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Rebecca Swift

Rebecca Rebecca SwiftHead of Creative Planning
Getty Images

It’s not often you meet a creative with a PhD. A lot of ad industry education tends to come from the School of Hard Knocks – baptism by fire and learning to swim as you go. But there is a very real science to spotting trends in visual communications, and people who obsessively analyze those trends to figure out what will be the next big thing in advertising.

One of the key people doing this globally is Rebecca Swift, Head of Creative Planning at Getty Images and iStockphoto. Don’t let the degree fool you – Rebecca is just as streetsmart as she is booksmart, and her quirky personality rivals that of any Creative Director we’ve interviewed.

We sat down with Rebecca to talk about her passion for consumer research (usually a dirty word in the creative department), how she got into the photography biz and adapted to the shift from analogue to digital, and what visual trends she sees happening in the creative industries worldwide.


IHAVEANIDEA: You’ve led global creative planning at Getty Images for two decades now. Did you always have a passion for photography? What were you like as a little girl growing up?

Rebecca Swift: I was not so much a little girl actually. I was quite a big girl at that point [laughs] and at the university studying Sociology and English Literature – much to my parents’ disgust, who were both scientists and thought I had taken the soft option.

We were studying consumer research, and I did my dissertation on the history of Coca-Cola advertising and how that has changed since the 1890s, and that sparked an interest in me that remains to this day.

I fell into doing English Literature as a degree because it was just something I enjoyed and found easy. But I never imagined that I’d do something related to it as a career. It was only when we started learning about consumerism and consumer research that I thought, “Wow, this is something I can do as a job.”

Until then I was just mooching about, doing judo, sailing, and being sporty.

IHAVEANIDEA: So, how did you first break into the industry after university?

Rebecca: I got into the industry in the early 90s when it was very small, and stock photography really wasn’t that well-known. It was like a guilty secret in the advertising industry.

I worked for a really small rights-managed company here in London, which then became a global agency and was then bought by Getty Images. Then iStockphoto became part of Getty Images back in 2006. In the last year or so I made the switch to working on that collection rather than on the Getty Images collections.

I did a post-graduate in advertising and my original ambition was to work in an advertising agency. Then this job came up and I thought I’d give it a go because it sounded a little bit more creative. And I’ve been here nearly 20 years!

IHAVEANIDEA: So, you say you wanted to be in an agency, eh? What type of role were you interested in back then?

Rebecca: Originally I thought I wanted to do account management, and then I thought I’d like to do planning, which is kind of what I’m doing now. The consumer research part of the post-graduate I did was always really interesting and I’m halfway through a PhD at the moment. I’m looking at how advertising photography is affected by social trends and consumer trends and fashion trends, and why does photography look a certain way now compared to how it looked in the 90s or the 80s or 70s.

It’s all kind of interconnected in some way. It’s where my heart is, where my passion is. But it’s not something I ever said, “This is what I’m going to do.” Now I can’t imagine doing anything else!

IHAVEANIDEA: It seems like it ended up being a perfect fit.

Rebecca: Hooray, I’ve found my place in the world!

IHAVEANIDEA: Indeed you have. Now, not to put you on the spot, but what are some trends you are seeing right now in the visual communications industry?

Rebecca: It’s been a really interesting five years. First of all, our clients – creatives that we work with – were so bulled over with things like Flickr and social media in general and the sharing of photography that now happens.

In the same measure, the cost of producing photography has really gone down compared to what it was pre-digital. The perception of photography is that it costs less to produce and therefore it shouldn’t cost as much. And also that it’s free because it’s available on social media sites.

And so it’s been this really odd period where a lot of creatives who obviously are always looking for something that’s a little bit different, who have really been drawn to this user-generated style of photography, and so professional photographers are now having to produce imagery that looks ‘anti-professional’. For example, letting the sun flare in; producing imagery that has water droplets on the lens and is not perfectly composed; and shadows falling in the wrong places; and all these kinds of things that photographers learn NOT to do as they become professionals and they’re now having to actually re-learn to bring back into photography because it better connects to the customers.

I think the biggest trend – and this isn’t going away for a while – is this influence that user-generated photography has had on professional photography.

