Mobile Media Lab, an agency for Instagram

Brian DiFeo is a co-founder of Mobile Media Lab. His agency collaborates with brands to get their ideas out on Instagram using a variety of different tactics. I first heard about the agency a couple years ago, and immediately felt that they were onto something smart. As the popularity of Instagram has grown, I’ve followed along as Brian and Mobile Media Lab have found a number of great ways to help brands get their products and ideas on the platform.

Advertisers on Instagram are in a very interesting space right now. While it’s shut off to all but a handful of advertisers, the platform is growing in popularity. That means lots of brands are trying to figure out how their marketing messages can fit in without using traditional paid media.

I sat down to talk with Brian about his agency, the current state of marketing on Instagram, and to get his ideas on what brands should be thinking of when making plans to use the platform.

There are two common avenues for brands to get their message out on Instagram. The first is to connect with “influencers,” or Instagrammers with a large following. The second is with a sponsored post which Instagram is doing now very conservatively and with a select group of brands. How do you think things are evolving between these two options?

It's tough to determine the direction it's going to be headed in. I think sponsored posts are like a traditional television commercial back in the day when you couldn't fast forward through them. In Instagram, a sponsored post is there, and you have to look at it, at least for a split second before you scroll past. You can't delete it or anything. What influencers offer Instagram brands is a more organic connection. It’s partnering up with someone who already has an established audience. That audience is going to be totally cool with seeing ads in their feeds from someone that they like, appreciate and respect. 

Also, I guess the other difference is financial. I can make an educated guess of what these brands are paying Instagram for posts, and I know what I charge for my campaigns. The difference is like night and day. Working with influencers can be a much more affordable option. When an influencer is posting a brand you don't get a lot of those comments saying "get this ad out of my feed" like they do on sponsored posts.

What kind of advice do you give brands who want to really be authentic in the way they use Instagram and interact with people?

One of the things I have told brands is that Instagram should be “80/20”. Twenty percent of your time should be spent creating content, and 80 percent on engagement. If you're going to spend 10 minutes a day posting content, you should be spending five times that just surfing hashtags, and really just finding photos and people that inspire you and engaging with those people.

I also tell some brands that they should speak the Instagram language. If you're okay using emojis, and putting up a smiley face or a thumbs up, you should do it. It may be cheesy for some brands, but for others it really resonates with them, because it's what their audience does.

Imagine, I put up a photo and tagged my LL Bean boots in the snow, and LL Bean comes over and give me a thumbs up. As a consumer, I would be so excited about it.

Do you ever have brands asking Instagrammers to take pictures or shoot concepts that don’t fit in with the rest of their feed?

It comes up, but we stop that line of thought with the brand very early on, oftentimes even in the very first phone call. There are times when a brand will come with an idea, and we may not even run it by the photographer, we just know it won't work on Instagram and we know it's not the direction that they should go in. We tell them that these Instagrammers know what works on their account. They know their audience. They know what's going to perform the best. So let's give them creative control and final say over what goes up on their account. 

We will work with the client on a brief and a mood board, some creative direction on the photos, and the photographers for the most part really appreciate that because it gives them some guidance.

How much control does a client generally have over what goes on an Instagrammer's feed? Do they see and sign off on each image?

Images from an Earth Day campaign by Mobile Media Lab for Rodales. From top left, influential Instagrammers  @brandenharvey ,  @cacahuete_sr ,  @flashesofstyle ,  @gregorywoodman ,  @mrsgrubby  and  @sar_m  were all commissioned to post photos to their own feeds.

Images from an Earth Day campaign by Mobile Media Lab for Rodales. From top left, influential Instagrammers @brandenharvey, @cacahuete_sr@flashesofstyle@gregorywoodman, @mrsgrubby and @sar_m were all commissioned to post photos to their own feeds.

Every job is unique. For the majority of them, it's up to the Instagrammer to do it, and the client trusts us, because we've worked with these Instagrammers before. They look at their feed like it's their portfolio, and they know what to expect from a given photographer. So the majority of these clients are just saying "go for it, we trust you guys." Occasionally they want to see it beforehand. Especially when we're working with a brand with a more old school approach that's just starting to dip their toe into the social media world. Our Instagrammers have been totally cool with complying with that, as long as it's out in the open from the first conversation.
What advice would you give a brand that really wants to succeed in marketing on Instagram in the next few years?

The quality of the photograph is really imperative. Every brand that is putting up photos really needs to consider the photographic merits of what they're putting up. It’s a shame when you see photos go up on a brand account when the person who took it wasn't really considering things like exposure and framing and focus, and they just posted for the sake of posting.

I think the influencer marketing world is a growing relationship, and I think it's really powerful. Most of the Instagrammers that we work with were amateurs at first. They find a love for photography and social media, and they pursue it, and they grow their audience and get great engagement, and brands start connecting with them. And I think it's really cool in the sense that these folks set out with a different mindset. It is this love of photography and this love of sharing. You see this wave of people who are growing up with social media, and people who really speak and understand the platform. More and more brands are going to embrace that, and take it really seriously. Establishing more of a relationship with influencers and making them feel a part of the team, the story, the conversation is only going to help the brand ultimately.

Also, stepping back and having a brand think about why they're on Instagram, and what their goals are is really important. The more you plan and conceptualize and strategize your Instagram account, the better. You can do some a/b testing and experiment with some things, and evaluate what performed well, and what didn't perform well. Finding out why is only going to make your account more successful. Also, I see a lot of brands that are stuck at like 6000 followers, and they're looking for that exponential growth. I think that influencer push really helps in that sense. But I also think that traditional engagement is really important. It's tough when a brand doesn't have the personnel to do it. But someone really needs to be logged in at that brand, liking and commenting and finding other users. If you do that for a couple hours a week over the course of a few months, you will see your numbers grow. 

If you don't have an audience, the content can be amazing, but it's the opposite of field of dreams. If you build it, they won't come. You need to go out and find those people. 

