Interview with Rick Becker-Leckrone
John interviews leading photographers about the future of stock photography and other important issues.
Rick, I know you as the CEO, principle founder and chief architect of Blend Images, a young and very successful stock agency owned and run by photographers. You have a long history in stock as a shooter, an entrepreneur and in management. Can you fill in the details on your experience in stock?
I graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1990 with a BFA in Photography and headed west with my then girlfriend, Megan, who was to be a PhD student at UC Irvine in California. I was intrigued by stock photography in the late 80’s when I stumbled upon one of Westlight’s early catalogs. Naturally, I contacted Westlight when I landed on the west coast and ended up taking a job within months of getting settled in Irvine. At Westlight, I started on the light-table doing research – pulling transparencies from the filing cabinets for client requests. I then moved on to be an Account Executive and finally a Photo Editor working directly with photographers. I, too, began shooting some stock but it was a bit intimidating as I edited work by some of the world’s top editorial and commercial photographers like Craig Aurness and Chuck O’Rear.
After a relatively short time at Westlight, I was hired as a Director of a small traditional photo agency in Orange County, CA called PhotoBank. While a much smaller operation, I enjoyed the opportunity to work in a collaborative environment and to have the flexibility to work both with photographers creatively and in digital systems development both on the imaging side and on the business systems side.
Having been a computer geek since my father purchased me one of the first Apple II in about 1979 while I was in Junior High, I have always enjoyed programming and still “get under the hood” every now and then. Following Photobank, a close friend of mine purchased a software company which produced programs for Mac users in Real Estate. He asked me to come on board as President and oversee development of the products.
As I had begun to spend a lot of my time shooting stock, and I was very interested in early digital image databases – like those starting to come on board for MLS services and Kodak’s new stock on-line service based on PhotoCD, I thought running a software company would be a fun change of pace. BusinessEdge ran for about 3 years and we ended up moving to Santa Barbara and becoming an ISP and a web-design company emphasizing database services.
Our first client was DigitalStock, one of the first Royalty Free agencies, located in San Diego. Coincidentally, I had been producing stock content for one of the owners of Digital Stock, at the same time the other owner used BusinessEdge software to run his real estate company and had contracted with me to build their first web-site. One thing lead to another and I decided to come on board to work with the owners in developing Digital Stock from both a technical and creative perspective.
We ended up selling Digital Stock to Corbis, and I joined Corbis as Co-Director for Commercial Content Worldwide. I truly enjoyed my time at Corbis and met some great photographers and created a lot of wonderful content. Due to an integration of RF into the larger RM strategy at Corbis, I was laid off in 2001. Often opportunity comes from what one might perceive as a difficult situation. Having the free time to actually shoot stock was a real blessing.
I signed with a few agencies, and did some custom work for Corbis and was having a great time being a full time stock photographer for the first time in my life. My wife had moved to Las Vegas as she took a job as Professor in the English department. So, I moved from Los Angeles to Vegas (we were a commuting couple for several years), and shot a lot of stock photos for all the usual agencies.
After about 3 years of shooting, I got wanderlust again and missed the company of working with others and the entrepreneurial energy of the ‘start-up.’ Throughout my entire career in stock there was always one unresolved constant – a dearth of high-quality, non-stereotypical, multi-ethnic business and lifestyle content.
As a photo editor at Westlight, Digital Stock and Corbis, it was all I could do to get photographers to really concentrate on generating these much needed images. And as the world around me seemed to be continuing to become more and more diverse, it seemed to me the time was now to “to it right” – not just shoot a few African-American images, but to really put together a collection with breadth and depth and with a real mission to create content that helps everyone communicate respectfully with one another through marketing and advertising messaging.
So, I knew what I wanted to do, and tossed the idea around with my friend Jack Hollingsworth, and we got together a list of photographers we thought might be intrigued with the idea. I said, “come to Las Vegas and bring your checkbook, I’ve got a thought.” They all did, they all wrote checks and committed to shoot, and Blend was born. We started with no images and of course, no revenue. About 4 ½ years in we have about 80,000 images, over 70 photographers and sales just over 6M a year. It’s been a great ride so far.
Blend Images is about four years old now. From just an idea, to a full service agency with $6,000,000.00 in sales, an innovative and fast growing web site, an ownership position in a larger agency, and a roster of some of the biggest names in stock, Blend has been a remarkable success. Can you share with us some of the factors that have made Blend so successful?
Three things made Blend successful
1. Our photographers and their photographs. We only brought in top selling stock shooters to start Blend, and we’re really choosy with whom we offer contracts to shoot for Blend. We have a small staff and we simply don’t have the ability to ‘hand-hold’ shooters who are just getting started (but always happy to help photographers find a good home for their work.) I believe in experience when it comes to stock. We have 23 owners / investors who founded Blend. There is only one of these investors younger than me (I’m 40). Why? Experience counts. I’m all for new blood, new techniques, hep, cool, pix. But understanding the concepts that sell and those who have survived, and indeed thrived throughout the ups and downs and changes in the stock world are folks I want on my team. We had such a strong roster coming out of the gate, that we signed many of our distributors without showing them a single photo. They got it. And they wanted to be a part of it.
