Monday, May 17, 2010

Robert Henson Interview

Robert Henson Interview:

Robert Henson is President of PACA and Director of Channel Relations and Sales for Blend Images. 
Robert, your involvement in stock photography goes back to the early days of Photodisc. Can you bring us up to speed on how you got into stock photography and how you ended up with Blend?
I came into the industry from the business side and not as a photographer, first working in a client services capacity at PhotoDisc (on the eve of Getty’s acquisition), then moving into content production and operations; from there I built the image partner team and ran operations during Getty’s expansion of the program.  This allowed me to meet many other agency owners, including Blend’s.  Blend is a unique business, very “DIY” – I liked the people, where the business was at and the change for me was like exercising a different set of muscles.
You are the new president of PACA. For those who are not familiar with PACA, can you give us a brief run down on what it is all about?
The Picture Archive Council of America is the trade association for licensors of visual media.  Historically, PACA has been around for about 50 years, promoting the general interests of editorial libraries, archives and stock agencies; it has done tremendous work for its members around providing a voice for copyright concerns, working with publishers and advocating for our community.  PACA is largely a volunteer organization with a very small paid staff; our officers and committees commit their time and resources for the benefit of the community.  Our members include many North American image libraries, of all stripes, and many international members.
As we all know, our industry has being going through incredible change. PACA is changing too. Can you give us a glimpse, or more, of where PACA is headed, or where you would like it to head, during your time as President?
We had our initial board meeting recently, and I had remarked that in the 13 years I’ve been in this industry it has been nothing but change.  Royalty Free, professional digital SLRs, crowd sourcing, and now a global recession larger than anything I’ve ever witnessed – all very disruptive forces that have resulted in consistent churn.  It’s not going to stop, I know that; one disruptive force will give into the next – the wheel will turn.  By its nature as being a community, a trade organization like PACA is the sum of its members.  We have many members who are strict technologists and not image libraries.  As the borders where we define our industry shift, so shall PACA.  I focus on our core interests as being a trade organization for licensors of visual media and its related markets, which is very broad but absolutely true.  Under that tent our interests are quite diverse, but the market opportunity is immense for our members.
To be honest, I, as an individual photographer, have never paid much attention to PACA. Should individual photographers be watching, and/or involved with, PACA?
Without getting too detailed, our general membership requirements preclude photographers from joining, as there are parameters around size and type of business.  Much of PACA’s work is beneficial to the photographer, as we educate on copyright and best practices, promote the value of our industry, and influence and join forces with other related trade associations (like ASMP and Copyright Alliance) who share our interests in the protection of copyright – the cornerstone of what we do.  If you’re a photographer that is dependent upon distribution channels that include a stock library or agency, then you’re already garnering the benefits of PACA (hopefully they’re a member!).  I encourage all photographers to ask their agency reps about joining PACA – also, pass along our metasearch engine: .
How does PACA compare to CEPIC?
CEPIC (Coordination of European Picture Agencies Stock, Press and Heritage) is similar to PACA in that it’s member organization for licensing companies with economic interests.  It is much younger, forming in 1993, and initially European-focused.  We have been working very closely with CEPIC over the past few years and will continue to do so, as issues on digital rights management and intellectual property can often initiate trends that transcend borders.  To exemplify how close we are to them and them to us, CEPIC’s current president, Christina Vaughan, was PACA’s vice president last term.
Way back when you started, traditional stock shooters were pretty upset at the emergence of Royalty Free imagery. It was widely believed that RF spelled, if not the end of stock, certainly a huge step in the deterioration of the business.  To be honest, in some ways it did hurt traditional stock shooters, but others who embraced the new business model, were enormously successful. Now, of course, we have microstock.
What long-term impact do you see microstock having on the stock photography industry?
I think there are two things conflated in what we’re terming ‘mircostock’:  crowd sourcing and low prices.  I think crowd sourcing will have a long-term impact to our industry.  Advances in camera technology had allowed many to suddenly participate on the supply side, saturating the market with content and shifting a portion of buyers to micro channels.  Pricing is very intermittent and at whim to different influencers, but with technology allowing more to participate it will naturally invite more possibility of change.  From an agency perspective, it requires focusing more on the nuances of aggregating meaningful content for the market and ensuring that it’s getting in front of eyeballs.  Really, it’s the same challenge whether you’re an iStockphoto or a Corbis.
In this day and age of the Internet, is it really necessary to have all the subagents?
There are certain functions a subagent – or local agent – can perform that a large site cannot.  In local markets – really, any market big or small – there will be someone who wants to pick up the phone and call their personal rep.  Relationships can still operate in this time of consolidation.  I see it everyday, from Blend’s own direct business to a local agent in another market (and culture, and language) who maintains a strong book of business.  That’s not to imply that larger aggregators don’t have personalized client services, as most do.  They’re different propositions.
Back when I first became involved in stock photography, at least with the large agencies, you had to be agency exclusive. Then things loosened up and the industry became "image exclusive". Now it seems like every image is available on every site. On the other hand, iStockphoto, and perhaps some others, seem to be re-introducing the concept of agency exclusivity. Can you comment on that?
