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. 

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

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.

Instagram Playing it Safe with Paid Content

This questionnaire recently popped up in my Instagram feed, and it’s a reminder that the social network is being very careful as it works out a strategy for allowing paid content.

From a personal perspective, I saw a flurry of ads on the platform in November of last year. I didn’t block any of the advertising, but it’s been several months since I’ve seen a sponsored post. An informal survey of friends on Instagram confirms that users haven’t really been seeing sponsored posts lately. A deal was announced between Instagram and Omnicom worth $40 to$100 million at the beginning of March, which has me scratching my head in terms of when the deluge of advertising is going to start.

We can only speculate on when the sponsored post will become a regular occurrence on Instagram, or what doors might open down the line for advertisers. However, the current structure means that success is less about paid placement, and more about great content. The best solutions for getting a brands message out right now is by collaborating with Instagram users who already have a strong following (like Mercedes Benz did in their campaign last year) or to create genuinely compelling work that users will organically want to follow.

Either way, the current winners on Instagram aren’t necessarily the ones with the money, they’re the ones with the vision. That’s an opportunity for smart marketers, ad agencies, and image makers.



Everlane's Stand Out use of Photography in Social Media

I've been keeping an eye on the online fashion retailer Everlane for some time. This company is doing it right in a lot of ways, particularly in terms of still photography and social media. Their campaign can be an inspiration for any brand looking to develop a more refined voice in their imagery. Here's what I like about what they're doing:

Optimizing their shoots and knowing their platforms:

Everlane has done a great job of getting the most out of their photoshoots. As an online fashion retailer, their bread and butter is in catalogue style photography. These pictures have to be clean and straightforward to show a potential buyer what the product looks like. Everlane makes the most of these shoots by creating additional content that can be used elsewhere. The way they edit and use the pictures reflects a deep understanding of these platforms. A clean lookbook shoot turns into a Facebook cover page when the photographer captures an image with more personality and more of an editorial approach. That same shoot turns into Instagram material when the model is shot away from the seamless backdrop with less refined light and more of a snapshot feel.

Campaigns Encouraging User Generated Content:

On Instagram, Everlane ran a campaign based on the #WhereITravel hashtag last year that was remarkably successful and culminated in a gallery show at Milk Studios here in NYC. More recently, they started a campaign based on the #myeverlane hashtag. They kicked that it off by asking contributors to take pictures of their travel gear including Everlane product. Both of these campaigns were successful because they played off ways that users are already using Instagram.


Balancing User Generated Content with Original Content:

Everlane has lots of great user generated content to choose from. This stems in part from campaigns like those described above, and also because of the elegant design of their packaging which is effective in getting customers to post their own unboxing photos. They understand the value of this sort of content, and curate user generated pictures on both Facebook (in this album) and Instagram accounts.


However, they're smart to not depend too heavily on user generated content for their owned platforms. They still lead with well produced original photography.

Where Everlane could improve:

A large part of Everlane's marketing message is about working with factories operating at the highest standards across the world. They've commissioned documentary style photography of these factories, but unfortunately, these images fall short compared to the rest of their media. For example, take a look at images from their China factory in this Facebook gallery. While I can imagine that Everlane was weary of not wanting to sugarcoat the factory conditions, they ended up too far in the opposite direction. The bleak color treatment and lack of engagement with the workers works against Everlane's message in this case.

Despite a few quibbles with specific elements of their media, for me Everlane still represents a company that is breaking ground with well executed photography that is  true to the various digital platforms it lives on. Companies and agencies looking to refine what they do in this area should take note.

Tinker Street Mobile

NYC based agent Jesse Miller has been representing Instagram photographers for some time, with Tinker Street Mobile. Collaborating with Instagramers with a large fan base has been one of the most effective ways for a brand to work on the platform, and Miller was quick to recognize the opportunity here. I'll be interested to see how things change now that there are more ways for brands to work with Instagram.

Either way, for agencies looking to engage some great Instagram photographers, their roster is a great place to start. And for creatives looking for inspiration, their commissions page shows off some beautifully executed work that really rings true for the platform.


Instagram for Business

Instagram is curating an excellent Tumblr (the irony I know!) highlighting businesses who are doing a standout job using the platform. While there is currently no paid advertising on Instagram, brands are already on it creating their own content. The future of paid advertising on Instagram is unclear. Founder Kevin Systrom just spoke at London Fashion week, and when asked about advertising plans he had very little to reveal.

It's smart for social media platforms to be concerned not only in having paying advertisers, but also for those advertisers to be creating great content. It's a way to ensure that brands will see a good return on investment, and that the audience will continue to be engaged with the platform. Whatever may lie ahead, Instagram has created a sort of primer for businesses on how to do the platform properly.

As it is, the site is a great resource for agencies and brands looking for inspiration, examples of great content, and unique ways that brands are using the platform. This is definitely a feed that anyone interested in the future of social media and pictures should keep an eye on.

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