Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Interviewed: Jonathan Ross on New Stock Agency Spaces Images

Jonathan Ross, co-founder of Spaces Images stock agency.

Jonathan Ross and his Wife Amy Anderson have risen to the top of the photography world as leaders in the stock photo industry. Prolific producers of stock stills and motion, they are also founding members of Blend Images. They freely share a wealth of information about their experience in the industry. Now they have embarked on yet another new venture, a new stock agency: Spaces Images.

Jonathan, I have long admired the proactive nature of your involvement with so many areas of stock photography…and now you have started your own new agency, “Spaces”. Can you tell us about how that came about?

 My wife Amy and I have been fortunate enough to be able to surround ourselves with some of the best minds in the business of running stock agencies. The past 7 years since we first started as a co-owner at Blend Images, as well as Cultura Images. People Like Tom Grill, Rick Becker-Leckrone and Anthony Harris have all been such valuable sources of support and information that has allowed us to realize what it takes to start such a venture. Similar to the man that ran the first 4-minute mile, he showed it could be done and removed the doubt from many to follow.

The agency itself was directly related to our own sales of imagery at Getty Images and the other agencies that represented our own stock imagery. I was shooting all lifestyle at the time and every now and then when we were on location and a model was late or something was being set for another lifestyle shot I would look around for a couple of good stills to add to the days production. After following our sales for over a decade now we started to see something we never expected. Our still images were selling as well if not better than our lifestyle. That was the moment when the light bulb went off and we started looking into what it would take to build a concept into an actual agency.

What are some of the challenges in starting an agency from scratch?

The biggest challenge was not the concept or finding great photographers that wanted to help create the agency. I think the toughest part of starting a stock agency is definitely closing contracts with your distributors. We had 35 agencies at CEPIC (a conference held once a year where all the stock agencies meet and work on their contracts together) last year agree to carry our collection and now almost a year later we are still knee deep in contracts that need closing. I have spoken with several agency owners and they all agree that going from hand shake in CEPIC to paper after the conference takes a great deal of time and is very common in the signing process. Now we are nearing this years CEPIC and the deals are really starting to close, we hope to have all our distributors representing our work in the next two months.

On your Spaces website I noticed that you have far more RM images than RF images. Is that by design or did it just happen?

 Yes, we started the agency as an RM agency only but after to speaking to one of our top distributors they convinced us that it was to our benefit to cover both sides of the Macro market. These are very smart people and when they have an idea I try to listen and then work to incorporate their ideas into the Spaces Images collection. It allowed us to give our contributors two different choices and it opened some doors for us to distribute work to agencies that would have not been able to accommodate an RM company only.

What are your goals for Spaces?

I know this might sound a bit different than what you might expect but for us it was about finding a new niche and making sure it was a fun experience for ourselves, and our contributing photographers. There is no pressure from us for our photographers to produce a certain amount of images or meet a yearly requirement. We are photographers and the thought of myself, my mind and my camera alone, was a big part of the plan. I have been producing lifestyle for the past ten years and have loved it but the cost of keeping up in a market, where your overhead has a great deal to do with your revenue, we wanted to take it back to basics. Great photographers alone with their cameras, no need for a crew or a cast of models, just great photos of locations that are hard to find and conceptual image making that is fun for our contributors to create.

What sets your agency apart from others?

I think it is our niche. Our type of photography can be found at many different agencies but no one had put it in a box and tied a bow around it. We want buyers and our distributors to feel we are the agency to deal with when you are speaking of the best in environments. Spaces Images is based on where mankind works, lives and plays without the need for people; these images are used in so many applications. We focus on many areas in our collection but one area we are focused on for our buyers is to find the perfect location to drop their product or model into without having to go on location. This is just one use for our images. Many buyers are looking for an environment that supports their concept or product without the focus being on just lifestyle. Our images can be used as great backdrops for lifestyle but they can also stand on their own to deliver the buyers message.

How many contributing photographers do you have?

We have been signing a lot of new photographers but the core group that were there to help make this agency a reality was a base group of 20 and without them this company would not exist. I owe the believers a lot and it is my goal to make them very happy they rolled the dice and took a chance on a new, upstart agency.  I am truly indebted to them. Since the original core we have been recruiting only the best in the industry and we have added about 15 more photographers to the group. They are so new their work is not yet up on our site but from seeing what they have created in their careers we are very excited to see the quality level of the collection grow and diversify. We have several fine art photographers in our group and for the first time I feel we have some really beautiful images that could be shown at galleries. We have even discussed putting a gallery together of some of our work and sending it off to curators to see if we can also promote our work as fine art. People like Paul Edmondson, Mel Curtis and soon Phil Borges allow us to present images that are not just commercially viable but also offer the buyers an approach that I think will add value for their customers. It always comes down to the best images and if we can continue to add the best photographers I feel we are on the right track.

