Art Buyer

The ladies of Em Dash Custom Publishers, Creative Directors Erin Mayes and Kate Iltis, do everything from magazine design, art buying, and art direction.  ILTP chatted with this award-winning duo in their East Austin office over sandwiches from Gourmands.

How did Em Dash get started? 

Erin: The honest story – I worked at Pentagram with DJ Stout for 5 years, and there was a period where he thought about moving to join the San Francisco office.   It was the wake up call of “ok, what are you going to do next.”  When I was in NY, and decided to move to Austin, I knew I would have limited work options here unless I decided to do something really different.

Kate and I met at Pentagram. We knew we had a similar design sensibility, and spoke the same language, but she had moved to NY.

Kate:  I  got to work with Erin for about a split second before I was transferred to another team within the office. We hit it off immediately and so we found an excuse to work together designing posters for poets for free in our spare time. Huge money maker! Anyway my passion was magazine design so I knew I had to move to New York to do it. She acted as a mentor during that time and we stayed in touch. When she told me she was going to go out on her own I definitely had in the back of mind that I would want to join her some day. I remembered how fun it was to create work with her and admired what a great designer she is. About 2 years into it, she was doing really well, and I asked her if she needed help.  So, I quit my responsible job at Outside magazine, and took a chance on the idea that you could still do good magazine design and not have to work for a large magazine. Plus it was a great excuse to come back to Austin. We partnered two years ago and now are just trying to make good work on our own terms.  Somehow in the land where print is dying, we have been able to survive a recession, stay in business and still make work we are really proud of.

[We] believe you hire talented people and let them do the work you’ve hired them to do.

Since you guys kind of do everything from art buying, to photo editing, you’re designers, sometimes stylists – related to photography, how does that whole creative process work?  

Erin:  It all starts with a story. We try to figure out how to tell the visual part of the story in a way that’s a little bit compelling and unusual.  If we think it’s best to be told with photography, then next we decide if it’s conceptual or a portrait or something documentary. The style is developed by the tone of the story. Then we try to match up photographers with the story and pitch it to our clients.  For example, if there’s some serious photojournalism element to it, we try to find a documentary photographer, who would be interested or who would have a unique take on the subject…see the story in some special way.

Kate:  Creative process wise, we either have an idea, or we’re going to a photographer that’s known for a certain thing, and let them do their thing.  Budget sometimes plays a role in that.  We try to be helpful when it’s not in the budget – we take on role of producer, stylist, prop-getter – only because we can’t afford it.  With a small team, you have to divide and conquer. We’re really only on set when there’s a lot of heavy lifting; we art direct when we there’s a specific concept.  We have a mixture of photographers who both like and hate having an art-director on set.  It’s a relationship; so you work to make sure the photographer is excited about their day’s work so they can focus on shooting.

Erin and I both believe that you hire talented people and let them do the work you’ve hired them to do.

Erin:  We are very aware of trying to make sure there’s a well-rounded mix of art throughout the magazine, so it’s not just documentary or conceptual photos or illustration.  We really love working with alumni magazines because they aren’t ultimately selling ads. Often with alumni magazines, they tell stories through one (usually) professor’s or VIP’s news…it ends with how they gave money to some department, and there’s a portrait of a professor holding their research or a donor holding a big check. But when the stories are good and there’s an actual story there, there’s a huge opportunity to do something a bit more challenging.

Their readership – by the time they open their alumni magazine – is already in the collegiate mindset. Academia made these readers conditioned to ask questions and to be challenged by ideas (hopefully). So that’s the mindset that we try to appeal to graphically. They’re already open to being challenged, so we need to take advantage of that.

I know you talked a little bit about working with photographers, but how do you find them?  Do you find them through email promos or print promos? 

Kate:  It’s rare that a promo gets me to hire a photographer.  I don’t know if that means that I’m on the wrong lists and I don’t get the good stuff, but even when I worked in national magazines we received so much mail that it was hard to go thru and see the good stuff.  I do definitely, however, pay attention to what other magazines are doing If I see a shot that I like, I always look at the credit and check out that person’s work. We also pay attention to the community here in Austin.  I think we’ve had local clients that have opened us up to photographers that we wouldn’t have known about on our own.  We’ve gotten access to some up and coming photographers because, although the budgets can be tiny, people are excited about the stories and will do work for their portfolio work.  And that’s led us down a rabbit hole of different people. And definitely for documentary work, we attend things like Slideluck Potshow and it helps us see who’s out there.

A personal email gets my attention a lot quicker…sometimes great people fall off our radar only because we are really busy.

