0CORBIS APPOINTS CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER
June 23, 2006
Corbis recently appointed Ross Sutherland to a new position of Chief Creative Officer. Sutherland, a native of New Zealand, has almost 40 years of experience at some of the world's leading advertising agencies. He has held a variety of positions at Ogilvy & Mather and supervised a group working on such accounts as: Jaguar, Hershey's American Express International, Pepsi International, Maxwell House, Sheraton Hotels and Resorts, Dove, Smith Barney and Ford to name a few. Prior to this appointment he was Executive Creative Director/Managing Partner at Young & Rubicam in New York.
He has been involved in the print side of the business nearly all of his working life and lost interest in doing television commercials many years ago.
In a wide ranging interview, only four days after his official start date at Corbis, I tried to get a sense of how Ross will approach the job of Chief Creative Officer and what changes, if any, we might expect to see. Clearly he was still in the process of being briefed about his new company and various stock photo industry characteristics that may not have been immediately apparent to a stock photo buyer from the advertising business. He does not seem to have any major plans for immediate changes.
JP - Please describe the role of a Chief Creative Officer. What are you expected to do?
RS - A narrow definition would be to aesthetically manage the commercial portfolio of the agency. My friends in advertising asked, 'wow do you have to look at 7 million pictures every day and choose and crop them.' No, that's not what I'll be doing.
I'm thinking that the role of a creative chief in this organization is to figure out how through a combination of relationships, content, services, and new products that this company can build a significantly more powerful relationship with advertising agencies and design firms than merely a source of photographs.
Part of the creative director thing to is to conspire with and work with photographers to see if we can't somehow, together, figure out what we ought to be doing rather than Corbis revealing the obvious with a profound sense of discovery.
That's how I've defined my job, but when this comes out in print and horrifies everybody and they say, 'no that's not what we want'; well we'll soon find out. What they don't need is somebody to look at individual pictures and say 'that's not a very nice picture'. They have plenty of people who can do that so that sort of role would be redundant.
Ross' philosophy seems to be to 'listen and learn' to as many people as possible in the producing/distributing/buying chain of our business, rather than having an agenda that will solve all the problems. He said, "every time you sit down and talk to somebody that you've never talked to before you always learn something interesting. The more you do it the more you can start putting bits and pieces together."
He thinks that a more collaborative relationship between the agency and photographers is needed, and maybe a similar relationship between buyer and photographer. "We have to find interesting new services and new resources to arm our clients with and that in turn may create work for photographers who might otherwise be struggling a wee bit. It's just a theory that is starting to evolve over these last four days," he continued.
JP - How are you going to communicate what you learn to the photographers?
RS - I haven't fully cracked the code on this, but one of the things I hope to be able to do very early on is spot trends and, give photographers a much more accurate brief on what to shoot, not on a tear sheet 'brown is next year's black' level, but good creative intelligence on a planning level.
For example, there is now going to be a great flurry around the fattening of American children. This is a trend that is here to stay until they beat McDonalds and Coca Cola to death and move on to the next victim. People in our business should have seen that coming a year-and-a-half-ago and should have armed up the archive with suitable photographs, not just of overweight children, but of children doing healthy things; drinking water more than holding lollypops. That is planning rather than researching for gaps and short term opportunities.
Too much of what goes for research is looking for holes in the archive. Someone may say, 'we don't have any pictures of priests. Let's do a big priest shoot'. I don't think that's the way.
JP - Coming from a leading advertising agency will you be looking for more of the kind of images that can be turned into major ads?
RS - We're not in the high-end advertising business because all the great ads have a blisteringly original photographic idea. We've got to stop competing with the high concept things because no creative director or art director is going to fess up that the image they use wasn't their idea to begin with.
Much of my experience has been as an art director and with other art directors so I know how people inside agencies behave; what they really think of stock; what they secretly think of stock; what they overtly think of stock and how they use it. Creative directors are happy to use the online sites for research and ideas, but they don't want to tell their superiors or clients 'I found this'. They want to sell the project as their own idea.
A lot of the stock photography that's done, particularly in RM, is "too emphatic" (assured, bold, forceful, striking, powerful, categorical, dogmatic) for use in advertising.
