I’ve had the opportunity to work on a couple of big campaigns with Chris, one of them being Exxon Mobil which is how we met. I thought I’d sit down and interview him on his perspective of working with photographers. Chris is an all around awesome guy, and has a lot of insightful things as he’s been in the industry for years.
NO: To give us some context, what agencies and clients have you worked with?
CD: At the moment I’m a creative director at DDB and oversee the relationship marketing here, as well as managing the consumer brand of Exxon and Mobil in North America. Previously I did a stint at CDMi, and spent over 7 years at McCann launching new vehicles for GM while working on other brands like Microsoft and US Airways. Before McCann, I worked at a smaller (now defunct) design firm that did work for some of the big agencies like Saatchi, Ogilvy, and Wunderman. This was nice because I got to work on a variety of great brands like AT&T, Power Bar and American Express.
NO: What was your favorite project you’ve worked on over the years?
CD: That’s a bitter-sweet story. At McCann I worked on the campaign to launch the Buick LaCrosse, and the idea was based on a car owner’s manual. We developed an animated video that brought the illustrations in an owner’s manual to life. The figures jumped out of their boxes and into the car and drove around this 3D line drawn world and pointed out the features of the car along the way. We got to use traditional animators from Disney mixed with 3D animators, video and still photography, we developed all sorts of packaging and promotions around it. We even bought the rights to a Beatles song and rerecorded it with the B-52s. It really was rad to create. Then, at the 11th hour, before launching the campaign we got a new client on the brand who decided to scrap the whole project. We had to start from scratch even though we had all kinds of testing that pointed to a successful and well-liked campaign.
NO: What is your background in art/design?
CD: I started out studying fine art at Pratt institute. My initial plan was to major in drawing, the whole “learn to walk before you can run” thing, but I soon found out I didn’t wear enough black or have a cool-colored mohawk to get the attention of the fine art instructors. So I moved into the communication arts department, majoring in illustration, and that way I got to create pictures all day and still study with the drawing instructors that I really wanted to. Although what I didn’t realize at the time, is that it would be the the other design and communication classes that would lead me to where I am today.
NO: Since you work on building brands, how important would you say is a photographer’s own branding?
CD: Ultimately, it’s not as important as a photographer’s work itself, but it is a critical part of any commercial artist’s career. A well executed, thought-out brand teaches me a lot about a photographer that I just can’t get from the photo work itself. A brand represents a photographer when the photographer can’t do it themselves, it speaks to your audience in your absence and can communicate a ton of information about what a photographer believes in and stands for. It really is an indispensable tool for your creative arsenal.
NO: How do you like to find new photographers to work with?
CD: That’s a pretty big mixed bag. Sometimes it’s from promos, sometimes through the agency art buyers, and other times through referrals from other ADs. I often find new photographers through the reps of photographers I already know and like. I’ve even met a few I’d love to work with through networking and other photographers. The tough part of it all is not having enough projects for all the cool photographers/artists I’d like to work with.
NO: Promos: Printed, email, neither? Why?
CD: Ideally a mix of both is best, a kind of mini campaign. If it comes down to just 1, I have to say print. As much as I’m for saving paper and not creating “waste”, print materials are the most effective way to grab my attention. Most days I’m dealing with a ridiculous amount of work e-mails, and as much as I try to be diligent about looking at the promos that come via e-mail, there are a lot of times when I get to my computer and just delete what’s not job relevant, but I do look at every piece of “snail mail” that lands in my inbox. Also, from a branding perspective, the tactile nature of print can add a ton more personality to the communication through finishes and formats that you just can’t achieve digitally.
NO: On printed promos, what inspires you to open the envelope/packaging? What inspires you to save them, or toss them in the trash?
CD: That varies greatly. Sometimes it’s as simple as a kick-ass picture that fits my sensibilities, sometimes it’s packaging that has a great tactile nature, or a great design. If the piece has all 3, then you have a winner that will not only grab my attention, but will teach me something about that photographer and their personality. Those are not only the pieces that get kept, but are also memorable and potentially inspiring, and might get me to take action and try and get a book in if not have a sit down with the photographer.
