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Comstock Founder Tom Grill Continues to Adapt to Change

Posted By Pat Hunt On May 25, 2007 @ 6:45 am In Stock Art and Photography | No Comments

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He’s been called everything from the father of stock photography to the sage and guru of the industry. Now his biggest source of pride is being the father of a top stock shooter, his daughter Jamie Grill.

Tom Grill is the owner of Tom Grill Images [2] and Tetra Images [3] and the former owner of the well-known Comstock [4]. Jamie is in the driver’s seat with Jamie Grill Photography [5], the newest lifestyle stock production company to jump to the top of the charts.

Tom says proudly: “I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and now my daughter, Jamie, represents the second generation. She started modeling for me from birth and has literally been in stock photography all her life.”

Tom’s story represents the history of the stock world, as he started in his mid-20s as a photojournalist living in Brazil doing photo essays in the late ’60s. As soon as he moved back to New York City, he shot to the top in the assignment business as the major talent for cosmetic companies such as L’Oreal, Revlon and Clairol. It seemed clear to him that every city in the U.S. would love to afford New York-style photography and the talent behind it, and he realized that every city had at least one or two significant advertising agencies to benefit from beautiful work.

On that inspiration he started his first stock company known as “4×5,” and produced the first catalog in photography. Tom describes the concurrence of timely events that led to this breakthrough: “Color printing became less expensive, and Kodak came out with 6121 duplicating film. Up until that time, in order to make a dupe of a transparency, you had to make a time consuming and expensive mask. Event number three — Federal Express came into existence.”

His next company, Comstock, mailed out catalogs of images that could easily be replicated. By this time it was the ’70s and the well-known Image Bank was getting started, but Tom takes credit for being the inventor of the best marketing technique for stock before the Internet, the catalog.

Tom recalls: “We told advertising agencies all over the U.S. to give us a call by 5:00, and we would have the images on their desk by 10:00 AM the next morning. At the time that was huge! We were one of Fed Ex’s first clients, and Comstock took off with a booster rocket.”

Tom was initially the only photographer for Comstock, and ultimately produced about 90 percent of the company images. This was the first iteration of what we think of today as “wholly owned” imagery. Everything was rights managed and prices had to be negotiated, but with the luxury of dupes, the same image could go to a client in Peoria at the same time that it was going to Cleveland and LA. This represented the beginning of concept-based marketing, as up until then the clients had to preconceive what they wanted and attempt to describe the idea. With the catalog, Tom was able to suggest to the clients what they might use.

“From the ’70s to the ’90s was just a growth period, and everybody else was jumping on the bandwagon,” he said. “Fed Ex went global and a tenet in business operations became ‘speed-to-market.’ That form of marketing remained viable right up until the Internet.”

THE INDUSTRY IMPLODES

Tom recalls an “implosion” in the industry, when analog switched to digital. Analog systems garnered their importance by virtue of the large numbers in their collections, with knowledgeable editors to search through the millions of files. The digital and Internet era required filing systems that were user-friendly to all. Therefore large numbers of images would “clog the arteries” of the system and offer too many pictures that weren’t pertinent. For a while, this integration problem proved to be Getty and Corbis’ biggest cleanup problem. All of this “disruptive innovation” changed the industry and changed the times. Jobs and businesses were lost, but new business models emerged, and the advent of royalty free image rights was launched.

At that time royalty free images were at a price point of around $14. At such a low price, only still life and background images could generate profit. No one could afford to produce lifestyle imagery for royalty free use. Comstock was the only company in the world that owned its own collection of images. It was the only company that enjoyed the luxury of being able to make a clean flip from RM to RF. All images were released and all owned by Comstock.

For images in one-year client contracts, the company waited out the year to make the flip. With the advent of this event, the price began to edge up. According to Tom, RF “had to evolve.” The Internet demanded ease of access and ease in payment systems. It created an expanded set of buyers who were not able to track rights, and put images into the hands of people who were not able to use images before. Many companies caved in because they couldn’t make the conversion to digital and e-commerce. Jupiter images bought Comstock about four years into this era, and they still own it today. It still remains Jupiter’s best production facility, and is being run the way Tom set it up, except that other photographers shoot there now.

Being a marketing genius ahead of the pack, Tom left Comstock before it was sold, in order not to miss the Internet train ride. He knew he needed to change his photographic style and the number of images that he was producing. He studied the market with the brilliance of a financial analyst, and realized that he needed to simplify his images so they stood out on the page of the online site.

Like modern branding specialists, he put himself in the seat of the client to understand the end user’s needs. That led him to a color palette that is always neutral, and almost always white because background color permeates the images. He allowed for more room in cropping and produced fewer targeted images. He shoots in square format so it can be cropped both in vertical and horizontal, and made sure that every image was “bright and airy.”

“If you don’t get the click-through you don’t get the sale.” he explains. “You have to simplify the image and it has to stand out on the page. These images have been selling like crazy, and I have never been more successful in my entire career that I am right now. When I had a $16 million dollar company I had 100 employees and a mammoth overhead. Now I am making more money and I only have four people. In the Internet era, you have to keep it small, lean and mean.”

LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER

So, now we come back around to Jamie, who graduated from Vassar with a degree in child psychology. After graduation, she worked for Martha Stewart in the creative department. She started her own business with full crew in LA, emulating what she had learned from her dad, and soon became the favorite of major distributors. Now she’s back in New York, in partnership with her father, and doing double his RPI (return per image) in several markets. She specializes in the youth culture, because that’s an area that Tom can’t understand or emulate.

She likes to joke that she’s her father’s “weird science experiment.” “He’s a teacher to everyone, and is always telling them how to make money and be successful in this business. I thought of photography as a hobby my whole life, and now I am selling for royalties at Corbis, Iconica, Getty and Tetra. I’m a one-woman operation, with one assistant. I do all the production myself, including styling, hiring of models and shooting.” Tom is proud to admit that Getty called her up recently and doubled her submission allotment for the year, without doubling his.

CHANGING WITH THE TIMES

Tom’s marketing genius is his ability to change with the times. In his current businesses he analyzes the market every quarter, and he plans a year ahead. He does a major course correction every six months. “Personally I am producing five to seven thousand images per year, so if I have two thousand images allotted to channel A and channel C opens up, I’ll move them over there.”

Tetra Images is now two years old, and it has been marketing for a year and a half. Its distribution system is almost complete, and now the pair of Tom and Jamie are building the image inventory and attracting other artists. He is also considering the establishment of a production unit to add value to the business model. TomGrill.com is always in the background adding image content for other royalty contracts. As Tom advises: “Build something you can sell, and keep a royalty base so you have something to retire on.”

There’s a Darwinian quote that aptly fits Tom Grill and this famous stock duo: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, or the most intelligent. It is the most adaptable to change.”

[tags]Comstock, Tom Grill, Jamie Grill[/tags]

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[1] Tweet: https://twitter.com/share

[2] Tom Grill Images: http://www.tomgrill.com

[3] Tetra Images: http://www.tetraimages.com

[4] Comstock: http://www.comstock.com/web/default.asp

[5] Jamie Grill Photography: http://www.jamiegrill.com

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