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Richard Pearson, Art Director: Creativity, Trust and Building a Shared Vision

This post is part of a series called Conversations With Creative Collaborators.
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Craig Oldham, Designer: Idea, Intention, and Image

Editors Note: In this series, Conversations with Creative Collaborators, we look at the place of photography and how it is used across creative industries. In this instalment we meet Richard Pearson, Art Director at Manchester based creative communications agency BJL to chat about the challenges of working in advertising photography to create campaigns for internationally known brands.

Hey Richard, thanks for taking time to talk. Could you start off by explain about who BJL are and also your role with the agency.

BJL first started life 28 years ago, and we've since grown to be the largest independent ad agencies outside London. We are full service and create integrated campaigns. Starting with planning we develop brand platforms, which we then bring to life through every medium, from content to TV, from outdoor to social media. We aim to talk to consumers wherever they are.

You'll find us working on a broad range of clients including cars, booze, insurance (not three things that normally go well together), paint, holidays, supermarkets and more. Our main role for these clients is to first understand their commercial objectives, market and audience, before developing insight driven campaigns on their behalf. If you've seen Mad Men, it's like that without the drinking and womanising.

British Airways advetisment

My role within this, as a creative art director, is to turn the research and insights into campaigns that speak to the man, or woman, in the street. We start with concepts, and when we have a few routes we're happy with we'll pull together mood boards, and visuals to present to client. These usually include a number of style examples of photography that help the client see what's inside our heads. It can be tough to visualise a finished shot or ad from a black and white sketch; in my case that usual looks a bit like a drawing out of a comic.

When we have sign off on the chosen route from client, and possibly after further research, then we begin to look at commissioning the production.

Subaru advertisement

How closely do you work with photographers? Do you regularly commission a photographer to take images for a project?

There's a fairly steady demand for shoots through an agency our size. This obviously varies from quite small and quick low budget work, right up to big budget and large scale productions in this country or abroad.

Over the last year we've had jobs that have taken our art directors to Norway, Hungary and South Africa, with lead times of a few months. But we also have quick turn around jobs that can be shot the same week of the initial briefing. 

Each type of job brings its own pressures. Whichever form it takes, we make sure there's a continual dialogue with the photographer throughout. My preference is for the art director and photographer to work together as a team, constantly trying to create an image that perfectly fulfils the brief.

How do you go about finding photographers to work with? Do they come to you or do have places that you look for new and exciting imagery?

We're constantly on the hunt for new photographers, or interesting new styles. Catching the public eye is becoming harder and harder to do with the amount of advertising that people come face to face with. Even the most conservative survey says we see more than 3000 advertising messages a day.

Photographers we've not worked with before, or ones we have who've created new work, get in touch pretty regularly. Whenever someone does ask if they can pop in with their book, we arrange a time and date and rustle up as many of the art directors in the building as we can to have a look. This normally happens at least two or three times a month.

Art directors also constantly look at the internet these days. Years back we'd tear interesting work from magazines and keep a scrapbook, nowadays it's a folder on our Macs. We discover people all over the net, but especially on photography, advertising and design based blogs. Some of my favourite sites to hunt down new styles include Creative Review, it's Nice That, fffound and Pinterest, but there's many more out there. Twitter's also a great way to see and keep up-to-date with recent shoots.

Whenever a new campaign is ready to be commissioned, we put together a long list of people we know or have come across. Then cut to a shortlist, before talking to the photographers themselves, which includes requesting a treatment and a quote. We'd then put forward our recommendation to our clients before a final commission is made.

Eurocamp advertisement

Working as a commercial photographer is notoriously demanding. Are standards set very high when shooting, and if so, how do you work together to get a result that everyone is happy with?

The industry seems to get more and more pressurised as time goes on. Shorter deadlines, smaller budgets and tighter constrictions are all increasing the importance of agencies and photographers having a strong working relationship. Art directors always have go-to photographers, people they've worked with a lot in the past, or know a lot about. The trust is already there and it means everyone is confident the end result will be what we need. The thing that has changed this is the move to digital.

