I first met John some time ago in TBWA Manchester. At that time, I visited the area on pre-planned go-sees and showed my latest work portfolio. I was hopeful of being booked for a campaign or two. Still, the truth was at that time, the change in how Photography and content creation was already happening. Not many more major campaigns were available, but maybe it was my work I will never know.
Alas, I never did get to work with John on any campaigns or not yet anyway, which is a shame, but I have remained in touch over the years, checking in every six months to keep him updated on my work and look forward to the opportunity in the future. I wanted to get an insight into life at a top UK agency and therefore asked John if he wouldn’t mind and let me interview him for this blog or now magazine platform Silvergumtype. The interview will give a greater understanding of what being a top Creative Art Buyer means to a photographer looking for agency work and how photographers here on this platform can better understand the workflow and behind the scenes of agencies and agencies work.
John, please could you tell me a little more about you and who you are please.
Sure James, I’m an art buyer, creative producer and photographer working with direct clients, agencies and art directors creating content for websites, social media channels, advertising campaigns and brochures.
I have a background that spans both Photography and advertising. Having spent time as a Creative Services Director, Art Buyer and Stills Producer within a large agency, I’m well placed to understand and create imagery and content for brands that develop meaningful engagement against business and marketing objectives. This includes managing projects for direct clients and agencies from concept to completion.
I am interested in how you started and first joined agency life. I think it’s interesting to find out more about a persons career path, and maybe others would like to know also?
I started in advertising in 1979, working in small and large agencies with heavy involvement in Photography, including organising shoots and then post-production. This was, of course, in a world of celluloid film 35 mm, medium format, 5 x 4 inches and 10 x 8-inch formats. I was working with old school repro houses who drum scanned transparencies and prints.
Retouching was done in Quantel Paintbox, a precursor to Photoshop and then organising proofing – either wet proofing from printing plates or Cromalin proofs. It is a world away from the immediacy of the ‘I want it now’ culture we operate in today.
I did ten years with our design, Photography, repro and print operation before being asked by TBWA Manchester (BDH – Bowden Dyble Hayes as it was then) to come in to establish project management within the agency for 17 years. This developed into a vital role in setting up the photography studio to service clients like Morrisons, Wickes, Odeon, Jessops, BP, Nectar, Cussons, GHD. This was all tied in with growing a studio that included pre-press repro with retouching and Cromalin proofing for brand and fast-moving retail clients, all in-house In those days. I had an art buyer and three traffic managers reporting to me, plus a studio of 20, design, artwork and retouching staff.
Latterly, as Creative Services Director and part of the Senior Management Team, I oversaw creative workflow and outsourcing of services. I was taking onboard art buying and creative production myself.
About five years ago, I left this permanent role to become freelance but still consult TBWA \ MCR on art buying and creative and print production for other agencies and direct clients. I combine this creative producer role with shooting for clients myself, emphasising food, people, and general content creation for online and press campaigns.
I was once told that to work in London you have to be in London. So, as you know, location has been key to photographers and how they work over the years. Can you tell me a little about where you work?
I’m based in Manchester but work with photographers all over the country using London and international agents. As well as working directly with photographers. We’ve run shoots all over the UK, Europe, the USA and South Africa.
In a digital world, the Manchester base doesn’t prove to be a problem in management and delivery.
Agents and photographers often come to Manchester, but when necessary, I will have meetings in London.
We usually run PPM’s on Team or Zoom calls. These work well, saving time and money for clients, photographers and agents.
I believe that we all take inspiration from others. Art has influenced me in terms of lighting, such as Chiaroscuro from Rembrandt and Goya. Has art ever been an influence on you at all?
I like art, particularly contemporary landscape and portraits. My wife is an artist and so have a good knowledge of a range of the UK and international landscape artists through her. My passion is Photography; however – I wouldn’t say that art influences me in my art buyer capacity, but it is good to have a wide variety of creative influences.
In our conversations early on, I discovered that you not only liked Photography, but you are now an accomplished photographer. Has this interest in Photography helped you while working or engaging photographers as an Art Buyer
I’ve been lucky to work with many photographers at the top of the game in fashion, beauty, food, still life, jewellery and people Photography. When you work with the best creative talent, you not only know that you’re going to be producing great work, but projects are going to be a pleasure to work on; a slickly and professionally run experience is the key to running successful projects and a big black book of contacts.
I can be given a style board and creative brief and within an hour, able to pull together, alongside the creatives, a set of photographers that would be perfect for a project not just in terms of style but also personality and ability to deliver the project the client needs to feel confident and comfortable with a photographer and enjoy working with them. The Art Buyer Creative Producer role is all about experience and contacts built up over many years running shoots is rewarding work if you have the right team on the job.
Can you share with us some of the best or your favourite campaigns that you have worked on?
