I was at lunch with my friend Annie Ross. Annie had been an art producer for 27 years and had earned an amazing reputation as being highly effective while also being one of the nicest people you’ll ever encounter. We were trying to conjure a word that we could use to describe our industry to the brave photographers venturing into advertising. Wackadoo is all we could come up with.

Contrary to what some people might make you believe, you do not need to be endowed with a miraculous photographic gift to make it in the advertising industry. What you do need is real talent, a high tolerance for rejection, a knack for politics, and a suspension of disbelief. I mention the last item because your wildest nightmares will never come close to giving you a glimpse of some of the absurdity you’ll have to accommodate to make the agency and clients happy.

Advertising photography is like no other genre of photography. It combines all the craziest elements of a creative industry; money, ego, legal paranoia, great expense account dinners, fabulous set adventures, assistants, producers, travel, insane deadlines all centered around a photograph. Wackadoo!

In order to understand wackadoo you need to understand a little bit about the roles of the people at the agency. You will primarily be dealing with the art producer, account executive and art director. But understanding that there are more levels of approval and politics beyond these folks will give you an appreciation for what goes into getting an ad shot. It will also, hopefully, help you understand that all the drama you’ll have to deal with is not because of anything you did — well at least some of it won’t be. Also keep in mind you’ll be interacting with a lot of different personalities. Most of which are totally cool, some of which will drive you crazy.

The Client

To launch the Windows 8 operating system Microsoft reportedly spent over a billion dollars on advertising. Putting that kind of money into the creative industry can employ a lot of freelancers. Unfortunately that money has to trickle down a long way before we photographers can start dreaming about buying our first Porsche.

This is it. The beginning of the journey. Microsoft has a product and they need to tell the world about. So as the product is developed, meetings are held, and somewhere in Redmond, Washington a decision is made on how much money should be spent on advertising the new software.

But, before anyone starts writing any checks, Windows 8 needs an ad campaign. So they start looking for an agency to handle the creation, production and dissemination of the campaign. It’s now up to a select group of ad agencies to win the business of handling the advertising needs of the Microsoft.

At it’s core, the process an ad agency goes through to get this new business is not that dissimilar from the way we get our jobs as photographers. They have to present their work and hope that the client likes what they see. The difference is, we may spend thousands of dollars on our portfolios and web sites, but ad agencies will spend upwards of a million dollars on their pitch to win the new business.

The process of winning the business is essentially creating ad campaigns that the agency thinks will work for the client. As a photographer you may get called upon to be a part of this process by being asked to shoot a pitch campaign. The money is nothing to sneeze at, and the shoots are a lot of fun. When the pitch campaign is finished, the presentation to the client by the ad agency is stunning and lavish. The financial risk is enormous, but when you consider some of the numbers that I cite above, you can understand why so much cash and effort goes into trying to win the account. The agencies that win can be financially set for years, the losers usually start laying people off.

The Agency

Last year the global advertising industry spent over 500 billion dollars. So if you’re sitting in the waiting room of ad agency and wondering if you could buy a house in the midwest for the money they spent on the decorating the entry area, you could.

Ad agencies create a brand identity for a client’s product through targeted campaigns. The campaigns have to be customized for the different markets and then ultimately exposed to those markets through strategic placement. The campaigns get created, approved, produced and then placed in the appropriate media. Campaigns will include ads for television, print, outdoor, collateral brochures, direct mail, point of purchase, internet, social media…you get the idea. The creation, management and placement of all these ads is a monumental task. When it’s done right it is incredibly profitable for the agency and, hopefully, for the client with a rise in sales. When things don’t go so well, the catastrophe ends up in the trade publications as a gaffe. This will trigger a review by the client, at which point the agency will have to scramble to keep the business.

Agencies are are divided into two camps; creative and accounting. As photographers we’re initially concerned with the creative side. Ultimately we’ll have to pretend to like the accounting people as well. If it sounds like there is a bit of a rivalry between the creative folks and the accounting folks, there is. But don’t be too ready to take sides. While you’ll identify with one side more readily, the other is equally as important for you to make a living.

The Creative Director

The only real adult on the creative side of an agency is the creative director. It’s not because there is such a significant difference in maturity between the creative director and the rest of the department. It’s just that the job just has an enormous amount of responsibility.