Shooting for tech companies, Helena Price Takes a different approach

Helena Price has found a niche in photography, shooting narrative-driven photo stories for brands in the tech world like Airbnb, Rdio, Dropbox, Zendesk, Uber and Square.

These experiences have given Helena a unique perspective on creating photography for brands. For many of her clients, working with Helena is their first time commissioning a large scale photo campaign. That means that she has been able to develop her own approach, which can look very different from how traditional advertising shoots come together.

I was excited to talk with Helena more about what she does, because I think that her approach to photography can offer inspiration to brands—both small startups and those working with a more traditional agency approach—about how they can make the most out of photography in today's digital environment.

© Helena Price for Rdio

© Helena Price for Rdio

Helena  has a background in public relations, and worked in the field at a variety of different tech companies. In 2013, a New Year's resolution to shoot or edit photos every day rekindled her passion for photography, and not long after she quit her job to pursue a career as a freelance photographer.  In just a couple years, she’s produced an impressive portfolio of work, including commercial shoots for major tech companies .

Until early 2013 you worked in PR in the tech world. At the time, you didn’t have much success in getting the companies you worked with to commission original photography.

At that time tech generally was not that interested in photography. When I first started working in tech, it was all about the MVP, the minimum viable product, it was all about being first to market. It was about building it fast. People didn't even care that much about design when I was first getting into tech. 

So I would really fight to get more creative stuff happening where I worked, whether it be photos or videos or more story-telling projects, and they'd get squashed most of the time. It was partially a budget thing, but on a greater level, no one could understand why it was really valuable. You couldn't tie super-hard metrics to it. Branding in general was just kind of this mysterious thing that no one could really grasp or understand or measure.

Having said that, right after you quit your job in tech, at the beginning of 2013, things had started to shift, and you received commissions from lots of different tech companies. How did your first assignments come together?

Right around that time I coincidentally got an email from Square. They wanted me to make some photos of their vendors in New York. So that was my first gig. And it wasn't a big gig but at the time I was like oh my god, this is huge. 

I went around and my job was to meet with vendors in New York and try and make some sort of little photo narrative around them and that was perfect for me. I thought, this is the kind of stuff that I wished that I could hire people to do when I worked in tech and now I can just do it.

After that I moved back to San Francisco. I got an email from Designer Fund which is this awesome design organization in San Francisco. They had this bridge program where designers who are part of the Designer Fund program can rotate through these really big, amazing companies and their design teams. They wanted to do a story-telling project that showed prospective designers who wanted to join the program what it would be like. 

We put together this day-in-the-life project where they would do a pre-interview with a specific designer at the company, usually the head of design, and ask “what's your day like?” From there we could put together a shot list that kind of represented those talking points. I would go in and follow them around for a day and help produce those moments that were talked about in the interview. 

After Designer Fund, I did that with Dropbox and Path and Rdio. To me it was natural, I felt like it was right up my alley. But in reality no one had done anything like this before in that part of tech. It just spread like crazy once it was published. Particularly the Dropbox one. The tech world just loved it.

Was there a change in the culture around that time that made tech companies more interested in commissioning great photography?

Around that time Instagram had been out for a while. A lot of photographers have been bummed on Instagram or they think that it's a threat to the traditional photography industry. I actually think that particularly for tech, it really helped people understand the value of visual story-telling. It created this huge market for branding and photography that wasn't there.

I think that designers and creatives and engineers and business people all just got to see face to face or even in a way peer-to-peer how impactful photography and story-telling can be. That opened everybody's eyes. Brands started thinking about how they could do it, whether from a social standpoint or maybe by just paying more attention to how they tell stories.

So these tech companies saw how photography and story-telling could develop their brand in a way they hadn’t appreciated earlier.

© Helena Price for Uber

© Helena Price for Uber

From a branding standpoint, a few years ago it still felt like there was a big land grab in terms of developing new start-up ideas. When Four Square and Airbnb and other ideas like that were invented, there was just this competition for being able to come up with an idea and be the first to build it into something successful.

Today it has become really saturated. Just product ideas are not that valuable at this point. Chances are if you've come up with a start-up idea, there is someone who has already done it and there are five more people that are going to make that same start-up after you. And so it's not about being first anymore, it's about being better. And not only do you have to have a great product but you have to have beautiful design and you have to have a compelling story where you can confidently tell people why you are the best and why you are going to change their life.

So for the first time, you've got technology companies needing to create different brands and personalities in the same way that clothing companies do. 

So it was a great time for you to be making the transition into being a full time photographer.

I think it was the most fortuitous timing ever that I spent the time that I did in the tech industry, learning how to build a business and all of these skills. Then the time that I wanted to make the jump was around the same time that this whole industry was opening their eyes up to branding. And there weren’t any photographers around that were focused on tech. I might be one of the only or few people that used to be a techie tried-and-true and is now a full-time photographer. 

So it was this wonderful marriage of circumstances where the industry started caring about branding. Because of my background I understand product, I understand design, I understand copy writing and story-telling. And I was available to jump in and just get scrappy and figure out how to make it work. So that was the beginning. 

And once those Designer Fund projects came out it was just a whirlwind. I've been swamped with projects ever since. 

A lot of the work in your portfolio has a very story-telling or day-in-the-life kind of approach. Is that the most frequent sort of approach that your clients want to take?

\Well, I think that the clients that I've worked with historically don't really know, in a way, what they’re looking for. They just know that they want good, real-feeling photography. And so that's what a lot of people started coming to me for after my first projects.

They wanted something that fulfilled a commercial goal whether it's new photos for their website, or new photos for an ad campaign. And they wanted something that felt super honest. But from there they didn't really know what to do. The tech world is just getting into photography so they don't have traditional photo production experience. They have no idea what goes into a photo shoot. They don't really know what questions they should be asking. So it was a big learning curve for me. It felt like the wild west. I figured that I just needed to create a process for helping these companies figure out what they want. 