Editor: Ross acknowledged that, "there are instances, where what is required is a perfectly serene landscape and that idea has been sold with the use of a perfectly serene landscape photo from an archive. In such cases, there is little commercial sense in duplicating such photos and stock images will be used." But he concluded, "it's a waste of time to try to preempt the original idea area from the art director," and implied that's what a lot of the "emphatic" RM images are trying to do.
JP - So where is the market?
RS - Photographs that have a single-minded concept are less likely to be successful than ones that are open to a number of concepts. The vast majority (of advertising) is mundane, always has been, always will be, and this is not peculiar to the U.S.; it is a worldwide phenomenon.
Editor: Based on recent information I believe that significantly less than 1% of all individual licenses are for fees of $3,000 or higher and such sales probably represent less than 13% of the gross advertising revenue generated by the industry.
Thus, if the vast majority of advertising created is mundane there may be a logic to producing the "non-emphatic" images that generate in excess of 80% of the revenue rather than focusing on the high end.
JP - It would seem that needing an approved layout with real photographs, and having limited time to work on the project due to the additional work load would push the buyers to use more stock rather than assignment. Isn't that the case?
RS - They must get the 'creative concept' out quickly, but then there can be long lead times before the project is approved, shot and produced. I think you'd be shocked to learn the gestation period of advertising in agencies. It is about the same as elephants.
But I know for an absolute fact that the main 'game' (at the high end) is 'let's sell a concept so we can get the hell out of the building for a couple weeks to a beach, or a mountain or another country.'
On the really top high end projects, the goal is not to find a stock image that will work, but to do a 'road trip' "because given the way the advertising business has diminished there are precious few perks left people in agencies".
In some senses stock photography is viewed as the 'enemy' by creatives at major agencies - not in terms of creativity, but in terms of the 'road trip'.
On the one hand stock plays an invaluable role in the advertising process within the walls of advertising agencies and their client companies, but then, of course, it is the enemy because it is robbing these people from having a little fun.
RS - I've spent many many years of my life in advertising clinging perilously to the idea that I was in an artistic endeavor, and it wasn't until much much later that it dawned on me that I'm really in an act of commerce and that some kind of artistic credentials were the currency I had to play with. I wish I had learned this lesson much earlier.
The business we're in is an act of commerce. All of us in the industry are lucky that it involves some kind of artistic integrity and creativity, but really we can't live without photographers and some of them can't live without us. And I think increasingly more of them will enjoy a better relationship with Corbis, and I mean that financially as the business evolves.
Major Issue Facing Photographers
JP - What do you feel are the major issues facing image creators today?
RS - I have a lot of friends who are photographers. A lot of them are feeling very, very squeezed financially. And I guess that is because the squeezing is passed on from what used to be their principal revenue source - advertising agencies. So their biggest problem is how to generate new revenue streams without doing something they don't want to do."
JP -Do you have any answers for that?
RS - Not off the top of my head. What I feel in my heart of hearts is that the only way forward for the photographic community and for this industry is to isolate a number of people who can work on a commonwealth basis, because I'm sure photographers know things that we don't know and vice versa. And if it is more collaborative I think it could be a much better approach with photographers than us spending a lot of time trying to find out what pictures we don't have."
JP - What do you think of Getty's "Photographer's Choice" option where the photographers themselves are allowed to choose some of the pictures that are put into the database. Would you institute something similar to this at Corbis?
RS - The concept has a lot of validity. I don't know what will happen with it over here as it is still early days. Before my official start date I went to a photographer's conference in London and this was a huge subject of discussion."
JP - Corbis is putting a particular emphasis this year on building the RF side of their business. Do you see a decline in demand for RM?
RS - I don't know the nuances of it. My guess is that RF is a much better proposition because it is e-commerce. I know of the big three we have the lowest ratio of e-commerce so I guess that might be one of the driving factors behind this. That's about all I have been able to piece together from my many power point presentations from many different people in this company about many different aspects of this company.
There is a greater emphasis on RF which I think it is inevitable. That's my gut feeling. It's totally personal. If I had been left a vast amount of money and I chose to fritter it away on one of these ventures I'd want to be wholly owned content or RF.