Their job starts with looking at their dominion of talent so they can choose which writing/art directing team will be right for which project. Once the assignments are handed out the writing/art directing teams will come back to the creative director and present a slew of concepts. It’s up to the creative director to pare down the myriad of concepts down to a few that will get presented to the client who will ultimately choose one.

When the art director and writer are presenting their ideas to the client, the creative director will also be in the meeting to support his or her people. A good creative director will make sure to reign in the client when they start asking for the ridiculous. But they will also listen to the clients needs and make sure that those needs are addressed as the concepts progress to ads.

As a photographer you may not have a lot of direct involvement with a creative director, but if you happen to meet one in a dark hallway, be nice and offer to buy them a drink. You’ll be schmoozing with one of the most powerful people in agency.

The Art Directors

There are two distinctly different types of art directors. Those that are confident and know exactly what they want, and those that are insecure and are searching for the way that they are going to illustrate the concept they sold to the client. You must be friends with both. In the long chain of agency people involved with producing an ad campaign, the art director is your most direct client.

I took a meeting with an art director name Hambis. No last name, just Hambis. He was a stocky fellow from England who wore flannel shirts, jeans, boots and drove a motorcycle. In front of me were the boards (an art director’s sketches of an ad campaign) for a jeans campaign that I was booked to shoot for Hambis and his agency. No matter how hard I squinted I couldn’t get past the fact that the boards looked like Rorschach tests with stick figures. Trouble was that Hambis had a reputation as an incredible art director. So I was sure I was looking at something brilliant. But what was it? I focused and re-focused my eyes looking for something intelligent to ask when I heard his booming voice come up behind me. “What d’ya think mate? Great right? Where d’ya think we should shoot this thing.”

I responded as anyone should when faced with upsetting the person who is responsible for your rent that month. Vaguely. This bought me another 30 seconds of deciphering time as well as little more information from the man himself. He pointed at a black blob that was hanging off one of the stick figure. “A good butt mate. Makes any pair of jeans look great. So where d’ya think we should shoot this?”

After squinting at the drawings long enough I began to see some familiar shapes and offered a long straight road in the high desert. The girls could be hammering a poster for the Rodeo up on telephone pole. He looked at me and smiled. “Oy, I like that better than the side of this barn.” I smiled nervously as Hambis slapped me on the back. As we walked away, I took one last look at the sketch. I desperately wanted to see a barn.

A few months later, the Rodeo campaign, that took two days to shoot, was out. It was fantastic! All the images told their own story, but, also fit together to complete a larger story. Hambis was brilliant. He may not have been the best sketch artist, but his dexterity with computer tools and his ability to conceive visual stories was amazing. Best of all he wasn’t a control freak. Aside from some comments about detail, he let me and my crew do what we do.

Working with an art director is a collaboration. The reason you’re being sought out is because of the way you shoot pictures. When you are close to getting a job in which you’re asked to look at the boards so that you can work up a bid, you’ll be taking a meeting, or, more likely, a phone call with the art director. This is when you’ll brainstorm over your ideas on how to execute the ad. The most important thing to remember is the word “execute.” You are not being hired to re-create a brand new ad. You are getting hired to execute the existing ad. This means that you take the idea that they have and tell them how you envision it being shot.

My propensity to get overly excited about a shot, combined with my big fat mouth has put off more than one art director. As matter of fact, had it not been for the honesty of an art director that became a friend of mine, I’d probably still be annoying people right out of giving me a gig.

In some of the darker moments of my career. I’ve taken meetings with art directors that weren’t so sure about their ideas. The brainstorming session would typically be centered around a vague board that consisted of color scan of a photograph from a magazine and some text placement. If during a conversation it sounds like an art director is on a fishing expedition in your brain, they are. Don’t storm out of the office or anything like that. Just don’t go throwing your best stuff out on the table unless you have a deal to shoot the ad.

My worst experience was when an art director called me in to chat about a board that had one of the images from my web site in it. By the time I was done I had given him the location and all kinds of other ideas. I was sure that the gig was in the bag. Sadly, the only thing that was in the bag was all information I had given him. This is an extreme example to be sure, and certainly doesn’t speak to the norm for the industry, but it is out there, and you need to be aware of it.