I’ll also save/toss pieces based on what type of projects I have going on. If I’m working on a bunch of lifestyle type projects and get some food photographers promos, more than likely they won’t get saved unless they fit the criteria above.
NO: What qualities do you like on top of the photographer’s work do you enjoy working with?
CD: Simply that they’re good people as well as talented photographers. Additionally, I like to have fun when I do a shoot and there can be quite a bit of stress on an AD when shooting. So having a photographer who likes to have fun too and is laid back, is much more appealing than someone who gets stressed easily when they shoot. More often than not, you have your client on set, as well as agency account folks, who are solely trying to make the client happy, and you’re often outnumbered by non-creative folks at one of the most creative times in the whole process of creating a campaign, and they all have different objectives. At the end of the day, the AD needs to walk away with work that they are creatively happy with and also answers everyone’s objectives. In addition, the client needs to be happy knowing that the large amount of money they spent was spent well. So having a photographer that partners with you in that process, to make it smooth, enjoyable, and ultimately create fantastic work is tremendously important.
NO: What is a typical approval process/pitch to sell in a photographer you want to work with(the side that us photogs don’t get to see)?
CD: Most clients require a triple bid system for a shoot, so I’ll have my number 1 choice, and 2 backups. What I like to do from there, is take samples of the photographers past work, that is aligned with what I’m trying to put into the campaign I’m working on, and put together a presentation to my client, explaining why a certain photographer is the right choice for their project. That presentation is often accompanied with an initial bid from the photographer. If the AD and art buyers have a good rapport with the #1 photographer and their rep, you can have a back-and-forth and hopefully get the budget numbers aligned in your favor to make the sell to the client that much easier.
One thing that I love, and seems to happen less often now-a-days, is a when a photographer supplies a treatment for a project. Not sure why the practice has fallen, but it’s fantastic when a photographer takes it upon themselves and spend the time work up a treatment, pre-production, of the project being bid on.
NO: What is important to you on a photoshoot? Production and working with a photographer.
CD: I like to hire people for what THEY do, not to just do what I tell them. So I really appreciate a photographer that get’s into the full process of a project and wants a collaborative effort just as much as I do. Plus, a photographer’s crew is very important, a good crew, from stylists to digital techs, can have a major influence on the outcome of a shoot. The entire production needs to have a good vibe, from tech scout to wrap, the energy of what’s going on will greatly influence the final product, so having people around that feed that, instead of distracting from it, is a huge part of the process. The way I like to do a shoot is to have the majority of my work done before the shooting begins, covering off on the intent of all images to be shot, letting the photographer know the qualities of their work that I was drawn to, and am looking for, so that I can then let the photographer and their crew, do what they do best, knowing that we’ve gotten on the same page. This way I’m mostly free to manage client expectations and handle their feedback to keep it from interrupting the creative process.
NO: How do you feel the climate of the industry has changed over the last few years?
CD: Wow, that can be an entirely separate interview. With the seismic shift in the way we communicate via digital and social means these days, there is a lot that is still being figured out. There are no clear cut formulas to creating and communication commercially in these arenas yet, especially when you factor in the quick rate in which it keeps changing, so there’s a lot of figuring out going on, with some companies taking risks, and others not. It’s an exciting and scary time, ultimately you need to have the right clients, and account, and creative folks around you to get good work out there that might make people take notice.
NO: Tell us about your personal art. How does that influence you in your ad world?
CD: It actually works both ways for me. What I’ve learned about the emotionally quality of work from my art endeavors, the care it takes to finely craft a piece, color theory, classical composition, communicating a feeling, all play a part in my creation of a brand/campaign. And are very important factors in making a successful brand/campaign, that not only engages, but endures. In the reverse, what I’ve learned about clear concise design and communication has played a big part in my creation of my artistic images.
NO: Any last advice for photographers trying to break in?
CD: I’ll steal the tag line of my alma mater for this one… Be true to your work, and your work will be true to you.
If you keep up your dedication to your craft, stick to your beliefs, while filtering new and different ideas and criticisms your work will advance, grow and open a lot of doors for you. But, just as important as paying attention to your work, you need to pay attention to yourself as a person and creator. This business is as much about working with other people as it is about creating great work, and we all need to do both well.