(more than) 10 minutes with Bill Cramer of Wonderful Machine

Interviews with Photo Agents February 10, 2014 11:30 am

When did you first become interested in photography?

When I was in fifth grade, my family moved from suburban Philadelphia to Palo Alto, California. It was a lovely culture shock, coming from the snowy Northeast. We had a palm tree in our backyard, you could see mountains all around, and my next-door neighbor’s mom would swim naked in their pool every afternoon.

My new science teacher, Mrs. Olexo, taught us photography two days a week. She had built a darkroom next to our classroom, and she had a bunch of Exakta cameras, which she lent out to us. She had a bulk film loader full of 100-foot-long rolls of Tri-X that she would count out 24 exposures for each of us. I enjoyed photographing everything around me, including my friends, family, my cat Sunny, and my neighbor’s hot rod. I loved everything about it — of course, the images themselves, but also the cameras and the chemistry. I found a roll of film that my grandfather (who died years earlier), had shot. I developed it, and I can remember thinking that it was like opening up a time capsule.

I worked on the yearbook in middle school and high school. Then, when I went to Penn State, I worked on their student-run newspaper, The Daily Collegian, and I also took all of the fine art photography classes they offered…

Are you still taking photos?

I’m still taking photos (mostly of my kids), but I’m not really shooting professional assignments any more. I was shooting about a hundred jobs a year up until 2010 (mostly magazine portraits, with some corporate, institutional and advertising thrown in). But now with 15 staff members and 725 photographers, running Wonderful Machine has become a full-time job. I have no regrets though. I find the work really interesting and challenging and creative. I’ve always enjoyed the business side of photography, so this job has given me the chance to exercise that part of my brain. Plus, I can live vicariously through the photographers on our site. I find it very gratifying to help them succeed. And it turns out that I have an unusual set of skills that allow me to do that.

Writing is another aspect of the work that I’ve been surprised to learn that I really enjoy. I write or edit a steady stream of Pricing & Negotiating articles and Expert Advice articles that photographers seem to appreciate.

I have heard Wonderful Machine brought up by several photographers as sort of a model for the future of photographer agencies. What inspired you to start Wonderful Machine and how did you come up with the business model?

That’s nice to hear, but I only partly agree.

There are basically two types of agents. There are reps (like Art + Commerce, Bernstein & Andriulli, and Stockland Martel) who work with a small group of photographers and focus mainly on advertising clients. They typically get 20-30% commission on assignments. Then, there are picture agencies (like Redux Pictures and Getty Global Assignment) who work with a large group of photographers and focus mainly on editorial and corporate clients. They tend to take a 30-40% commission. In both of those business models, for each assignment, the client calls the agent, the agent calls the photographer, the photographer bills the agent, the agent bills the client, the agent collects from the client, the agent pays the photographer. That process requires a lot of administrative work, which the agent has to pay someone to do. That money basically comes out of the photography fee. Since advertising assignments tend to be much more lucrative than editorial and corporate assignments, the administrative costs are small portion of the commission. But, for the editorial/corporate picture agencies, it’s inefficient because the administrative costs end up being a much higher portion of the fee. At some point, it occurred to me that I could eliminate that inefficiency and shift the savings to the photographer by charging a flat fee for the promotion, connect them directly with the client, and let the two of them handle the administrative work themselves.

(Of course, we all take the internet for granted now. But there was a time when clients needed agents to find photographers and photographers needed agents to find clients. Agents were the gatekeepers of the industry. The internet changed all that. Now clients can go to any photographer directly.)

So the agencies that we’re going to disrupt are the ones that have high administrative costs, and where all they’re doing is connecting the client to the photographer without adding other value. The agents that will continue to thrive are the ones who are creating value (for both the photographer and the client) with their experience, judgement, negotiating ability, and relationships.

Ironically, we periodically have photographers approach us about working with us on a commission basis. That’s something that we may consider in the future. But for the moment, we’re just concentrating on optimizing our current business model. What we are now offering, is a service we call Wonderful Machine +, where we assign a project manager to a photographer, who works closely with them, to help optimize all of the branding and marketing that that photographer does, and then coordinate their estimates and shoot production, as needed. It’s essentially like having a rep, but for a flat fee rather than a commission. (We do currently offer all of these services, but WM+ bundles them at a discounted price and provides a dedicated point person to coordinate everything.)

Wonderful Machine actually got it’s start in 2004 as a cooperative of photographers in Philadelphia. Over the years, any time I’d photograph an attorney at a law firm or a doctor at a medical practice, I would think to myself, why can’t photographers work together like that? You could save money by sharing facilities, staff, equipment, insurance, and supplies. And you could increase your revenue by collaborating on marketing and referring work back and forth. I started with my assistant at the time, Chris Crisman, then added Ryan Donnell. We had a full-time studio manager, a full-time marketing person (Jess Dudley, who is still with us), and we developed an apprentice program where we had a bunch of young photographers trade two days a week of their time for use of our contact database, equipment, supplies, guidance. Plus, they’d get our overflow assignments. Our studio manager billed all the jobs and collected the payments. Out of that payment, the cooperative would pay out the variable (shoot) expenses, then keep 50% of the remainder to cover fixed (overhead) expenses, and pay out the remaining 50% to the photographer (with taxes taken out to simplify their bookkeeping). Beyond the simple economies of scale we were able to enjoy, we also found that we were able to cultivate relationships with clients that individual photographers couldn’t. At one point, we were billing a university client $100k a year for photography services because they appreciated that we offered several different photographers at different price points and specialties, and they liked that we had a full-time staff to help with scheduling and file processing.

