Wednesday, September 15, 2010

SuperStock CEO Lanny Ziering Interview

Better times ahead, or time to get away from it all: Concept stock photo.
Lanny Ziering, SuperStock CEO looks ahead to the future and addresses the present (recent image of mine submitted to SuperStock).
Lanny Ziering is well into his second year at the helm of SuperStock (as CEO). In this follow-up interview he has agreed to bring us up to speed on the changes at the agency as well as to share his thoughts and insights on the stock photography industry.

It has been a year since your last interview here. Can you give us a rundown on what has changed at SuperStock, and what is about to change?

I don’t usually spend much time thinking about what we accomplished; most of my attention is on what we have to do next.    But seeing as how you asked… The past year has been about renewing our relationships with photographers and clients and beginning the process of rebuilding our brand and our technology.  Our main focus has been on improving how we serve those two vital communities—photographers and clients.  For example, we have put a lot of time and attention into improving our time-to-market.  I’m referring to the time it takes from when a photographer submits a shoot to their editor through the edit, keywording, ingestion on our website and the sending of those images to our global distribution channel, and finally ending with a royalty check to the photographer.   We’ve made major progress on that front but there’s still a lot more to be done.  Today, if we get an image at the beginning of the month we can get it edited, keyworded and up on our website the same month as well as shipped to our distribution channel.   When our new technology comes on line in the fall this will be even faster and easier.  Our contributors will find it much easier and faster to upload content and view their royalty reports. The time it takes us to send the images out to our channel distribution partners will also be faster. 

Sounds like you’ve been busy. Any other changes?

Yes, we will roll out a new brand/logo when we launch our completely redesigned website.  We hired a great design shop in Washington DC, Design Army, to help us. They have created a clean, simple, contemporary look that will still provide simple navigation and fast search results. We’re really excited about it and can’t wait until we reveal it this fall.  And, we’ve created a presence in social media including Facebook and Twitter, as well as establishing a channel on YouTube. 

A lot of people wonder if you and your partners have an exit strategy.

Yes, we will have all troops home before the next election.  Oh, sorry, that wasn’t what you meant.  We bought SuperStock because as owners of content we wanted to control a distribution company.   That brings us two benefits:  First, we have an outlet to sell our images directly to customers.  Second, we have access to those customers to better understand their needs.  We think those are strategically valuable benefits.  In short, we do not have a plan to sell SuperStock.  That being said, if you see Alan Meckler running around with $100 million you can give him my phone number.

In your recent newsletter, Creative Flash, you announced that SuperStock will change how it charges for sales through its UK office. A stock agency, in effect, INCREASING the photographer’s percentage…now that is something to take notice of.  Can you share the details of that development?

My partners and I are stock photographers, so we are sensitive to what it is like to live on royalties.  When we looked at how the prior owners had structured things we found that for some photographers (but not all) a sale from SuperStock’s office in the UK was charged a 50% royalty by the UK office before the US office split royalties with the photographer.  This is not an unusual practice in our industry and it was perfectly legal under the contracts the photographers had signed with SuperStock.  But just because you can do something, does not mean you should.  So we decided to discontinue this practice and give back any royalties charged by our UK office last year.  

As micro stock has matured we are starting to see the convergence between micro and traditional stock. Soon it will be the norm to see micro, RF and RM all on the same site. Does SuperStock have any plans in that direction?

There you go again asking tough questions.  It’s pretty clear that convergence is taking place—no surprise really.    From the image buyer’s perspective there are still important differences in both the rights as well as the purchase process.  For instance, having to buy credits on a micro site versus the way major clients normally purchase “on account” from a traditional agency.  Service is another point of differentiation. I don’t think many micro agencies offer free research.  Convergence is likely to continue but there is bound to be differentiation in how micro and full-service agencies conduct their relationship with clients. As for our plans, SuperStock already sells RF images at midstock prices.  While full-priced RM and RF will continue to be the heart of our collection, we plan to expand our midstock offering this year.  

Do you have any plans for a motion offering yet?

Right from the start our plans have included motion.  Several of my partners have been very successful in stock footage for years.  That expertise will serve us well as we enter the motion stock business.  We expect to launch our motion offering later this year.

Vetta, the new higher priced collection on iStockphoto is apparently doing fantastically well. It was an accepted truth, before micro stock came along, that price was not the determining factor in the licensing of stock, but rather the right image was. Then micro stock opened a whole new world in which price was an important factor, yet the higher priced Vetta images are at least showing that there is room in the micro “store” for higher priced images.  I also believe much RF offering has actually climbed in price even in the last year as well.  Where do you see prices heading?

Tough question.  First, let me say a little about your initial premise.  Price matters more to some buyers than others and it matters more on some projects than others.  Some buyers don’t have the budget for an industry exclusive $15,000 RM shot and will opt for a cheaper solution even if the RM shot is the best one.  Some buyers would love to find an image for $9 but they need other things from their stock agency—what we call “service” and includes research, terms billing, rights clearances, etc.  Different strokes for different folks.  And something that a lot of photographers don’t really understand is that for publishers Rights Managed is often cheaper than Royalty Free.  As for overall pricing trends, we’ve been experiencing a sort of convergence.  Traditional stock prices have been going down and micro prices have been coming up.  And even in traditional stock there seems to be some firming of prices.  So when you ask, where are prices headed?  The answer is: up and down and about the same.  Overall, I think it’s fair to say we already see some price stabilization. 

A lot of photographers will be relieved to hear prices may not fall any further.

