Reinventing the Photo Business with a Data-driven Marketplace

27 Feb, 2020

by Tom Zimberoff


Have photographs lost their economic value? One might make that case by connecting the dots, from photo agency consolidation and the transition from film to digital image capture, the conjunction of crowd-sourcing with the World Wide Web and social media, to today’s underserved publishers and the sorry circumstances that challenge photographers who try to earn a living.

The good news is that photography (both still & video) remains vital to every aspect of commerce. Business needs photography. Its demand is both enduring and universal. Living, breathing photographers are in no danger of being replaced by AI or computer-generated images because, if it were even plausible to supplant cameras and lenses entirely with algorithms, the mind’s eye of a photographer would still have to invent and code what would pass for photographs. CGI and so-called “synthetic content” are just twenty-first-century photo accessories.

Taking pictures is effortless.

The business of taking pictures is NOT effortless.

Given that the economic power of original photography is indispensable to commercial brands and media companies to inform and connect with their customers, it is, however, increasingly hard for them to find commercially useful pictures. But if useful pictures are not in the system to begin with, not even AI can find what’s not there.

The issues of replenishment and utility facing publishers are directly related to the economic issues confronting photographers. It should, therefore, be clear that a practicable way to replenish photos that are both useful and original (new) is much needed. Taken together, these issues elicit one overarching question: Is photography underpriced? And, if photography is underpriced, one also has to ask, Why?

Shutterstock and Adobe, the two publicly-traded companies engaged in photo distribution, agree photographs are underpriced. So do their privately-held competitors, mostly startups but including giant Getty Images. Public records uphold that assertion. And to their dismay, those companies have been unable to raise prices substantively. Despite combined annual sales in the billions of dollars, no matter how many or how few competitors there are in the marketplace at any given time, revenue remains flat.

These companies swap revenue back and forth with each other like squeezing air in a balloon. If one earns more, the others earn proportionally less, and vice versa. They all vie for only a share of the market because they are unable, individually or collectively, to grow the overall size of the market. In other words, they can’t create a bigger balloon, and they can’t increase the volume of air inside it. The upshot: money is left on the table that buyers would otherwise pay for dynamically replenished, professionally-produced photographs.

The Relationship of Data to Photo Revenue

Underlying the vicious circle of low prices predicated on how few useful photos are available online, and vice versa, is a fundamental issue and the answer to why photography is underpriced:

No one talks about data with regard to the BUSINESS side of photography.

Not only is the topic missing from all discussion, THE DATA ITSELF IS MISSING.

Not one company collects or analyzes the information that flows back and forth between photographers and the clients who pay them to shoot pictures. It’s called symmetrical information (in every industry) and it shows a clear transactional picture of what’s important to sellers and, equally so, what’s important to buyers.

Despite the billions of dollars exchanged each year between corporate brands and media companies with the imagemakers they hire to produce content, there is no process to look at what factors drive their transactions. No market intelligence exists to influence or determine the commercial value of photographs — value to buyers (publishers) that is.Consequently, pricing relies on guesswork, and rarely do prices reflect who the buyers are or the different ways they actually use photography.

For example, an international corporation like Ikea may pay the same price for a stock photo to use in an international ad campaign as a freelance cabinetmaker pays for the same photo displayed on a modest website that reaches a limited number of local customers. It’s also likely — and economically dangerous — that Ikea and the freelance cabinetmaker will inadvertently find and use the same photo at the same time.

Not even Adobe, which touches the work of virtually every imagemaker on the planet, can “see” transactions. DO THEY WONDER why they cannot monetize all of the content that passes through their Creative Cloud?

The Creative Cloud®, as its Adobe-branded name implies, encompasses a creative workflow; it makes photo-editing easier. But Adobe lacks the wherewithal to integrate its creative workflow with an administrative workflow, to make the back-office of photo production easier for creatives and help them get paid.

The Creative Cloud supports none of the administrative or economic aspects of photo (and video) production. Adobe, therefore, cannot insinuate itself within the imaging industry at large to become an arbiter of pricing. In other words, if Adobe built business-management into their workflow they’d have to create a new infrastructure allowing photographers to do business directly with paying customers. But that is anathema to middlemen like AdobeStock because they would lose their coveted position — in the middle — between hundreds of millions of photos and hundreds of millions of photo buyers. However, without the kind of data that can only be acquired by connecting photo sellers directly with photo buyers, industry-wide revenue will remain flat.

An Institutional Memory Loss

What is described above is the consequence of an industry-wide institutional memory loss — the loss of a photographic memory, if you will — set in motion late in the 1990s by private equity companies who, with no hands-on experience in photography, didn’t so much disrupt the industry as buy it. As long as the dysfunction they triggered remains, so, too, will revenue remain flat. This treatise will further address the historical facts to back up that assertion.

Notes from the Honeypot editors

This is only the excerpt of Tom’s excellent Medium article on Reinventing the Photo Business with a Data-driven Marketplace. We wholeheartedly invite you to read the entire article there.

We found it interesting not only because many of us here dabble in commercial photography, but also due to the great analysis and the insight Tom carries across.

You can read all Tom’s other articles here on Medium.

Tom Zimberoff

ARTREPRENEUR, PHOTOGRAPHER, CLARINETIST, MOTORCYCLIST Success follows paths of least resistance; failure follows paths of least persistence. No social media.