What happens when you ditch the shotlist?

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What creative can look like

I was recently at a conference focussed on how big brands are using digital marketing to help grow and engage their target markets, and unsurprisingly, photography plays a huge role in helping marketers achieve their goals.

One of the presenters threw up a slide showing a wall of beautiful, on-brand photographs, each one like a unique page in a big story book. The images ran off the huge screen behind the presenter and you don’t need a degree in marketing to see the immediate value these kinds of high-quality images have for a variety of digital campaigns.

The presenter explained how they had gone about creating such an impressive bank of images to help them fill the huge need for continual and creative content that is the new normal in advertising today.

Did they send out a detailed list of requirements to their agency? Did they pore through hundreds of thousands of images on stock photography sites searching for ones that had just the right look and feel? Did they (shudder) run a crowdsourcing campaign directed at photo enthusiasts and amateurs, relying on their user-generated content (UGC) to give them what they needed?

Nope. They did something far simpler, and far more effective (both in terms of time and significantly, cost). They hired a professional, whom they gave a creative brief to, then let loose.

What they needed were a lot of images, rights-free, fast that they could use to fill the image needs of their planned campaigns. The company sells healthy quick meals under one brand in its portfolio of brands. Their analytics on previous campaigns had shown a strong reaction to fresh, authentic photography, so they hired a photographer to do a shoot for them. Importantly, while the creative brief specified the key brand characteristics and personality that the photographs needed to convey, their was no detailed shot list included. Instead, the brand astutely relied on the creativity and artistry of the photographer to come up with the kinds of images they needed.

The result? They got 4000 images, shot over a 3-day span, and delivered with no strings attached. The cost per image was less than half they would have paid had they gone a more traditional route hiring through an agency, or by trying to develop a complicated set of requirements to coordinate and set up a big photoshoot.

This type of contract is trending in popularity and I think it is to the mutual advantage of photographers and their client brands. I’ve always been a proponent of bringing the photographer in on the development of creative, as opposed to having the hired hand execute on someone else’s vision. While it is unquestionably the role of a creative director to make decisions about how a brand message is articulated, creative workers do their best work when they are allowed to engage their creativity independently. It seems obvious that if you are hiring a creative person for their creativity you allow that person to actually use and engage their creativity. Yet surprisingly, there are still many contractual arrangements that view photography as a commodity and consequently diminish the role of the creative photographer.

Not all products or brands lend themselves as readily to this more creative approach to generating images, but I suspect many more could than do, and an increasing number of them will into the future.

The driver is, as ever, simply that this is what the market wants and expects. People are increasingly sensitive to what they perceive as advertising. Ads, in and of themselves, are often viewed negatively and most people would not admit to liking and ad or taking action based on an ad they saw if you asked them – regardless of whether the data says otherwise.

Photography that looks too much like it is controlled by a brand has less of an impact than a more natural, authentic image. This is one of the reason why UGC campaigns are popular and there are growing numbers of UGC platforms developing that allow brands to tap into this pool of content providers.

There is a risk/reward tradeoff of working with UGC vs. professionally generated content that brands need to consider. While crowdsourcing has the allure of being a much cheaper alternative than hiring someone professionally, by definition the quality will vary and the results may not all fit the needs of the campaign. There is a place for both kinds of content sourcing strategies, but in the case of getting high-quality, brand-aware images that meet an immediate need, nothing beats working directly with a professional photographer.

Consumers see hundreds of photographs daily streaming across multiple social platforms, sent in messaging apps between friends, and on the websites they visit.  They are sophisticated viewers and most can tell within milliseconds if an image looks real, or if it has been faked somehow. Authenticity and wholesomeness don’t just apply to ingredients on  a Chipotle menu, they are what people are searching for.  In an age characterized by easy connectivity – making a real connection matters more than ever.

Photographs crafted and designed by real photographers who take their work seriously – professionals in other words – can help brands achieve this. And they can do it on brand, on time, and on budget.