© Helena Price for Dropbox

© Helena Price for Dropbox

For a lot of this stuff it's me taking that similar approach to what we did with the Designer Fund project. I do a lot of interviewing of potential clients. And I have a million questions for them: when does this new website launch? You’re doing this project, what are your goals? What are the stories that you want to tell? What are potential stories that you could tell? Do you have the copy written? Do you have mock-ups of the website ready? And just kind of digging in and pulling out all these little nuggets that we could make stories around. From there I either work with them to develop a shot list or I just totally make it up for them. 

Compared with traditional print advertising, digital gives you a lot more options in terms of how photos can be shared. It’s more conducive to photo-essay style pieces. Do you think that’s part of why your clients like the narrative driven photography so much.

Yeah, well, it's hard to say. I’ve noticed that a lot of companies want to have flexibility in how they use the photos. So the client is saying: we’ve never done this before, we're not totally sure what we're looking for and we're not totally sure how we want to use it. For me getting the most personal enjoyment out of the project and also providing the most value is just building out the whole narrative when I shoot. That can then be implemented in a variety of ways. One photo from that whole set could be used as the header image on the website. Or if you dig a little deeper maybe there's an entire job or career narrative. Or if you go into their ad spend, you can see that they've actually made some interesting narrative campaigns with those photos. 

It just depends on the way that they implement. And in a way I wish I could be involved in that, too. But at some point I have to realize that I'm a photographer. I guess I have to let them make those decisions on their own. 

© Helena Price for Path

© Helena Price for Path

What kind of advice would you give to a photographer who wants to stay competitive and be prepared for what’s coming in the next few years?

I've had lunch with several kind of old-school people, whether they be photo agents or people who work in traditional advertising. Over and over again I hear these stories of these photographers who were just huge ten or twenty years ago doing these massive ad campaigns, blowing everybody's mind making absolutely beautiful work but as times have changed, the industry has changed and what is required of you has changed. Maybe you'll have to be a little scrappier in some areas, but there are a lot of people who just won't budge. And they want to do it the way that they've been doing it for so long. They want to have this massive team and they want to have the 10 assistants. And then after enough time of not budging they get dropped from their agency. 

There's just this huge shift happening where old-school photographers—not all of them obviously —but a lot of them just aren’t willing to budge. I’m sure it's pretty scary even to know where to start budging. Unfortunately it's cost some people a modern career. 

And so I think—I don't know the ad world particularly well though I'm starting to delve into it—but I think where you can find a lot of success is having a little bit of wiggle room and not doing it the way that you've been doing it forever and ever.

What do you think brands who want to create and use great photography should be thinking about?

Well, coming from a PR background, I definitely gravitate towards real stories. Crazy brand loyalty for Starbucks for instance, doesn't come from the way their cups look or the taste of their coffee. It comes from “Oh, I met my fiancé at Starbucks.” Or “with my childhood best friends we all had girls night in high school at Starbucks.” Those are the kinds of memories that people have associated with the brand. 

There's just a treasure trove of stories that can be told with real humans. And there's no need to go and fictionalize when you have real people just waiting there to tell those things. It's not like that hasn't been done before but I actually don't think it's done enough, and when it is done it's usually kind of a boring testimonial or just a quote with a portrait or something. As a brand, imagine the dream story of someone using your product, go enable a person to use your product in that way and make a story out of it.

See more of Helena's work at

Like reading posts like this? Click here to sign up for email updates on new blog posts.

Photography in Content Marketing, an Interview with the Editor in Chief of Contently Quarterly

Contently is a company that is at the forefront of content marketing today. The company provides software that aids brands to publish their own branded content, and also connects companies with freelance journalists and other content creators. They were founded in 2010, and since then have found plenty of people who are optimistic about the future of content marketing: they have raised more than $11 million in venture capital, and work with brands like Coca-Cola, GE, Google and GM.

For a company in their line of business, it’s only natural that they would have their own content marketing program. They publish a print magazine called Contently Quarterly, and have a robust digital content marketing site as well. 

Joe Lazauskus is the Editor in Chief. In that role, he’s spent a lot of time watching content marketing develop in the last several years, and also has plenty to say about what brands can be doing to get the most out of their marketing campaigns. 

I sat down with Joe to talk about how photography and imagery factor into the recent changes in the content marketing world.

Cover from the first print volume of Contently Quarterly.

Cover from the first print volume of Contently Quarterly.

Are there areas where you think content marketing can benefit more from photography or graphics in general?

I don’t think there’s an area where brands can’t do more visually. Certainly so much of the key to social is the visuals that you’re putting out there, no matter the platform. It’s not just Pinterest and Instagram, but it makes a huge difference on Facebook and Twitter and even on LinkedIn. I’d love to see brands telling more visual stories. Even in terms of blog posts, having huge, beautiful images, or getting more creative with original GIFs or animation.

There’s just such a huge world out there right now for brands to explore, and there are so many visual storytellers who are very hungry for work. And it’s a really ideal marriage when brands are willing to give really talented people the freedom to create things that they feel is going to resonate with an audience and take some risks in terms of new, original art.

I think we’re going to see that more and more. In the global age, the short attention span age, you’re going to need great visuals to keep people’s attention on longer pieces. It’s also going to be the key to that short attention span content that people are consuming.

We’re coming from an advertising space that’s so based around things being conceived and approved and people knowing exactly what they’re getting before anyone even sets out to actually make an image. But even due to just the sheer volume of content that digital demands, you have to have a little more trust in the content creators to do it without a comp or set guidelines.

Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head. It really is about the shifting models of doing things. I think more and more what you’re seeing, what you’re going to see, is dedicated content groups within brands having the leeway to take X content budget and do with it what they will. It may still need to get approved at the end, but things will actually get created.

I think one thing that’s going to make it a little bit easier, is when you have a few really creative people in the content marketing newsroom—or whatever you want to call it—within a brand, and they get an idea and they commission the work. Once the work is actually done and it’s a possibility that people see it, it’s a lot easier to make publishing it a reality than when it’s just a concept that’s going through a giant RFP with an ad agency and getting bogged down in 20,000 different people approving things 6 months in advance, it’s really hard to get anything cool or creative done. But when you have smaller teams working more autonomously it’s a lot easier.