We photographers have always had our complaints about stock photo agencies…and now you have a chance to do it, how shall I say it…your way? What are you (spaces) going to do differently?

 I have had a learning curve over the past year and the biggest part that I am trying to support is to listen to our contributors and let then know they have a voice and someone on the other end of the phone to listen and help whenever they need support. This is very much about a community of photographers that share information with each other and we try in every way to leave the doors open for photographers to discuss any issues they might have together or with myself. We have all our photographers web addresses added to our site so if one photographer wants to speak with another Spaces photographer the option is there.

We also love to work closely with photographers that like feedback. I spend a great deal of my day speaking directly to our photographers about their next shoot. We brain storm and are always working towards the same goal. The more revenue I can create for our contributors the more secure our agency will be. Photographers are the ones that make or break agencies so success for us lies in the belief that without our photographers and their hard work and talent we would be out of business.

That is also why we don't play favorites. If you just started in stock, or you are an older professional that has worked in the industry for decades, you still both get the same 50/50 commission split at Spaces. The day of name recognition is getting to be part of the past and it really comes down to who has the best images out there.

What are your royalty rates for your contributors?

As I was just saying all our photographers receive the same 50/50 commission split and all we ask for is a title above their images when they send them, we do all the rest from there. I want our photographers out pushing the button making images not stuck behind a computer having to deal with key wording or tracking their images to make sure they are being distributed properly.

Can you tell us about your distribution?

 Yes, we are closing distribution through 35 agencies across the globe. We also offer Multi-distributional RM. That allows us to have our contributors RM images represented by all 35 agencies that carry RM. When an RM image is licensed by a client who desires particular control over the use of that image for a period of time, that same image is pulled from all our other distributors for the time that that license runs. Once that license is completed we then have that same image reposted to all of our distributors. This gives the high-end image of RM quality a much broader audience without the buyer worrying about their image not remaining exclusive.

Are you promoting direct sales through your own site?

Yes, we started this year with an e commerce sight and we will be continuing to develop our own site to help promote direct sales. Having this option allows buyers, that get to know us, a place to come and see all of our content when it has just hit the market making buying from our site the best option for our new updated imagery.

Can you share you social media strategy for Spaces?

 So far we have been using Facebook and Twitter to share our vision. We post a new image every day at Facebook if you want to check out our FB page you can find it through this link http://www.facebook.com/pages/Spaces-Images/147053568681803. The main reason for this is not only to draw more traffic to our site but also for our photographers to see their work up and check in every day or so to see who was chosen and what image is up. It is always fun as a photographer to see your work up and appreciated by others; I think most photographers share that feeling.

It has also been a great opportunity to meet and review contributors from all over the world. They don't have to find us, as we are also busy trying to find them. To locate a photographer in Israel would have been difficult for a small start up agency 5 years ago, but with the growth of social media we can locate and speak with photographers from all over the globe.

I know it is still very early in the game, but do you any early “successes” you can tell us about?

I think our first was right after launching seeing the work of Will and Deni Mcintyre on a Super Bowl add. We were so young and to see our work up during the most expensive add time really was a great victory. My Football team also won so it was a good day all around. Having photographers as well known as Phil Borges joining us, in addition to so many other great photographers, is humbling. To be representing photographers whose work has been such an inspiration for me from the beginning of my career as a photographer is an amazing experience. Just as it is with you, I was so influenced by your work for so many years and to have a chance to get to know you, and see how you work, is really a dream come true for me.
This kitchen interior was a quick success for Spaces Images with a Corbis sale for $6,000.00!

For photographers, why Spaces instead of Getty, Corbis or any of the other agencies out there?

I think the opportunity to come to us and have someone to communicate with and help guide or answer any questions with a phone call is one reason. But the main reason is to have your work represented by all the top agencies in the business at the same time and having to only send your images to one agency and let us to the heavy lifting. We are also are in direct contact with our distributors and provide the feedback we get from those channels in our newsletters.

Besides you and Amy, who else is on board in the way of principles and staff?

We are very lucky to have Patrick Donehue to help guide us through this industry and help steer us in the right direction. Patrick consults for our agency and has been an integral part of our existence. It was Patrick who we first went to see if what we had was a good concept. His support, and his knowledge from so many years in the stock industry, is a big reason why we have had the chance to grow and meet the right people in the industry to make this company a success.