Erin:  I actually do look at the email promos. But there are so many from NY and LA, that I’ll just bookmark the interesting ones from the rest of the country.

Kate:  I glance at them but I haven’t hired from them very often. A personal email gets my attention a lot quicker mainly when its showing something cool you have just done. I ask a lot of photographers to keep me in the loop on new stuff so they stay in my head when I am looking for something specific. Since its just Erin and I, sometimes great people fall off our radar only because we are really busy.

Erin:  We also use PDN a lot, especially if we’re looking for someone outside of Austin.  Or we ask other photo editors or other art directors. If we have the budget, we’ll go through a photo reps, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Kate:  We also call up on people we know in national magazine land to help us when we are hiring outside of Austin. The community is not very large so its easy to pick up the phone and see who other people have been using.

How much of the design is based on the art?  Or is it vice-versa?  Do you guys have a design in mind and hire based on that, or do you do it the other way around?  Is it a little bit of both? 

Kate:  The concept is what drives it.  Design wise, we always react to the art that’s provided. We can’t make a call on design until we have a good idea of the art.

Erin:  Half the design work is in choosing the photographer or illustrator. Most of the time, the art does the heavy lifting in terms of getting people to pay attention to the story.

Kate: It’s easier if we’ve done our homework on the front end in the hiring, then our design just supports the concept – and we’re not putting lipstick on a pig.

If someone takes one of our magazines into the toilet with them to read, then we’ve done our job.

You guys have had some insanely creative ideas, that can push the boundaries, like your cover for the Texas Observer that went viral;   Do you have a favorite or memorable photo shoot?

Erin: I really love the ones where we were a big part of the production and have more pride in the ones where we got our hands dirty. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Barry Cooper/800-lb pig story we did for the Texas Observer, because it’s a good story and it was the first big dumb-ass idea that we pulled off nicely.  I was behind-the-scenes on that one, but still feel incredibly proud of to have been a part of it.

Kate:  The most fun photo shoots in general are the ones where the idea is crazier than the ability to accomplish it.  One of our rules in brainstorming is we don’t get to ask “How are we gonna find this?” or “How are we gonna do this?” That photo idea was inspired by the George Lois’s Esquire Cover “Pigs Vs. Kids.”

It’s a long story, but basically Barry Cooper used to be a corrupt cop who reformed and decided to make it his mission to catch other corrupt cops, and to educate people through a DVD series on how to not get busted. Anyway, we wanted to take the nod to the George Louis cover, and the idea was to have our guy face-to-face fighting a pig.  So first we had to track down this animal, which in Texas, you wouldn’t think would be so hard.

So we found an 800lb-er and with the help of a very patient photographer, Matt Wright Steel, we took the shoot into the pig pen. Mud, shit and all.  It was about to rain and Matt, rightfully so, was worried about his equipment.  We had to orchestrate this giant pig to walk around and stand in front of a backdrop for one second before he moved on.  Then there were 10 other pigs roaming the pen, so the owners were helping us keep the other pigs away.Pigs are like 3 year olds and super curious, so we would turn our backs for a second and they would be getting into something else.

I was holding a light, our designer, Joanna Wojtkowiak was holding the backdrop because the other pigs kept knocking it over, and we were waiting for the owner to coax the pig, with a bottle of milk, into position just long enough for Barry to get into a fighting stance.

It was one of those things that, at the time, was so stressful, but when you look at the photo you go, “Hell yea! We nailed it!”  It’s one of the things I love about photography.  It’s amazing what’d you see if you could un-crop the cover and see everything that’s going on to capture that image.

It’s ultimately why I love this work—magazine design allows for some crazy collaborations. Whereas advertising doesn’t let you so much, where you have a bunch of other people in the room signing off on a photo.

Erin.  The “Politics Gets Personal” cover for The Texas Observer is another favorite one. It is so fabulously creepy and wince-inducing.

Kate: It was so crazy that it went viral.  It made a lot of people uncomfortable which for this story and what it was trying to communicate meant we were successful.

We have a joke in the office that if someone takes one of our magazines into the toilet with them to read, then we’ve done our job. We work in this little pocket of small circulation magazines, so to actually have it hit something close to 20,000 likes and to have that many people see the photo when the circulation of the Observer is only 8,000, was a big deal.

We’re always doing guerrilla type shoots and asking permission where we have to.  It’s all low budget.  Kind of like a school project.

Erin:  I like that though— the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ideas. There was something really great about starting your school projects where there are endless possibilities to do whatever and no real-world consequences…getting your friends dressed up to act for a photo or layout.  And here we are as grown ups, still doing that.  

