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Getty Images’ Jonathan Klein: “We need new economic models”

Jonathan Klein, CEO and co-founder of Getty Images, discusses with BJP his company's role in falling prices, the future of the industry, the need for new economic models and the role of smartphones in a market in flux. Interview

Since its inception in 1993, Getty Images has acquired a reputation among photographers for driving the price of photography down with agressive business models around stock and microstock photography. At Visa pour l’Image, the world’s largest photojournalism and press photography festival, CEO and co-founder Jonathan Klein sat down with BJP‘s Olivier Laurent to discuss his company’s role and impact on the photographic industry, as well as its commitment to photojournalism through the Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography.

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Olivier Laurent: Was it hard to justify the Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography within the company? Why are you doing this?

Jonathan Klein: It depends who I’m talking to. In terms of our employees, partners, contributors and the photographic community, it’s nothing. It’s so easy. We spend more in five minutes on paid search on Google. It’s really nothing in that respect. I think if we were a different kind of company and we weren’t still run by the founders and if we had shareholders who were very focussed on micro-managing everything, then it would be difficult, because they would want to know what’s the return on that money. “Show me on a spreadsheet.” In fact, I’d go further, if we had a different management and we had a different approach by our shareholders, they would say: “What are you doing in photojournalism?” They’d look at all of our numbers and they would see that the stock photography with those cash flows and profits – where the cash flows in – and they would see photojournalism where the cash flows out… So I think we’re fortunate that way. I think we also need to take advantage of the fact that we do have a very profitable commercial business so what do we do with the money? Do we give it back to the shareholders? That’s not so exciting. Or do we build the businesses that are important to the industry?

Olivier Laurent: What’s the rational behind Getty Images spending that money on photojournalism?

Jonathan Klein: I’ve always taken the view that if you are a major player in an industry, you’re responsibility extends beyond the business, it extends to the entire industry. That’s why we’ve supported all sort of things, whether it’s the International Center of Photography in the early days or Visa pour l’Image. I think that responsibility extends further than what you support. I think we also have a responsibility to try to prevent the commoditisation of our industry, to try and get the highest prices, to be very aggressive on supporting copyright – we’ve been more and more active with that in Washington and in London. And then from a business perspective it also makes sense since one of our most valuable assets is our brand, and our brand is enhanced by what we do with Reportage and generally on the editorial side. You can’t quantify that exactly, but I don’t think it’s a difficult decision. Every year, you get the financial people who say: “Why are you doing Assignment? Why are you doing Reportage? Why do you have this little business?” It takes a disproportionate percentage of our time and focus, but some of the best people in the industry are working with us through these businesses. It works that way.

Olivier Laurent: You say that you’re trying to prevent the commoditisation of photography, but you’re a company that uses the words “contributors” for “photographers” or “assets” for “photos”. Isn’t that commoditising photography?

Jonathan Klein: I’ve struggled with what words to use for so long. We’ve used “partners”, “contributors”, “artists”, and we went through a period of saying that they were “image-makers” whether they were still or video. I’m pretty flexible on the words because I think, in the end, you have a different relationship with them depending on how closely they work with you, whether they are exclusive or non-exclusive, whether they are in Reportage. But, the word that I struggle the most with since starting the company almost 19 years ago is “agency”. That’s a word you’ll never hear me say. Because to me, an agency is an intermediary that doesn’t add much value. I had to sell a house not too long ago, I used a real-estate agency. I booked my flight here with a travel agency. That’s a word that I don’t use, but the industry does. I think that this word is more damaging to the industry then a word like “contributor” because it’s essentially saying that we – I had someone put it to me once: “So, you’re an agency, you sit there, someone puts something in your mailbox and you look at it and send it out on the other side and take some money in the middle.”

Olivier Laurent: So how would you define Getty Images?

Jonathan Klein: At the end of the day, we monetise intellectual property on behalf of the creators of that property to all markets – and we do it better than anybody else in the history of this industry. That’s what we do. We also have a love and respect for the product, which is a problem, to be honest. I’m often told by critics that we’re not customer-focused enough, and it’s true. Every decision that we make, the first question that we ask ourselves is not: “Is this good for the customer?” It should be the first question. Instead, it’s: “How will our contributors and partners react? Does it make sense for them? Is it the right thing to do in the long-term?” Just take a look at some of our websites – and iStockphoto is the extreme example for that. We’ve put 13 people who had never been on the iStockphoto website before in a room and we watched them. At the end of a hour, they had no idea what we were actually doing. “Do I buy something? Where do I click to purchase?” That website is very focussed on the contributors. We have to have the right balance.

Olivier Laurent: How do you that?

Jonathan Klein: You make mistakes and you course-correct. I think in the early days of the company I was so stunned by the lack of customer-focus that some of my language was too strong in terms of wanting that customer focus, which sort of turned the pendulum too much away from the contributors. I think you try and strike a balance. The industry has changed so much, so we also had to strike a balance between volume and price. We’ve had to realise that some customers buy 10,000 images a month when, in the old days, a big customer would buy three or four. It changes.