Which brings up a topic worth mentioning. There is much controversy over the use of a photographer’s work in an ad mock ups. Technically this is an illegal use of the your photo. The American Photographic Artists has mounted several campaigns against this practice. Many of my photographer friends are divided on the issue. Personally (and this where I get a bunch of nasty emails) I don’t mind if someone uses the my work in that very limited capacity. There is a distinct line between inspiration and theft. I feel that art directors know that line. If you were to take issue with an agency for using your work in a mock up, you would get little more than having your image removed from the board and a lot of ill will. I look at the box of fashion tear sheets that I used to collect when I was starting as a photographer and figure that I did kind of the same thing when I was trying to find my own style. It’s just one of those things.

When your shooting, an art director’s job is to scrutinize the crap out of the test images. What we think is just fine, will never be close to what the art director thinks is perfect. Too much room, not enough room, what’s that spec, why are the eyes like that — etcetera, etcetera. Don’t take this personally. You don’t suck as a photographer. You just don’t have fifteen bosses you have to show the picture to when the shoot wraps. The art director does. Rather than make the mistake of getting defensive, which will screw up your ability to be creative. Just go with the flow and keep that paycheck on your mind, it will make the time go faster.

The Art Producer

I love all art producers. The most immaculate, wonderful people in the business.

Many of you may read this and think that I’m blatantly kissing the collective fannies of a select group of people because they’re directly responsible for hiring me.


My favorite offices in any ad agency are the ones belonging to art producers. On the walls of the office are their favorite photography promos. As you look at all the breathtaking work one phrase will repeat over and over in your head. “Whatever…I could do that.”

Art producers are the most important people in the ad agency for us shooters. They are the ones that find the photographers for a specific job. The first contact you get for a job will be from an art producer. They will be the person to whom you send your portfolio. They are also the ones that you submit your estimate to when you’ve been selected to bid on a job. Consider all the jobs that are being produced at any one time at an ad agency, and you’ll come to realize that art producers are professional chaos managers.

Because of the amount of work that needs the artistic talents of photographers and illustrators, art buying is its own department run by the Senior art producer or Art Services Manager. Under them they have a team of art producers, one of whom you’ll be dealing with.

The series of events that leads up to you getting a job goes something like this; Having received approval for an ad campaign an art director will give a short list of photographers that they like for the job to the art producer. The art producer will draw upon their own resources and experience and add to that list. Then they’ll call all the photographers and have them send their portfolios. This is known as calling in the books. Once all the portfolios arrive the art producer and art director will go through all them and choose a select group of photographers to be considered for the job. These photographers will then get presented to the client with the recommendations of the art director and the art producer. Once everyone agrees on a set of photographers to be considered, the art producer will then contact the selected photographers, send them a copy of the boards and have them estimate the job. A bid will be selected and the job will be awarded to the photographer. Once the job is awarded, the photographer will deal with the art producer for the advance and the final invoice.

You have to keep in mind that the paragraph above is a very basic version of what happens. Their are dozens of variations. Sometimes an art director will fight hard to have a photographer they know get the job. And sometimes an art producer will do the same. A client may give a strong recommendation that the agency go with a photographer that they’ve worked with in the past. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what the process is, as long as you’re the one they call at the end of it.

The Writers

The writers are the other half of the creative team. They’re the ones that come up with all those words that get in the way of your photography. I’ve never met a writer I didn’t like. A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that they they’re not too involved with the shoot. They’ve already written the copy and are waiting for you get your shot done, or they haven’t written the copy because they are waiting for you to get your shot done. Either way writers are the ones that are the most chill on the set.

The Account Executive

There are a few major clues that will help you identify an account executive on a photography set. They are usually dressed a bit more formally than the rest of us. They talk on their cell phones more than anyone else. And they’re never far from the client.

There has always been an unwritten rivalry between the account people and the creative people. A lot of it stems from the account executives position. They manage the budget for the ad campaign. They are advocates for the client, but work for the agency. They look good if they save the client money and treat the client well (fabulous lunches and dinners etc.). And they are usually the ones to veto the idea of shooting a job in Barbados because of budgetary concerns.

I’ll be honest, some account people are extraordinary. They do an incredible job at being a diplomatic liaison between the agency and the client.

And then some are total nightmares. Politically selfish with their own agenda about how the budget for the gig should be used. In 22 years, two of my top five worst experiences in the business had to do with an account executive.