Advice for photographers out there?

Erin:  Sounds trite, but do what you love.  You always make better images when you do what you love.  You really have to be obsessive about making photos, and you definitely have to have have the personality, drive, and conviction to be in this profession.

Kate:  As cliche as it might sound it would be don’t give up. Yes the economy sucks. Yes the business ain’t what it used to be. Yes you will never be rich. BUT you do get to tell stories and create beauty for a living.

…do what you love.  You really have to be obsessive about making photos…

Favorite taco:

Kate:  The Al Pastor at Curras

Erin:  I lean toward the Trailer Trash (Trashy) at Torchy’s.  But really, anything in a tortilla.  

Favorite BBQ:

Kate:  I just moved to Lockhart, so I’d have to say Smittys.  Also the chopped beef sandwich at the Chisolm Trail.  It’s $2 and so wrong and so good.

Erin:   This isn’t original, but Franklin’s brisket is my favorite.  

Favorite Beverage:

Kate:  I’ve been really liking a Moscow Mules lately.

Erin:   Lefthand Milk Stout.  Secondarily, Russell’s Reserve Rye with Central Market Prickly Pear soda—it smells amazing.  

Fav weekend getaway spot in Texas:

Erin:  I haven’t been away in 10 years!  In theory, this was my favorite spot: We went to Bastrop State Park with the kids— went swimming and hiking, and spent amazing afternoon. We saw these beautiful WPA-era cabins and we said, this is where we’re gonna go for a weekend at least once a month.  Then as we were leaving the park, we saw a giant cloud of smoke rising in the rearview mirror.  So, if I could go back a few years before the fire, I would totally go there.  The reality answer is that we head to Blue Hole in Wimberly a few times each summer to spend the day. We cap it off with beer and pizza at Brewsters (where we are waited on by 3-year-olds) and a stop off at Callahans in Buda to look at all the taxidermy.

Kate:  Right now, the Havannah Hotel in San Antonio.  It’s a Liz Lambert creation, and it’s just an hour away.

Client: Ceasars, Photographer: Adam Vorhees

How did you get started in the advertising industry?
I studied communication design in college and then got an internship @ GSD&M (and never left).

Remember that dumb meme that was going around for a while, the ‘what you do’, ‘what your mom thinks you do’, “what society thinks you do” thing? Well, what do you do? What are the primary responsibilities for an art producer at GSD&M?
I recently went to Palm Springs to teach a business of photography class. Afterwards, I wrote this blog post which I think helps explain what I do.

Or here’s the short and sweet version: Art Producers handle all business issues that relate to photography, illustration and storyboards. We assist the Art Directors in finding photographers, illustrators and storyboard artists that are appropriate for each project. We handle all stock photography. We are responsible for estimating and negotiating all photography and illustration costs.

In addition, we help coordinate the schedule for photo shoots and final artwork due dates with the Art Director, Account Service, Print Production and the photographer or illustrator to meet production deadlines.

What’s the collaborative process like at GSD&M? Let’s say the agency lands a new account. What happens between that and when you start pulling ideas for photography?
When you pitch an account you sometimes start to think about who you want to shoot with. At times, we’ll ask a photographer to do spec work for pitches. It also helps if we win, because we can use it for future use (for a fee).  If not, I get with the creatives to get an idea of what they’re thinking and make suggestions until they’re happy with a few and we go from there. We do keep budgets in mind but if the idea is great, we can usually get photographers to work with us.

You have to be really good, unique, inventive. be cautious on how you market yourself and don’t give up.

Breaking into commercial photography is notoriously difficult. Why is that?
You have to be really good, unique, inventive, be cautious on how you market yourself and don’t give up. Also, helps if you get personal with the Agency. Meaning, try to meet with the Creatives or Art Producers in person. If you have a good personality and personable, then most often we’ll remember you and your work. Offer to do spec work or help out on pitches.

What can a photographer do these days when you are so inundated with promotions and tweets and what not? How can they rise above the chatter and be noticed?
Personalize their emails, tweets, etc. Make time to meet with potential clients in person. Create well designed promotional pieces. I often wonder what made a photographer pick a certain image for their promotions/emails.

What projects did you work on last year?
ACE Hardware’s Soul Paint campaign was a big hit and we’re still traveling with the “Soul Paint”.

We photographed 3 ads, 10 painted talent on seamless and shot video of each 10 within 2 days. It was one big integrated production that we produced internally. We did hire photographer Dave Mead to shoot the print ads. We’ve gone so far as hiring the talent to attend ACE conventions in character.
Also, the Caesars Laurels art directed by Mike Ferrer and photographed by Adam Voorhes.