2. Our staff. We have a small staff only about 9 full-time employees. But each, in their own right, is an entrepreneur. They all have the ability to do jobs outside of their main discipline. In fact, we just hired a new employee to handle our royalty accounting. But, true to form, she was one of the first employees at Photodisc and has done everything from creative to sales. Training took about 3 hours. She’s up and running. We all take the trash out, we all do windows. I only hire people who have their own ‘deep bench’ in terms of skills.
3. Timing. We got lucky to start the company when we did. Everything came together at the right time.
You have twenty-four founding photographers. There are many who have said that it would be impossible to get so many photographers to work together successfully. Has that been difficult?
Yeah, I think it was Jonathan Klein, CEO of Getty Images who gave me a friendly reminder that “co-ops” are hard to run. Or maybe he said “you’re f’ing crazy” – something like that. Truth is – they are. Photographers are passionate people and they all have relevant business experience. So there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen from time to time. It’s to be expected. But we’re really blessed to have just the right amount of sugar and spice. We do an annual owner’s meeting in NYC every year where we can all talk about the business – what’s working, what’s not.
But ultimately the key to our success so far with regard to corporate governance is that we immediately set up a management structure which allows me to operate the business unencumbered day to day. Of the 24 owners, we select 4 to manage our LLC, and the CEO also sits on this Board of Managers. This group hires the CEO, and the CEO is tasked with all of the day-to-day operations. The CEO then reports monthly – financial / operational reports to the Board of Managers and we in turn report to all the owners quarterly with updates. It works out pretty well. Of course, some of us ‘get into it’ now and then, but it’s like a family. It happens. But we’ve been fortunate to work through individual concerns in a respectful and constructive manner.
What can you share with us about your vision for Blend’s future?
Blend Images will be the “go to” service for licensing ethnically diverse media for marketing and advertising. We have room to grow both vertically and horizontally through our brand. Obvious extensions are motion content, audio content, and editorial content. We may have a lower-priced RF collection as well. To grow the business further we will, of course, need to shoot the best pictures we can. But also, we need to continue building out our technology base to generate a “closed-loop” between photographer, agent and client.
We want photographers to be able to understand what our clients are looking for and be able to respond rapidly. Our new back-end system for photographers we call “Loupe” allows our shooters to track their sales in real-time, download their royalty reports, and review their sales history all the way back to day one of Blend. In the future, photographers will be able to analyze all aspects of our sales data.
What’s are the best selling Latino subjects in the UK? Do African-American family dining shots sell better than African-American family TV watching shots? Craig Aurness, founder of Westlight, was a master of data mining. I learned a lot from him and want to give our photographers as much information as possible. Agencies hold this kind of data too close to the chest in my opinion.
Micro agencies have been successful for a number of reasons – price not being the top reason in my opinion. Transparency, community and ease of use are prime drivers of micro’s popularity. Blend has learned from micro’s success and while we’ll never be a micro agency, we do want our photographers and our creative team to understand, as much as possible, objectively what’s working and what’s not.
Blend has expanded beyond the original founding photographers and now includes contributing photographers as well. Is Blend continuing to take on new contributors?
What do you look for in contributing photographers?
We’ve been blessed to have so many great photographers want to be a part of Blend. And yes, we’re always looking for new contributors. Blend is more than just a photo agency – we truly are a community. Blend photographers are automatically added to our Stockpros forum where top end commercial shooters share information, offer assistance, and sometimes just let off steam. Are you looking for a modeling agency to work with in San Diego? One post to the Stockpros list and you’d likely have it solved.
We also provide our photographers with more creative research and feedback than any other agency that I’m aware of. It’s understandable that larger agencies can’t offer one on one service as much as they used to -- just too many photographers and too many images. Blend can still provide the one on one. We absolutely understand that our shooters make images for many different agencies. Heck, I do.
I wouldn’t suggest to anyone to put all your eggs in one basket. What we aim to offer our shooters is, of course, to make a decent return on your shoots for Blend, but as important to open doors to a community of the best of the best stock shooters. When you’re a Blend photographer our concern is that you do well in stock – all of it – not just at Blend.
We all celebrate a shooter having a great year at Getty or Superstock or Veer. Our feeling is together we’ll all do better -- it can be lonely out there! Of course anyone interested in learning more about our agency, just e-mail Sarah Fix, our Creative Director at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can even e-mail or call me directly. We’re casual.