I think that brands are slowly building out those teams. It’s not going to be all there in 2015; it’s probably not going to be all there in 2016 either. But slowly more and more brands will realize this is the way to go. They’ll invest more resources in it and give a little more freedom to their creative people.

Also, I think the biggest switch in all of this is going to be when the younger digital-savvy people who really are pro-content marketing right now just continue to move up the ranks.

As Editor in Chief of Content Quarterly you're essentially responsible for B2B content marketing. While you guys are an exception, to me, it feels like most B2B marketing is less visual or image based. Do you find that there’s a major difference in approach between B2B and B2C?

One thing that I’ve noticed is that B2B marketers kind of have an inherent advantage when it comes to brand publishing because they have a certain expertise and authority. If you’re Cap’n Crunch, you don’t really have an authority or an expertise to talk about a topic. But if you’re HubSpot, for example, you can talk about inbound marketing in general. If you’re GE, you talk about science and innovation. So there’s sort of an inherent advantage that a lot of more B2B focused brands have over other companies.

That makes sense. Your expertise can be the content. Whereas a lot of traditional B2C marketing is about directly promoting the product.

I think the key for content marketing work is that it can’t be self-promotional. It has to be based on good storytelling. You have to talk about topics that are interesting and really matter to your target consumers. That’s the underpinning of all great content marketing right now. It’s brands that are telling really interesting, well-crafted, original stories about the things that people in their target audience care about and topics they align themselves with and can speak to with authority.

It doesn’t always have to be inherently in the company, though. The hallmark B2C example of content marketing is Red Bull, and that’s because there wasn’t necessarily a direct link in terms of Red Bull having an expertise about extreme sports and music and all that stuff. But they aligned themselves very much with those communities by sponsoring tons of skateboarders and snowboarders and racecar drivers. That gave them a cred and authority where they can really talk about and cover extreme sports.

And from that they’ve built the biggest extreme sports platform in the world, with a magazine that has more paid subscribers than Sports Illustrated, and films that top the YouTube charts. By doing the same with music, they’ve expanded even further, where they have a record label that’s putting out Top 100 artists.

B2B marketing is often about providing information, whereas B2C is often about establishing a certain feeling or lifestyle that a brand represents.

Yeah, definitely. But at the same time, B2B content marketers shouldn’t feel limited by that. Just because you’re talking about great software, doesn’t mean that you have to use god-awful stock photography. It doesn’t mean that your blog can’t have really gorgeous design. If you want to actually capture readers’ attention, you can’t just publish a bunch of information. There’s tons of other people doing that. No matter who you are, you’re always going to have competition.

So it really comes down to the basics of storytelling. Having compelling narratives in your pieces, having strong voices, having personal anecdotes. All the storytelling principles are still the same, no matter what type of content you’re creating. So there’s a lot of overlap.

Do you ever feel that there’s a tension between telling a great story and the stakeholders in a brand who want to make sure that there’s plenty of product placement or an explicit marketing messages.

We work with a lot of people who came over from the journalism world, and a generally creative background, and they understand the value of really good stories and how you can’t mess that up by just plugging in a bunch of product mentions. We know as well, that the moment you start pushing a product in a piece of branded content, trust drops dramatically: by like 30% on the first mention.

And there definitely is this tension right now, because you have people coming from different backgrounds working together. It’s still a weird marriage. You have people who come very much from a product marketing background of just “We need the product mentions. We need the links,” and they can be really focused on that.

We have people who come from creative backgrounds who know that what is going to engage people the most, going to get people to spend time with content, and build bonds, isn’t just pushing a product; it’s telling a greater story.

I think that as everyone works in this discipline more, it’ll be easier to sort that out and get everyone on the same page. But there are things that you can do if you’re on the pro-good-content, pro-great-storytelling side of things. 

There are simple technologies that will allow you to A/B test different images. And you can look at even deeper engagement metrics. You can look at engaged time, scroll depth, and so on. When you have a piece with beautiful imagery and photography or really fantastic, engaging written narrative or video narrative, you can demonstrate that people are spending time with that content.

And then if you’re really at the next level and you’re properly connecting a bunch of different marketing automation systems, you can actually start to show that the pieces of content that you’ve invested more creative firepower in, are actually at the end of the day driving more business results for you. But a lot of that really requires having everyone on board so you can set up those different tracking systems and really accurately measure the success of your content. That’s a broader problem that brands are dealing with as a whole.

So it’s definitely a complex problem – one that will get solved as measuring gets better within brands screening content. Right now, a lot of people are still just doing stuff very blind. But once those numbers start to bear out, I think it’ll be easier for the content-minded people within organizations to advocate for a greater investment in truly good storytelling, and they’ll be able to show that product pushing doesn’t work quite as well.

The whole idea of A/B testing and putting out different forms of content and seeing what performs best is interesting. There was a recent story in Fast Company about how a lingerie company is running A/B testing on photos of underwear models, and creating guidelines for the photographer on how to create imagery based on that.

Do you think that there’s a point where that can go too far? Or as long as you’re increasing performance in terms of metrics, is there no distance too far?

It’s really funny how atomic you can get with A/B testing different pieces of content. BuzzFeed, for example, will figure out from scroll depths and page drop-offs and all those things where they should rearrange a listicle. They’ll A/B test different versions, like “Oh, the picture of the cowboy with a water gun GIF really does well at #6, but it’s terrible at #17.” They’ll see different stuff like that, and they’ll optimize every single listicle accordingly. They also do that with testing the different leads to articles.

I think that kind of application is really cool to me, that you can really optimize every little single part of a piece. I think there’s a lot of creativity that goes into coming up with all those variations and figuring out which is working best.

I think what you’re talking about sounds to be a little more creatively stifling. It’d be like if someone came to me and said “Okay, our perfect blog post is 600 words and uses the term ‘content marketing’ 7 times and uses ‘leverage’ twice,” and really directing every little aspect of it. Because I think that shrinks your creativity when you’re put into that type of constraint. 

