Interview with Sarah Fix
John interviews leading photographers about the future of stock photography and other important issues.
Interview with Sarah Fix, Blend Images creative director and co-owner.
John: Sarah, you have a wealth of experience in the stock industry. You were managing editor at Westlight, Manager of Content Development for Corbis, Associate Creative Director at Picture Arts, and now you are Creative Director and co-owner of Blend Images.
Talk to any photographer who has had the opportunity to work with you over the years and you will find a rare combination of respect and affection. It was a real coup for Blend Images to have you come on board.
Sarah: Thanks for the kind words John.
John: How did you get into the stock business in the first place?
Sarah: In 1993 I applied to an ad in the LA Times for a sales position at Westlight, a stock photography agency on the West Coast that was acquired by Corbis in 1998. I was an account executive for 3 years before moving into the editing department.
This was a great introduction into stock photography. It gave me the ability to visit clients in the major U.S. markets and gain an understanding of what sells and to whom. The owner of Westlight, Craig Aurness, was a pioneer in the industry, a mentor, and a real character. He taught me a lot about analyzing sales data and applying it to content creation.
This was “old school” stock photography -- working with 3 million transparencies, faxed research requests, and computers that ran on DOS rather than Windows. The industry has come a long way since those early days.
John: As Creative Director at Blend Images what are your responsibilities?
Sarah: I’m responsible for the creative functions of the company, which include the look and feel of the collection, marketing, and artist relations.
John: What is your favorite part of the job?
Sarah: The people. I feel so lucky to collaborate with such a talented group. Blend has a unique company culture where there is a lot of communication and sharing of ideas -- both with the staff and photographers.
John: What part is the most challenging for you?
Sarah: Because Blend has a unique co-op style business structure, resources available for investments in marketing and new product lines are limited. It’s always a challenge to determine where best to invest our time and money. While challenging, it’s also rewarding when those investments pay off.
John: Is working at Blend different than at the other agencies you have worked at? If so, how is it different?
Sarah: It is a very different experience working for Blend for a number of reasons.
Blend is owned by a co-op of photographers. This creates a culture focused on photographers and their success, as well as the company’s. The amount of communication, creative research, and sales data that is shared amongst the community is unprecedented in the stock industry. I don’t know of any other agency that is as transparent and forthcoming with information as Blend is.
We have a very concentrated pool of photographers that are a part of Blend. There are 23 owners and 48 contributing photographers. We have been very selective with photographer recruitment to make sure that everyone that contributes is actively and consistently submitting images. Most agencies have an 80/20 rule, with 20% of the photographers being active. At Blend, that activity rate is closer to 70%.
Blend is very efficient and nimble. We have a modern approach to business: hiring the best staff we can get regardless of where they are located, using the latest technologies for workflow, data, and communication. We have a small staff, each with a distinct skill set, extensive industry experience, and willingness to do all tasks big and small.
John: You have worked with a lot of photographers over the years. Have you found any particular qualities that make for a good stock photographer?
Sarah: I think the basic ingredients for doing well in stock are: shoot consistently, shoot competitively, and have a good understanding of the needs of the collection.
The top earning photographers take it a step further:
Shoot a range of subjects to diversify their portfolio. This insures their ability to capture a range of sales and to keep from competing against themselves.
Know what sells. They analyze their sales data very closely to take advantage of re-shooting (in a different way) their top sellers and use top selling locations and models.
Shoot with a strategy to fill content holes.
Spend a significant amount of time in pre-production creating an effective shoot list that prioritizes top selling subjects.
Craft a shoot with an end client in mind. It is important not only to know clients’ concept and subject needs, but also to create a composition that gives the client flexibility for copy and cropping.
John: The stock industry has gone through some real sea changes in the last few years, and that change doesn’t seem to be slowing down. We’ve seen the emergence and solidification of Micro Stock, the over-supply of RF imagery along with dropping RPIs, and the seemingly non-stop consolidation of agencies.
Can you offer any strategies for stock shooters in coping with these changes?
Sarah: Photographers need not only to be creative but also to keep solid business principals in mind.
As a creative professional, shoot with a vision in mind. Put your focus into creating emotional images that have energy and engage the viewer. As an entrepreneur, be informed. Spend your money wisely and create a product that is needed. Be media savvy. Understand new technologies and media use to stay ahead of the curve.
John: Crowd sourcing and Micro Stock seems to be on the tips of everyone’s tongues. Can you talk about Micro Stock a bit, and it’s place in the hierarchy of stock.
Sarah: You can find a lot of great work in micro, but ultimately the success of the model will largely be determined by its economic viability. Professional photographers must be able to earn enough from the model to continue, in turn, to generate new content.
