10 Things You Want To Know From an Art Director

Want a better chance of getting hired? Read this:

There are raging debates online all over the place about how to approach Art Directors and Creative Directors to show work. Email them, or don’t. Do backflips for them, send them a carrier pigeon, only send a book, etc. Frankly, it’s all over the damned map. As it turns out, some of those folks are my friends and they want to help us help them. And they aren’t afraid to share their opinion. So here’s 10 questions (pulled from yours and updated with a few of mine) that needed answering following my chasejarvisLIVE a couple weeks back with AD/Brand Manager Jason Sutherland. Here, Jason goes deeper.

Thanks for spending some time with us here, Jason. Give us the truth, how do you prefer to be approached by new photographers?

Ideally, with a drink in their hand. Second to that, I like to be approached by photographers gently. In that they know me, they know what I’m trying to do, and they show me a carefully selected range of images that blinds me with their brilliance. Then they wow me with their genuine niceness and my vision is magically repaired.  This can be accomplished online, or via the old school mail, or…… at a nice bbq. Also, I read mailers, I flip through clever books, I peruse websites, and I go down odd rabbit holes in the internets and come back up with interesting things. I’ve said this before, but I’m always out there looking. I love great images, art, music, and works that weave it all together. If you’re doing cool stuff, I can’t wait to discover it.

And if I reach out to you, respond with a prompt, professional, friendly response. If you’re too busy at the time, or don’t think it’d be a good partnership, feel free to tell me that. That helps me know who is interested, and who is just stringing me along because they feel like they have to say yes to every job they get. I want to work with passionate, driven individuals who want to join me in my quest to get as many people outdoors as possible. If shooting conceptual fashion is your love, maybe I know somebody looking for that. If I do, and you’re good at it, I’ll hook you up.

The reality is that I’m not always going to have work for people. Within REI I work on an annual budget cycle, and sometimes I’m planning things out even longer than that. Patience and polite tenacity are good traits to have as a photographer who want to work with larger clients. Often times the biggest determiner of future success for somebody is how they handle rejection. If somebody is graceful, understanding, humble and positive, that ranks high in my book and they’re definitely somebody I’ll keep in mind for future projects. Somebody who is pissed because a job didn’t fall into their lap probably will have equally drama-ridden sets. No thanks. Play chess, people, not checkers.

When trying to get work from commercial or other clients, do you think it’s a good idea to invest your work into a small book to send to the particular clients I’m trying to get work from or just send them a link to my online portfolio with say an email.

In my opinion, if you send a tailored book that resonates with what the particular client is trying to do it’ll be more effective that just an email with a link to your portfolio. It demonstrates a higher level of investment and commitment, and it’ll stick around longer than an email. The key is to ensure it’s relevant to the particular client. We very much enjoy seeing great new work, and when good stuff comes in it’s widely shared among the art director posse.

Do you get your physical book back when you send it to a potential client? Or is it an operating cost?

I always try to return people’s books to them. Not so with something that is obviously promotional materials, but a portfolio sent to me on a specific request is definitely coming back to you. That’s just respect. Unsolicited materials won’t make it back to you, but if it’s good I’m going to share your work with other art directors.

Although now that I look around my workspace, I’m feeling pangs of guilt because I see a few books here that somebody probably wants back. Especially this really nicely bound set of booklet things in a sleeve from guy named Kyle RM Johnson. Nice stuff buddy.

This comes as a horror to some, and a boondoggle to others: How do you view companies using user-submitted photography versus professionally produced photography?

View these companies like your best buddy. REI uses user-submitted photography, and we’ve learned a lot about what it does and doesn’t do for us. Here’s what it does for us: It brings our customer’s voice to the work we do, and for us as a member-owned co-op that’s really important. It also brings a natural diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, geography, ability level and many more dimensions that we could never authentically cover in our shot-for photography. But I’ve gotta be honest – it rarely inspires people at the level that a beautifully done professional piece of photography can. Nobody is sending us pics of snowboarders at the level of Marni Yamada arcing a sick line across a field of fresh with a rooster tail of chunks trailing behind. And yet these are the shots we gather around when they’re on our screens, gazing with silly grins on our faces. Trust me, there’s a beautiful, much-appreciated place for professional photographers creating amazing images.