But eventually, the cooperative collapsed under the weight of all the egos. And out of the ashes rose Wonderful Machine as you know it today. Jess and I (and Neil Binkley, who is now an independent photo consultant), built the company photographer by photographer. (I wrote a blog post about how to form a photography cooperative: http://blog.wonderfulmachine.com/2012/08/expert-advice-forming-a-cooperative/) As soon as we launched, we stared getting requests to help photographers with photo editing, marketing plans, and estimates. So our consulting services just became a natural extension of our directory.

There are a couple of things that make our current business model unique, and I think valuable for clients and photographers. First, we’ve been able to assemble an excellent selection of photographers all over the world. What that means for clients is that they know that when they are looking for a photographer, the single best place to find one that’s appropriate for their needs is on our site. We’re the only photography directory that is both comprehensive and selective. Secondly, that group of photographers makes it really easy to connect with clients, because we’re relevant to all of them. When any individual photographer (or small agency) is promoting to clients, they have to spend a lot of energy separating out which clients are right for them and which aren’t. With our approach, since we have excellent photographers in all specialties and in all locations, we can engage with every single client out there and have something to offer them. This makes marketing efforts very efficient.

Did you always know that it would be a success?

No. In fact, when we started, not only had the Wonderful Machine cooperative just failed, but a previous cooperative I called Rowhouse Pictures had failed a few years earlier. But I still felt that there were some elements of what we were doing that could succeed, so I just kept trying. The experience has confirmed what I’ve always thought, which is that “failure” is part and parcel to “success” and that if you’re going to pursue anything as risky as commercial photography or starting any kind of business, you have to be willing to fail in order to succeed. It’s also confirmed my suspicions about the value of following your intuition. As a practical matter, I simply pulled out the most successful thing that we were doing at the time (creating a brand and communicating that to photographers and clients), and focused on that. Plus, I think photographers really appreciate that I’m a photographer myself and that I really understand their concerns. I feel a lot of responsibility to these 700 photographers who are trusting me to look out for their interests, and I take that very seriously (as any of our staff members will tell you).

What is the process of bringing in a new photographer to the roster? Do you reach out first or is it always the photographer who comes to you? What can a photographer do to get your attention?

At the moment, I’m the one who handles “photographer recruiting.” But at different times in the past, I’ve had our photo editors handle it. When we first launched the company, I had to beg photographers to come onto the site for free. I would sit in bed at night with my laptop, researching photographers and inviting them to join. I started by recruiting photographers I knew personally, or through a photographer group I’m in called BigShotStock http://bigshotstock.com/. Then I started inviting photographers I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, and they mostly ignored me. As the site grew, new photographers could see what I was building, and it made it easier to convince new ones to join. Gradually, as we became better known, photographers started seeking us out. These days, I get about 30 inquiries a week from photographers. They’ll typically send me an email introducing themselves, along with a link to their site and their location. Some will also tell me a bit about themselves, which is nice, but not really necessary.

I go to their site, and I can tell pretty quickly if they’re appropriate for us or not. I have found that a photographer’s website says so much about them, and that it’s all I really need to know. I don’t even feel a need to talk to the photographer. My mental process is simply wondering whether clients will appreciate it if I add this photographer to our group. First, I decide whether they’re good enough. Beyond that, it’s a question of who else do I have shooting that specialty in that place. If I already have eight photographers shooting food in Chicago, and another one shows up, they would have to be either really, really good, or they’d have to be very different from the others. Because even though clients appreciate choices, there’s a point where more choices is less valuable than fewer choices. A big part of what we’re offering clients is a curated selection of photographers, so we take that really seriously.

If I decide to invite the photographer, I send them a membership form to fill out, which they return, along with a head shot. Then we put them into our system. We have a checklist which works it’s way through every department in our company. Every one of our staff members is made aware when we add a photographer to the site. Our photo editors decide what specialty to list the photographer in, and they grab photos from the photographer’s site to represent those specialties. They also archive other pictures that might make good emailers, web ads or post cards. Then, our publicists ask the photographer for some biographical information (which ends up in an emailer introducing them to our clients), plus a bunch of other stuff like that.

Another thing I’m in the habit of doing, whether I invite a photographer to join us or not, is I offer up suggestions on how they can improve their website. After looking at thousands and thousands of photographer websites (we’ve collected 14,000 photographers in our internal database), I’ve become very opinionated about how photographers should present themselves, and I think I’m pretty good at recognizing problems and articulating solutions.

What can a photographer do to get your attention?

All they have to do is send me an email. It’s really that easy. I don’t play hard-to-get. But I’m very rational about choosing photographers. It’s not at all about personalities. Nothing that they say makes any difference to me. I’m only concerned about whether that photographer will add something positive to the mix.

If you could go back ten years, what advice would you give yourself?

If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to invent Instagram. Other than that, I’m not sure I would be able to give myself any advice that would make things work out any better than they have. I’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes in that time. The two main ones were that I attempted to create a photographers’ cooperative twice and failed miserably both times. But if those ventures had succeeded, I wouldn’t have created Wonderful Machine. And if I had skipped over those failures, I wouldn’t have learned what I needed to know to create the company that we have now.

bill_cramer_head_b&w

Photo by: Adam Hribar

Bill Cramer is founder of Wonderful Machine, a directory of high-quality photographers, which they promote to commercial and editorial clients worldwide.

Bill began his career as a photojournalist in 1985, stringing for the Associated Press and The New York Times. He assisted prominent photographers, including a year with fashion photographer Steven Meisel. Since then, he has concentrated his efforts on shooting environmental portraits for editorial, corporate and advertising clients. Bill has received a number of industry awards, and has been included in Communication Arts Photography Annual three times.

Seeing an opportunity to build a better mousetrap, Bill created Wonderful Machine in 2007 as a “source book on steroids.” In addition to promoting photographers, his 15 staff members help photographers with photo editing, design, estimating and shoot production.

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