Magnum Photos' activities used to be divided into two categories – new work and licensing – respectively dubbed M1 and M2. Now the agency's CEO, Giorgio Psacharopulo, is pushing Magnum's online activities as part of a new strategy. He speaks to Olivier Laurent about M3 and the future of the 65-year-old collective
Giorgio Psacharopulo joined Magnum Photos as the agency's first CEO in early 2011 to little fanfare – there were no official announcements and he has kept a low profile since then. Psacharopulo holds a Masters of Business Administration in Finance from New York University's Leonard N Stern School of Business. Before Magnum, he worked in the financial sector at BNP Paribas and Merrill Lynch. His background in management is largely the reason why he was asked to take on the role of CEO at the 65-year-old agency.
"My role is to manage all our offices' operations so that we're united in what we do," he tells BJP's Olivier Laurent. Magnum has four offices around the world – Paris, New York, London and Tokyo. As soon as he was appointed, Psacharopulo studied the way these offices used to operate. "What I wanted to do was improve communications within the agency and see whether one office was better at doing certain things than others, with the ultimate goal of improving our relationships both internally and externally." Too often, he adds, different offices would work on the same project without talking to one another. So "we put together a global plan around our activities" and, more importantly, "wanted our employees to feel part of Magnum – not just Magnum London or Magnum Paris or Magnum Tokyo."
Built as a collective, it's easy to believe that decisions are made by all of Magnum's photographers at the annual general meetings. Yet Magnum is directed by a board, which this year is composed of photographers Alex Majoli, Richard Kalvar, Donovan Wylie, Christopher Anderson, Martin Parr, Alec Soth, Peter Marlow, Paolo Pellegrin and Abbas. These directors have been selected by their peers; Kalvar, for example, represents Magnum members who deal with the Paris office, while Wylie and Anderson were selected to represent, respectively, the London and New York offices.
This board of directors "is kind of a representative parliament", says Psacharopulo. It meets at least twice a year and defines the agency's direction and, as a result, the CEO's actions. And one of its most recent decisions was the introduction of the M3 strategy. "The agency has been dividing its work between what we call M1 and M2," Psacharopulo explains. "M1 refers to new work produced by our photographers, as well as assignments, and M2 is licensing. M3, which is a new structure, encompasses everything we do online."
This new structure comes as Magnum, and other photo agencies such as VII and Noor, has faced what Psacharopulo called the "perfect storm" that led to the commoditisation of photography. "There was an over-supply of images and a reduction in the number of opportunities for photographers – fewer assignments, for example."
M3 is also the result of two realisations: one, that Magnum's clients, especially institutions and NGOs, wanted to reach an increasing number of people online; and two, that the agency's audience wanted to own Magnum's content.
"On the first point, if you put an exhibition together or publish a story in a magazine, you will reach a limited audience," says Clément Saccomani, Magnum's editorial director in Paris. "And, more importantly, that audience will be made up of people who already go to exhibitions, or already read a particular magazine or newspaper. Meanwhile, you have millions of people who watch videos on YouTube or check their Facebook."
The result was that Magnum was increasingly asked by its clients to offer content that would cater to these audiences. "In the past, we would give NGOs images and get them published in magazines, but now, what they really want is to reach people on blogs and Facebook using videos and multimedia projects, for example. Why? Because younger generations don't have newspapers in their pockets, they have iPhones – and it's no bad thing. I believe these immaterial, digital things indirectly increase the value of the material," says Saccomani.
Magnum's second lightbulb moment was the shift in the audience's rapport with content, which started with MP3s in the late 1990s up to today's social media hegemony.
"People want to own our content," says Saccomani. "You just have to look at Emphas.is and Kickstarter to see that. When some of Magnum's members launched the Postcards from America project, it allowed people to participate in the production of new work by sharing information, but also by financing parts of it. In return, they would get postcards or books and become some sort of co-producers of the work. We've also realised that people don't necessarily want to go to a bookstore or get their news from newspapers," he adds. "Instead, they want to have direct access to the photographers. A good example is what Alec Soth is doing – he will publish his work on Tumblr, where people are able to talk with him about his images. They value that kind of relationship" and, as photographer David Alan Harvey has shown with his Rio book project, are ready to pay for that type of access.
This shift in strategy can be perceived, up to a point, on Magnum's Facebook page, which now has more than 230,000 followers. "The Facebook page was started a few years ago because someone at Magnum thought it would be a good idea," says Psacharopulo. "At that time, there was no strategy in place about what we would be doing with that page. In the past, we would use the page to announce an exhibition in Brussels, for example, and we would get around 50 likes. Now we're pulling content from our archives and sharing it with our fans – offering something different and something more to our followers – with the goal of bringing people to our website. We're also using this community to develop our activities; for example, our educational events and workshops. We're also looking to sell products to these followers. If you enjoy photography and Magnum as an agency, you might be interested in our latest book – which can be an e-book – and buy it."
So, when Magnum unveiled a new website in July, it had this in mind, claim Saccomani and Psacharopulo. "For our 65th anniversary, we launched a new website that shows images with a width of 900 pixels, without any watermarks," says Saccomani. "If you right-click on them, you can download them. When I was talking with Chris Anderson and Jonas Bendiksen, who really spent a lot of time on the website, they were telling me that if visitors just wanted to print an image and put it on their fridge, they could do it."
He adds: "It's like the debate about illegal filesharing. There's not point in trying to protect ourselves from the sea with sand castles. It's not by trying to prevent people from downloading images that they will stop. They will find a way to download them and print them. Instead, what we can tell them is this: ‘If you want these images, come and get them, but from our own website. Then, have a look around and maybe you'll find something else that's interesting.' In the past, the only way you could gain access to an image was by buying a book or visiting an exhibition or gallery. The problem is that not everyone is wealthy enough to buy a work of art. Instead, we can offer something else for them – a way to share our images, for example. And that will not necessarily affect our print sales."
The ultimate goal is to create a dialogue with the audience, says Psacharopulo. "We have to use technology to our advantage, and the Web 2.0 is an opportunity. It allows us to interact directly with a community of people interested in our brand. I think we are reaching people who are not just interested in our images, but also who relate to the social issues we cover."
Already, some of Magnum's members are working on new photographic projects, where online audiences will play an active role in the production of images. In October, 10 photographers will go around the US to cover the presidential elections, using the successful Postcards from America project as a template. "Magnum is a hub," says Psacharopulo. "If we can offer our photographers an infrastructure they can use, we can multiply our possibilities. And the entry point to that hub can be David Alan Harvey, Alec Soth, or Chris Anderson and Steve McCurry. Their individual experiences will help enrich the agency as a whole" and help other photographers produce new work. "Instead of wondering what the media wants, let's produce what we're interested in – real projects. And we'll find people to buy them – be it in a gallery, in a newspaper or as an app."
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