James, I would say that the below list would be some of the best our the ones which stood out for me are as follows,
ghd Dark or Pure – Rankin
ghd Pink – James Lightbown
Various Campaigns – Elisabeth Hoff
Morrisons Food – Jess Koppell
Cussons Imperial Leather – Matthew Shave
Cussons Imperial Leather – Guy Farrow
Batiste – Sven Jacobsen
Batiste – Ben Harries
Man United – David Boni
Pzza Express – David Stewart
MBNA – Gary Salter
JD Williams – Elizabeth Hoff
Co-op – Alex Telfer
Co-op – Martin Brent
These were all relatively large shoots with plenty of challenges. The finished images were stunning in their own right but formed the basis of powerful, effective campaigns that appeared in the press and as 6 sheet or 48 sheet outdoor posters. Tangible outlets for creativity are not lost in today’s crowded social media world.
Can you tell us about some of your favourite magazines, please?
GQ, Vogue, Vanity FairCampaign, Design Week
World of Interiors, Observer Magazine, Country Living, British Journal of Photography, Table Magazine
So here is the obligatory question most ask, and so shall I, do you have any hobbies?
Without being glib, I don’t have time for actual hobbies as I work 7 days a week. My hobbies are my work, so research and experimental projects are essential here instead of commercial jobs. Food photography portfolio building and keeping up with the latest trends in restaurant food from established and up and coming chefs.
When I have time, I would include walking the dogs on a beach in Cornwall or Yorkshire.
I’m just going back to shooting on film with medium format and a 5 x 4 camera, so that is an exciting area of personal work that I’m involved in. You’re working in a more considered timeframe on film compared to digital, so it makes for a calmer process.
So in your opinion, who would be the best creatives to follow and why?
I’m going to say, photographers. Number one has to be the genius that was Peter Lindbergh ( Also my Favourite), who sadly passed away two years ago. Then Henri Cartier-Bresson and Richard Avedon, and Mario Testino for his unconstrained, passion-fuelled imagery. In the genre of landscape photography, it has to be Ansel Adams and John Blakemore. I’d include Don McCullin ( I also think fantastic) – I believe war photography is one of the highest pinnacles of the art – tragic, poignant, but sadly essential.
In banal and street Photography, William Eggleston, Slim Aarons, Martin Parr and Dougie Wallace. Portraiture Julia Fullerton Batten, Animals Tim Flack and Food David Loftus and James Murphy
John, could I ask how you would keep your agency teams motivated?
It’s about starting with the best team possible for the job. Creatives, photographers, agents, producers, casting agents, model agencies, stylists.
You must have the best talent on board, mainly if you’re working to a tight deadline and constrained budgets.
I only work with people who have the same set of work ethics and values as meI need everyone to work at the highest level, and sometimes that breaks down into basic stuff such as answering emails immediately and picking up the phone when I call. Don’t hide behind your e-mail or voicemail.
So my exciting question, and I am sure many other photographers would like to know directly when you are looking to commission a photographer. What would your process be?
When a creative brief comes in, I like to assess it immediately, talk to the creatives and account team, get a feel for style, and suggest photographers and, where possible, a ballpark budget. I’ll make initial email contact with photographers or agents with a summary brief and style reference and follow up with a call 30 minutes later. It’s about assessing whether the photographer is interested in the project and checking availability for the proposed shoot right at the start.
I’ll pull together a list of 9 to 10 photographers, sometimes more and then, over a period of a few days, narrow the field down to 3 essential choices to put forward to clients with a ballpark cost, treatment and references of previous relevant work based on a range of factors including price, style, experience, personality and availability. I will refine the selection with the creative team down to the photographer that the creatives, account team and client are happy with. And this process should take about 1 or 2 weeks but can be done in less time if needed.
So when working with your chosen photographer, how would this evolve with the brand and project over time? Does the creative or narrative change? Or has it a consistency for the duration of the project or account?
Creatives and clients often want variety in terms of who they work with. A brand needs a consistent look, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be from the same photographer. So say a campaign has 3 bursts over 12 months; you would probably use the same photographer for this, but for the next year, the look and feel may have evolved, so the creatives and client would be looking to use new creative talent.
I think the days of sticking to a photographer year in year out is no longer applicable. Fresh talent is always coming along and needs to be factored into the mi, but having said that, the agency does have key photographers they worked with on various clients over a long period of time. These people need to be talented, reliable and prepared to work to client budgets and tight time frames; they also need enthusiasm and a great personality. Fortunately, we have built strong relationships with about 15 key photographers over various genres over the years.
We can then plug in new people when projects come along that require a different photographer style.
Agent relationships are key to this. Going through a good agent, you get access to usually between 8 and 10 fantastic photographers who you know will deliver to a high standard. A good agent will bring their ethos, passion and way of working to all the photographers in their stable.
It would be great to know, and so would other creative photographers hoping to work with agencies or agents. How is it possible for a photographer gain your attention without being a pest?
Instagram is superb, and many photographers, established, and new talent are outstanding on this platform. I know that many creatives go to Instagram first before photographer’s or agent’s websites. I’m not sure how this will work in future since Instagram has changed the algorithms to favour moving images over stills.
I am a fan of using high-end photographers’ agents, as you get professionalism, speed of response and production back up all from one source. The photographer can then concentrate on what they’re good at, which is shooting, and the agent producer sorts out the rest fromWe do also use photographers directly, of course. I prefer these photographers to have their producers.
