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Interview: Jenny Read, Art Producer


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BY Lewis Van Arnam October 05, 2010 · Published by Resource Magazine

The veteran art producer talks about her job and offers valuable insights into how photographers can succeed in the new world of integrated print, TV, and online advertising.

This article has been contributed from the Summer 2010 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.

Photo by Sarra Fleur at LVA+.

Jenny Read is a veteran art producer at kirshenbaum bond senecal + partners. kbs+p is a known creative hot-spot, and Jenny’s role keeps her directly in the middle of the action. In her 13+ years as an art buyer, Jenny has worked on accounts in almost every category, ranging from major beauty campaigns to pharma and Ad Council. Presently she works on John Frieda, Bioré, Curel and Vanguard. Madison Avenue of yesteryear is now SoHo-based, and tomorrow’s vision is living today at kbs+p. I’m extremely pleased for this opportunity to share Jenny’s point of view.

I have a fascination with how people end up in this business. There’s usually an interesting, unexpected path. What’s your story?

Seems funny now but I had never even heard of the term "art buying," let alone of the profession. Growing up in New York City I dreamed of being many things . . . an actress, or a dancer . . . an agent, Italian teacher, pool player, seminary student (yes, seminary), author, psychologist, married and wealthy . . . Anything but a nine-to-five job. Ultimately I ended up in the social work arena. As fulfilling as it was to work with autistic children and child protective services, I quickly found myself totally burned out, and needing a change. I made a conscious decision to find a job that was less heart wrenching, perhaps even slightly shallow, and offered a much-needed creative component. Hence was the start of my adventure in advertising. I landed a position at Maybelline/Garnier where, without knowing it at the time, I began my art buying career. I had the extreme good fortune of working with freelance art buyer Merilee Hestefer, who taught me the foundations and was an incredible mentor to me during and after my time at Maybelline. The job was incredibly exciting because I was able to meet photographers, cast models, and handle productions from conception to completion. The first moment I stepped onto a set, I knew I was doing exactly what fit me best. It was exhilarating to see the entire process come to life, and know I was instrumental in making it happen. And please add to the equation that I’m a total control freak, can be demanding, usually very direct (some might invoke the “B” word here), a perfectionist, aware of when to speak up and when to shut up, loyal, personable, and have developed incredible business resources, and relationships, to call on when help is needed.

There has been recent controversy over extreme retouching. Some legal issues are arising. Do you feel this responsibility?

Much of my experience is with beauty campaigns. We all know that the image that ends up on TV, or in magazines, varies from what was shot on set. It has come to light recently that some beauty campaigns have tried to crack down on extreme retouching, but the ultimate revelation is that those ads were retouched too. My company has strict rules about truth in advertising, and we all work hard to enforce them.

Are you working with Computer Generated Imagery?

The emergence of CGI is transforming the universe of options in photography. Whether you like it or not, it’s hard to deny its benefits in terms of economy and production schedules. For example, I was recently on set in Spain, shooting for twelve days, with a seemingly impossible release date upon return. Back in New York, a CGI virtual shoot for the product was taking place, simultaneously, without any of us needing to be present. This effectively maximized our production time, and saved our client money by not producing an additional shoot. As an added bonus, the generated images can be used for both print and TV. We met our deadlines and it was a win-win, all around.

We are entering a new phase of art production with integrated executions covering print, TV and online advertising. Elaborate on the evolution of your role, and what’s beyond.

Much has changed in the last year and a half due to the economy and the rapid pace of technology. As a result, producers are required to wear many hats. kbs+p, one of the first truly integrated creative shops, was ahead of the curve going digital too, so we have an integrated content production department that produces print, TV, radio and web under one umbrella. So here I am, a senior art buyer in a sea of broadcast and web producers. I’m very fortunate to be in a department, and have a boss, that has established a mutual support system to quickly adapt to the learning curve we have been faced with.

This is the challenge, and benefit, of being on the cusp of change. I am able to learn a new craft, at my level, without suffering any embarrassment because basically we’re all in the same boat. At kbs+p we do integrated shoots that combine print and TV executions to stay true to our mission of maximizing ROI for clients. For these kinds of shoots I choose either directors who have shot print, or photographers who have experience with video. Unfortunately, in my opinion, one medium is bound to suffer a little bit. Photographers, I believe (and I am admittedly a little biased), have the advantage of mastering both, though the challenges are many. Consider how photographers direct talent, create their own lighting, and create an image to tell an entire story that cannot pass the viewer by in seconds. The streamlined nature of the print crew, and creative expectations, offers an opportunity for spontaneous direction that is unlikely to occur in the process-heavy film environment. This is a major demarcation between print and film. This division is evident from the very beginning.

