“The backbone of VII Magazine is ‘understanding our audience and bringing it together’, and this makes for a fantastic resource for advertisers,” says VII Photo's Stephen Mayes
The editorial market is changing. With fewer pages reserved for photography and declining revenues, independent photo agencies have been forced to adapt, testing strategies that will help them survive the downturn. But, their directors tell Olivier Laurent, the answer could reside with photographers themselves
Oeil Public and Grazia Neri were two of the most prestigious independent agencies – until last year. Both closed down at the end of 2009, forced out by declining sales and plummeting prices as the economic crisis took its toll on an already difficult market. And as Grazia Neri’s fate showed, independent photo agencies are particularly at risk.
Mark Lubell, the managing director of Magnum Photos, has a more positive take on the market. He thinks that “everyone is focusing on the wrong question and the wrong concerns”, adding that there is “an amazing demand for photography”. This may not come from a mass market, but more a specific group – the audience that seeks out high-quality photography.
“You want an audience that truly engages with the agency,” says Lubell, who presided over the sale of the Magnum New York’s print archives earlier this year. “I would say the fastest growing part of the business is on Twitter and Facebook. We have 100,000 followers on Twitter, and we’re seeing a 15 per cent growth per week. We have to harness that.”
Stephen Mayes, who has managed VII Photo since 2008, is also looking at the benefits of targeted audiences. “We have to develop a niche market, because it has a specialist interest which, in turn, is attractive to advertisers,” he says. VII has already started working towards that goal with VII Magazine, an interactive magazine published by partner newspapers such as The Herald. The magazine is entirely produced and maintained by VII, while the newspaper hosts it on its site.
“The backbone of VII Magazine is ‘understanding our audience and bringing it together’, and this makes for a fantastic resource for advertisers,” says Mayes. He believes that for too long photo agencies have been dependent on the amount of images they could sell, despite the fact that they had limited control over it. “It’s always been dependent on the client’s budget,” he says. “But now we have the tools to move away from being a supplier to becoming a publisher.”
Lubell partly agrees, but points out there are limitations. “We hear every day that anyone can be a publisher. That’s not correct. Anyone can have a blog and get attention, but 99.8 percent of blogs have a very small audience. Partnerships can bring your content to larger audiences, and that’s what Magnum is looking at.
“We’ve partnered with NGOs, but we always have to be careful of our editorial line,” he continues. “It’s an easy arrangement for NGOs and Magnum to work together, but only if the NGOs are confident about their message and give us editorial control. Magnum needs final cut power. We’ve done so with Global Fund on the AIDS project. The organisation believed in us and, using the power of the NGO, helped bring our project to the attention of millions. The site had 40 million unique impressions and the exhibitions attracting 300,000 visitors at 11 venues around the world.”
VII is also careful to keep its reputation in mind – and its photographers. “I see a shift in terms of value,” says Mayes. “While the value of an individual image is declining, the value of the work is still there. Today, the value resides with the photographer. He or she has become the brand, and that is important to an agency. We believe we can increase our revenues by working closely together with organisations that share these values. We’ve done so with the 150th anniversary of the Red Cross. The reason this organisation chose VII was not just because of our great photographers, but because of the credibility and integrity these photographers brought with them.”
And it’s not just NGOs – other partners can come from more traditional areas of journalism, says Magnum. “In the past we’ve partnered with MSNBC, Slate.com, MSN and even CNN,” Lubell tells BJP. “With MSNBC, our photos were viewed 10 million times a day, and we made sure that the stories point back to our site. But you don’t want people to just come back to your site. You want them to go further, to truly engage with the agency.”
To this end, Magnum is revamping its website. “Our current site is trying to serve different communities – clients, photographers, viewers,” says Lubell. “I don’t think it’s doing any of these well. In the next three months, we will launch a new site that will allow our visitors to better experience our content. We’ve found that the section dedicated to our photographers is responsible for 87 per cent of our traffic.
“Photographers are obsessive people. They spend their time trying to find answers to the questions that obsess them. They want to engage. Our current site doesn’t explain that. With the new site, we’ll create a photographers’ channel. It will be all about engaging with the photographers who, in turn, will be able to upload and discuss with their audiences from the field.”
The channel will revolve around seven or eight photographers at a time, facilitating those image-makers who want to work in this way. “We can’t build a channel for all of our photographers, but we will launch with the photographers who want to engage – Alec Soth, Carl de Keyzer and Jonas Bendiksen, among others,” says Lubell, adding that de Keyzer is the perfect example. “Before he goes out to a particular location, he asks his audience for help in identifying the best places to photograph. This is an interesting way of engaging the audience, taking it along in the project. He has already built his audience for when his book will come out later on.”
Magnum is also looking at other platforms to distribute its content directly to its “fans”, and will release an iPhone and iPad application later this year. “It will be different from the Reporters Without Borders application unveiled earlier this year,” he says. “It’ll be cooler and more focused on our photographers.”
Such applications, especially those developed by more traditional media, also present a challenge to photo agencies, according to Roberto Koch, director of the Italy-based Contrasto agency. He says that while a lot of publishers are looking at digital applications, “they are not ready to pay additional monies to use our images”. The publishers are arguing that the apps are just a replica of the printed issue, “but if you look at most iPad apps, it’s not the case. The app will be very different from the printed issue”.
Even so, Koch is still willing to participate in the development of apps. “In the initial phase of development, we allow our clients to use our material to test their applications,” he says. “But after two or three months, we start charging additional fees.”
Mayes and Lubell agree, but think photo agencies can play a greater role in the production of such multimedia projects. “In the past, photographers just wanted a book and an exhibition,” says Lubell. “But today’s photographers, the young ones, say that while they do want a book and an exhibition, they also very much want to do multimedia. That’s very powerful.”
Magnum has been moving in that direction since 2004 with Magnum in Motion, and VII also has a similar offering. But, says Mayes, multimedia can be facilitated by changing the structure of the agency. “We shouldn’t just be a vertical collection of one skill type, where all of our members and partners are photographers – that’s the 20th century model,” he says. “We need to develop partnerships across different disciplines. We’re living in a multimedia world, so why not create partnerships with audio people, post-production companies and writers? ”
Once the content is produced, agencies will still have to find a way to monetise it to the niche markets they are carving. “This is the big question,” says Lubell, and it’s one that Magnum is actively trying to answer. “We will go out to see if this audience is ready to pay for some perceived value. Paying $1 for a song on iTunes makes sense, so what is the value of photography that this community is ready to support?”
VII and Magnum are testing the market with new and diffferent initiatives, but other agencies have chosen their strategies, believing that the strength of their photographers will allow them to dominate. “We know that people are getting fired, that entire photo departments and editors are losing their jobs, but we don’t believe that photography is in crisis,” says Frank Evers, the founder of the Institute for Artist Management, a seven-month-old agency. “We’re working twice as hard, meeting the clients directly and organising meetings between our artists and editors. There is a lot of business out there, so I think that giving up the editorial market is a big mistake. Getty and Corbis have been dealing with the economic downturn by depressing their prices. That’s also a mistake. Instead of acting like oil companies, who know they have a valuable product, they’ve been acting like commodity businesses.”
Mayes, who succeeded Evers at VII, agrees that the market is still looking for high-quality photography. But, he says, “if we had kept the same prices as five years ago, we would be in much more trouble today and, if we limit ourselves to selling images, we won’t survive.”
Whether it’s with Magnum’s new website or with VII’s and the Institute’s focus on their artists’ credibility and credentials, photographers have a central and essential role to play in the survival and prosperity of independent photo agencies.
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