Continuing our “A Question of Photography” series, PhotoOp met up with Bill Gastinger, the Sr. Art Producer for advertising behemoth - and Don Draper’s sometime nemesis - Y&R (Young & Rubicam). A significant part of Bill’s role is to find and book advertising photographers on behalf of the agency’s clients - brands like Xerox, Hillshire Farm and Dell.
We thought it would be interesting to hear his back-story, and discuss how and where he finds professional photographers to work on Y&R’s ad campaigns.
PhotoOp: How did you find yourself working in the advertising industry?
Bill Gastinger: In my early twenties I was visiting a good friend in LA who worked at TBWA\Chiat\Day in the edit/dub department. I walked into that office and immediately knew it’s where I wanted to be. It is a vast, vibrant, creative space and you could tell people had a lot of fun working there. A few months later I accepted an entry-level job in the accounting department. For a year I worked on client billing for Apple, which turned out to be a great experience, because through dealing with all the invoices, I gained exposure to every single function within the agency. Before long, I fell in love with the Art Buying department. I was never an Art Producer there, but rather the Assistant - and ultimately Line Producer - for Arthaus, their in-house creative retouching and photography studio. It was a unique set-up, essentially a small photography business within this huge global agency.
PO: What did you do in this role?
BG:I was involved in the whole process: from bidding each job, managing the studio workflow, to film scanning, proofing, photo assisting, prop styling, billing of course, liaising with clients…
PO: Who were basically the agency…?
BG: Yes, our clients were the Agency’s Art Producers and Creatives. Jigisha Bouverat, then Director of Art Buying originally started Arthaus by bringing in a gifted Digital Artist, Josh Withers. Since Josh could shoot as well, we eventually built a photo studio complete with a white cyc, which expanded the types of projects we could produce. We’d bid against other vendors for specific projects, as an alternative creative option.
PO: How do you think this experience helped you today?
BG: I learned the whole business from a photographer’s perspective, but still had exposure to the Agency side. It has helped me immensely in my current position, allowing me to anticipate what a photographer might need to enable them to produce their best work.
PO: What types of photographers do you hire?
BG: We're fortunate in that we work on all types of clients - food, finance, pharma, you name it. And being a big creative agency, concepts could be anything, so we have the opportunity to work with all types of photographers.
PO: So how does the actual process work at an Ad Agency?
BG: At bigger agencies like Y&R, it’s the Art Producer’s job to collaborate with the creative teams to produce the creative vision for still content. The client will often have approved basic illustrations or renderings of concepts, and now they need to be recreated to a much higher quality. We source the artists, deal with estimating and negotiations, licensing and usage rights, organizing the photo shoot, really anything related to the creation of still content.
PO: So a creative comes to you with their approved concept for a print ad (and budget) in hand and says “go find the right photographer for this”. What do you do?
BG: So my first step is to brainstorm using my existing network of photographers and agents. I review each photographer’s website to decide if there is something special they could bring to the project. It’s my job to elevate the work. Through a dialog with the creative team, we come up with a short-list of photographers that everyone is excited about. I enjoy getting the input of fellow Art Producers too, because there might be someone great I’ve forgotten to put on the list! If I’m stumped, or looking for something super specific, I might turn to a source book, but not often.
PO: Does it help if the photographer is repped?
BG: Basically, yes. It helps you get in the door in the first place. I’d imagine having a rep can not only help with the marketing, but also usage negotiations and estimating. Agencies like us are very particular about how we do business and our projects must be very buttoned up. I’d say most of the photographers we work with are repped, but it’s certainly not a requirement.
PO: So how would a non-repped photographer get your attention?
BG: A huge part of our job is being on top of emerging creative talent, so I try to be as accessible as possible. That said, there is a huge volume of photographers out there and we are inundated. I try to spend some time each day looking at promo emails, except when I’m slammed with projects. I don’t like cold calls – after all it’s a visual medium and I’m usually not at my desk. I don’t mind getting printed promos in the mail. I do feel badly for the trees, so I make sure to look at every single one so they have served their purpose.
PO: Have you been sent any weird or funny promotions?
BG: Sure! We’ve seen it all. Beer with a promo image on the label. Candy. Keychains. It’s amazing, you can print a weblink on almost anything these days.
PO: Do they work?
BG: Gimmicks don’t work. If anything, it can be a distraction. For us, it’s all about a photographer’s work and whether or not they can bring something unique to a specific brand.
PO: And do ever meet with photographers in-person?
BG: Absolutely, I try to meet at least 2-3 photographers or agents per week, depending on my workload. The face-to-face time is very important - because I get to hear about their process and get a feel for their personality and what it would be like to work with them.
PO: But it sounds like it could be hard to get that face-time with you, unless you’re repped…
BG: Yes that’s true, just because there is only so much time in our day. I also participate in portfolio reviews, such as NYCFotoWorks or the upcoming PhotoPlus Expo, where we get to meet many photographers within a short period of time.
PO: And what kinds of questions do you ask when reviewing a portfolio?
BG: I want to know the stories behind the images. Why they made specific choices. What are they inspired by?
PO: How can the photographer maximize their chances of being hired?
BG: Of course the most important factor is the quality of the work itself. When I am reviewing a portfolio I am looking at the photographer’s aesthetic and style. Every project is different at an ad agency, and every brand has it’s own unique voice - we need a perfect marriage between the photographer’s visual tonality and the brand’s creative sensibility. We want the photographer to amplify the creative vision.
I am also looking at the photographer as a person. We want to work with people who are professional and will partner with us. Advertising can be a challenging combination of business and art, and we need our photographers to have the right temperament.
PO: What are your thoughts on having a purely digital portfolio?
BG: As in how do I feel about looking at a portfolio on an iPad? I’m fine with it. I get it. It makes sense. But I do enjoy a printed portfolio. I think it’s important to see how the image looks on the printed page. And honestly, I feel that the iPad’s backlight can alter the images a little.
PO: Would you ever hire a professional photographer you discovered on Instagram?
BG: Yes, absolutely. Earlier this year we specifically hired Instagram photographers, actually influencers, to take an SUV, chart a journey, and document their experience. We had them shoot for traditional media, but also post on their own Instagram accounts. It adds a new dimension to the industry. It’s about using the photographer as a media platform, because we are hiring the photographers as much for their followers as their photographic ability. And for an Art Producer it was interesting to see how the photographers were monetizing their followers. It was no longer just about licensing the image, it’s about the photographer as a brand partner. That said, for photographers looking to shoot for non-social media, a traditional website is required.
PO: What can photographers do to make your job easier?
BG: Communication is key, of course. Often our clients or fellow agency colleagues don’t understand the process. It’s invaluable to hear from a photographer why they are making certain decisions. The more comfortable the team and client, the more successful the shoot will be.
PO: Are there any photographers you are particularly proud to have worked with? And why?
BG: There are many. But I recently worked with Vincent Dixon on a high profile conceptual project, and he is a dream on set. He’s just great at his craft and understands the business.
PO: What’s the difference between a good photographer, and a great one?
BG: A good photographer creates work that is interesting today. A great one creates work that is interesting today, tomorrow, and on and on...
PO: What’s your expectation for a “good” on-set experience? Conversely, what makes a bad on-set experience?
BG: A bad experience is one where decisions aren’t getting made. Getting stuck on details that don’t matter in the end. But magic can happen when you get the right people in one room, we just need to stay focused and make the most of our time on set.
PO: Any parting words of advice for photographers looking to get into advertising photography?
BG: Shoot what you love, because that’s what shines through.