A War of Attrition


A quote in a newsletter caught my eye and made me think of something that has bothered me for some time about our industry:

“I have talked with Art Directors and Editors friends of mine and they are overwhelmed. I really can’t blame them for not replying to emails or phone calls even though I secretly wanted to tell them to go to hell for not replying. […] You need to target your efforts, research the clients and brands you want to pursue and go after them with persistence and patience.” – Paolo Marchesi

Makes sense. Except, lets look at the bigger picture. The Art Directors (ADs), Art Buyers (ABs), and Photo Editors (PEs) are stating they’re overwhelmed. I’m sure most photographers would agree that they’re overwhelmed too producing all the stuff that overwhelms the other side. What does that remind me of? The military strategy of ‘War of Attrition’. Instead of finding a strategic solution and a break through, each side just throws more resources at the status quo hoping to grind the other side down. The best known example in history is the Western Front in World War I. We know how that ended. Generally military strategists view this as a strategy best to be avoided.

What is the problem we are actually trying to solve? ADs, ABs, and PEs need quality imagery that best tells the story or sells the product. They need it on time, on budget, and without any undue hassles. They have already lots on their plate. Photographers need well paying assignments to stay in business. Essentially it’s a match making problem, and its a problem of large numbers today.

In the past (as in before the Internet) this problem was solved through relationships, phone calls, meetings, mailed promos, and printed books. Because each involved time and cost, there was a finite supply that controlled the flow. That also meant limited choices, and maybe not always the best possible theoretical choice, but the best possible practical choice.

Computers and the Internet have made a lot of things more efficient. It has also made some things essentially free and thus reduced friction in the system, resulting in somewhat unlimited supply of incoming flow. Just take a look at your spam folder. The only reason spam works is because it’s so cheap to send that even if just one in a million emails gets clicked on, someone can still make money. I’m sure you would love to kill spam, right? Not going to happen, until more friction gets back into the system, sorry.

Artists of LES Editorial - Axel
Artists of LES Editorial – Axel

In the quote above, the words ‘persistence and patience’ equal keep doing what you are doing, eventually it will work. And if you can, do even more of it. That’s where I think we are getting off track. However, this is not something an individual photographer or art buyer can change. This is only something we as an industry overall can change which is why it is a good discussion to have here.

Computers and the Internet have also given us a lot of new tools. Take a look at how the dating industry has adapted to the Internet. Dates no longer start in bars with bad pickup lines. It is now a $2B industry in the US with 3,800 players. It started out with general services like match.com and eHarmony, and recently has fragmented into niche markets such as for examples farmersonly.com and ChristianSingles. eHarmony claims to match along 29 different dimensions, and today 1/3rd of marriages start online.

Why does this matter? Some people have figured out that there is good business in using computers to improve on an age-old match making problem.

How does this compare to the photo industry? We still only have a paltry few sites that focus on showcasing potential suitors – such as premium portfolio sites like workbook.com, Foundfolios.com, Dripbook.com. Some offer printed source books serving a higher friction premium market. But beyond some basic categorization, search engine, social media, and newsletters these sites do not offer any breakthrough in solving the matchmaking problem of the creative supply chain. It doesn’t even come close to de-facto search quality standards set by Google. In fact, some sites like AgencyAccess and Yodelist excel in supplying arms to the War of Attrition by giving you the data and tools to create and deliver more output.

There is no site dissecting photographer’s portfolios among 29 dimensions that may matter to an art buyer. Photos are keyworded and categorized by photographers based on their best guess what an art buyer might want, or whatever a consultant suggested. Or worse, a whimsical and cute album title that means almost nothing in a time and resource starved creative supply chain. We all know that we are not the best judges of our own work or how it might be best used in the real world. Yet we have no active feedback loop other than being ignored.

This leads to both sides spending precious time and resources creating more emails, mailers, website listings to get through the noise. While the other side combats the incoming flood with whatever tool they can find. Or they just shut down and keep hiring the people they already know as the best practical choice. This is all time and money that is not being spent on creating better imagery. It is time not being spent helping the ultimate client sell his/her product or brand better. It’s time and money not being spent on personal projects that advance the skill and move the visual conversation forward. It’s simply wasted on friction in the system.

Another technological advance of recent times? Hybrid cars can finally use electric braking to convert excess motion energy back to electricity and store it in the battery for future use (trains and subways have done this for decades, by the way). Good old disk brakes do nothing but convert it to heat and throw it away. Engineers have spent decades in various ways of reducing friction in systems and recapturing that energy to put it to better use, or not even extend it in the first place.

It is time for the creative supply chain to get onto the innovative band wagon and find a better way to match photographers with assignments at the least amount of internal friction. Lets start spending this energy instead on things that helps our clients and improves our margins of a shrinking pie.

No, the excuse that technology cannot solve this problem because it’s art, subjective, and hard to quantify does not work. Love is as complicated if not more than photography and creative visuals. If someone made it easier to find lasting love through technology by improving the match making process, there is no reason this cannot be done in our industry. Don’t think a match making process doesn’t work for food photographers (or your personal niche)? FarmersOnly.com has shown that understanding the niche markets isn’t that hard and can still be good business.

To attract innovators there has to be an opportunity and a market. We know the opportunity. Based on conversations with other photographers who currently pay considerable fees to current services on much less attractive returns, there is definitely a healthy market. The existing service providers have a healthy opportunity to focus on innovation and remain relevant, or the field may be taken over by new players. Interestingly enough, one of the companies that comes to mind as being willing to make bold bets and innovate new business plans is Getty. Not well loved since they don’t always seem to have the photographer’s best interest in mind, Getty does change the game more than anyone else.

Let’s start a conversation, and partner with people that understand art and technology to make this happen for a better future for all of us. It makes no sense in today’s day for anyone to complain that they’re overwhelmed.


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