What’s the most challenging this about being an art buyer?
Cost Consultants. Tight budgets + tight timelines.

What’s the most fun thing?
Making challenging projects successful, doing great work and working with talented photographers.

What advice do you have for someone who is interested in working on the creative side of an ad agency?
Depends on what you want to do. I started with an internship so I would have to say, intern. Also. had I proceeded with being an art director, I would have gone to ad school. There’s a lot of young talent out there; therefore, we like to hire right out of school. . If school is not an option, try teaming up with a fellow art director/writer and put a book together.

You must travel a lot for work right?
It’s up and down. We have so many great photographers in Austin that we’re able to shoot a lot locally. Although, there are times I’m gone a few days at a time once a month or I used to travel to Germany and I would spend about 2 weeks on each trip 2-3/year.

We have so many great photographers in Austin that we’re able to shoot a lot locally

When you’ve been away from Austin for a while, what’s something you want to do as soon as you get back?
Eat MEXICAN food. I found out I was pregnant while on a shoot in Germany and the first thing I did when I got home was go eat Mexican food…. A LOT OF IT! If it’s the summer time, taking a dip in Barton Springs is nice…..and cold.

Favorite breakfast taco: Tacodeli or Torchy’s
Favorite libation: Deep Eddy Sweet Tea Vodka with Topo Chico and a squeeze of lemon
Favorite BBQ: Cooper’s
Favorite weekend getaway spot: Wimberley

Amy, tell me a bit about how you came to a career in advertising and photography. Did you go to college for either of these fields?
I studied fashion design at Louisiana State University, which included studies in marketing and merchandising but I fell in love with photography towards the end of my studies there. After I earned my B.S. I applied to Parsons in New York City. I joined the AAS program and studied photography and graphic design until my internship with Elle Décor led to a full time job working as an assistant photo editor under Quintana Roo Dunne. Two years later I was hired as the photo editor at and started shooting professionally on the side. During that time I also took some continuing education courses in film and NYU and photo editing at ICP.

I left MTV after 7 years to become a fulltime freelance photographer. A few years later I decided I was ready to head back south and moved to Austin, TX. After 6 months of looking for work I realized that in Austin, advertising agencies are where creatives earn the better salaries. I took a job I had never heard of before but seemed to fit my experience; digital asset manager.

Did you have any mentors along the way?
I had the most incredible teachers at Parsons, specifically Charles Harbutt who was at one time the president of Magnum. My fashion design instructors at LSU, Yvonne Marquette-Leak and Pamela Rabalais, were very supportive of my fashion photography interests and allowed me to earn credit for independent studies in fashion photography as a part of my curriculum.

As far as career mentors, Quintana taught me everything I know about being a photo editor (and when not to answer the phone!) Working with some established reps and photographers early on in my photo-editing career, like Michael Muller and the late great Fernando Bengoechea, who kindly let me under their wings, was incredible as well.

a lot of what I know I had to learn the hard way

But honestly, a lot of what I know I had to learn the hard way. When I started at MTV, I was given no direction and had to make up all the rules on my own, which was terrifying and awesome.
I’ve also learned a lot about rights management and art buying from some very kind and patient account reps at Getty and other agencies.

Tell us a bit about what it means to be an art buyer and digital asset manager. I think photographers look at the lists of people working at agencies and they are overwhelmed, they don’t know which person is actually the one to hire people. How does it work at T3, are you suggesting people to the creative director? Are you hiring people? Are you licensing work?
I think the role of art buyer and digital asset manager varies from agency to agency. I have a ton of production experience so sometimes the creative directors ask me for suggestions on who to hire, others choose photographers on their own and just ask me to help with contracts. I have sourced the majority of the photographers since I’ve been working at T3 but the final decision is always with the creative director.

Most of our stock licensing is directly through the stock agencies but every now and then we will find something on Flickr or elsewhere on the web and contact the photographer directly to license an image.
We have worked with some very talented Texas photographers since I’ve been at T3, Cody Hamilton, Dave Mead, Andrew Yates and Lee Kirgan to name a few. I’m dying to shoot with LeAnn Mueller. I would love to see more women photographers in our roster.

“Digital Asset Manager” is a relatively new role in advertising and few agencies have them, they may be a part of the creative team or they may be in more of an IT role. So if you are a photographer trying to get someone’s attention and you have a limited number of stamps, stick with the creative directors and then the art buyers. Or just call the main number for the agency you are interested in and ask.