And certainly in the last year or so there’s been a shift towards the crafted, and the curated, and how putting an image together actually requires skill and passion and creativity – and there does seem to be more of an interest in the craft as photography because the general public, the customer, is now more interested in photography because they are all photographers, whereas when I started in this industry, very few people were photographers. For most of us it was 24 frames when we went on a holiday and that was it. Now we’re taking 24 frames in a morning every day.

So there is this huge mass of consumer-generated-looking photography but there’s also this interest now starting to evolve in how photography is put together and what a really good photograph is.

I’m contradicted myself there slightly because actually I think in the future, there will be more interest in the art of photography again. And that’s probably a little bit of wishful thinking but I do get a sense of that in terms of the type of photography that gets discussed in consumer titles and the type of conversations that we are having with our own customers. And that really is the biggest trend. It’s influencing all industries from travel, to finance, mobile technology, computers – pretty much everybody is going down this route in some way or another.

I think the biggest trend – and this isn’t going away for a while – is this influence that user-generated photography has had on professional photography.

IHAVEANIDEA: I agree that social media is forcing a lot of industries to adapt and be more human in many ways, so this trend of user-generated-style photography makes perfect sense.

Rebecca: Yeah, and you talk to photographers when they get together and then they complain about how it’s not like the good old days and blah, blah, blah. But actually if you think about it, the number of places that you put photographs now and the number of images that a brand uses on a daily basis compared to the glory days of the 1990s is massive. And there is a much higher consumption of imagery for commercial purposes, it’s just on a smaller cost per image.

IHAVEANIDEA: Speaking of the technological revolution… you started before that was happening and witnessed the shift first-hand from analog to digital. What would you say is the biggest difference between those ‘good old days’ and today?

Rebecca: From an internal creative point of view, we would deal with a small handful of photographers and have a really intimate relationship with them; brainstorm with them; go on sets; work with them through the whole process of putting a shoot together; and it was a very much a relationship of two halves. We do have that relationship with some photographers now, the difference is I’m dealing with a hundred thousand photographers.

For most of us it was 24 frames when we went on a holiday and that was it. Now we’re taking 24 frames in a morning every day.

IHAVEANIDEA: How has the relationship changed?

Rebecca: Certainly you can still have the warmth and the community of that number of photographers and it blows my mind. Wherever you go in the world, there is a community of iStock photographers and they are working together and helping each other on a daily basis. It’s different, a bit less intimate relationship but you have a relationship with more people from a more diverse background and you are doing more exciting work because it is so diverse.

IHAVEANIDEA: Can you give an example of how this shift has changed the industry for the better?

Rebecca: Well, there was a time when we were always having this issue with getting local content. Our customers wanted lifestyle photos, family, business, all the usual kind of stuff, but they wanted it to look local from all the major countries in the world. And when you are only dealing with a few photographers, you are actually have to deal with production and lights and moving models around.

Now, wherever we need to shoot, we have our people there. It’s very exciting from that point of view, that I can send out a brief for ‘families’ and get families from many many different places, and very quickly. The speed in which we can brief out, the speed in which we get stuff back, and the speed in which we can put the photos online is so much faster.

IHAVEANIDEA: Do you think this speed can sometimes sacrifice quality? There are a few joke sites floating around that are mocking the cheesy ‘overly-staged’ stock photography. One is called Getty Critics. How do you feel about sites like this and how are you working to change the perception?

Rebecca: Some of those sites are actually run by Getty employees, so I wouldn’t worry about them too much.

IHAVEANIDEA: That’s too funny.

Rebecca: Honestly, I think the issue is – and this is always my argument – we only provide what people buy. And it is crazy to see some of the wild things they buy. [Laughs]

This financial crisis is probably the third time since the Great Depression where there has been a consideration about what brands are saying visually through their photography.

IHAVEANIDEA: I was reading a Q&A you had done and you said that ‘simplicity’ was a global trend at the time, and a direct correlation to the economic downturn. Do you think the reverse is happening as the economy improves, causing photography to get more complex?