Obviously constraints can help your creativity. Like if I said to you “tell a joke” versus “tell a knock-knock joke,” the latter would be easier and probably funnier and more creative. But I think when you tighten that box too small, it’s not a good thing. We’re talking content creators, so yeah, there’s probably a limit where over-testing will stifle creativity. But at the same time, when it comes to matters of editorial judgment or different variations that can work, I think it’s great to be able to test multiple iterations of a piece to see which one is going to pop off the most for you. Everyone who does that is going to be the people that win over the next 5 to 10 years.

Any parting thoughts?

I think the biggest thing is that for content marketing to work, brands really just need to give a lot more freedom to smart, creative people who know how to reach audiences, know how to tell a story that’s going to bring people in. Those brands just need to give those people the freedom to do what they do. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for most brands in the year ahead, and it’s what’s going to separate the brands that are really successful from the ones that continue to struggle at doing this.

And then if you’re a content creator and you’re interested in doing some work with brands – because some of it is really interesting and rewarding – that you look for the brands that are going to give you that freedom. It’s going to just make your life a hell of a lot more enjoyable.

Joe's work at Contently can be found here

Like reading posts like this? Click here to sign up for email updates on new blog posts.

Photo Essay Platforms Gaining Viewers, Rolling out Brand Partnerships

A number of social sites are emerging that allow people and brands to easily create beautifully designed long-form photo essays. While these platforms are relatively new options for those looking to share photo stories online, they certainly deserve a place on the radar of anyone involved in creating digital advertising content. Brands are just starting to discover these sites as marketing opportunities, and so far the executions have been a mixed bag. Some of it is excellent, but some of it, not so much. Regardless, Medium, Exposure and Stampsy are all sites worth keeping your eye on.

    Screenshots from  The Selected Issue  on Exposure, and  Lauren Brown  on Stampsy.


Screenshots from The Selected Issue on Exposure, and Lauren Brown on Stampsy.

Medium is the best known of the bunch. The site, created by Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone, already boasts posts from a range of well-known public figures like Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Medium made the move into native ad publishing beginning in the middle of last year with BMW, and more recently with Marriott.

Exposure is less well known, though I’ve been particularly impressed by their design philosophy, and have been keeping my eyes on them for some time. Their original strategy for making money was based on selling monthly subscriptions to those posting content, but with the recent content marketing moves that Medium made, I’ll be interested to see how that changes. They recently started promoting an account curated by Filson, which could point to an interest in further exploring native advertising as a revenue model.

Stampsy is the smallest player in the field, but according to AngelList, they’ve raised nearly 750K, in investment capital and are planning to go public in 2015, so they certainly will be worth watching in the upcoming year. Also, unlike the other platforms, their platform looks great for photo essays that don’t include any words at all.

As a photographer, it made me happy to see more photo-centric platforms start to draw the attention of big marketers. However, some of these sites have a long way to go to consistently create engaging content that will prove to be a true draw.

The Marriott sponsored feed, Gone on Medium is a great example of where these branded content series have room to grow. 

A snippet of the story published on  Filson's Exposure pag e

A snippet of the story published on Filson's Exposure page

On the one hand there are a few examples of good photography, such as the Dancing in the Streets story documenting a second line parade in New Orleans. However, there are plenty of disappointments. To give one example, the photos in Duck Taco Night in Saigon are lackluster. The lack of a byline on these photos makes me suspect that they tasked the writer to also create the artwork for the story, which may have played a part in the less-than-amazing results.

Even worse, photos for the Marriott-sponsored story, Brazil’s Mind-Boggling Art Park are sourced from Flickr. Here’s a platform that’s all about sharing big, beautiful photos. It’s one of the flagship marketing examples for the platform. It’s being bankrolled by Marriott. And the best they can do for photography is to source images from Flickr! That had me shaking my head in disbelief.

Having said that, there’s also work being produced that is cause for optimism. Filson is doing a lot right here. For example this story on fishing in the Olympic Peninsula was beautifully shot by photographer Brenna Marriie.

Filson published the same stories to its website and Exposure, so it’s very interesting to see how the story looks when compared to the execution on the Filson site.  For me, it’s a compelling side-by-side comparison that implicitly argues for the value of great design. On Filson’s website, I feel like I’m reading a marketing piece. On Exposure, it’s like I’ve kicked back with one of my favorite magazines, reading something for pleasure.

Filson is also doing a great job showing how long-form photography content produced for a platform like Exposure can get a lot of mileage in other places as well. Images from the same shoot are not only used on Exposure and the Filson website, but also on Instagram and Facebook (photo example of Facebook and Instagram executions). With brands trying to engage on so many digital platforms these days, there is a huge benefit in commissioning this sort of story-telling photography that can then be published in many different ways across a variety of platforms.

These platforms are still in their earliest stages, so it has yet to be seen how big of a player they’ll be as a social platform. Medium is undoubtedly the biggest player in the game, and some educated guesses suggest they have around 460,000 followers and 13 million unique monthly users earlier in 2014. This may be a drop in the bucket compared to platforms like Instagram and Facebook. However, their potential for growth, along with the unique approach they take to photo essay style content, mean that these platforms should at least be on the radar of anyone working in digital advertising.

Like reading posts like this? Click here to sign up for email updates on new blog posts.

20 Under 20

A fantastically curated group of 20 photographers under 20 years old has been assembled by Flickr. 

For those looking to create work that is authentic, particularly for that coveted "millennial" demographic, there's a lot to be taken away from looking at the kind of work that millenials are creating, and are drawn to on social platforms.

Photos from Oliver Charles' photostream, one of the photographers selected for 20 under 20.

Photos from Oliver Charles' photostream, one of the photographers selected for 20 under 20.

A few items that I found especially interesting:

  • There's a lot of attention put on post production, with a lot of images tending towards that VSCO-esque film vibe
  • There are LOTS of self portraits. Advertisers inspired by this approach might want to commission photographers who work this way (This is an approach that style bloggers have been taking for years.... Ann Street Studio is one of my favorite examples of this done properly). 
  • Many of these photographers participated in "365" projects, where they created and posted an image every single day. This gives me lots of inspiration about being scrappy and creating great work even when you aren't working with the sorts of budgets associated with traditional print campaigns. (Though we can hope that most photographers working on social advertising campaigns won't have to resort to  mom and dad assisting on shoots.)
  • There are lots of serial projects. Advertisers can do well to replicate this approach to help pull together an idea or a campaign that will be spread across a number of different posts on a platform like Instagram, Tumblr or Facebook.

