5.13.2009

Time to talk a bit about marketing. Yikes

Is it possible to be in the market for too long?  I'm not talking about the stock market.  We all know the answer to that one.  I'm talking about the photography market.  If you are forty or fifty years old and you've been a photographer for the last ten or twenty years you know that we've been through some gut-wrenching changes.  We've all devised some self-serving and optimistic ways of looking at the decline of our traditional markets.  Some people walk around telling anyone who will listen, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger!"  But they never mention the scar tissue...  Others say, "This too shall pass!" Implying that the pain we feel now is but a temporary sting that will give way to a rosy and prosperous tomorrow.  "If you can make it through this economy you can  make it through anything."  As though it isn't possible for the economy to get any worse.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately and I've come to some conclusions about our position as photographers in this new world and how things might work out.  I'll say up front that if you are twenty five and surrounded by marvelous designer friends in some cool and unaffected part of the economy then just don't even bother to read the rest.  Everyone's kilometerage will vary.

Let's start by going around the room and admitting we've got a lot of baggage.  I know I do.  It's hard not to.  If you were working in the booming 1990's you no doubt remember when one of the hardest things to come by was a day off.  Day rates were climbing and corporate clients were throwing out stacks of money to advertise new web based companies and services. Traditional agencies with long pedigrees understood the rationale of usage fees and were willing to negotiate based on these historical payment agreements.

We used real cameras that spit out physical products.  We lit stuff and the lighting looked good. Clients didn't (and still don't ) understand lighting and they were willing to pay well for people who did.  Checks came from local offices and agency people understood mark-up.

We remember all this and some part of our brains feels like that's the marker for what should be a normal photo market.  But that's our baggage.  Can we still feel the buzz and get all enthusiastic after the whole model irrevocably changes?  Can we get pumped to do amazing stuff for less money?  For much less profit?

The market has flattened and once clients have tasted nearly free stock, used it and waited for an apocalypse (loss of market share, damage to the brand) that never came we are confronted with their version of a genie that's been released from the bottle, a ship that's sailed, a horse that's already out of the barn.

The selling mantra against dollar stock was fear.  "What if all the businesses in your sector used the same stock image in their campaigns?  Wouldn't you be devasted??  Wouldn't you perceive the tremendous value of a commissioned shoot? You'll never get fired using a proven supplier!!!"  That's pretty much a paraphrase of an essay up on the ASMP site.  But here's the disconnect:  Many of the art buyers, art directors, creative directors and marketing directors who learned their trade in decades past have been swept into other areas and out of negotiation with photographers by two big, catastrophic economic downturns in the first nine years of this century.

They've been replaced in legions by much younger and cheaper people.  These people were raised with dollar stock use or limited rights managed stock as the norm.  That's their baseline. There is no nostalgia driving these people back to the traditional assignment model.  There never will be. They add their own value to the stock stuff with tons of manipulation.  To be clear, clothing catalogs and product catalogs will continue being shot.  CEO's will continue being  photographed.  Stuff will still be assigned.  But it will be the exception rather than the rule.  Only a tiny percentage of images will be assigned and only for specific, proprietary products.

Here's another critical driver:  Advertising clients have scaled back in all print media and have poured more resources into online advertising.  By some counts webvertising is up 20% this year over last.  Consumer magazine ad pages are down nearly 35% over last year.  What happens when the recession finally ends and clients find that web and cable satisfied their needs almost completely?  I think they will channel more and more dollars into the web and TV and less and less into print.  

Let's face it.  The web isn't challenging medium.  My medium format cameras are definitely overkill for most web uses.  For that matter my Canon G10 is overkill for most web use.  The subordinated quality of web versus traditional media is just another barrier to entry knocked down.  The challenge on the web is pushing people to the site but that seems to be the provence of social marketing and viral marketing.  

I think that by the time this market recovers 80 to 90 % of the people we veteran photographers dealt with before the collapse will have moved on to other jobs and other industries.  More and more we'll be dealing with a brand new crowd.  None of them will know anything about your brand or your history in the market.  In fact, having a history in the market will mark you as a dinosaur.  Everything that we've learned over our careers, in terms of marketing, is going to be upside down.  New is the new good.  Fast is the new production value.  And coffee is the new martini.  The Canon G10 is the new Nikon D3x.  Just as Strobism is replacing studio flash equipment.

This is just my perception.  Everyone else's mileage may vary.  But the real question is what to do about it.  I think this year is going to be a wash out.  It's a great time to get personal projects done, it's strategically smart to stay in touch with as many clients and potential clients as you can.  It's important to build some new portfolios and some new self-promo and get the website ready.  But here's my "from out of left field"  "brain-stormed" (or lightning struck) idea for 2010.......

Shut your existing business down at the end of this year.  Shut down everything.  Close the doors.  Toss out all your preconceptions about how a photography business should be run.  Toss out your nostalgia and your mythology.  Everything.  Total purge.  Career colonic.

Then, on the first of the new year (or when your gut tells you we're heading back to a prosperous overall economy) emerge and totally re-invent yourself from the ground up.  New look.  New marketing.  New point of view and new ways of doing the business.  Because no matter what you do you will be participating in capitalism's biggest "hard reset" ever and it's pretty much and even bet that, except for premium brands like Coca Cola and Apple and IBM and Starbucks, everyone else will be sitting in on the same reset.  

Tired of buying endless gear? Maybe your new business model calls for rental of all lighting and grip gear.  Tired of getting tooled around for payment?  Maybe your new business model calls for nothing but credit card payment.  Tired of your old clients?  This is a time to reset.  Tired of that filing cabinet of legacy headshot files your clients will never need again?  You've gone out of that business, remember?  Toss the stuff you don't need and make room for the stuff that will make you money in the new paradigm.

I've been in Austin a long, long time.  My old clients will use me for  a long time to come.  The people who've been here as long as I have and haven't used me aren't about to start because they've already pigeon-holed me for one reason or another.  When new people move into existing jobs they bring their own people or they go out looking for those people.  By killing off our old business persona we get to be the people they bring in to replace us.

Let me repeat that:  By killing off our old business persona we get to be the people they bring in to replace us.

Being a new business gives us an excuse to get pumped up again.  To throw a big opening party. To invite people into our new process.  

I'm still thinking about all this and working the kinks out of it.  But it seems right to me on a number of intuitive levels.  Everything changes and everything evolves.  I don't want to wait around and be a miniature GM when I can be the next new thing.  I know there are many holes and pitfalls to this new idea.  And I'm not saying that I am rushing to implement but I do think it is interesting and we should discuss it.

I know it's not as sexy as talking about gear but that's the next thing I'm looking at.  Really.

Looking forward to the re-launch.  What form will it take for photographers?