So agents visiting with actual books is an excellent way to approach agency art buyers and creatives; you can’t beat face-to-face meetings for presenting portfolios of work.
I also prefer an e-mail approach from an agent or photographer. I subscribe to several agents mailing lists, and they are a great way of keeping up with the latest work from the talent that the agent represents. I’m happy to receive regular e-mails from high-quality agents or photographers, and I review all of them and click on the links to further portfolios.
In terms of e-mail design, it’s about getting the message over quickly, So 2 or 3 key images about, say, five new campaigns from that agent is excellent.
As we are getting close to the end of our interview John, it would be super if you could enlighten our readers, what has been or is the best part of doing your job?
I think for me, the variety, challenges, problem-solving and working with the best people in their specialist areas.
All this means that you can produce great work together but at the same time hopefully have a lot of fun. My experience is if people are at the top of their game, they usually have great personalities that generate enthusiasm and passion in everyone around them.
Are there times where you feel that there have been lows in what you do?
No real lows. It’s all about careful planning from the outset.
One example that wasn’t funny at the time was building the pyramid stack of shower products over several hours. So that a series of images could be captured over a short time frame as the foam cascaded down the bottles. Partway through this tricky shoot, the assistant tripped over the stack and brought it all down, which required an additional hour to rebuild since the camera had to be locked to capture the cascading foam for comping and retouching requirements.
I have seen such a change in the Creative Industries and especially Photography over time, especially over this last five years, and so John, Do you think the industry has changed at all?
So, everything is continuously evolving in our world, and there is a greater demand than ever for imagery, with billions being uploaded each week to social media platforms. This has the effect of devaluing the work in general, and you may often hear people say it’s only going to appear online. The image may only have 15 minutes or possibly 24 hours of fame before the next photo is posted by the client.
I’m talking about brands and retail clients here. The media is perceived by the client to be free or at least cheap compared to traditional outdoor and press campaigns, so the budgets for this kind of content creation are at rock bottom, often shot in a house or by a marketing assistant! Although this is a naive approach because the posted image still has to be a killer to sell the product. Bad imagery and social media content can damage sales and the brand. For example, you often see shocking Photography by chefs or restaurant managers, making the food look similar to roadkill. You won’t be booking a table based on the images that they have posted on Instagram.
How do we fight this, you say? This is a tough challenge because if you do, you are a Luddite holding back progress. I find that the more expensive the media – press or outdoor, as examples, the bigger the budgets! The campaigns are out there for longer, and the client doesn’t want an inferior image taken on someone’s iPhone being used when they are spending tens of thousands of pounds on media.
I have to ask this not just from my own desire to know but for the other creatives out there. Is there still room for new Art Buyers or Creative Directors within agency life?
It’s tough for people who want to be art buyers to get into the industry. I believe that many agencies have taken this role out of the mix and incorporated it into project management. Clearly, this is not a sensible move, particularly when the shoots are complex and/or involve detailed negotiation of usage. In terms of the creative producer role, this clearly does exist, but you do have to be in a world of being able to cover moving image production as well as stills.
Shoots now often incorporate both In fact, the moving image often leads the look and feel of the production in many cases behind the scenes or making-of footage is as essential to the promotion as the actual stills imagery that’s being created in terms of getting a response on social media. Now that Instagram algorithms favour moving images over stills, it makes the film clips even more critical to the campaign’s success.
What would you say are the positive changes to the industry right now?
Positives! It’s hard to say. As I previously mentioned before, there is a greater demand for imagery but with smaller budgets. These are sometimes unrealistic and unachievable.
Could I ask for the creatives out there wishing to get in touch with you? What would the best way be for you?
Whether you’re a photographer or agent, always look at e-mails, as should any decent art buyer, to assess new campaigns and be aware of the latest trends and work. Keep me informed of what you’re producing monthly.
Finally, I would like to ask for your expert opinion on how a photographer can get noticed today?
Instagram is an easy answer, but with the algorithms changing, I’m not sure how this will affect things; creating slide shows of a set of images may be the way forward here, but I’m not keen. Indeed, regular e-mail contact is essential with details of new work keeping websites up to date.
I’m particularly keen on photographers or agents who produce actual printed material, whether small books or ‘newspapers’ sent out to key people in agencies – art buyers and creatives. In a world of social media and e-mails, a hard copy physical book or brochure landing on your desk creates stand out from the noise and gives you and your work gravitas.
Not cheap, but worth it.
John, This interview has been enlightening for me, and I would hope for others. I feel I have a better understanding of how it works, especially for you, and I would like to thank you so much for your time in completing your interview. I must admit there is some great content within your interview, which I am sure will help many photographers looking to get out there and get seen—more importantly, how to get seen potentially. Your experience within the creative process of Photography and its production will surely enlighten many and inspire them to be the next generation. You have given me helpful insight into my process and contacts with agencies.
Art buyer, Creative Producer and Photographer
Photo website. https://www.johnallenphotography.org