We also have Megan Smith working with us to help with some of the heavy lifting. Megan is a sponge when it comes to learning and developing our companies’ strategy and is willing to get her hands dirty when it is needed. Not one person in our company is micro managed; we all do our work to the best of our ability and when you have the right people that love their work and truly care about the success of the company, you need to grab them and keep them happy. There aren't many in this day and age that are willing to take a risk and support a concept with all their heart. At this time we are interviewing editors to add an even larger ear for our contributors and offer the guidance that will help them in making the most salable images for the markets needs. As the company continues to grow we see most of our future additions in the area of creative support for both our contributors and distributor relations.

How can interested photographers submit their work?

Thank you for asking. We are always open to new or experienced photographers.  Once again the support is what we are trying to always improve. If our contributors feel part of a team then the rest just falls into place. If you are interested in becoming a contributor to Spaces Images there is a page on our site that explains the steps it takes to join our team.

Are you still contributing stock photos to other agencies?

Yes, although the past two years I have had to take a break in order to put my full attention towards the starting of Spaces Images. I will be returning to shooting for all the agencies that carry my own work. They have been there for me from the start and it is important to me to reciprocate their trust by producing content to keep their agencies strong and growing.

I didn’t see a microstock offering. You and Amy put a considerable amount of effort in to producing a microstock collection, and now you have had some time to see the results and possibly draw some conclusions about the viability of the microstock model. Can you share some of your insights and conclusions with us…and if Spaces will have a microstock component?

 Yes, we tested the market to build data for our business and I am so glad we did it. It allowed us to establish ourselves in the emerging and constantly growing new market of microstock and helped us meet some great people from that portion of the stock industry. I think microstock offers an opportunity for the market that needs very generic images that meet many buyers needs and do so for a price the customer can afford.

What is interesting is there seems to be a slow transition into Macro RF and Micro RF as becoming one and the same just with different pricing tiers. Spaces Images has not looked into the opportunity that Micro might offer us but we always try to stay fluid in this industry. It is very hard to speculate where tomorrows stock industry will be showing it's strongest returns so staying involved and on top of our research for all the models of stock is a daily investment of our time.

Do you plan on handling motion stock as well as stills?

This is another emerging market that we have invested our own time in to see what kind of returns the market offers and what areas the market has a demand for. I believe we will be offering motion in the near future not just for the growth in that market share but especially to be able to offer all our customers a broad range of products to fulfill their needs at one location.

I would think that starting an agency would indicate that you are optimistic about the future of stock. Can you share some of that optimism with us?

I am very optimistic about stock. I have seen a drop in sales over the past 6 years as has everyone, but if you do the math and look at return to investment, it is still clearly a very high returning business model. I don't know if there is a higher return to investment out there in any business, especially at this time. My own sales have dropped the past six years, however over the past two years we have seen them level off to what seems to be the new base return for each model we produce images for.

One interesting fact to back that statement is that over the past two years as we have been building Spaces Images I have not been able to shoot and add images to other agencies that represent my own work. Last month without adding any new images to our collections we saw a drop from the same time last year of only $200. Without producing any new work our older stock work is still holding very strong and the opportunity for passive income, especially in this time in our history, is almost a dream come true.

I want to thank you so much John for letting us share our story. Having the opportunity to meet people like yourself that have been such a huge influence in the stock industry cannot have a value placed on it. I hope you realize how many of us out there dream of being John Lund.

Yeah, and I dream of being you guys…oh well!

Note: Previous Jonathan Ross Interview.
Space Images on Facebook.


Anonymous said...

Jonathan Ross super nice guy!
And we all dream of being John Lund however none of us can figure out how to produce his images!

Lee Torrens said...

As always, great questions John, and another great choice of interviewee!

Jonathan has been extremely helpful to myself and other people who are new to the industry. He has a lot of good karma out there and hopefully some comes back via Spaces Images.

It's fantastic to see new RM agencies are still being created, distributed and seeing some success!

Jaak Nilson said...

Very interesting information. This kind of work and photos are my niche. I hope Spaces will accept my work.

Anonymous said...

great Interview John. You do your colleague stock shooters a great favor with these kind of interviews.
Don't know if it contributes to your sales but it really contributes to the number of Good Things you have done when you are at Heaven's Gate and Petrus checking your Conduite state

Ann Parry NY said...

Jonathan Ross' facebook posts with links to striking Spaces Images regularly catch my eye, so I was happy to find your interview, John.

Thank you for spreading the news about an agency with both a clear vision of the type of quality images it offers clients, and also strong communication with its contributors who earn fair commission rates of 50/50!

John Lund said...


Glad to be of help...but Jonathan deserves the credit!