How to get ahead in photography? Sample ads?

Question by:
Daniel Cuthbert
South Africa

Paraphrase of Daniel's question:
What is the usefulness of shooting sample ads (fake ads) that look like published ones as a marketing tool to get advertising work?

Daniel's actual question:
So you've decided you really enjoy thinking of creative briefs for
adverts. You spent a few hours drawing up some story boards and your pretty ready to go ahead and do the shoot, all in the name of showing that bloody agency you can think like a advertising photographer and not make the creative director wake up with cold sweats. Problem is, what's right and what's wrong with doing adverts yourself?

Response by

A common assignment in commercial photography school is to recreate an existing print ad. Another assignment would be to art direct, write, shoot, and retouch a "sample ad" for an existing or hypothetical product. These assignments are all in the name of allowing students to gain an appreciation of what goes into making a real ad. These are great exercises for new photographers, but those sample ads in seriousness should remain out of portfolios and marketing materials. I'll give two reasons and then elaborate.

1. They say amateur "school assignment" and don't reflect a photographers true roll in creating ads. Photographers make photographs. Art directors make ads.

2. In making these ads, you are not showcasing your "point of view" as a photographer. Having a unique point of view will get you work faster
than showing that you think like an art director.

Art buyers, in part hire photographers that can handle "production". Production is having the team and skills to translate an art directors idea into a photograph within the agreed upon budget and time frame. This can include: casting, location scouting, catering, styling, prop building, and retouching. Most of these production rolls are handled by people hired by and overseen by the photographer and his/ her producer. How smoothly this process rolls out is anybody's guess especially when it's a first time project.

An art director will choose a photographer with a unique and defined vision. They want a photographer to partner with that will take their idea and "elevate" it either by addition or subtraction of elements. The chosen photographer's vision is one that that best syncs up with the art director's own on that project. Specifically this can be a sense of lighting, space, humor, gravity, landscape, etc.. Their work must be consistent enough that the art buyer is confident that the photographer will produce something like what they've seen in their portfolio and ultimately please the client and not cause the art director undue stress.

So showing an ad you created in your kitchen doesn't really say much about your competence as an advertising shooter. However, why don't you just make those very same pictures and forget about the ad? Don't try to write copy or place the product on the picture at all. Now put it in your book. A seasoned art director will always be able to see how a photographer thinks by the choices he/she makes. Make images about ideas you have and let that idea be the content of the photo rather than relying on a headline or product association to tell it's story.

One picture can send multiple messages to many people. This is the beauty of art. Ads are generally meant to communicate one message to all people. Don't limit the interpretation of your work by forcing the viewer to think of it singularly. Let it translate unpredictably. If it is in fact a great image, your art director will see it and "get you."
Pick up Archive Magazine and look at the ads in there. Very often they are driven by photography. Although the writing is brilliant, the headline or product attached to them could be many. Their strength relies on this very notion of the unexpected.

Later in your career you may have the opportunity to have an art director call you to help flesh out his/ her idea before it's pitched because your track record shows that you work well in this capacity and they like working with you.