What we’re witnessing in micro is some great work from early adopters. How many of those who are investing in professional quality shoots will be doing so in two or three years? Hard to say. Some pros who invested heavily in micro have already decided to pack it in.
John: Do you think veteran stock shooters should dip their toes in Micro?
Sarah: From a business perspective, a top earning photographer who has shot micro would do a better job than I at explaining the math and profitability of this licensing model. From my perspective, I think a photographer’s personality should also weigh into their decision.
You have to enjoy managing a large production studio and shooting volume in order to be successful at micro. If it makes business sense and fits your personality and interests, then sure, shoot micro. I think it is a very specific person that would enjoy the day-to-day operations.
John: Blend has recently introduced Rights Managed imagery with non-exclusive world distribution. Can you share with us the story of why and how this innovative offering came about?
Sarah: Blend’s brand position is “the leaders of multicultural content”. Our royalty free collection has given us a great foundation. To further leverage our niche, it is important to offer content across a range of price points that can appeal to a broad base of clients. To best utilize our core competency, as a group, it made sense to create a high-end brand.
The rights managed licensing model is experiencing resurgence. It allows clients to have services that are not available in royalty free or micro stock (i.e. exclusivity, sensitive subject approval, and free research).
When Blend decided to create a rights managed collection, it was shortly after Getty Images moved, The ImageBank collection, from rights managed to rights ready. This presented a huge hole in the industry to have the largest and most profitable rights managed collection changed to another licensing model. Creating a need for new, top selling, RM imagery in the market.
Every focus group I have ever seen that focuses on traditional buyers will say that there first priority is finding the right image, second is ease of use, and third is price. We have been encouraged by the feedback we have heard from clients and distributors about the continued need for high quality, rights managed content.
John: This is a tough question, but how do you differentiate between Micro, RF and RM photos?
Sarah: Yes indeed, this is a tough question, partly because it is somewhat subjective and partly because it is much easier to illustrate with visual examples. But I’ll give it a try.
Price point dictates volume required for profitability. And volume dictatessubject and styles. Micro, with the lowest price point, requires a very high volume to generate a return per image, or per shoot, that is profitable for the contributor over time. If a photographer wants to work in the micro model, his or her imagery has to have wide appeal and applicability, as the images must be licensed hundreds of times annually for the content to be profitable.
In the traditional royalty free model, the same principle applies; but because license prices are higher than micro, images can have a more selective appeal as volume of licenses can be smaller. This is why in RF there is typically a wider range of styles andoften more interesting content in these collections.
The rights managed licensing model has distinct qualities that influence what content is selected for this model. It is the only one that is not a straight e-commerce transaction and that is priced based on the value that the image has to the project.
This creates a wider range of pricing that addresses the needs of editorial use (which might not be able to pay the royalty free price) and to the advertising agency licensing an image to drive a campaign. Rights managed also offers customer services that are not available with the other licensing models, such as exclusivity and sensitive subject use.
Images best suited for this licensing model are: highly conceptual, more complex story telling within a single image, and unique moments or subjects.
John: Do you see Blend getting involved with a Micro offering?
Sarah: As a specialized collection, it would be difficult for us to generate the transactional volume to justify a very low licensing fee. Thereis, however, opportunity to expand out our collection and pricing to capture a full range of sales from various clients within our multicultural niche, licensing everything from value-priced mid-level stock images up to exclusive rights managed work.
John: Do you have any advice for jaded veterans?
Sarah: It’s completely understandable how one could be exhausted by all the change. But it is important to accept that change has been constant in the stock world for the past twenty years. Nothing was more disruptive than moving from analog to digital for example – and because there was digital, there was RF.
And now that advertising is increasingly moving online and pictures are being created and used in more ways and in more formats and by more people in the digiverse, we have micro. And there will be more change to come – perhaps all or most stock stills will be by-products of motion shooting. It is exhausting, but ultimately self-defeating if one doesn’t see change as opportunity.
John: Are you optimistic about the future of stock photography?
Sarah: I am optimistic that companies and photographers who adapt to change will thrive.
John: Any words you care to leave us with?
Sarah: A photographer’s greatest assets are their creativity and ability to speak to the market. What is your creative advantage? What do you do better than most?
There is always opportunity during challenging times. Right now in our industry there are fewer images being created, fewer shoots with higher production value, social networking is making it easier to give and receive information, the rights managed licensing model is in need of new content, motion is gaining momentum with affordable cameras that capture both stills and motion – how do you plan on taking advantage of this moment? Adapt as the market changes.