Digital's a double-edged sword as everything now has a quicker turnaround and you can end up with a thousand frames to select from rather than a hundred. However there's a massive advantage to being able to get everyone on board and feeling part of the process earlier. I still have a box of Polaroids: I used to collect one from each shoot when I first started out. Occasionally I show these to juniors or recent grads and they can't believe we used to sign shots off from these normally black and white and quite often slightly blurry tests.

The working process between film and digital is exactly the same however. The shot is set up following the brief and visual. And then it's one small change after another until with a little bit of luck and fate thrown in, we all reach a point we feel the shot is there in front of us.

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One other factor I have in choosing who I want to shoot with is how we'll get on, that's myself and the wider agency team, including the Creative Director. And it's not just about a shared vision for the shots, you also have to remember you're spending all day with each other, often travelling and staying in hotels for a week or more. You want to make sure that you're still going to be speaking by the end of it.

I've been up Snowdon mountain at night in minus conditions with wet feet while waiting for dawn to break, had 16 hours sleep over a five day shoot in New York, and been stuck in the countryside outside Warsaw surrounded by wild dogs while trying to fix a exhaust back onto a van. It's pretty important that you can laugh about it together, whatever's happening.

Betred advertisment

Visually, is it more important to create the perfect image or something that captures the brand identity?

For me the two are not mutually exclusive, the perfect image for the commercial brief is one that also captures the brand identity. If creating a beautiful crafted photo means it doesn't do the advertising job, it's wrong. And vice versa, if it's a great image for the product but is a poor, dull shot then it doesn't work either.

It's about finding the right mix between the two sides. Attention grabbing pictures have the power to stop people in their tracks and it's about harnessing that power while making sure that the product message is the thing they take away.

With computers there's a lot more flex around what can be achieved, especially when 3D additions are also taken into account. Less work tends to be done in camera and more in system, it means photographers need to have at least a good working knowledge of the post process. Simple things on a shoot can either save or add days of retouching. Ideally, we'd be shooting everything on the day, but that's not always the best solution.

In the end it comes down to the specific brief that is being shot to. Some jobs have to follow a very strict set of brand guidelines influencing everything from lighting, crop, colouring and subject. While others can be incredibly open, shooting loosely around a theme or subject.

Either way, the opportunities are there to create work we can all be proud of.

Contempo advertisement

What advice would you give to a photographer looking to enter the world of commercial photography?

It can be tough with no commercial work already in your book to get jobs. It's a bit of a Catch 22, but it's a harder sell to clients when it's someone who hasn't a proven background within the business. This is especially true of the specialist areas of the business such as car photography. It's important to try and get as many jobs as you can that have been shot to a brief, whatever the size or scale. Agencies are regularly pitching for new business. We're usually not paid as part of this process, but often a test shot can be a way to help bring the business in. Working on test shots can be a way to form relationships in the industry as well as getting work in your book.

We prefer to shoot with photographers because of their own personal style. That's why we were interested in them in the first place! So make sure that your book shows as much of you as possible: highlight your preferred style. Some people love shooting studio still life, others vast landscapes, and so on. Each has a place.

After that it's about getting seen, whether that's getting in touch with art director or art buyers at agencies directly or getting a photographic agent to tout you about. We used to get at least 3 mailers a week from photographers but now things have moved a lot more online. Sending out emails showing a couple of your best shots or a new project is a great way to go. Then if we're intrigued enough we'll click through to a simple website showing some further work and bookmark it.

As with all these things though it's about quality rather than quantity, don't put the kitchen sink on there, just show your best. From our point of view it's good to see it split by project and into commercial and personal too. We love to look at your personal jobs as they show you without the influences of everyone involved in commercial work.

It's a tough business to get started in and there's a lot of hard work, but the rewards more than make up for it.

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