Having listened to concerns voiced over the stock industry during the recent Photography Show, Mike Watson thinks it’s time for photographers and independent agencies to unite and talk directly to their customers.

“It’s clear that with all the recent technological innovations there has been a shift in revenues from creators to a few huge platforms. With the increase in images being created and posted, the competition among photographers has grown as the financial rewards have stagnated, or even decreased. Some photographers have abandoned the stock industry altogether.

Independent stock agencies that have been weak at pricing their work with confidence have followed the big platforms in a downward spiral of lower and lower prices. The big platforms have signed all-you-can-eat deals behind closed doors for even cheaper prices, and smaller stock agencies have been unable to back out of some of these deals, which has harmed their relationship with their photographers.

There is a new generation of photographers who are in danger of not being rewarded for their work. As the seasoned pros and semi-pros either scale back or give up shooting for stock altogether, the generation behind them are being ‘churned’ by the larger platforms as they accept recognition rather than remuneration for their work.

What is to be done about this?

It’s unlikely that the major platforms will change their practices and the all-you-can-eat deals will continue. Revenues and commission percentages will continue to be squeezed for smaller agencies and creators alike. At the end of the day you’re worth 20% or less to them. It’s a relationship that’s not going anywhere.

There was a time when if you got your product onto a major platform the royalties would be very healthy. That age has gone. Possibly forever.

I’ve seen more independent agencies either deciding not to put their product onto large platforms or not being asked to upload images in the first place. This is a clear message to the specialist stock agencies to do their own thing and create their own direct narrative with photographers and customers, and wrestle back control of their pricing and distribution models.

In a sense it heralds a return to some of the practices adopted by stock agencies and photographers over 20 years ago, when agencies where much closer to their clients, photographers and pricing models. This will present challenges to the industry, some of whose members appear exhausted by the speed of events, and who simply adopt fast-follower strategies or do so many things they end up as an industry stereotype, with clients and photographers unsure how they sit in the competitive landscape. Historically the industry has had innovation imposed upon it from outside and has been slow to react to changing buying habits from its customers.

Our take on the direction of travel in the stock industry 

-There is a ‘reset’ under way in the relationship between smaller agencies, photographers and customers

– Now is a great opportunity to build a focussed, curated collection of images, video and music that delights customers tired of the large platforms. The big will just get bigger, the small need to get smarter.

– Fair remuneration for creators resonates increasingly with customers. There are a few agencies out there really doing their best to ‘reset’ the balance between shareholders and creators.

– There will be a migration away from the larger platforms by specialist agencies and creators either by design or necessity.

– The stock industry should not only be coming together to discuss distribution deals, it should be more actively promoting stock to the next generation of creators.

No one wants to work in an industry where the perception by the majority of people who are involved in that industry is negative. Technology has presented some serious challenges to every industry in the past twenty years or so.

It’s clear that some innovative and well-funded adopters of that technology have wrestled control of the industry from creators and smaller stock agencies. It’s time for both these communities to unite and take their message directly to customers who are thirsting for something authentic, approachable and innovative.”

By Mike Watson, Strategic Director at robertharding.com

See Mike’s talk about stock photography at Adobe

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