I often hear from art buyers that they prefer to only work with photographers who have reps. Do you feel that way?
Not necessarily, but unless I have worked with a photographer in the past, I prefer to go with someone who has representation although I don’t really meet many photographers in Austin with reps. It’s such a small ad world in Texas, it is usually pretty easy to find someone within the agency who can vouch for a local photographer. Word of mouth is really important, probably more so than having a rep. Usually a photographer’s website and client list will say a lot about them as well.

Word of mouth is really important, probably more so than having a rep

What percentage of shoots for T3 happen in Texas? How often are you hiring Texas photographers?
The majority of shoots that we produce are done in Austin, Texas. T3 hires about 3-4 Texas photographers a year depending on what is going on. Some years are more creative-heavy and others are more digital-production-heavy for our agency.

You are an accomplished photographer yourself, and because of your role at T3, I think you have a unique perspective on the industry and what it takes to make it as a commercial photographer. What advice do you have for people who want to be shooting ad campaigns?
Thank you. Knowing all sides of the fence is definitely a plus, having hired and been hired for all kinds of editorial and advertising work gives me an advantage in understanding projects and being able to fairly negotiate contracts for the clients as well as the photographers.

My advice to those who want to work in this industry is to have a strong, clean and simple website with your best work, and work that represents what you want to be shooting. If you want to shoot a big campaign for clients like Gap or Apple, show bright, bold, sharp images in your portfolio. Lose the 25 dark blurry pictures of your college roommate. Only show your best work, edit, edit, edit. Take advantage of social media and network every chance you get but be humble as well, don’t over do it.

Only show your best work, edit, edit, edit

What annoys you when it comes to photographers marketing themselves to you? What works for you?
What annoys me is when I get promos from photographers that are poorly printed or have pictures of subjects that have absolutely nothing to do with any of the clients that my company works for. Know your audience. Don’t just throw all your fish food into the ocean. Photographers should figure out what agency they want to catch and what the right bait is. I think the more opportunities you have to personalize your marketing, the more impact it will make although that is not always affordable- it’s true what they say, most of those materials end up in the trash.

Cold calls are also bad, mail or email first. Dropping by an agency without an appointment is usually seen as too aggressive.

What inspires you in your own photography?
I’ve been pretty lucky to have a lot of really beautiful, strong, talented and inspiring girlfriends in my life. Fashion inspires me. Light, film, décor, dogs, art, social injustice. Other photographers inspire me, Sally Mann, Ellen von Unwerth, Danny Clinch. Art books, fashion blogs and magazines are a huge source of inspiration as well.

What’s your favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
I love shooting in Texas because everyone is laid back, usually in a good mood, and the weather is often agreeable (in Austin anyway.) There are also many different landscapes, climates and types of architecture in Texas. I know that has been said before but it’s so true. Shooting here is just easier. All the logistics and permits you need to shoot in a big city like New York or Los Angeles can really dampen the creative process sometimes.

Shooting here is just easier

You’re a vegetarian right? Where do you take out-of-towners to eat when you want to give them a nice dose of Austin without the requisite BBQ?
I was heading in that direction before I met my boyfriend, The BBQ Sauce King (he owns Stellar Gourmet Foods), now it’s pretty much BBQ party time in our back yard year round. I would say our guests get some requisite homemade brisket and elote but if we aren’t cooking we like to take out-of-towners to East Side Café, Chuy’s, Torchy’s and of course, Uchiko.

Favorite weekend getaway?
Fishing on the Gulf or a shopping + art weekend in Dallas/Fort Worth. I like to crash at my Uncle D’s place in Duncanville, we stay up late and listen to his stories about growing up in Hitchcock, Texas with my dad and his other siblings.

Speaking of uncles, an interesting side story- I got my first camera from my dad, it was an Olympus OM1 but it had originally belonged to my Uncle Mike. He was a photographer for the Texas State Senate before becoming Governor Preston Smith’s photographer in the late 1960s (although he was shooting with a Mamiya 23 at the time.) I would tell you to interview him but all of his photos went with Governor Smith’s papers, now in a collection at Texas Tech. “An abundance of grip and grins.”

Favorite libation?
My boyfriend’s mint-infused simple syrup mojitos or anything at Péché in Austin.

Favorite breakfast taco?
We make our own breakfast tacos every morning! The key ingredient is Central Market’s fresh whole-wheat tortillas. You really can’t get a bad breakfast taco in Austin but Torchy’s or Whole Foods is where I usually go if I’m on the run or catering a photo shoot.