Anyone who works in advertising for social media that uses imagery in their campaign (IE ANYONE working in social media) would be well served to take a look at these 20 photographers. Here are a few of my favorites:

Brian Oldham

Brian Oldham

Greg Pths

Greg Pths

Alex Stoddard

Alex Stoddard

Lauren Withrow

Lauren Withrow

Small Teams Making Great Content

For those brands and agencies who feel that they're tasked with making a lot with a little, I thought it would be worth sharing a look at some of my favorite blogs/social campaigns that are run by just one or two people. The work below, in my opinion, is compelling and original on it's own.... But what makes it even more impressive is that it's curated or created by just one or two people. Some of them are even side projects of sorts. Next time you think the digital advertising campaign you're working on doesn't have enough money or resources to make great work, take a look at these sites to get some perspective on what's possible.


Nick Onken

I've followed Nick's blog for quite some time, and I've watched as it grew from focussing on the business of photography into a full on lifestyle media site. Nick records his own podcasts, writes commentary and shoots original content... And he does all of this while working as a busy full time commercial photographer.


Ariele Alasko

Ariel Alasko is a furniture builder and woodworker based in Brooklyn. Her website is very well done, but the real standout is her Instagram account, which is approaching a quarter million followers. She announces sales of items like carved spoons and bowls on her Instagram, and the premium priced products invariably sell out very quickly. 


The Glamourai

I've been following this blog ever since running into stylist Kelly Framel at fashion week a few years ago. At first glance, you might think that The Glamourai is supported by a giant publishing team. On a regular basis they roll out original fashion editorials whose production value and art direction rival anything you'd see in a major fashion publication. Take a closer look, though, and you'll see that the site is entirely written by Kelly, with her sister serving as the market editor and production manager. 


The Glow

I was fortunate to have the chance to work with Kelly Stuart when she hired me to to photograph fashion week for Elle a couple years ago. While working as a full time photo director at Hearst (which, as you can imagine, isn't one of those phone-it-in kind of jobs), she also found the time and resources to put together The Glow. The entire site (and now book) is produced by her and editor Violet Gaynor.

People in the advertising world have a tendency to look to what other brands and agencies are doing for inspiration. However, with digital publishing allowing individuals to put out great content that others are actually consuming, it can be super useful to look at content being made by people outside the ad world.

These are a few sites that I really admire for being able to make so much from relatively limited resources. If anyone else has suggestions on individuals or small teams making great digital work, I'd love to hear about it!

Photography for J. Crew Digital
with Bryan Derballa

When I was a fresh transplant to Brooklyn in 2006, one of my sources of photography inspiration was Love Bryan, a blog curated by Bryan Derballa. The blog came in an unusual format, displaying the work from several photographers in personal, long form photo essays.

I hadn't met Bryan, but I followed along with his career as I started seeing his name popping up in credits for the Fader, Vice and the Wall Street Journal.

More recently, I was excited to see his work on posts for the J. Crew blog. Coinciding with when Mickey Drexler took over as CEO in the early 2000s, the brand has grown into one that truly stands out in terms of creative direction. They are consistently creating fresh and forward thinking images. Their social media and digital presence is, in my opinion, one of the most well executed programs in fashion, and brands working in any area can take inspiration from it. In particular, I think the editorial/storytelling approach that they've taken on their blog is a brilliant way to create content that people actually want to subscribe and tune in to.

Bryan has a key role in creating visual content for J. Crew's digital presence on their tumblr, and Instagram feed. When I recently ran into Bryan at a seminar for PDN 30, I jumped on the opportunity to say hello, and a few weeks later we sat down to talk more about the work he's been creating for J. Crew.

How did your relationship with J. Crew start?

Several years ago I shot J.Crew’s presentation at Fashion Week for T-Magazine – I think it was only the second presentation they’d ever done at Fashion Week. I shot it and just did my thing. The nice part about working with T was complete creative freedom. They kind of wanted you to do whatever you did well.

Some people at J.Crew found those photos, and they passed it along to Jenna Lyons, (President and Creative Director of J.Crew). She liked it and they brought me in to photograph their presentation and backstage for the presentation at the next fashion week. They wanted it for their Tumblr and for their internal usage, and I think some photos might’ve got thrown up on Instagram, but their Instagram was still very new at the time.

It was the blog director’s first day. Her first day was my first day, and after that it just became this match made in heaven, and we worked on so many things afterwards together. It evolved from being just fashion week to a whole host of things.

So right from the start, it seems that there was a very editorial mindset about creating content?

Yeah, absolutely. I started in photojournalism; all my early clients were newspapers and the occasional magazine. But it was always very reportage style. That’s the kind of work I love most and that’s the kind of work I enjoy doing, and I think it’s really cool that J.Crew has seen that. They identified that in me and allow me to do it in a more commercial and fashion-based setting.

A lot of what we do is studio tours and factory tours. We have columns, like In the Kitchen, where we’ll go to someone interesting and photograph them making a meal. We do a lot of style features. We love to work with real people, not necessarily models, to see what the clothes look like on those people and to get more of their personality and to try to find a place where the clothes, the personality, and the photography all meld together.

That’s something interesting in terms of social media and marketing right now. You’re basically combining two things: the social media world and the advertising world. So a brand has to choose: do you want to take it more from the angle of how people are already creating content on social media with a more loose, editorial approach? Or do you want to think of it more like traditional advertising, which might mean things are conceived ahead of time and you’ve got an art director making up comps and clients signing off on concepts before they’re even shot.

One of the coolest thing about social media and photography, and one of the reasons I’m really interested in doing it right now, is that it hasn’t been totally defined yet. We know what advertising looks like in magazines or on billboards; we have an idea of what we’re going to see when we open the pages of those magazines. It’s often very slick and there’s production value and the clothes look good, people look good. We know what that is.