There’s also a lesson wrapped within this answer that I feel I need to call out. Think about it – if the reason I like customer-supplied imagery is because it’s authentic and real, it probably opens up some doors for people who are creating super-inspirational images in an authentic manner. This affects your choice of locations, talent, as well as how you capture the image. Yes, it demands more of you, but I think I also just showed you a peek at a niche that’ll make you ridiculously in demand. Dope imagery + uber authenticity = employment, job satisfaction, happiness, whiter teeth, and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Is keeping ones age a secret important?

Hello, my name is Jason and I am forty-one years old. And next year, if I’m lucky and nothing huge (like a barn, for example) falls out of the sky and crushes me, I’ll be a year older.

In other words, no. Sure my age might put me on one side or the other of somebody’s artificial divide, but I’m thinking I don’t want to work for somebody who judges me by my age. Especially when there are so many better things to judge me by, such as the car I drive, the music I listen to, or my awesome zebra-striped parachute pants. The people I want to work with are looking at my work and my attitude. My age is happenstance, just an accumulated ball of stories, wisdom, folly and failure.

Do you find it rewarding working as CD under the roof of one brand? What tactics or guiding light principals do you and the gang put in place to “keep it fresh”?

Yes, very rewarding. What’s cool about working with one brand is you get to know it well. And in the case of REI there are many overlaps in the brand values with my own personally held values, so it’s a great thing.

As far as keeping it fresh, I’d have to say the biggest thing that keeps it fresh is how the market and our customers are evolving. The things we’re doing today with social media are using parts of our brain that five years ago we didn’t even know we had. The directness of the conversation with your customers, and the real-time feedback you get from them drives the work in new directions and keeps it interesting. If I were just making catalogs filled with pictures of people wearing clothes I would’ve quit a long time ago. Sure we still make catalogs, but it’s a fairly small part of a continuous stream of communication and interaction with our customers on many levels.

It’s pretty exciting times on a macro level to be in marketing. There are fundamental changes that are removing the falseness and duplicity that used to be the foundation of marketing. It’s gratifying, exciting and enjoyable to sledgehammer that stuff down. That fires me up as much as anything.

On a micro level, I have a few creative principles that I use as my guide for my crew and myself. They’re pretty straight-forward:

1.     Tell stories.
2.     Use real people in real places.
3.     Be refreshingly direct.
4.     Root it all in authenticity.

That’s pretty much it. It’s sort of the new-school marketing manifesto – no bs. We don’t hit these all the time, but they’re what we’re striving for. Beyond that, we have brand standards and a defined visual language at REI. The brand standards and definition were created in-house, and it was a really fun, defining project. REI now has a very focused brand definition, and it’s used throughout the company to anchor and focus our efforts. REI has used (and currently uses) agencies to help develop new campaigns, and the work the customer sees is a collaboration between the agency and the in-house team. REI has a very good in-house posse. I can only speak for myself, but I have a lot of fun working with the crew, and it’s the crackling of all those brains and synapses that makes it interesting.

Could you tell us about some of your most difficult experiences working with clients / A.D.s / C.D.s, what you learned from those experiences and the best way not to get into those situations in the first place.

On frustrating shoots where you’re not getting what you want, or when things seem to be blowing up on you, it usually comes down to poor communication. Maybe the planning isn’t solid and nobody knows what the they’re trying to shoot. Maybe there are too many people on the shoot with and opinion of what they’re trying to shoot, and the photographer is being fed conflicting directions. Maybe the talent is half as talented as they said they were, and are unable to do the task in front of them. All of these things can create friction and frustration on the set, and I’ve been on shoots where these have all happened.