We are in a very challenging time for stock photography. Microstock has burst on the scene and is sorting itself out, RF seems to be drowning in its own weight and the economy is setting the wrong kind of records. Can you give your perspective on Microstock, the oversupply of Royalty Free, and how the economy is going to be impacting stock?
The economy is in shambles. Advertising and marketing budgets are some of the first to go. It will get better in time, but seriously – it’s a mess out there. 2009 is going to be very hard for the commercial creative arts. It’s not a Microstock thing (completely). It’s not an oversupply thing (completely). It’s mostly a ‘the whole world is broke’ thing. But still – even if there’s a 50% decrease in stock sales, we’re still talking about, what? 700M in sales out there.
One thing is especially important to keep in mind – now is not the time for a shotgun approach to production. The last decade was about creating massive amounts of RF imagery. Now there’s too much similar content. RM has been underserved with new imagery, but it’s a relatively small market. Micro is interesting, but a lot of hard work and not completely clear one can generate the same returns as in traditional stock. (Yes, some do, but very few.) Chill out in 2009. Figure out what you’re truly good at shooting, figure out what the market is missing and make fewer, but better targeted content. Don’t count the success of your 2009 in the number of images you produce.
Blend is pioneering a new model; Non exclusive distribution of RM stock. How does that work, and how is it working?
Truth is there are very, very, few exclusive sales -- a couple of percent per year. So we handle exception sales through our Seattle office and notify sales partners where appropriate. The bottom line is that RM imagery simply has much less exposure than RF imagery. RM shots might sell a few times a year, micro shots might sell hundreds of times a year. Most folks license RM pictures because, well, they like the picture – not that it’s RM. We sell RM on our site every day. We sell RF on our site everyday. Often the price point is the same.
Do you see the market for stock photography changing? If so, how?
I would concur with some of the stock smartypants folks that yes, there will be less need for high-res content as pictures are used more and more in digital environments. But low-res doesn’t necessarily have to mean low cost. We’ll have to work out new pricing paradigms in the future. I know Jim Pickerell has given this a lot of thought. And, no, the Micro or subscription model can’t work for all content -- just not possible.
It’s one thing to license a “long tail” shot for $399.00, quite another to license one for $1.00 A lot of content will simply not make enough money to justify it’s production costs in a micro environment. Photographers will figure that out eventually. And the rush to micro by photographers will abate. The market will find new equilibrium – photographers need to make a living, clients need a good value, agencies need to generate profit.
Right now in the micro world, some photographers are making good money, I assume Getty for example finds running iStockphoto profitable (and be careful here, being an agency owner I assure you that not all agencies are profitable), and clients seem to love the model (some clients of course.) But if more and more shooters pile in more and more similar content, each shooter will make less and less and at some point, it’s just not worth the effort. So, then the photographer will decide to make less fungible content – unique content – but truly unique content doesn’t work well in the micro environment which requires massive multiples of sales. That shooter moves into doing traditional RF or RM content naturally. The nature of images in the traditional RF and RM libraries is likely to change in the future because of micro option.
What advice would you give to someone just entering the field?
Find a veteran, and offer to be a second shooter or assistant for a couple of years to learn the craft. Don’t just throw stuff up on micro sites and assume the results you get are indicative of our skill. Such an endeavor might be indicative of your skill at producing for micro – and / or your lack of understanding of key-wording, how micro agencies rank content, etc. but get with some folks who’ve been doing it a long time. Heck, come by our office in Seattle. Always love to meet new shooters. Always help to point you in the right direction.
Stock photography, looking ahead…optimistic, or pessimistic?
The world is getting more visually oriented, not less. Still images don’t require a captive audience like motion. Still images are portable and can evoke emotion almost instantly. The world will continue to need more pictures and as “developing countries”, well, continue to develop, contemporary photography will be licensed more and more.
There will be micro RF collections, and subscriptions and RM, and even medium and high-priced RF. -- lots and lots of options for licensing. Database technology will continue to improve which will help researchers target content more effectively. The value add an agency can provide to a client will be in the agencies ability to locate the right imagery from vast collections of content.
The editing function / research function will become increasingly important. At some point every agency could represent every picture (for all intents and purposes), the key is who can drill down most efficiently? There used to be massive product differentiation from one agency to the next. Of course with the consolidation of the industry at the top there is less and less differentiation. At the next level, though, there is becoming less differentiation as well. Ultimately agencies have to answer the “why shop here?” question. This is something I ask myself all the time. “Wow, another RM sale on our web-site!” “Why did they come to Blend?
I know our content rocks, but there are so many places to buy our content.” – ultimately, for business and lifestyle shots, we’ve got a nice collection without having to dig through a bunch of other stuff. In other words, our collection, in and of itself offers instant relevancy to certain clients. Agencies that can provide the best search and retrieval tools for their clients are bound to do well.
As far as being optimistic – sure – why not? The best thing about a massive economic depression is that at some point it’s all going to point up.