Olivier Laurent: Talking about these numbers, a lot of people in the industry blame Getty Images for the falling prices and for destroying the market of photography. How does Getty respond to this?

Jonathan Klein: I think you change all perceptions in any world by education and by being honest, very candid, very open and very transparent. The best method of communication is, unfortunately, repetition. You just keep at it. Where there are changes in the industry that are negative and which we may be responsible for – I don’t think there are many – we have put up our hands. But where there are changes which are negative and where we are part of the tsunami – we were there when digital came, we didn’t bring it. We were there when royalty-free came, sure we grew it. We were there when micro-stock came, we grew it. But the fact that magazines aren’t paying the same then they used to, the fact that their sales on newsstands have collapsed, the fact that their ad revenues have collapsed, that has nothing to do with us. We have to get that right balance. On pricing, we’re aggressive on the price – but on the up. We are known in every segment as the high-price player. When we do focus groups with customers, the answer that always comes up is that we’re expensive. And yet, at the same time we have photographers saying that it’s too cheap. I don’t know how many customers have said to me: “I used Getty Images very seldom. I wish I could use you all the time, but I can’t afford you all the time. So I use iStockphoto.” The fact that it’s also Getty Images is a detail. Also, you have to remember that we acquired a lot of businesses, and I think that the negative side for the industry is that it reduced the number of distribution outlets. Other than that, I have no doubt that we’ve been significantly positive for the industry. And as far as photojournalism is concerned it’s unarguable.
One thing I was going to ask you, as it’s my first time at Visa, is that everybody here is saying how difficult it is to be a photojournalist. Well, I’ve been in this industry for 20 years – it’s always been difficult. It’s not somewhere you’re going to make a living easily.

Olivier Laurent: Recently, we published an article about the 40 years that were defined by the three great French photo agencies – Sipa, Sygma and Gamma. What came out of it was that this industry has always faced a crisis of some sort. We’ve been talking about the death of photojournalism for the past 60 years.

Jonathan Klein: Absolutely. You also have to look at it and ask: “How much of that crisis was self-created?” I know, talking to all three of these agencies at different times in the 1990s, they were in denial. They were a bit like the people who had their horses when the car first came out. “I’ll never drive a car.” We had exactly the same conversations with them.

Olivier Laurent: A lot of these agencies were not ready for digital…

Jonathan Klein: They weren’t ready. They didn’t think it would happen. They didn’t organise their archives. They didn’t understand the value of what they had. They didn’t understand the rights that they didn’t have. But then again, I’m not critical because they were agencies created by and for photographers. They weren’t meant to adapt to the needs of the market. They were at the mercy of their photographers, just like Magnum still is. I always tease the Magnum folks and I say: “Look, I have the utmost respect for what you did in your history. I have the utmost respect for your photography. But you can’t sell, and if you can’t sell, that’s not a sustainable model.” They say: “Well we don’t want to be too sale-focus.” You have to be.

Olivier Laurent: In terms of the way the market is evolving now, with the popularity of smartphones and the rise of the citizen-journalist movement. How is Getty going to react to these changes?

Jonathan Klein: I would differentiate between the two sides of our business. I think on the creative side and on the editorial side, it’s different. As far as the creative side is concerned, user-generated content is the overwhelming majority of the imagery that we bring into the business through Flickr or iStockphoto. It has happened. We’ve created a very good platform to enable to do that. Others have created similar platforms. The idea of individual photographers licensing their images, I’ve never thought that would work, that it would scale. A photographer might get 10,000 visits on his or her site – we get 13 million. When digital came along, photographers would say: “I don’t need you anymore. I’ll have a website.” And then they learned these fancy words: “I’m going to dis-intermediate you.” And I think it’s still the same. I don’t think this is going to change. I do see us getting more and more imagery from the community. I see community imagery being a bigger percentage of our sales. I see it getting better every year – largely because of the equipment.
On the editorial side – the news, sports and entertainment side – I think we’re all a little bit surprised in the media at how little we all use these images shot on a phone. We use it right at the beginning, because they were there when nobody else was, but within 12 hours, the professionals are there and that’s what everybody is running with. I think that will continue.
I do believe, though, that we will have an even bigger role to make sure that the imagery is authentic, that it actually did happen.
I think because of the mobile technology, you’ll get the images even quicker, but I don’t see any of these new little start-ups scaling. I think they will be bought by somebody…

Olivier Laurent: By Getty Images?

Jonathan Klein: Maybe. We have to look very carefully when we acquire something like that. We have to look at what we’re actually getting. We’re not getting content. We’re getting a community. The technology is pretty straight-forward, so you don’t want to pay lots of money for the technology. And you never know which ones are going to scale. Why is Instagram worth a $1 billion? I don’t know. What I tell my team and my company all the time is that if you want to be at Getty Images, you’ve got to love change, because change is a constant. If change freaks you out and you want things to be the same, this is the wrong place and the wrong industry. We just have to be very flexible, and finally, and this is what we’re doing right now, we have to adopt other models for being paid.

Olivier Laurent: What kind of models?

