On Twitter earlier this week the Montana Office of Tourism sent out an interesting request for photographs vis-à-vis its ad agency MercuryCSC. According to the website linked to their Tweet the Montana Office of Tourism is seeking photographs to use in their new 2014 billboard campaign. The billboards will promote tourism in Montana at two busy commuter stations; one in Chicago that has 1.8 million commuters come through its turnstiles every month, and one in Seattle that probably handles another million or so commuters every month.
The Montana Office of Tourism is specifically seeking amateur photographs to promote what is arguably the most beautiful state in the country. And they don’t intend to pay one red cent to do so.
Despite having a $12.4 million budget to play with, it would appear as though the Montana Office of Tourism no longer values beautiful, compelling photography made by the state’s professional photographers who work hard to capture the beauty of the state year round. Instead they would rather procure average, out-of-focus, low resolution, iPhone snap shots made by tourists who visit the state maybe one week out of the year.
This tactic might make sense if MercuryCSC was trying to promote travel to say New Jersey instead, where maybe one might want the view to be slightly out of focus. But Montana? Montana BEGS to be photographed and captured visually. Do the “creative” people at MercuryCSC really think this approach is the best way to sell Montana?
Frankly, if I were a resort owner in Big Sky I would be pissed.
Upon seeing this Tweet I quickly sent a private message off to the Montana Office of Tourism’s official Twitter account−the same Twitter account that issued this request for amateur photographs−and I asked them point blank if photographers would be paid for licensing their work. The employee for MercuryCSC behind the Oz-like curtain must have been too embarrassed to confess that they would not pay photographers because all they could muster in response was, “All of the information on rights can be found (on the website).” They couldn’t even be blunt and say, “No.” Then again, maybe they think all photographers are stupid.
According to the website linked to the Tweet, their request for photography says, “In addition to some professional photography, we’d like to use some REAL photos from REAL Montana travelers to fill this space with Montana imagery.”
Please note: I did not add the emphasis to the word “real” in the sentence above. No I did not. The emphasis using capital letters is purely a product of MercuryCSC. So it would seem the ad agency that earns MILLIONS OF DOLLARS from the State of Montana does not think Montana’s 140 professional photographers make REAL photos−and they must not be REAL photographers all. Who knew that the people behind the 2011 award-winning Montana tourism campaign, which was entitled “There’s nothing here,” was really referencing the lack of intellectual prowess and forward thinking at both MercuryCSC and Montana Office of Tourism. And by the way, the photos in that award winning campaign were beautiful. They came from REAL professional photographers, not some hacks who pretend to be photographers on the weekend. Then again, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn. Right?
This bit of news also means the State of Montana has officially joined the ranks of the financially insecure Chicago Sun-Times as one of the two largest organizations in the United States to eschew professional photography because they think any Tom, Dick, or Harry with a smart phone can create stunning imagery.
In case you don’t already know, the Chicago Sun-Times famously laid off all of its photographers last May as part of a cost savings move because its publishers thought reporters armed with smart phones could do the job just as well. All anyone had to do is compare the photographs on the front page of both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune side-by-side to see how well that plan has worked. What’s more, it was announced just this past Wednesday that the Chicago Sun-Times began hiring back its pro photogs. They goofed. And they now know it.
How long do you think it will take before MercuryCSC and the Montana Office of Tourism to come to its senses? It is hard to say. After all, the state of Montana is so beautiful and adventurous it probably could sell itself on its own. And even if this stupidity unduly harms an ice cream vendor in West Yellowstone, a hotel in Whitefish, or a restaurant in Missoula, I doubt those businesses will be able to connect the dots. Meanwhile MercurcyCSC executives and representatives from the Montana Office of Tourism will travel to the next U.S. Travel Association conference, toast drinks, and giggle hysterically about how they saved much less than 1% of their $12.4 million budget by sticking it to Montana’s professional photographers AND sticking it to the amateur photographers, who obviously are the only ones who value their photographs less thank MercuryCSC and the Montana Office of Tourism by giving them away for free.
Yes, I am also upset MercuryCSC and the Montana Office of Tourism is taking advantage of amateur photographers who don’t know better. You see, if they were to license a similar image for similar use from the likes of Getty Images, or any professional photographer, it would probably cost MercuryCSC at least $2,000 to $3,000 per billboard, which is a small price to pay when you consider all of the costs that go into making that photograph. And this is just one campaign. MercuryCSC and the Montana Office of Tourism make no secret about their plans to source photography for other campaigns this same same way. Which means MercuryCSC officially joins Henry Plummer, the infamous Bannack, Montana outlaw, as one of the biggest thieves in Montana history.
And before you start to congratulate the Montana Office of Tourism for being fiscally responsible and saving Montana tax dollars, remember one thing…nearly 100% of their funding is derived from the state’s 4% Lodging Facility Use Tax and NOT state tax payers.
So, I’ve decided to draw a line in the sand. While I don’t think I have yet sold any photographs to MercuryCSC, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be doing so in the future once they read this blog post, I feel I have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of the other professional photographers in the state. And also to the amateur photographers they will be taking advantage of. And to the tourism industry in Montana, which does pay me for my services. In other words, everyone in this equation EXCEPT MercuryCSC ends up screwed.
Come to think of it, Governor Steve Bullock follows me on Twitter now. Maybe I’ll talk to him about it.
And maybe I will share my thoughts with travel professionals at the Montana Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation in Billings this year.
And when MercuryCSC issues a press release to foist fake accolades onto the two amateur photographers they just raped in lieu of payment, maybe I’ll give those amateurs a call to let them know they just left $3,000 sitting on the table.
Now that I think about it, wasn’t Henry Plummer hung from a tree for his thieving ways? I wonder if Montana’s professional photographers have enough gumption to get pissed about this, or if they will line up like the good little lemmings MercuryCSC and the Montana Office of Tourism wants them to be. We will see.
Next week I will share my ideas here about how Montana should instead promote itself. For free. At no cost to the State of Montana. I mean, I read Advertising Age and religiously watch Mad Men. How hard can advertising really be? And maybe (just maybe) my ideas will be good enough to take some of that work away from MercurcyCSC.
Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn.