A Journey Through the Industry with Ally Godfrey. Part 1: From Rep to Art Buyer

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When I first thought to interview art producers for the blog, my intention was to celebrate the person behind the position.    I recognized that people in this position always came from such rich and diverse backgrounds and their path to art buying was never a straight line.   Well, that is for sure the case with Ally Godfrey.  Ally’s career path has given her such a unique perspective and understanding of the industry, it is no wonder that so many people want to work with her.

She is so diverse in her abilities that when a family matter came up that caused us to consider canceling our trip to Texas, we hired Ally to go in our place.  We have all the confidence in the world that she will be the perfect replacement!

Did you always want to work in photography?

I had no idea this is what I liked. I thought I wanted to be an attorney. I worked at a law firm for two years after SMU and realized it involved too much paperwork and was very boring. My sister was a model and had just moved back to Dallas and they needed a booker at her agency and that was that.

Growing up, what were your creative interests?

I lived in England for all of high school and I loved history. We studied it differently —art history and literature alongside cultural history. When I was very young my grandfather had an old Polaroid and it would come out and he would take a lot of photos of us. I have so many photos of myself frowning—I never wanted to be in front of or behind the camera. But learning that art history was part of history had an impact. We also had access to a lot of art and went to The National Gallery and to Italy and Paris. Living in Europe gave me a wider point of view.

We moved back to the states and that was a huge culture shock. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do and the law office was misery. I would go to shoots with my sister and look at her portfolio or prints and had an opinion about the images and helped her with her portfolio and learned I had a good eye. I loved putting together model’s portfolios and their cards. I can really edit a portfolio.

How did you get into art buying? Why did you change from booking models to photographers?

I worked as a booker for five years at three modeling agencies before transitioning to repping. I got tired of listening to 19 year olds telling me they didn’t want to go to Paris and that they didn’t want to leave their boyfriend. I would tell them “He won’t be your boyfriend in six months, so just go to Paris.” There also wasn’t a lot of room for growth.

I had started off in Dallas and worked in Chicago for a small agency for six months. I had come back to Dallas and was ready for a change. A couple photographers approached me and I thought about it and it seemed like a good next step. So I got together with three photographers and launched Ally Godfrey Represents. We just started doing it. This was back in the day when we still shot film and there were no computers or email. We sent books, had more phone calls, and typed and faxed bids. I ended up working as rep for 22 years.

What contributed to the best rep/photographer partnerships?

It worked best when they had their own vision and were ready to go. You can’t create the vision for them. They have to have it. Your job is to help them get there.

“Don’t ask what your rep can do for you. Ask what you can do for your rep. 75% of this money is yours that I’m trying to get for you. ‘What do you want to do?’” This is how I see it. It is challenging when a photographer thinks getting a rep is going to make everything flow, that the pressure’s off and they don’t have to work at it anymore.

My job is to handle the business side, but the photographer still needs to have a vision for their work and how they are going to help me promote it. Let’s say a photographer comes to me with their portfolio and I’m in REP mode, not consulting mode. I want them to come to me with their vision of what their work is. What they enjoy shooting. It’s up to me to work with them to move that vision into something that is profitable for both of us. If they only have an editorial portrait book, for instance, it’s hard for people to believe you can handle the production behind it. It is my job to move the photographer in this direction. I have to know they are willing to change and not sit in same place. Will be frustrating for both the photographer and the rep.

I had this in my contract. That they would continue to test and produce three to four new images quarterly. “You can lead a photographer to the studio, but you can’t make him test.” I saw the difference between people who tested all the time and those who didn’t, whose portfolios didn’t change in one year. It sort of creates this cosmic momentum when they are testing and the same went for me. I found that you would have a natural ebb and flow as a rep. When I didn’t feel like calling, I would focus on list updates. But the minute I started calling, it built momentum and I would get a job.

How would you motivate your photographers?

I would talk with them and then would tell them I couldn’t do anything if they didn’t. I would sometimes send them tear sheets that I liked or point out things that art directors had said about their books when I had a showing.

I were repping now, I would probably have more a review process and say re-evaluate every year or so and see where we are and and whether we should continue working together. It has to be a mutually profitable as well as productive and enjoyable working relationship. I will admit that I probably kept some artists too long, but it is sometimes like a marriage and can be hard to end the working relationship, especially if you genuinely like the person and their work. I would probably be a little more ruthless now.

I remember one particular photographer who got it completely, utterly and totally. I never had to ask her “Do you have your Workbook ad ready? Do you have an eblast ready?” I never had to ask her for new images—she tested quite a bit. We made a schedule for her direct mail and eblasts and I never had to ask her twice. Everything was budgeted and she was also in both Workbook and At-Edge. She would go on appointments on her own that I would set up for her. She lived in Charlotte, NC and sometimes it was difficult to convince clients to travel there, but people knew who she was. When the industry tanked, she kept her name out there.  Another photographer continually tested and kept advertising even in the economic downturn. She also made the leap into video and short film.

