Defending the Art Buyer

by Heather on August 3, 2009

Y’all have been gentle in your criticism of the Art Buyer but it still seems that the responsibility for improving the unique quality of your work has landed back in my lap. (I am referring, of course, to the fantastic discussion in response to Myles’ ubiquitousness post- specifically the idea that Art Buyers need to take more risks.)

Let me tell you a bit more about Art Buying as it pertains to awarding work:

1. I don’t know an Art Buyer who wouldn’t want to be responsible for breaking a new and exciting photography style. We all want to introduce a new imagemaker into the fray.

2. While I don’t think we are frustrated/failed artists (those are the Art Directors), our sympathies lean to the expressive, the new, the unique. This was something that I struggled with when I started in this role. I wanted every campaign to show something vibrant and exciting. As I became more senior, I realized that just because the work was novel, didn’t make it right for the client, or, better put, for the demographic.

3. Normally, an Art Buyer’s participation in a project starts with this question: “Who can best execute this concept.” Rarely does it start with this question: “How can Client X use innovative photography to improve their brand.” Don’t get me wrong, I like I love this question, I just don’t normally have the luxury of indulging it.

4. There are many decision-makers involved, either directly or indirectly, in choosing the right look for a campaign. Players include, at the Brand stage: Designer (both with the agency and the client), Creative Director and Client Brand Manager. At the Campaign stage, Art Director and Marketing Client. An Art Buyer is part of this process but by no means is she the last word.

Recently, I had the luxury of leading an audit of Bell’s lifestyle photography. At every point, I had to be true to the brand guidelines of what a Bell Ad needed to express. This wasn’t something I could change, merely something I had to interpret in the best way possible.

As Lead Art Buyer for Bell, I became a Brand partner- I had enormous opportunity to understand and shape the way photography might enliven the platform. Rarely is an AB able to work so closely to the brand and fight for a particular approach to photography, building the photography look and feel from the ground up. Needless to say, it was a fantastically complex and enlightening process.

Aric Rist, Global Brand Photography Manger for Nike puts it this way (as heard as part of Adbase’s Art Buyer’s Lounge series): “We understand the brand message for each category, we see the long term plan.” Nevertheless, when he talks about sourcing photographers, he still privileges photographers who understand the importance of “having a voice and being able to present that confidently, bringing something new to the table”

5. Let’s be clear: my job isn’t to “fight for the photographer”. My job is to fight for the best expression possible for the brand. Happily, sometimes these things coincide.

Take a chance on a new shooter? Yes, I’ll take that challenge/criticism.

Take a chance on a new style? That’s not entirely up to me. It’s something I can suggest, if I think it’s right for the client but not just for novelty’s sake.

Let me end by saying that I love the idea of Art Buyer as Mentor as Joel suggested in his comment. An Art Buyer can and should (when appropriate) bring young photographers along, nudging their vision in the direction of her client, encouraging both parties to meet in the middle. Let’s do it.

Next up: Images, pre-post.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacqueline Bovaird August 4, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Great post and wonderful insight. Thanks Heather!

Ralph Mennemeyer August 4, 2009 at 5:56 pm

I don’t know Heather – but I certainly think she nailed it and could be any of 1000 Ab’s out there who struggle every day with the challenge of their jobs. Both sides of the desk are hard – photographers with vision want their work to be seen (and frankly want/need to make a living) – and AB’s want to help their client stand out. But standing out comes in many forms and most often it’s a good idea (did I say most often…maybe that should be more like every once in a while) and not just the “style” of a photograph. We have all seen the “crunchy photo look” over done for a while now and it doesn’t make a bad idea good…it just makes it look more common at this point. I think everybody is ready for something new. And it’s likely already out there because I can testify that the current trend of post-production altered images was being kicked around the agencies for several years before it really caught fire….and when it did it came more from the editorial world where they have more freedom and less money riding on every image. (That and two good agents sweated blood to help get it noticed in the right places.) AB’s are frankly fighting for their lives in some shops now as “motion content” takes on greater signifcance and the role of the print producer is being re-examend. (Shooting with the “Red Camera” yet?) Rather than carping about the lack of support for change from Heather and her ilk…(trust me change is coming and a lot faster than some of us may think) photographers would be better served to step up and get in the game with better story telling abilities be it in a single shot or 30 seconds worth of video. After all – who is most responsible for everything looking the same but the lemming like artists who are producing it? Do GREAT work and it will find an audience…especially in this world of instant access…. In the mean time cut the AB’s a break – most are decent people with a tough job.

