Time Is Money – The business of commercial stock photography

First published Photo District News, 2004

September 18th, 2004Stephen Mayes

The market research is consistent: when asked to identify their top priority when sourcing stock imagery most picture-buyers say the same thing, “it’s all about the right picture”. It seems obvious; after all, that is what the business is about isn’t it, pictures? Stock libraries have focused on the call for quality and relevance and these days they overflow with highly produced images that communicate fast and effectively covering every subject that was ever requested. We’ve got the pictures. However, given that the “right picture” could also be assigned, what do clients really pay for when they buy stock? Why do they buy rather than shoot?

The answer, it seems, is time. It is another obvious answer because we all know that stock’s most attractive feature is that it’s so much speedier than assigning, yet it is an overlooked asset. In a world that is overloaded with imagery there is still not enough time. Ever diminishing numbers of creative employees are asked to deliver more work and faster. Time is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity and here is the opportunity for stock libraries to do more for their customers.

Consider the elements that make time so valuable for picture-buying clients. They count the cost of the creative process in several ways, the most obvious being the time to produce a shoot, which is a cost that is wholly recovered when buying stock. Another measure is the cost of transaction, which is more than just the price paid for the product; it is the cost of doing the deal including employee time to find the right image and to negotiate the license. With its pre-released images and structured rights packages, tock slashes the transaction time.

It is all about people and jobs, and as employment in American ad agencies tumbled by nearly 20% since its peak in 2001, the art-buying departments have become increasingly stretched. Stock played a part in this process and some art-buying workload has in effect been out-sourced to stock libraries. The libraries don’t simply answer a demand for pictures, they pre-empt the research process by predicting what will be requested and organizing the collections to eliminate haphazard searches. Heavy investment in digitization, keywording and online search technology means that the libraries are effectively carrying weight that was previously borne by their clients.

Stock’s customers are highly motivated to exploit the savings offered by the image libraries not only because they save money on faster transactions but more importantly because they can use the extra time to do additional business. Stock customers have discovered that the time saved on handling photography can be spent instead on servicing more of their clients to drive higher billing. The cash savings offered by stock are dwarfed by the earnings achieved by processing more work. It is no mistake that market research puts “price” relatively low in the list of picture-buyers’ concerns when sourcing stock because the real gains of buying stock are so much bigger. For stock’s customers time really is money, and we have sold it to them cheap.

The opportunity is ripe for the stock industry to develop extra value in its offer. Stock has truly fulfilled the dream of every consumer for “more better faster cheaper.” The next step must be “extra”. The limitations seem to be more in the minds of stock suppliers who think only about selling pictures than in the minds of the customers who are eager to leverage value from the expertise of their suppliers. Instead of limiting the offer to simply selling pictures, stock producers should consider expanding their service to include time and know-how. The reference points for this expansion are not other picture libraries but rather consultants and other professional service providers who improve their clients’ business by saving time, adding value and reducing risk. For example, think about web developers who sell well-designed web pages but whose real value is in developing rationalized business processes, or consultants who are hired to advise on “human resource” issues but whose real value is in delivering increased productivity. Stock libraries are selling pictures, but their real value is in saving time and efficient communication.

With cumulative annual sales of more than $1.5 billion we can be confident that the stock producers have understood their clients’ needs, so why not leverage this expertise in other ways? Many stock agencies already expanded their promise from “We supply images” to “We supply visual solutions”, meanwhile changing nothing in their offer. If they truly believed the tagline they could find a dozen ways to fulfil the promise. The larger stock enterprises are already helping customers organize and distribute their digital assets, and there are other opportunities in the creative zone. One San Francisco stock supplier survived for years without contracting a single photographer, trading instead in images produced by every other American stock library. Their product was the expertise to find the right picture and, of course, the time to do it. In other words they simply outsourced art-buying.

Why not take it further? Highly skilled creatives are at work in the agencies conceptualizing and producing imagery that appears in every corner of the commercial market. They understand the customers’ communication mission, they originate ideas, they source talent, they are experts in production, and unlike local picture buyers they see the whole process in global terms. This is a tremendously valuable asset. There are many customers who are looking for off-the-shelf “visual solutions” and for them there is special value locked in the stock agencies. Their “solution” is more than a picture, it is a process of communication but they can’t afford to invest in time-intensive research, analysis and comparative studies, but they would pay to get the benefits at a reasonable price. Selling time does not always mean delivering faster; for many purposes it can mean using time to deliver smarter results, and once the value is understood it can be priced accordingly.

The stock producers are gatekeepers of trends and talent, and they know how to control it. Like other gatekeepers in history they should find ways of generating revenue from their valuable asset.

At time of writing Stephen Mayes was Director of the Image Archive at Art + Commerce