Saturday, September 23, 2006

It’s The Internet. Stupid?

This was the President's Message I wrote for the Summer, 2006 issue of "Exposure," ASMP New Jersey's quarterly magazine.....

"It’s The Internet. Stupid?"

No matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, surely you recall that James Carville, the brilliant political strategist who ran Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, hung a large banner in the campaign’s office that read: “It’s The Economy, Stupid!” Members of the press saw that banner and made it the story. Regardless of whether President George H. W. Bush’s economic policies were on/off target, the economy became the focus of the campaign and he looked like a loser. So much so that he was one of the few sitting Presidents of the 20th Century to lose a re-election bid.

In the good old days of the Reagan-Bush presidencies commercial photography looked like a great career choice. Photographers were doing a land-office business... it was booming. Business continued to hum along pretty well throughout Bill Clinton’s first term, too. Then, in 1997, just months into Clinton’s second term, the age of Big Media companies descended upon us.

Haven’t we always worked for Big Media? What’s Time Inc., or J. Walter Thompson? Aren’t those Big Media companies? Yes, but I’m not talking about the Big Media companies that are our clients, I’m talking about the Big Media companies that are our partners.

The watershed event that I refer to was the beginning of the consolidation of the stock photography industry. Mark Getty, the London-based MBA and scion of the storied oil family was looking for the, “oil of the 2ist Century,” and he found it: Intellectual Property. He’d seen the advent of the world wide web in 1995 and he came to the realization that he who controls Intellectual Property will be the “oil baron” of the future just as his grandfather, J. Paul Getty, was the oil baron of the past. Mark Getty is an intelligent man, perhaps a visionary, but he’s not the only one. Half a world away, in a corner office in Redmond, Washington sat a Harvard dropout named Bill Gates, and he came to exactly the same conclusion.

In the years following, Getty Images and Gates’ Corbis Corp. moved swiftly and smoothly through the stock photo industry and gobbled it up. Stock agency after stock agency was consumed until it seemed there were none left. Maybe, just maybe, they missed a few crumbs.

I don’t know which was first, but Getty Images long ago removed the term "agency" from its contracts. They became a licensee, as did Corbis. With this subtle change of status, these licensees began to do what agencies could not: absolve the corporations of the fiduciary duty to the photographers they represent.

Photographers seeking safe harbor were drawn to a beacon in the darkness, a new agency established by Alexis Scott of Workbook. Ms. Scott, highly regarded by photographers who had advertised in The Workbook, began recruiting a select few photographers to her new venture. It wasn’t long before the masses flocked to, which showed promise because of its name recognition and its photographer-friendly demeanor.

I knew, though I didn’t know when, as soon as WBS began encroaching on the 800 pound gorillas, one of them would swallow it whole, just as they’d done to the rest of the stock houses and, in discussions on various online forums I said as much: “ is for sale.”

I was immediately inundated with e-mails from WBS staff, as well as Alexis Scott herself, all vehemently insisting that WBS is not for sale! Just when it was looking like I was dead wrong, just a few days ago, I received a press release from Jupiter Media, an upstart among the mega stock consolidators, touting their acquisition of..... you guessed it:

This caused an uproar in the online stock photo forums with one of the correspondents writing, “Why do stock shooters automatically hate big agencies and buyouts?”

The problem is that the big stock companies’ goal is to dominate their market. They’re run by MBAs who are not “picture people,” rather “money people.” For Getty, Gates and Meckler (Jupiter’s CEO) it’s all about money, not pictures that make money. As mega-corporations, they can dictate terms to photographers rather than act as partners in the stock endeavor. Their businesses are run for the exclusive benefit of their shareholders rather than sharing the benefits between photographers and photo-marketers.

Those who’ve been tracking the consolidations have been following the statements of Jonathan Klein of Getty Images since 1997. He openly avers that what Getty is about, and what Getty needs to do to please investors, is decrease expenses and increase dividends to shareholders. What’s the number one expense to reduce? Photographers’ royalties. Getty intends to accomplish this, so Klein says (publicly!), by increasing Getty’s wholly-owned content.

Jon Klein’s not a demon, he’s a smart and savvy businessman. He’s also not alone! Corbis has the same intent and Jupiter... well, Jupiter Media is way out in front in the race for wholly-owned content.

Stock agency buyouts have been devastating to stock photographers, but where else can you go in an industry dominated by a few conglomerates doing the same thing? To the Internet. Stupid?

Not only are we in the age of Big Media, we’re in the age of Big Search. google and Yahoo! have established sophisticated image search capabilities. You, and your pictures, can be easily found if you have a web site and a basic knowledge of keywording. It may sound daunting, but this is actually not very difficult at all.

I’ve recently discovered the “blogosphere.” Anyone can have a really professional looking web log or “blog,” and you can have it for free. If you have a good niche in which you operate, with proper keywording you can compete with the mega stock companies and it’s only going to get easier and easier. It’s the Internet. Stupid?


Anonymous Josef Tornick said...

wow! this is a great article. it really clarified thing for me. thanks! -Josef

6:40 PM  

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