Stephen Mayes, director of VII Photo
The challenge facing so many photographers and their agencies is how to sustain operations in this new commercial environment. Day rates and licence fees are static or declining with a shrinking client base supplied by a seemingly ever-expanding talent pool of great photographers. The cake is getting smaller and the slices must be shared between more.
I have a simple message: give up, it’s over. And good riddance! I have long had a problem with the old-style editorial market that has consistently underpaid its suppliers, overcharged its advertisers and given short shrift to its consumers with its restricted content agenda and formulaic presentation styles. I don’t miss the coercive practices and the hours of argument over rights-grabbing contracts offset by derisory day rates and non-existent expenses. Goodbye to all that.
This is a time for reinvention. With the newly emerging internet tools and increasingly diverse and sophisticated online audiences the opportunities are multiplying as we seek to harness our skills to serve a richer communication mission, and to generate more revenue. It’s a moment of great optimism and opportunity for those with ambition and imagination to go beyond what we have known before. While I share the pain of the many individuals and small organisations who are struggling, I don’t have the same sympathy for the organisations that have treated their photo suppliers with disdain for so many years. And for those individuals and small organisations who find themselves out in the cold, if we think we have something to offer this is the time to prove it.
For the first time in many years, being small is a positive asset. We keep hearing that the tested revenue models no longer work for publishers, and that’s true. The bigger you are, the greater your infrastructure and the more you have to sustain while at the same time your ability to adapt is limited. Fixed costs of staff, property and production are overwhelming, and legacy contracts are stifling. Investors demand that the big grow bigger at a time when maybe there’s greater profit in smaller operations. At a time when flexibility, adaptability and experimentation are the cornerstones of our business, the smaller we are the bigger our opportunities. Now is the time to think different.
Consider the monkey trap in which a delicious nut (or tiny slice of a small cake) is placed at the bottom of a jar waiting for a hungry monkey to grab it. But with its clenched fist wrapped around the nut, the monkey’s hand is trapped by the neck of the jar and with all the intensity of hunger and desire fixated on the nut, there it sits holding its precious prize until collected by the hunter. And here we are, focused on short-term solutions to yesterday’s problems, fixated on the things that used to feed us, desperately trapped by our need to eat as we hang on to a tried and tested formula for survival. And so we starve.
Let go! Move on! All the things we think will sustain us are killing us. And yet our work still has value, and maybe even greater value in the new environment than in the old. It’s not about finding new ways to do old things, but time to radically rethink our business models by redefining our products, our partners and our clients. We come from a world that was relatively simple, where our product was easily defined (image licences in various forms), and our relationship to clients was clearly understood as a humble supplier, financed in the largest part by one simple model of advertising-funded publishing.
One of the exciting aspects of business in the 21st century is a more complex mix of components with expanded opportunities for distribution and funding. Instead of clients I am looking for partners, often more than one, and instead of fees I’m looking for shared investment with open-ended (and hopefully extended) returns. Most importantly, in a world that is awash with too much information and too many images I am moving away from licensing images with ever-diminishing fees, and instead starting to monetise other attributes.
Asset of integrity
For VII Photo the most valuable asset is integrity, the credibility of the photojournalists who own the agency, for which I find a growing list of interested partners. Certainly the magazines are still in the mix, but now more as print distribution partners rather than as exclusive clients (with additional distribution through TV and online partners), often co-funded by another party and supported separately by technology partners with access to story-knowledge being supplied by yet other people. The line-up shifts for each project, and as each new partner comes on board the opportunities to do interesting work and to generate income multiply. Put simply, VII is transitioning from being a mere supplier to being a producer and increasingly acting as its own publisher.
So what are all these new ideas and how will they generate revenue? Unfortunately, space and commercial discretion limit what I can say at this point, but some models have already been tested in 2009 and there are more to explore in 2010. About half of the ideas are right, but we won’t know which half will fully fruit until we’ve tested them, so check back in a few months to see how VII is faring. Meanwhile, I truly believe that the playing field has been levelled for all players and that more than reputation, deeper than big pockets and richer than the lessons of experience is the value of imagination and ambition. As the lumbering dinosaurs of the 21st century struggle to adapt, smaller more nimble operators are rapidly filling the gaps. This is a time for entrepreneurs to roam the earth.
About the author:
Stephen Mayes is a former creative director at Getty Images, who has also held top positions at Network Photographers, Eyestorm, Photonica and Art + Commerce, and who now heads up VII Photo (which represents photojournalists including James Nachtwey, Gary Knight and Ron Haviv) and is secretary of the specialist juries for this year’s World Press Photo.
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