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Effective Photography in Advertising

I find it strangely ironic to use words to describe the importance of photography in advertising. With that in mind, I’ll keep this under the thousand-word allotment conventional wisdom tells us a picture is worth.

When I first started working in this business four decades ago (40 years, really?), photography decisions were largely the domain of art directors and creative directors. They spent weeks, often months, progressing from pencil concepts through final marker layouts, to photo shoots and color separations.

The luxury of time is gone forever. Today, anyone with a computer is now a “creative,” with access to virtually limitless sources of stock photography, illustrations and HD video. Production time can now be measured in hours or even minutes.

As a result, the downpour of mundane advertising messaging has become relentless … and the level of consumer interest and impact has been totally diluted. More than ever, it is essential to have a unique IDEA that can be communicated SIMPLY to achieve what I call “visual Velcro.” An image that reaches out and holds you and is difficult, if not impossible, to let go of mentally.

Powerful AdvertisingSteve Blog 2Consider one great example, “Cocaine Kills.” This advertising campaign used simple black & white photos of a gun barrel pushed up someone’s nose. No stock photo here. The art director and photographer cared enough to capture the perfect image for a clear, powerful and incredibly enduring message. The campaign was first run in the 1980’s and is still remembered today for its simplicity and directness.

Powerful advertising isn’t dead. There are other, more recent, excellent examples of great ideas, executed simply with photography.

While it looks simple, creating photography that conveys a powerful, enduring message can be difficult. Extremely difficult. As a professional photographer friend of mine is fond of saying, in reference to the ease of digital photography, “Owning a piano doesn’t make you a musician.”

It takes an understanding of your target audience, a respect for their time, the insight to boil down the message, the courage to stand by an idea … and caring enough to make it all happen.

Written by:

Mark wrote his first direct-mail fundraising letter in 1981 for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement. The effort raised a few million dollars in undiscovered wills and legacy gifts. From that day forward Mark discovered a love of the big idea that moves the needle. After 12 years at KWWL, Mark became a business owner as a co-founder of ME&V — rebranded as AMPERAGE in 2015. After 25 years of leading creative teams in video production, graphic design, PR, writing and web development, Mark transitioned out of ownership in 2021. Today he serves in an employee role as special projects consultant. He is creatively ambidextrous — son of an artist and engineer — and famous for distilling complex ideas down to a few words and a few visuals. Mark is a writer. When he found that many nonprofits struggled with complex branding puzzles, he wrote the book, “NonProfit-NonMarketing .” He also wrote a novel called “Reenactment.” Mark is an active blogger OneMinuteMarketer® with nearly 1,000 readers each week on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. One of his most popular YouTube videos is on “How to Look Good on Zoom.” One of Mark’s fondest business memories was being named to INC 500 two times and attending the INC 500 conference with other winners. Mark is considered by some a Civil War expert (and that explains his novel). Mark also served as an adjunct professor in the business and in the communications departments at Wartburg College. Mark is a graduate of the University of Iowa and is currently vice president of the University of Iowa Journalism and Mass Communications Advisory Board. Mark is married to state Sen. Liz Mathis, and the two love to travel, even when it means being trapped by a volcano in the Czech Republic for three weeks.