Agency exclusivity, whereby a photographer can only submit to that agency, is certainly good for the agency as it’s pro-competitive.  If the photographer feels as though they’re getting a strong return for their loyalty, then it seems symbiotic.  Do I think it’s a trend?  No.   
It's fairly challenging for us individual photographers to see "the big picture". Most of us just see declining returns, increasing competition and what is happening in our microcosm of a few agencies. Is there a "big picture", and what is it?
Faster creation, distribution and consumption of visual content across all devices; advances in the sophistication of content, including DRM; challenges to copyright, especially fair use and piracy.  I spoke to someone recently about how some technology companies participate in our industry, and what their perspective is given how they’re building models based on anticipated behaviors and other assumptions:  I could see how our industry might be perceived as being an immature market.  It’s easy to say we’re one thing right now, but that’s subject to change.
Looking at microstock for a moment, I personally know several "traditional" stock shooters are have jumped in and are very optimistic about their results. They are seeing returns that are viable and growing. On the other hand, some incredibly successful photographers from RM and RF have tested the waters and found them wanting. I, for one, don't know what to think. I know at Blend Images you have introduced yet another category, "midstock".  How do you see this whole RM, RF, Midstock and Microstock thing sorting itself out?
You’re referring to ‘Boost’, which is Blend’s value collection.  Blend has always been positioned as a premium collection, for both RF and RM.  It’s natural for a RF collection of a certain size to start segmenting its product across different pricing tiers, as it provides opportunity to have conversations with all buyers and also frame parts of the collection distinctly from others, which in turn reinforces value in the mind of the buyer.  There will always be RF prices from $0-1,000, but the challenge is in communicating the value in that price, whether high or low.  Blend sold a RF image for thousands of dollars to a client that wanted to pull it from the market for one year.  They didn’t care that there might be perpetual RF licenses out there and that might conflict.  What does THAT mean, with regards to sorting out prices?  Value is in the eye of the beholder and price is always negotiable?
I keep thinking that traditional agencies are missing opportunities by not providing for the thousands and thousands of small licensing uses such as blogs and personal uses. Can you give me an agency perspective on this?  Are microstock sites providing for such needs?
There are a few technologists getting into this space – the first (I think) being PicApp which was started by PicScout.  Theirs works by embedded ads, which any ad revenue is shared by source agency and PicApp.  The blogger pays nothing.  I like their approach, as the expectation in the blogosphere is a five-finger discount; already, they’re not forcing behavioral change at the outset.  Trying to get a blogger to pay for an image is difficult, in that they’re largely uneducated about copyright and usage rights.  Education on these topics will be critical for our industry to get inroads in this community and future protection of our revenue.  Two weeks ago, I found an image (Blend’s) on someone’s personal blog being used without a license.  Someone in our office emailed the infringer, stating that they didn’t have the rights to use the image and that she’s placing herself at risk.  The infringer emailed back stating that she’s sorry and had corrected the issue, copying in the URL of where the picture was.  The picture she used as a replacement was a Corbis image, with watermark.  I think that illustrates what we’re up against in the blogosphere and education in general.
Some of the statistics being thrown around about licensing infringement are staggering, as in up to 80% of all online uses being cases of image theft. Now you have a growing number of companies using image recognition to track uses and hopefully reign in and monetize some of those infringements. Do you think such technologies will have an impact?
I do, but maybe not to the degree that we’d like to see, or in the way they would like to operate.  Most of these services allow agencies to identify and recoup infringements, but it’s a very delicate coordination of efforts that takes expensive resources to pursue.  A possible effect of the technology being used and developed is that with smarter content – through embedding (DRM, PLUS, XMP/IPTC, etc.) and imprinting – both pieces might give us better tools to combat infringements.  Piracy is our biggest problem in this industry.  PACA will be leading the initiative to provide substantiated metrics for our industry on the impacts of unauthorized use, which will go to the government, as well as be publicized.
Is there still growth potential for the industry, or in order to grow do agencies and photographers have to increase their share of the existing market?
This is still an industry in change, with a changing marketplace to service.  The recession is the biggest restriction on growth at the moment.  Copyright education and combating infringement could greatly expand the market, if we were to see significant inroads there.
I think we are all familiar with the challenges facing individual photographers; oversupply of images, increasing competition and downward price pressures. What are the bright spots as we look ahead?
Despite rumors to the contrary, this is still a big market.  Visual content must be current, so there’s ample opportunity.  Ad spending has been down for a while; as it picks back up there’ll be a lift.  I don’t expect a massive volume rush, but things will come back around.  Someone will be making money.
Do you have any recommendations for photographers who want to succeed in stock photography?
Do you love what you do?  If you love what you do, it’ll transpire in your work.  If you’re good, there’s a market for your work.  Find someone who can help you navigate the landscape out there.  Try making some content for different channels and watch closely to see how they do for you.  Talk to Blend : aside from me, the staff is smart!
Are there any final thoughts you want to leave us with?
I think this is the most exciting time to be in our industry.  Hands down.  Thanks for letting me grace your blog, John!

1 comment:

J said...

Great questions and answers. Kudos to both you and Mr. Henson for a smart, informative and articulate dialog.