Maggie Meade August 4, 2009 at 9:31 pm

I applaud this article. Coming from a past of managing many agency art buying departments, I believe in print….BUT we must be realist, and evolve what art buyers are, because if you don’t, they agency will. Art Buying is a non-billable expense to a client retainer, so thus position needs to be imperative to great talent effecting brands. In other words, art buying as we once knew it is not the same… There are now to many screens to fill and most of them being digital either on the web or mobile… Don’t let broadcast producers start to take the knowledge and insight art buyers have to new mediums.
Sorry, but I adore photography, but also realize how the agencys need to change their model, and art buying is slowly being absorbed.

D August 6, 2009 at 6:07 am

Yes, alot of this, asu usual, comes down to people not understanding the roles of peoples jobs at agencies. It also applies to magazines too. It’s worth a new photogeapher researching and learning what each role does and what motivates their decisions. THanks Heather, I think this post is invaluable as these roles can seem like mythical enigmas to someone new and yet to learn these roles

moy williams August 7, 2009 at 4:08 am

interesting insight !

Neil / Wonderful Machine August 7, 2009 at 10:47 am

Indeed, this is a good dose of perspective for photographers (and excellent comments, too).

And perhaps this is a slight tangent, but at the end of the day there is a product or service to promote, and you can’t be a “pure” fine artist when you’re being paid to do a job. Once you have another person involved in the mix, and they’re paying, then it’s about collaboration and being as effective as possible for the task at hand.

And sometimes the collaboration inspires greater work than the individual artist would have come up with on their own. Sometimes framework and deadlines provide the necessary inspiration/fear/incentive to complete a creative project in a relatively short period of time, a feat in itself.

Photographers have an obligation to effectively convey a brand’s message (or in the case of editorial work, be true to the subject matter and/or enhance the telling of a story). Ie. it’s not all about stroking one’s creative ego. However, it is an opportunity for photographers to stretch their minds and rise to the challenge of being artistic in a commercial medium. And there are plenty of examples of inspired, beautiful work done in advertising and editorial work, obviously.

Selina Maitreya August 7, 2009 at 11:21 am

Direct ,succinct, clear,Thanks Heather for continuing to provide the client perspective AND (heads up creatives) thanks for discussing the importance of VISION !

Michael Lee August 12, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Just wondering what you all think about this observation: I visit agency X to show my work. AB1 can’t make it so sends AB2 to meet me instead. We sit down for about 45 minutes to go through my print book and computer demo. She says she likes my work. Then she says that their agency, which holds account for some big name brands, rarely hires NEW photographers anymore, and I quote “it is a once-in-a-blue-moon situation that we hire someone new”. She further adds that “we usually stick to the same few photographers”. Hmmm. While I appreciate her candor, I can’t help but wonder that if they don’t hire new shooters, and all jobs go to the same few shooters, is she (and let me put this as best I can) probably missing a little bit of her duties as an AB, that is, to find who best expresses her clients’ brand? Or maybe I’m missing the mark; I mean, there are 2 AB’s there, so they must be busy enough to require a 2nd one. Lots of broadcast perhaps?

Heather August 12, 2009 at 9:10 pm

I would have to agree that this AB is not fulfilling her role if she (and her colleague) consistently hire from a small pool of photographers.

This can be a struggle at some agencies and with some AD’s in particular. They have their comfort zone and don’t like to stray from it. It also depends on how valued the role of AB is at the agency and how much her opinion is respected. No excuse… I’m just sayin’…

As far as your last point goes, the AB department would not be handling broadcast needs but could spend most of their time buying stock, leaving them with very little time to do the labour intensive (but fun) stuff: introducing new shooters via portfolio viewings, setting up a Lounge to showcase interesting work, and just generally keeping her Creative teams inspired and up to date on who’s shooting what.

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