Jonathan Klein: We need a share of the revenues generated around the imagery. The model: “Here’s a picture, give me $100 and you can use it” will still continue and will still continue to be a big part of the industry. But in three to five years – no way. In three or five years, we’ll be saying: “Here’s our imagery. If you generate revenues on it, around it, relating to it, we want a piece of it.” It’s a bit like the YouTube Content ID model. And we’ve got the technology, and are building that. We, today, do not get the value out of what our pictures do for our customers. It’s a good enough model historically – we license picture, it goes on the front page of a magazine, it’s $500. If that magazine sells three million copies or doesn’t sell any, we still get our $500. But because of the scale of these platforms, and these social platforms, we want more if it goes into the millions. And that’s why we’re very actively involved with all of these platforms – Pinterest, Tumblr and Facebook. But that comes back to education.

Olivier Laurent: How do you educate an industry that’s not used to that model. How do you make them accept it?

Jonathan Klein: We’re fortunate that YouTube has established a model around intellectual property and around fair use. The second area where we’re fortunate is that the tech industry has finally understood that without compelling content, they have no audience. Technology can go this far, but then they need compelling content. They’ve finally become tech-saavy. These tech companies are increasingly becoming, culturally, a little more like media companies. They are moving that way. We found that the conversations with these companies have evolved so much over the last few two to three years – and we have to thank Apple for that as well, as they have essentially become a media company. The same goes for Amazon and Netflix. All of that is helping us.
We’re also finally finding that even the legislators are understanding a little bit more about copyright and the consequences of content being free.

Olivier Laurent: Outside of the photographic industry, more people think that photography is free.

Jonathan Klein: The basic consumer is increasingly thinking that photography is free, but I think that in the early days of the web, we established behaviour. First, you guys did by giving your words away for free, and then when there was enough bandwidth, we started giving away our music for free, and then the music industry took a different course from the way we approached it by suing their customers – we didn’t think it was a great idea. Now, they’ve come full circle, and frankly, they are doing quite well, thanks to the iTunes model and Spotify.
We decided early on that the horses had left the stables and there was no point in trying to drag them back inside the stables. So we said that if consumers wanted to play with our pictures, to use them for their school reports, fine, we’ll even make it easy for them, we won’t prevent right-click saves. But we drew a line then, and we continue to draw a line: if you generate revenues for yourself or for your business using somebody else’s intellectual property, you need to pay. The interesting point we’ve hit in the last few years when talking with these start-ups is that they say: “We’re not generating any revenues. We don’t have a business model. We have no money, other than the tens of millions that venture capitalists have given us.” That’s why we’re working with those folks and explain that a certain point they will have to pay us. They are much more open to that. It depends on how arrogant they are, of course.
It’s a challenge. You’ve got to be patient.

Olivier Laurent: How are you adapting to the behaviour of these consumers – not the start-ups, but the consumers?

Jonathan Klein: We look at our websites today – and we pioneered this, we were the first people to sell pictures on the web – and we’re increasingly selling to people are not picture professionals. We sell to people who, whether you like it or not, have been habituated by Amazon and Apple to one-click purchases. So we’re in the process now of making it easier to use our sites. I look at our sites today and I think: “I wouldn’t buy from these sites.” You see businesses like Shutterstock that are doing extremely well with no content. Their pictures are available on pretty much every other website, but they are doing extremely well because it’s so easy. There’s a big lesson in there.

Olivier Laurent: But then you have a community of photojournalists that is finding these changes really scary.

Jonathan Klein: It is scary. It’s exciting, but it’s still scary. I used to act in plays, and on your first night of opening a play, your level of excitement was only equal to your level of fear. That’s the way the industry is. But, all the misery stuff, the public doesn’t want all the time. And that’s what I tell World Press Photo – every year they choose a conflict photo as the picture of the year, they are screwing the industry. Every time. They have chosen ours in the past, so I’m quite happy with it. But just don’t do it all the time.

Olivier Laurent: How do you change that?

Jonathan Klein: It’s so much deeper than that. If you ask the hardcore photojournalists why they do it, they will say the same thing: “The world has to see what’s happening. If they don’t see it, they won’t react. And if they don’t react, it will continue to happen.” Those folks seldom want to do stories that are positive. I don’t think they are going to change their approach. It’s in the DNA of a photojournalist. But I think that you can show the horror and the tragedy of it all without the gore; without turning off 80 percent of your audience. I once asked John Moore about what photographed resonated most for him, and he said it was of a pretty young girl crying on the grave of her fiancé at the Arlington Cemetery. All of the gore he had seen, he said, was nothing compared to the emotional impact of that photo. That to me is as powerful as some of the stuff they were showing us at the screenings in Perpignan. And that photo, I can show to a eight-year-old and explain why it was so important. Also, we know that our customers react to events in exactly the same way. On day one, they want the horror, the brutality, the numbers. Day two, more of the same. And on day three, they contact us and they say: “Our readers can’t deal with this anymore. Do you have something a little more hopeful?”

Olivier Laurent: But then, why are we not seeing these images from day one?

Jonathan Klein: No, on day one, they want the horror. This is not going to change.

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