Long before social media, there were photojournalists whose work was shared across traditional media channels. The right instincts, in the right moment, resulted in an image that captured the imagination, documented an event and told a story. A single image seen across all media channels. In today’s more media savvy environment, we might say it went viral. A single moment, a single image and a single opportunity to capture that image. Guts, instinct, talent, intuition, anticipation and a passion for the story; these are a few of the key ingredients for a successful photojournalist.

In 1991 my friend and great talent Ira Yoffe, then VP Creative Director at Parade Magazine, invited me to participate in the Eddie Adams Workshop. In 2017 The Eddie Adams Workshop celebrated 30 years of its unique program for photojournalists. This is an intense, four-day gathering of top photography professionals, along with 100 carefully selected students. The workshop is tuition-free, and the students are chosen based on the merit of their portfolios. Nikon has been the workshop’s major sponsor since its inception. I’ve been shooting with Nikon Cameras and lenses most of my life. There is an extraordinary relationship between Nikon and The Eddie Adams Workshop, so I try to support Nikon when I can. I still use many of my original Nikon manual focus lenses for both still and video work, even on other cameras. It’s time-proven quality and in the moment, reliability is key.

During the workshop, I was part of the guest faculty sharing my experience and perspective with these young photojournalists. Also on the faculty was the great Duane Michals, among many other celebrated and talented creatives and editors. I don’t recall exactly what Duane Michals had to say to them, but one can imagine it included trusting their creative instincts. My message to these young professionals was simple. For the rest of their lives they would have two jobs; making the work and promoting the work.

It is the same for brands; make the brand and promote the brand. Photojournalists make great hires to help execute social media campaigns. Social media is a ready-made channel for photojournalists. When aligned to your brand story and the goals you would like to achieve, the skills of a photojournalist are hard to beat. One result: the work will come from a more authentic, investigative place as opposed to some very prescribed idea of your brand. Social media immediacy and authenticity is lost when content becomes an entirely mechanical unfolding of the campaign. To me, social media is most successful when it balances the organic with the highly orchestrated.

When considering how to hire for successful social media, think outside the traditional agency box.

Blockchain could save the media environment for brands. There has been a fair amount written about how blockchain might result in greater transparency in media buying and tracking; if it all works as conceived, it will also be a boon for content creators enabling direct engagement with audiences and direct payment too. This advancement has the potential to put more leverage back on the side of creators like musicians, film makers, photographers, writers and journalists too.

Blockchain has potential to greatly minimize the prevalence of fake news and level set social media networks too. This is particularly important for brands. In the world of robotic ad buys, ads can end up being dropped into the most unsavory of contexts. As a brand manager, if my banner ads were popping up in the social media feeds of people who do not share the same values of the brand, I would be very concerned. How can a brand live its truth when its lived experience is often in direct contrast to the social responsibility ethos it seeks to express? As the old adage goes, “you are the company you keep.”

As an example, racists buy cars, houses and cappuccinos. They have jobs, pay taxes and in general, contribute to society; but some of the values they keep are values most brands would never support.

For legacy media outlets with legitimate journalistic integrity like the NY Times, fake news is rarely, if ever, an issue. Ads served in this context are elevated by the integrity of the enterprise.

For lesser media properties and the robotic ad placements that serve them, brands can end up in context of uncorroborated reporting, fabricated events and misinformation. Corroborated reporting is a hallmark of journalistic integrity. Fake news even fakes corroboration.

Blockchain has the potential to minimize this activity forcing down onto this media a governance of integrity through the use of corroboration across a blockchain ecosystem that would fact check content and give brand managers and media buyers leverage, insight and security in knowing that their brand is not being used to legitimize fake news and in turn be diminished by its participation in the fakery.

This would reward journalistic integrity with greater ad placement and minimize placement in fake news and hopefully, choke-off its source of income. The bigger issue though, is a societal issue; we have a culture that seems to not care if news is fake. As advertisers, we have an obligation to uphold the integrity of the media, without it we risk casting brand reputation to the dogs.

When I first started working in the industry, I had a great experience, or I should say, set of experiences, that really enhanced my technical and artistic understanding of film and photography and storytelling in general.

I was fresh out of Parsons School of Design and met my friend Kevin O’Callaghan. Kevin is now a prominent instructor at the School of Visual Arts and an industry legend, not only for his excellence as an instructor, but also for his amazing work in 3D illustration, sculpture and art installations. Kevin is what he has always been, a creative genius.

With Kevin I began working creating props and special effects for film and TV. Together we worked on a number of projects, some in conjunction with Dale Malley, at the time one of the country’s leading independent prop makers.

We worked on television spots for Atari, making 3D live-action TV sets that played video games with each other. We crafted giant ice cubes, a giant glass and a giant can for 7Up and built colorful, moving props for BonJour Jeans. We made props for the Rodney Dangerfield film Easy Money and recreated aspects of the Oval office for a film about JF Kennedy with Martin Sheen; we made props for a Mid-Summer Night’s Sex Comedy with Woody Allen, the Flamingo Scooter for the Flamingo Kid with Matt Dillon…the list goes on.

The Flamingo Scooter

O’Callaghan; genius at work

Everything we built, no matter how fantastic, needed to fool the eye, to be real…enough. We had to be convincing in our execution of these props and effects. Some were incredibly authentic to original objects we had been asked to reproduce, others were pure fantasy writ large. This was fun, exciting and interesting work during which I learned a great deal about what the camera will see, or more specifically, what we see and what looks convincing on film. The understanding of how light interacts with various colors, surfaces and structures remain invaluable. The most important aspect of course is that all these aspects are delivering on the intention of the scene and the film as a whole.

The demand for video content and the need to tell brand stories in interesting ways requires first and foremost a great insightful story and then the ability to tell it effectively.