No matter what’s causing the friction, this is the moment to step forward and work things out very directly, honestly and firmly. This should be a conversation between the AD, the photographer and the producer. I’ve been very fortunate to work with great crews, and have developed a good bond of trust with those people so that when bad things happen, it’s an easier conversation and we quickly, considerately and thoughtfully get to a solution.

As the photographer, you need to take this leadership role, and make the call. And when you do step into that conversation, make sure you’re ears are open and you’re listening. Then offer your brilliant insight, and if possible, an equally brilliant solution.

How not to get into these bad situations? Trust your instincts. If things seem disorganized, unfocused or just plain f-d up before you head out on the shoot, things usually only get worse when you’re on a set, money is burning, and the pressure goes up. Things happen on shoots that cause stress. You need to be in a place of good balance so that when they happen it’s just a thing that happened, not an excuse for all hell to break loose.

Which means it’s up to you to set the tone. Be positive and solution oriented. One of the things I enjoy about working with Chase is that he takes things seriously, but not too seriously. I remember one shoot where he kicked it off with a nice tone setting speech. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said that we’re all here to get a job done and we want to do it really well, but this isn’t brain surgery or rescue work so let’s keep it fun along the way. Then he asked for everybody to keep an eye out for how they could be helpful and pitch in if help was needed. Things tend to go right when that’s your ethos.

How do you decide to extend a shoot and how do you cover those costs. Do you discuss with the photographer?

We (the producer, the photographer and the art director) are constantly monitoring the shoot as it moves along through the schedule with an eye toward any unforeseen changes that might cause mayhem with our plans. REI’s shoots are very weather dependent, so we’re prepared with a few contingency plans based on fairly extensive experience. Often on big shoots there’s an “extra” day built into the schedule, or at the very least the order of the days can be moved around to accommodate different scenarios. If it looks like an extra day is essential due to weather, the bulk of the cost is on our bill. We all grimace a bit, because in addition to the cost, we know that a change like an extra day has a ripple effect on people’s lives. Many of our crew move on to other jobs, and down time between shoots can be precious.

What is your personal creative manifesto? Lloyd Wright, Tolstoy, and many others had their own manifestos, but what is yours?

Uh, mine’s not gonna sound very positive, but it actually is. Here goes:

F it all and f-n no regrets. (Not the gentrified sounds of St. Anger, I’m talking Master of Puppets here.) Bottom line, get pissed, destroy. And by destroy, I mean tear it all down so you create something new and wonderful out of the strange parts that are left over. Make stuff. Cool stuff. Move on. Make more. Don’t dwell in the past. (It’s over.)

I can restate this manifesto in terms of unicorns, phoenixes and a little talking kitten that believed he could be somebody, but I respect y’all too much to do that.

And here’s a bonus over-all point coming straight from my heart to your brain:

One of the best things you can do to develop yourself as a photographer, art director or creative person is to play a different role than what you usually do. If you’re always behind the camera, get in front of it. Be a model. You’ll quickly learn more about what it takes to give good direction than you thought possible. If you’re an art director, pick up a camera and shoot some pictures or make a film (the shiny part goes toward the subject). Shoot some shots that technically and artistically challenge you, try and tell a story that’s in your heart, and you’ll have a much greater appreciation for what it takes to deliver a creative vision by using a machine. Plus, the more you learn about photography the less you’ll be the person asking for the impossible.

I’m not suggesting mixing it up on a big-dollar shoot, because everybody will think you’re wacky and you’ll probably get fired. But definitely do it on your own time. Create a project just for the sake of learning something new. It’s an amazing way to understand very clearly what it takes to make a successful shoot. I’ve pursued gigs that made me cringe because they were way out of my comfort zone (“uh, you want me to stand where…?”) but I did it anyway because I knew that it’d push me to learn new stuff. And the experience gave me greater empathy when I was back in my usual zone of bossiness.

That’s all for now. Go do cool stuff.

[Thanks Jason. Follow up questions have a good chance of getting answered in the comments. Follow Jason on twitter here and check out his blog here.]

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