At the core, account executives are politicians with budgets. They are the person that goes between the agency and the client. They have the unenviable job of keeping the client happy and the creative team on budget and on time. You will deal with the account executive for a variety of different reasons, all of which will be different with each new job. I’ve shot jobs where I met the account person once, said “hi” to them across the dinner table and then gave them a hug when the job was done. And then I’ve worked with others that were on the phone with me or my producer five times a day making sure that everything was on point.

When dealing with account people I ask you to understand their position, but also stand up for yourself if you need to. Ultimately your boss is always, the client and the art director.

The Ad Campaign

Much in the same way that we photographers present our creative work to ad agencies in the hopes of getting a gig — ad agencies present their creative work to the companies they represent in the hopes of selling a campaign. The amount of work and process that goes on before you even get called to submit your portfolio is staggering.

Knowing that process will go a long way to help you understand all the politics and other nonsense that you get exposed to when you’re shooting an ad.

It starts with looking for the messenger.

There are consulting firms like Ark Advisors, that match ad firms with companies that need to do some marketing. Ark Advisors will suggest several advertising firms after doing an assessment of needs and budgets etc. Then the company will have chemistry meetings with the suggested ad agencies.

Desperately important things are considered at the chemistry meetings. How do the art directors dress? Do they smell funny? What kind of coffee do they serve in the ad agency kitchen? But there are also serious considerations like, does the ad agency understand what the company is trying to sell. Does it understand the brand, and the customers. For example if you were a company selling automobiles, you might not be a good fit for an ad agency whose biggest client is an organic iguana food producer.

Next, the ad agencies that are under consideration will get a brief from the company. In the brief is all kinds of information about the products they want to sell. They will also give the agencies under consideration some seed money to put together a pitch. The seed money is not a lot, it’s more like a stipend to demonstrate that the company is serious in its consideration of the agency. The agency will typically spend a pile of its own money on the pitch in the hopes of winning the business.

In advertising, the creative is only a small part of the overall campaign. There are things like media planning (where the ads are going to get placed), strategy planning (who do we want to reach, how do we reach them, what time do we go to lunch), and budget planning (how will the company’s money be spent. The nitty gritty of all the different planning departments is actually interesting. You would be astounded at all the things that money is spent on. But the creative department is by far the coolest, so I’m going to focus on that.

I dunno, what do you think?

Once the ad agency has it’s seed money from their potential client, they figure out different advertising strategies. The creative director starts by doling out assignments to his writer/art director teams. And they go off to brew up little cups of genius ideas to be considered to be presented to the potential client.

As a photographer you should pay special attention. During this phase of winning a new client, art directors are going to be looking for photographers to shoot spec ads. This is good because you can make a couple of bucks in an environment that is super fun, and much more open to creative interpretations. It’s also an opportunity to prove yourself to an art director. So if you get called in to shoot a spec ad, bring your absolute best game. The art director is looking for creative input, not just a technician. If you have some groovy ideas about how the ad should be shot, throw them down on the table. This is your time to be impressive in a room that is open to change, which is not the case when you’re brought in to shoot a formal ad campaign.

Also, keep in mind that the spec ad that you shoot is probably never going to get produced into an actual print campaign. The public will probably never see it, but it will sure look good in your portfolio.

Don’t count your chickens…

Okay here’s the plain truth. I shot a decent number of spec ads in my time. I had a good time, made friends with art directors, and went to bed and dreamt about shooting the actual ad campaign. This turned into a constant fantasy when I learned the agency I did the spec for for had won the client. Then, luck shined, I was asked to bid the job. So I started talking big at the bar. “Yeah, I already got the job in the bag. Shot the spec you know. This bid stuff is so the agency can look like it’s doing its job, but I expect to have that gig awarded any day. The drinks are on me!”

It my early years of advertising, I almost never got the gig. Man oh man would I get depressed. I would launch into a massive bout of self loathing combined with an obsessive recounting of the entire spec process to attempt to figure out where I went wrong. The mental spiral got even more dramatic when I had to shoot some actor’s head shots to pay the credit card bill I ran up buying everyone drinks.

What happened? It took a few years of going through this a couple of times, but I came to understand that it wasn’t my fault. It won’t be your fault either. But you’ll still take the rejection personally, just like I still do. It’s who we are as artists. Honestly, even after all the years that I’ve been shooting, if a suburban house wife were to tell me at the last minute that I couldn’t shoot her six year old kid’s birthday party because my work was too intense — it would still mess with my head.