Likewise, we know what photojournalism looks like. We see the New York Times every day, Time Magazine, we have an idea of what that is.

But social media photography, it’s so new that it’s still being defined, and it takes influences from all these things that are still evolving. Twitter did so well because it gave people direct access to their friends and celebrities. If you want to know what Ashton Kutcher really thinks, or Shakira or whoever these people are that have really popular Twitter feeds, you can get an intimate look into their life and what they’re thinking. Even if it is filtered through a publicist, it doesn’t always seem like it, so you get this more raw and candid look at these things that we’re interested in and fascinated by.

So I think that the photography in social media does that really well – or at least it should be doing that really well. We’re not going to repurpose a photo that was shot for the catalog necessarily; instead, we’re going to get something more intimate, more behind the scenes, closer to the people actually making the clothes.

Or we might make something that has a little bit more personality, just to engage the viewers in a different way, because that’s what they want with social media. They’re looking for some kind of intimacy, and it gives you a feeling – it’s so personal. You’re looking on your phone, you have this little device, and it’s just you and the device. You’re choosing what’s on that screen. Unlike a billboard or a magazine or something that you walk by and it’s just there, you’re very interactively choosing, “This is what I want,” and it seems like that personal experience has shown brands and the folks that follow this kind of stuff that people want intimacy and the rawness and candidness, and just a sense of honesty in a world that is often so bombarded by artifice.

So what I’m really interested in, is taking a documentary approach and applying it to all kinds of different situations. It doesn’t have to be as serious as my photojournalism, and it doesn’t have to be as serious as traditional advertising. It can be more free-flowing and more abstract and strange and interesting.

So in a way, do you feel like you have even more license to be creative with it than you would when you’re shooting for the Wall Street Journal, for example?

Yeah, definitely. The Wall Street Journal, they’re great and do very important work. They have a defined readership and journalistic obligations. The images they choose to run in their paper need to inform and serve the story.

At J. Crew we can also share a photo that gives a feeling in a more abstract way, and it doesn’t require as much of an explanation but can still affect people in a way that goes beyond what we’re traditionally used to.

 It’s exciting to imagine an emerging area in advertising photography where photographers have a bit more creative freedom and the shoots are a little more loose.

Yeah, it’s just a whole new way to engage and to push boundaries. And what else is cool about it – and this is from a more general perspective: everyone’s a photographer now. People are constantly going through Instagram and clicking on pictures that they like, and then they’re going out and trying to make photos like that. Often people just shoot the things that are important in their life, but they’re doing it so much more that they’re trying to figure out ways to do it in a new or creative way. They’re trying to see things a little bit differently, and they’re trying new filters and understanding the look of the picture rather than just what the picture is.

So I think that people on a whole are increasing their visual vocabulary. They’re becoming more sophisticated with it. When I first started shooting, for the first few years I was taking pictures that I thought were so smart and so visually sophisticated, but they were lost on people who weren’t photographers. Photographers liked it, but people who weren’t photographers, it didn’t really resonate. It looked weird or it felt uncomfortable or whatever.

But now people are becoming more and more open to that. I have a lot of tricks in my bag, and I like to employ them when making photos. That keeps it interesting for me. I like to use visual techniques to do things with images to make them more engaging. People are becoming more open to that, and I think that is a big benefit of Instagram.

How do things come together for a shoot for J. Crew in terms of production?

The blog director will come to me ahead of time with a few things that we’re going to shoot. We’ll schedule it, we’ll lock down our subjects, and she’ll send out call sheets, and then I’ll show up. Sometimes, but not all the time, there’s a creative director there as well.

What’s been really nice for me with J.Crew is that I get to work with a team. When I was working with newspapers a lot, I would have a lot of contact with my editors, but they were assigning so much and overseeing so much that they never actually came on the shoots. But with J.Crew, I always have my blog director and my art director there. They give me pretty free rein, but they also help to encourage me to try things that I may not see, or to point out details that I may have missed, or to help elicit something from the subjects to make it more comfortable to shoot.

That’s the process of shooting. I’ve pitched a couple things here and there, but in general I leave it up to them. Most of my time spent on coming up with photo ideas are for personal projects. And they have so many things that they need to cover that I could never even know about, because I don’t attend the marketing meetings, that I just leave it up to them.

Do you work with any other brands in the same way you shoot for J. Crew?

 Not really. I've done it once for Nike. But I haven’t really sought out doing it with anyone else. J.Crew keeps me very busy. A lot of people don’t know what this kind of work is worth. But with J.Crew, I don’t feel that way

One of the things that’s interesting is how much they’re really invested in this. How do I put this… we shoot around New York all the time, and our shoots aren’t huge; it’s not like we have production RVs and stuff like that, but we do travel a lot with it. So far I’ve gone to London three or four times with J.Crew, and we’ve been to different parts of Europe. We go to California every year. Went to Hong Kong and to Tanzania.

All of this was to produce content for their Tumblr and their Instagram, and I think that that’s pretty unique. I think that not very many companies would take the risk of sending someone so far at such a high expense to produce content specifically for those things. So I think that’s really cool.

I do think that’s true. One thing that’s interesting, to me, though is that any component of an advertising campaign is the media buy. So if it’s a TV commercial or an ad in a magazine, they’re paying a lot of money just for that space. You can pay money to get people to see things on Facebook and on Tumblr, and on Instagram too now. But it doesn’t seem like that has been the approach by J. Crew.

Obviously the cost of production and your fees adds up but I would imagine that it can be well worth it if the content is great and people want to tune in and subscribe to the feeds and share it.

Yeah, totally. I never thought about it that way but that does make sense.

 Another part of J.Crew’s approach that I think is so smart is having this long-term relationship with you. So it’s not like every time they do a shoot, they’re trying to teach a photographer what the brand is supposed to be, where they’re trying to take it, and the kind of things that they’re really interested in showcasing. 