Rebecca: That’s really an interesting question because that’s something I’m studying as part of my PhD. I’m looking at how the economy goes up and down and how the visual representation of lifestyle, for example, correlates to that. This financial crisis is probably the third time since the Great Depression where there has been a consideration about what brands are saying visually through their photography.

There has been a lot of conversation about, “how do you connect to consumers who are financially strapped?” I actually think now that we hit a long-term trend in this authenticity and genuine-looking photography and simplicity and ‘the simple things in life’ and how you show human emotions, the experience of something rather than the doing of something has become a really popular trend with brands in the post-financial crisis.

I think that’s going to be around for a really long time because it works as a way to connect to customers and it’s kind of a universal human emotion. I think it’d be very hard to go back from it at this point. I expect that to be around for five years plus, easily.

IHAVEANIDEA: What do you have to say to the IHAVEANIDEA audience regarding creative trends, industry-wide? Is there something that we should be on a lookout for – not just in photography, but art direction and design and advertising as a whole?

Rebecca: I think humor and humility. I don’t mean slapstick, I mean the kind of subtle humor that just makes you smile. For example, the “Dumb Ways To Die” campaign, and how despite having quite a serious message there is something very humble in the way that it’s being presented and that’s quite a subtle thing. It’s a very intangible, difficult thing to explain to heavy-handed photographers on how to get that humor into imagery.

For me personally, I’ve seen so many images in my time. Whenever I see something that’s very overdone but has been photographed or filmed or illustrated in a different way – it doesn’t have to be a massive game-changer but it just has something about it that really make me stop – I always find that very inspiring.

How many times can you do a business meeting? It’s probably been done a billion times but if someone comes up with an idea and does it differently, it’s kind of life-affirming to see it done in that way.

IHAVEANIDEA: Are there any other generational differences you’ve noticed over the years?

Rebecca: Well I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter and she was looking at some pictures of me when I was baby – my parents were really into black and white photography. All of my baby pictures are in black and white, and my daughter honestly thought it was a creative decision that they made to just do black and white photographs.

The concept of not being able to do color was something beyond her, she just couldn’t imagine. She thought it was this wonderful visual brand my parents had set up, executed in black and white.

IHAVEANIDEA: What a silly thing to assume. [blushes]

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s funny how excited the younger generations are, with the Polaroid effect and various photo filters. It’s the reason I wanted to do 30 years of study. I believe that you have one generation of photographers and it’s overtaken by another generation of creatives and that’s where you see the changes, the bigger changes. We’ve had to change because technology has changed.

IHAVEANIDEA: Speaking of new technologies, I’m curious – what do you think about Vine and the new Instagram video feature?

Rebecca: Love them both, for a bit of distraction. I’m not entirely sure how brands can use them yet, but I’m sure they’ll find a way.

It’s kind of like animated GIFs. It catches your eye because suddenly web pages are moving in a more sophisticated way. I think Vine is the same thing – it’s interesting and you don’t have to sit there and watch for 30 seconds or even 10 seconds.

I certainly have seen some really creative stuff already being done with both of those technologies. It’ll be interesting to see how far that goes.

I think it’s appealing as a way to talk about your own self on social media, but if you don’t craft it properly it’s going to get really boring really quickly.

IHAVEANIDEA: True. How many six-second videos of cats can we handle?

Rebecca: [Laughs] Well, I don’t know, cats are slightly different…

IHAVEANIDEA: We’ll make an exception for cats.

Interview by:

zackkinslowpic 156x156 Rebecca Swift

Zack Kinslow
Creative Producer
Art Directors Club

  • madcopy

    Thank you for writing this. It is late in the game, meaning you wrote
    this long ago, but sadly your polite rant (hey, I’m a professional
    ranter and I know one when I see one) is still very much relevant today.
    I think it is even worse in small cities or countries like mine, where the group of ad people
    gets so small and the egos so big, they begin to think of themselves as something special as
    opposed to just another human being who is not exempt from showing basic good manners. I do sometimes wonder what their mothers would say if they knew how incredibly rude their children were being!

    friend of mine recently wrote me a line where he mentioned something
    about “a global epidemic of discourtesy.” This resonated with me,
    especially now when I’m going through an unemployment period and even a
    single sentence answering “I will keep you in mind” means a lot of hope.

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