All that said, if you do get approached to shoot a spec, hop on it. Get creative and bring your ideas openly to the art director. The experience is never a bad thing. It’s a lot of fun and if you do get called back to do the ad, it’s the real deal. For all the times I got looked over, I had one time that I didn’t. And that turned into a lucrative campaign that I got to shoot twice in a row.

Okay, now what do you really think?

When the agency has won the client, the creative process becomes more formalized. The creative teams will sit in on the big product meetings that include the ad agency, as well as all the people on the client side that produce the product.

The product gets talked about in minutia. As boring as this hyper deconstruction of the product may seem, the creative teams pay close attention. They never know from where they’re going to derive the next idea and selling point. So they keep a very broad mind.

Then the creative teams get to work on ideas for ad campaigns. A team may come up with, no exaggeration, hundreds of concepts. These ideas will be discussed with the creative director. The writer, art director and creative director will also be in close contact with the account executive. The account executive is a liaison between the ad agency and the client. They also have their eye on the budget and the timing of when the ad needs to get finalized.

From the hundreds of ideas the list will get culled down to around thirty for presentation to the client. These ideas are presented with full boards and scripts. At the presentation meeting the creative team is hoping the client will buy or approve one of their campaigns.

Celebrate immediately.

A good friend who is a major art director in Los Angeles told me that when a client approves an ad campaign the best thing to do is shut up, pack up, leave and celebrate immediately. You absolutely do not want to give the client any room to change their mind.

Are your ears burning?

With the ad approved, and the celebration hangover fading, the search for the right photographers starts. Art directors will usually hand the art producer a short list of photographers that they’d like to work with for the ad. The art producer will take that list and determine if the folks on the list are appropriate for the budget. By that I mean, the art producer is not going to call Mario Testino’s people to shoot a regional flyer for a labor day sale at a local clothing store.

The art producers will also consult their own resources to find other photographers to be considered. These resources include their own file folders filled with promos that they’ve been collecting for years. They may also ask friends, and do some digging on the internet.

Now that you know how powerful the art producers are to getting photographers work, you’ll understand why I always like to say, “art producers are lovely, amazing, beautiful people.”

The initial onslaught of portfolios that are called in to the agency get scrutinized by the art producer, art director, creative director, client, and even the account executive. After much discussion and discussing of favorites with the client, the contenders emerge. This is when the “how much to shoot the gig” phone calls go out the photographers selected to bid on the job. It’s a call that you as a photographer should love and hate at the same time. Love it because it’s work. Dread it because no one except for the seriously deranged likes to put a bid together.

The bottom line.

Art producers will scrutinize the line items of your bid. They’re looking for really stupid mistakes, gross exaggerations, or blatant decadence like an on set masseuse.

Art producers are cool people. They are not the enemy. Say it with me. “art producers are your friend.” While they may not readily give the budget available for the shoot, they will not hate you for asking questions. If you are a rookie, the art producer knows this, so don’t try to pretend that you know what you’re doing. Ask the art producer silly questions, they will happily tell you the answers. They want your bid in competitive shape as much as you do. You’re not going to get dinged for getting a complete understanding of the bid. Keep in mind that if your bid sucks, the art producer is going to have to get in touch with you to make it better any way. So forget about your preconceived notions of perception, you and the art producer are friends. If you ask a question that the art producer can’t answer, they’ll tell you so — and that will be the end of it.

Celebrate immediately part 2.

There are a significant number of people involved in producing an ad. If you think about the personalities and the politics, you can understand why things can move real smooth or real rough. The shoots that are nightmares, and you will have several, will by their definition keep you up nights. You will always survive them. The abolute best thing to do in these disasters is maintain your integrity. If someone on your crew makes a huge mistake, it’s your responsibility, don’t throw your people under the bus unless they do something criminal. Remember, the best way to correct a mistake is to already be thinking of a solution.

The best shoots are the ones that have a little chaos, with a group of calm experienced people working on it. You get to learn the most, and have the a lot of fun with a bunch of talented people who are all trying to achieve a common goal. It is on those shoots that you will make your life long friends.

Always remember, the completion of any job deserves some sort of celebration. It is the only way that you can prepare to throw yourself back into the circus again.