Pricing is alchemy—a black art.  But at the end of the day only two things matter: supply and demand.  The balance of supply and demand got way out of whack over the last three or four years.  But that may be changing.  Most stock agencies and production companies we’ve spoken with are finding it harder to source well-produced imagery today than it was just a few years ago.  So as demand increases we may see some increases in prices at the high end.  It’s hard to really know without a crystal ball. 

I think that Rights Managed licensing is too complicated. If the process were simpler I think the market for RM could greatly expand. Have you looked at any ideas for making the licensing of RM images easier?

Easier?  Didn’t Getty try that with Rights Ready?  There wasn’t much acceptance among still image buyers but it seems to have been embraced by motion buyers.  More than half of our sales are of RM images, but SuperStock is probably not big enough to create a new pricing model for the industry.  We’ll just have to wait and see what the big dogs offer.   My guess is that RF will continue growing while RM will be the choice of buyers who have more complex needs to manage rights and mitigate risks.  

Can you share a bit about the role and importance of a sales staff in an agency such as SuperStock?

You called us an “agency” and that is how we see ourselves.  That one word reveals so much about the complexity of our business.   Being an agency means we have two “customers”: the artists who provide us images and the ad agencies, graphic designers, and publishers who use those images.   At SuperStock we are very aware that our success is dependent on healthy, mutually beneficial relationships with both these “customers”.  While there’s some potential for conflict, it’s actually very beneficial to have both these relationships inside one company.  Our sales teams in the US and UK provide us with a direct channel to art buyers so we are able to funnel that information on client needs directly to our photographers and illustrators.   This benefits both our contributors and our image-buying clients.  Photographers can concentrate on shooting what is more likely to sell, and image buyers are more likely to find the images they need when they come to SuperStock. 

SuperStock has been meeting with ad agencies and publishers and drilling down into what they want and need. What do they want and need? Any surprises?

The most surprising thing is that with millions of images flooding the market, and with dozens of stock agencies out there, that clients are having such a hard time finding what they need.  It’s kind of like satellite TV with 500 channels but there’s so little of it that’s worth watching.  What they want is good photography, authentic photography that will communicate their message in a believable way.   They don’t want posed “stocky” images; they want authentic, well produced images.   Why is that so hard to find?  I guess it’s easier to shoot your friends against a white seamless and tell them to smile at the camera than it is to invest in models and actors who can convey real emotions. 

As we’ve hopefully rounded the corner on this recession are you seeing, or do you foresee, any significant increase in demand for stock photography?

Rounded the corner?  It looks to me like recovery from this recession will be gradual and uneven.  Demand for digital media will grow faster than the general economy
--just look at the way Apple has been making money right through the recession.  The basis of that growth has been selling devices for delivery and consumption of digital media, as well as selling the media itself in the iTunes store.  The demand for stock images and especially motion clips will grow. 

There is a big question as to whether stock photography is going to remain a viable career for photographers…or whether stock photography will become more of a hobby and supplemental income. What do you think?

Both.  The growth we’ve seen in the supply of imagery over the last 5 years has in large part been driven by hobbyist photographers—many of whom are thrilled to be getting a $50 check each month.  I don’t think that is going away, but those images are unlikely to meet the needs of very many major publishers or ad agencies.  So, talented, highly productive stock shooters will be able to make a good living, but we are not likely to see incomes like they were 5 or 10 years ago when if you had 1,000 images at Getty you could pull in a million dollars a year.

Some of the super producers in micro have indicated that the micro stock model might not be sustainable and are moving into traditional stock, while some traditional photographers are moving into micro. I personally know traditional shooters who are experiencing success in micro and are bullish on it, and I know some pretty accomplished shooters who have declared micro a bust. My own rights managed revenue has become a roller coaster and my RF income is declining as my number of images climbs. It is a tad hard to understand what the heck is going on in this industry! Do you have any advice for photographers who want to succeed with stock as a career?

It’s a very chaotic market out there—no doubt about that.   For photographers there are virtually no barriers to entry, so imagery will continue to be in abundance.  But great images have always been and will continue to be rare.  My advice to photographers is to find the intersection of what you do well and where there is demand for imagery without oversupply.   I’d also advise photographers to find an agency that understands the uniqueness of their work and will help them to develop their work to meet market needs.  Finally, if you want to succeed in stock you need to be sure your images are available to photo buyers everywhere in the world.  While it’s nice to sell direct from your own website, very few image buyers have the time or inclination to find your pictures.  You need to be with an agency that can distribute your work to every corner of the planet.   

I know SuperStock was trying to put together a collection to support relief efforts in Haiti.  What ever became of that?

That all started with a conversation I had with Gabriela Medina, a very talented photographer based in Caracas, Venezuela.  She was really passionate about trying to do something to help with reconstruction in Haiti.  I spoke with Robert Kent about what he had done with Compassionate Eye and then I spoke with Heifer International, a non-profit that specializes in sustainable development work in less developed countries.  We created a collection where photographers donate their images to Heifer and SuperStock agrees to distribute those images and 100% of the royalties we generate go to Heifer.  We’re just now beginning to gather the images.

What have I forgotten to ask?

You didn’t ask me if I’m having fun.  Yes, I really enjoy the stock photo industry.  It’s crazy and chaotic, but it is at the center of some of the biggest changes impacting our culture and society.  It’s filled with incredibly creative people who are in this business because they love photography and art.  There’s not another business I’d rather be in. 

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