You were a rep for 22 years. What did you enjoy, what were some of the challenges and ultimately why did you decide to transition to art buying and producing?

I really enjoyed being a rep. I enjoyed getting out and meeting people, finding and meeting with new photographers. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. And who knows what the future will bring. I still get to do a lot of this between producing and consulting. With producing, I still get to make sure everything is going correctly and right and still get to be the nurturer and work with fabulous creative people. And that was always my favorite part, the people. But when I talk with other reps about jobs, I do sometimes get the feeling that I wish I had known about and bid a job and I miss the art buyers. And it’s different now promoting myself than being in charge of promoting photographers. I now know how the photographers felt.

As with any job, there were of course challenges. Being a rep during this time presented its own. The industry was changing quite a bit and there were of course a lot of things, but the ability to have a portfolio showing became much harder. Not that they didn’t want to meet, but it was harder. They would say they were going online and not really meeting. If they knew me, it was different. But if they didn’t it was more of a challenge. Before if I went out to SF, they all said “Sure, come on in.” But that started to change.

Another big change was that the end client had so much more say in who they would hire and didn’t seem to take the agency recommends as much as they used to. Sometimes they would go through the triple-bid and then bring in their own photographer or just go with cheapest regardless of the agency recommendation and how hard we worked to show them how we arrived at our numbers.

I always tried very hard to be a problem solver. This was one of the most fun parts of being a rep and why I went into production. I tried to solve the problem, to be the team with the solution. We would write and give them a treatment if we could and explain clearly that our numbers reflected our approach, how we were solving it and why we were doing what we were doing. To show the art buyer and the client how we would approach something, solve their creative challenge and bring their creative vision to life. You have the opportunity to do this on every job and I would approach it this way and give it my all.

The trust issue is a big one. If they haven’t worked with you before they are sticking their neck out to work with someone new, so you’ve got to give them a comfort level. They are entrusting this project to you that could mean millions for this company and you will deliver.

The budget challenges also got increasingly harder to manage. Clients wanted unlimited usage with no increase in the budget. They would also ask for changes and not expect the original budget to change, which was challenging—many clients expected that no matter the changes, we had to stay in the budget they had and the agencies found it difficult to fight for this with their clients.

You transitioned to art buying a year ago. What did you bring to this from your years as a rep? What was it like to go from representing photographers to art buying?

After the recession in 2008, things were good but everyone was struggling. An opportunity came up at Omnicom’s The Marketing Arm to work as an art buyer and to learn about print production as well as art buying. So I jumped. The ups and downs were beginning to wear. I worked on Frito-Lay, NCP (National Consumer Promotions) and on Pepsi. It was an easy transition. I loved going from freelance to working in an office. It was a young, fun atmosphere and a very fun place to work. The agency was fun, not stodgy and had a lot of perks for employees. I had great photographers. But there were fewer jobs. It was pretty universal. Other reps I talked with said their businesses were down 50%. It was getting hard to manage agency pay schedules with business fluctuations.

Having been a rep for that long I really felt I had a lot of insight into how shoots worked and what expectations were, into planning and being able to look at estimates and tell where things might be padded. I felt I could really bring something to the table and educate people I worked with about what approaches a photographer would take and why bids came in a certain and why.

I was able to look at photographers and their bids and help my creative team understand why they were doing what they were doing. The account executives also needed to know this for the client. I also found it very helpful when doing bid requests to know where we could cut and where it wasn’t necessary. And approach it from ‘I know you want to do it this way, but have you thought about doing it this way?’ As a former rep, I got respect for this from the photographers. And reps. They appreciated that I understood where they were coming from and had to have client’s and agency’s interest at heart. I would never slash and burn, but find solutions that met the budget. I would ask, “How about doing it like this?” I had many people say “You’ve been a rep and you understand where we are coming from.”

I felt that transparency in the bidding process was key to getting the best bids/estimates from vendors. Although I was not allowed to share who else was bidding or what the budget was, I always tried to give as much information as possible so that the artists always had a clear and level playing field to work on. When I was a rep, I always asked for this information and it always helped when creating estimates.

Because I knew how the reps and photographers felt on the other end of the line not knowing. Bidding in the dark. I’d been there. There’s always a budget. As an art buyer I never bid a job that didn’t have a budget. It is negotiated and arranged before you even put out the bid request. I always had to triple bid and 9 out of 10 times there was a “preferred.” On one large campaign, the Creative liked the imagery of the photographer who got it, but they liked the approach of another photographer that was being bid. They ended up deciding to go with the first choice because it was someone they’d always wanted to work with and the photographer was able to satisfy the creative from the way they were looking at it and the way they were going to shoot would work.

Thank you to Allison McCreery of POP Blog for conducting this interview.  Be sure to tune in Thursday, October 31st for Part 2.

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