Have you felt that they’ve taught you about the brand and the direction it’s going, and if so, has it translated into you being able to take pictures that work for them better?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a two-way street, though. J.Crew has a very strong visual and brand identity. It took me awhile to learn those. I’d seen the brand and I knew a little bit about it beforehand, but now I understand so much more. I understand of course the clothes, and I can spot those from a mile away, but now I understand the style.

I can pick out the things that are going to be on brand for them in terms of people and personalities and music and arts and culture and all those things that are going to influence the J.Crew voice. I’ve become pretty well attuned to that, some through working with Jenna Lyons at fashion week, but mostly through my team, the blog director and creative director, and just all the other media that they put out.


But in the same way, I got to help define what their voice is for social media. I’ve been able to help define a look. I do most of the stuff for the blog and for the Instagram, but I don’t do all of it. Sometimes I’m out of town or sometimes they have multiple shoots going on at the same time, or sometimes they have something come up in a faraway place and they can’t get me there in time.

In those instances, they hire photographers with similar aesthetics, and the photos move pretty seamlessly. Another photographer recently covered the Hong Kong store opening, and those pictures didn’t look too much different than how my pictures look. I think that’s a purposeful thing. I think they know what they’re doing. They want to have a consistent voice and a consistent vision.

I’m lucky that I came in at a time when they were figuring out what that was going to be, and I got to help decide what it was going to be with my own vision.


Bryan's work can be seen at Bryan and I will be sitting on a panel, How to Land Assignments for Social Media Advertising during PhotoPlus Expo on October 31st.

Design Inspiration from

I’m always on the lookout for examples of brands who are doing a great job of publishing images in social media and on digital platforms, and I certainly feel like I’ve found a variety of examples (some of which I’ve already written about in this blog). One item that I’m at usually at a loss for, though, are examples of brands who are setting high standards for great design and presentation of images.

Of course on social media, there are pretty tight boundaries to how images are presented (though JWT Canada did have an interesting approach for this Mazda campaign). But what I’m talking about in this case is great design on a brands own websites.

Screen Shot 2014-04-26 at 3.32.39 PM

Yes, I’m a photographer, so perhaps I’m more of a sucker than most for beautiful, well displayed photography. However, when my friend, Jake Lodwick, launched, (created by  Luke Beard and Kyle Bragger) it really made me think that this is a sort of design approach that brands—particularly those in fashion or other style related areas—should really be looking at.

I started thinking about this more when my friend Tanveer Badal sent along the series that he posted from Everest Base Camp. I quickly took a spin through the Staff Picks, and it wasn’t hard to find some other excellent examples of how great, minimalist design can interact with pictures in a way that we seldom see brands take advantage of.

I’m not an expert in the process that most brands follow to build websites, but from my understanding, the typical approach is to start with a wireframe of the site long before any content has been introduced. I suspect that this might be part of the problem. Imagine an art director trying to sell a client on a screen design consisting of a bunch of simple large boxes representing full bleed horizontal images. Part of the solution might be a re-think on the start-to-finish process of making a website.

I think there’s an opportunity here. Pairing great photography with minimal, yet well thought out design shouldn't seem like a novel idea.... Yet it's surprisingly rare (in my opinion) to see a brand doing this. Brands looking to stand out with their work, or agencies looking to offer something unique could definitely take some inspiration from

Herman Miller creates an editorial platform with Dwell alumni

Herman Miller’s Why is a fantastic example of a brand bypassing magazines and creating great editorial content on their own. The project launched in July of last year, stating that their aim was to answer the question "Why has Herman Miller thrived for 108 years?" They are creating content and hosting it on their site, very much up the alley of what I described last year when I wrote about what Mr. Porter is doing. The formula is pretty simple: Make content that the people you want to engage with will want to consume.

The project is overseen by Sam Grawe, who is the former editor in chief of Dwell Magazine, and edited by Amber Bravo, a former editor at the magazine. For some recent shots, they hired Dwell freelancer Jake Stangel. In other words, the people making content for Herman Miller were all doing the same thing for Dwell magazine just a few years ago.

A couple of recent articles about Mexico city are great indicators of how the Dwell team approaches content marketing. One reads as a travel piece, with just a few references to Herman Miller’s new Latin America headquarters. The other talks more explicitly about a Mexico city based organization that was the recipient of an award from Herman Miller. The stories were written by Bravo and photographed by Stangel.

I suspect that smart brands will continue to borrow from the editorial world, both in terms of their approach to making work, and talent itself. Brands who do this right will be able to grow a loyal, engaged audience that they can speak with on their own terms.


An ACDs Thoughts on Photography for Social

“The thing that I’m finding is that it’s always better to engage any sort of visual thinker very early on in the creative process, when all the strategists are sitting around and you’re figuring out what the brand needs to exist like in the physical realm.”

There's a really fantastic interview on Photo District News with Maury Postal, ACD at Social@Ogilvy. Postal has some great insight into what's happening right now in terms of content for social media. Check it out here.

Red Bull's Content Marketing Strategy

Digital has been a game changer in terms of media production for most big brands. As the number of platforms and opportunities to publish increase online, I see a lot of scrambling to keep up. While some brands are still struggling to find a cohesive strategy for publishing on their own websites and in the major social media channels, Red Bull has taken it to another level, with Red Bull Content Pool.

The site essentially serves as a stock agency with a twist: many of the images can be licensed for certain uses without a fee. There are more than 50,000 in their database, and all of them can be downloaded and re-purposed for uses ranging from a blog post to print publications. Many of the images have a well placed Red Bull logo somewhere within the frame.

The Red Bull Content pool is a compelling and unique marketing strategy. A brand looking to make a serious investment in brand awareness could consider doing something similar. While the Content Pool also provides videos, the still images seem more compelling to me as a type of media that can easily be leveraged by third party publishers

There certainly is no lack of media outlets--from hobbyist bloggers to large media companies--that would jump at the chance to have access to high quality images that relate to their subject area and can illustrate their stories. I'll be interested to see if any other brands follow suit with their own branded stock sites in the coming few years.