Photography and film is a science of both light and time, the manipulation of these fundamental elements can make or break a piece of content. It’s about what you are filming and how you film it. Where you place the camera and how you light the subject are two of the most important decisions that need to be made.

From my perspective (pun intended), not enough thought and creativity is put into this aspect of video content creation. There is a great deal of stylistic sameness; the industry repeating itself.  This works against the differentiation of your brand. The execution of the story should be anchored in the uniqueness of your brand story, not in the latest trend or enabling technology. If you’ve ever watched a video and the production techniques end up being more interesting than the story, you understand the problem.

If the idea is not crystal clear and interesting, then all the slick execution in the world will not make it better.

Yes, we’re talking production. Clients want you to produce work. This is, after all, what they hire us for; Is it not?

Yes, you say, with great affirmation.

Wrong.

What clients hire us for, what they really hire us to produce, are results. The work is a means to an end and that ultimate end result is sales. Not awareness in and of itself, not leads, although these are steps along the path, not likes or clicks, but actual hard-boiled sales, measured in ounces of gold.

Advertising to sales ratios are one measure clients use to determine how much of their advertising budget goes into each sale. Some clients, depending on the nature of their product or service, might look at lifetime value of a customer, assuming the product or service involves repeat purchase. For instance, your wireless phone service vs a dog leash.

The wireless service may spend hundreds of dollars closing you as a customer knowing for sure that once they have you, they will have you for a good many years, so the initial cost of sale is amortized over the life of your engagement.

The dog leash people, on the other hand, cannot afford to spend any more than a few bucks to achieve your purchase of their product. And it’s a product you will likely have a lot longer than your wireless carrier. Or at least as long as you have your dog.

If you don’t understand your client’s business, you cannot produce effective results. It’s pretty simple. If you don’t understand the perceived value in the mind of the target customer, you will not achieve effective results.

Brand value is derived from consumer need based on real insight into their emotional relationship with the brand. This emotional relationship is expressed in the brand idea.

Getting it right triggers deep connections that make the cash register ring; and that my friends is what they pay us for.

Block, Light, Rehearse, Shoot…your brand story.

It’s happened before, technology democratizes an industry and craft suffers before it rises again. I’m advocating for a conscious return of what I feel is a progressive loss to the level of craft in commercial content production.

The art of your brand story is one part and the art of the production of your brand story is the other. Thanks to the internet, there exists an insatiable desire for content. And thanks to the democratization of the technologies of content creation, everyone with a camera and a zoom recorder is suddenly a producer or director or director of photography or all of the above. Yikes.

Potential clients call Brandforming and ask us for an assessment of why their content is not delivering the anticipated results. They invested in, yada, yada, yada…

There is a lot of crappy content on the web; I hope it’s not yours.

Just because you can produce content with your smart phone does not mean you should. Just because you can fry an egg on your car engine does not mean you should. If Annie Leibovitz takes your portrait with a smart phone, it will be an amazing story of you. If Martin Scorsese wants to make a cinematic production with a DSLR, it’ll be an amazing tale. If Bobby Flay decides to cook you brunch on the engine of his SUV, it’ll be one of the best meals of your life.

The skill and creativity of the story teller, not necessarily the gear involved, is the point. Great gear in the right hands has the potential to make a great story or idea that much stronger in execution. But in and of itself it is an empty shell.

This does not mean you shouldn’t create and produce. It means if you don’t have the skills, you need to practice and hone the craft before you degrade your brand with crappy content. And the first skill you need to master is the story. If you don’t have the skills in-house, then hire the right people. All the tech expertise in the world will not make a bad story better.

Most production companies are not built like marketing agencies; most of them are built for episodic engagements, not brand stewardship. Building and safeguarding your brand story takes a long-term view, it takes insight and planning and strategy and great creative ideas, smartly executed. This is the work of brand agencies.

Today there is a profusion of production companies that have technical skill because the technology has made it much easier to look and sound good, but that does not make them effective at decoding your story. A direct engagement with a production company may make the cost to your marketing budget look cheaper on paper but the long-term cost is significant. Vacuous content.

Content without brand strategy is death by a thousand cuts.

Really good agencies know this, and really good clients know this too. And really good production companies know this and expect to partner with brand agencies. A great commercial director wants to understand your brand and its audience.  This is where your brand agency insight and executional expertise will guide the production team and help them tell your brand idea with the correct intention.

This is the work of producing content; to tell your brand idea, and it is why brand agencies employ creative directors, writers, art directors, strategists and producers, to define your brand idea.  And then, shot by shot, adding and building, intention upon intention, the entire production design is aligned with the purpose of your brand.

This is the craft.

Are you creating killer content? Is your content engine in overdrive? A boiling, overheated, over expressed machine; choking the very channels from which you hope to win new customers and build deeper relationships.

Not all content is created equal. And not every potential consumer touch-point warrants the presence of your brand.

The buyer’s journey is almost always a process of discovery, investigation, ingestion, peer-to-peer consultation, more investigation, purchase consideration, then final decision and purchase of the winning brand.

Consumers need downtime. They need free space to think, confer with friends and thoughtful consideration of their options. They need ad free, clutter-free space. They need respect.

Robotic ad buying and over-zealous social media content stuffing can destroy brand perception.

Too much, is well… too much. And enough is enough. Brands that lack insight and deep strategy default to polluting their own channels; paid, owned and earned.

Clients are spending untold amounts of money on bad content decisions. Content strategy should be a very direct and meaningful extension of your brand idea. Your brand idea needs to express the desires of your customers. The story of your brand is the story of your customers.

Telling this story in the most meaningful and relevant and respectful way is the ultimate expression of your brand.

Killer content; thoughtful, respectful, entertaining, informative and insightful. Creative content is the stuff that turns prospects into customers.