In print there is no requirement for a treatment, so photographers usually just need to have a chemistry call with the agency creative team, and possibly supply additional images, to get the gig. In contrast, a lot more is needed from a director to understand his or her vision in creating a 30-second spot. The director’s work begins as soon as they become a potential fit for the job; developing the treatment and defining their vision can take a few weeks. Their constant involvement is necessary to make the project a success. It’s my hope that photographers will bring a fresh approach to the process. It won’t be easy, though.

I have met with many photographers who I have encouraged to start getting a reel together. I think any person who can excel in both mediums will be unstoppable in today’s market. But they need to be prepared to give it everything they’ve got to create a formula that crosses over.

Because I have a strong background in model negotiations for both print and TV, I have a head start in understanding another major difference between the two mediums . . . unions. Whereas print contracts, and usage agreements, are negotiated in good faith, (or "as the market will bear"), TV has very stringent rules and regulations. Of course there are advantages, but here is an example of what’s difficult for me: a TV shoot has the prop guy, then the guy who puts the prop on a cart, then the guy who pushes the cart, then the guy who takes the prop and puts it on set, then the guy who moves the prop from point A to point B, etc. (I may be exaggerating, but not too far off!). My point is that these strict guidelines create challenges. You can’t talk to the prop guy because only the line producer can talk to the prop guy. The agency creative team has to talk to me, I talk to the line producer, who talks to the director, who asks the assistant director to tell the extra not to walk so fast. It makes me a little kooky! But ultimately I understand the unions were created to protect crew and talent, and it’s still early in my broadcast career, so interview me again in a couple of years and I’m sure I will have more insights on the benefit of having so many layers and rules on a shoot.

Do you book photographers from their website presentation, or do you need to have a portfolio in hand?

Tactile presentations are still necessary, but becoming less imperative because of the Internet. I start my search online (extensive bookmarks bar!!) and forward links to my creative team. I love to look at books, though. When a photographer comes in to see me, I prefer they bring a book as opposed to a laptop slideshow. I can do that on my own time. If we are considering a photographer, I will share their physical portfolio with my creative director for final approval. The ritual of feeling the pages as they turn, looking closely at the details of the images, and connecting with the work, in my experience, happens more profoundly when the book is in the CD’s face. Clients, on the other hand, are based in many different parts of the country, so we usually put together a PDF of select images for them to view. Come to think of it, even if the client is across the street, we prefer sending a PDF.

Fashion and beauty portfolios are built with editorial presence, which allows tremendous creative freedom. Yet, advertisers want a more controlled environment and (almost) pre-determined results. How do you reconcile this?

During any production, it’s very important to remember why you hired the photographer you chose. We look at a photographer’s experience, their level of creativity and how they differ from the other options in terms of fitting our creative brief. A photographer needs time to get comfortable, and into a flow. We have them begin by applying their style to the layouts, and (hopefully) tweak things accordingly to client commentary. But once everyone is at ease, and the trust between the client, agency and crew has been established, an environment for the magic to happen can take place. I try to push for this whenever possible. In other words, shoot the board and then have fun, if time allows.

Are you predicting a decline of still photography?

Not at all! Photography will always remain even if the printed image does not. A world without imagery isn’t even possible. Content needs images. CGI may have moved into the still life world, but I don’t ever see CGI taking over for a fashion, beauty, lifestyle or portrait shoot. Pictures will always live and be needed. Where they live is another matter. I see the next generation of photographers faced with many challenges. Foremost is this rough economy in which budgets are being looked at very, very carefully. My advice? Be flexible. Be current. Be willing to listen. Be available . . . collaborative. Art directors love their photographers. They want to team up with them, and when the chemistry is right, amazing work can ensue. Competition is fierce. Embrace the attributes I mention and you will have a good chance at repeat business. Also, do spec work to learn how to shoot TV and video. I can almost guarantee your market value will skyrocket.

Do you apply these wise words to your own career?

Yes, absolutely. Integration will continue to evolve and I believe we all need to expand our roles. My advice to myself, and all my fellow art producers, is to learn all you can, however you can. Take a class, ask questions, do your research. Don’t allow yourself to become irrelevant. Find the cutting edge because the more you know, the more valuable you are. Finally, embrace change because it is the only thing you can absolutely count on.

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Featured photographer: Sarra Fleur

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