about 70 to 80 percent of the time you’re just going with the flow, shooting from the hip; 20 to 30 percent of the time you’ll see a moment that fits with [the clients’] branding, then you’ll set it up [again] and make sure it works.”
Founded 30 years ago to focus on real estate branding and development, Merrick Towle Communications (MTC), based in the Washington, D.C. area, is branching out from its work building brands for new offices and residential buildings, and has expanded into work in the hospitality industry, tourism and beyond. For a project promoting a high-end residential property in D.C’s H Street Corridor, MTC turned to local fashion and lifestyle photographer April Greer. The resulting work shows young people shopping and enjoying the neighborhood nightlife. “It looked like a magazine shoot,” says MTC creative director Jason Knauer, who explains that they are producing more site-specific, candid-looking lifestyle work as a way to entice consumers. “That’s the direction that we’re really heading: People look at stock images and they know that it’s a stock image; they don’t have any connection to it…. If it looks too posed, if it looks too staged, especially when you’re talking about the lifestyle, then you’re losing an opportunity. Our goal and any [visual] trend that we would want to see is something that looks real, it looks like people are living their lives and not posing and smiling.”
Alex Strohl and Maurice Li, the photographers behind Stay & Wander, a Vancouver, B.C.-based creative agency that specializes in pairing Instagram influencers with brands, have worked extensively for tourism marketing agencies. Those commissions—which are largely based on producing social media content—have also increasingly led to traditional commercial licensing deals. “We include with our base pricing social media licensing,” Li explains. “All commercial licensing after the fact is extra.” As tourism agencies have shifted some of their focus and budget to social media, though, Stay & Wander has found a “sweet spot” producing “a form of native advertising” for clients, then licensing images for brand libraries, traditional ads, or for use by tourism agency partners or third parties. “Their work is hands-on; you get that personal touch,” Rishad Daroowala, a photography and creative media producer for the Canadian Tourism Commission, says about working with Stay & Wander. “It’s not a cookie-cutter concept that they’ve selected for us, and then they’ll go do it with another tourism board. Our needs are considered, and they show that something custom has been created for us.”
“People aren’t hiring you to create great pictures, but to get results,” says Seattle photographer John Keatley. “You have to communicate that you understand the clients’ goals and needs, and that you can help them meet their goals.” Many photographers take the time to write and submit treatments along with estimates, believing that treatments are the best way to demonstrate their understanding of the client’s strategy and their solutions to the technical or logistical challenges of the job. The treatment builds on the information exchanged during an initial conference call when the agency’s creatives explain the campaign’s overall creative direction. Understanding the demographic the client wants to reach and the message the ad has to send are essential to preparing a successful treatment. Keatley notes, “I try to say, ‘I hear you saying you want to do a portrait of a woman with an animal, but what’s the goal? Are we trying to raise awareness, or drive foot traffic into a retail store?’” He adds, “On the creative call, I always ask for a list of keywords that would describe the response they want from the viewer.”
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