Justine Barnes (Shockett), CUTWATER

Thursday, February 04 by Juliette Wolf-Robin, ADBASE

Posted in: Buyer Interviews

Juliette Wolf-Robin speaks with Justine Barnes, Art Producer at CUTWATER, a full-service San Francisco-based agency founded in 2007 by advertising superstar Chuck McBride and backed by the Omnicom Group. CUTWATER clients include Ray-Ban, Persol, LensCrafters, FOX Sports Net, adidas and Ubisoft.

  • How CUTWATER sources new photographers and illustrators
  • Print and email promos that break through the clutter
  • What Justine likes, and doesn't like, about photographer websites

Interview Transcript

This is an edited transcript of Juliette Wolf-Robin's interview with Justine Barnes of CUTWATER, San Francisco.

Juliette Wolf-Robin:

Okay, let's talk a little bit about the agency... CUTWATER was started by Chuck McBride, right?

Justine Barnes:

Yes.

Juliette:

And is the agency really his vision of how an ad agency should work?

Justine:

It's kind of, I guess, a collective vision of several people here. He definitely leads our creative, but there is input from other creative directors, and art directors even have a say ... all the creative and their ideas and ... things moving forward. As far as process, it's not quite like a traditional agency. We've really sort of established a lot of our own process and how we go about executing projects. I mean, keeping the traditional frame of mind intact but really kind of adapting it to our clients and our creative...

Juliette:

And what are some of the accounts with the agency?

Justine:

Oh, we work on Ray-Ban, Persol, LensCrafters. We also do projects for Ubisoft, Disney occasionally, also BNP Paribas a bank in Paris.

Juliette:

Is there a certain look to the agency or type of account that the agency tends to be... going after?

Justine:

No. We're pretty much open to anything. I'm not usually as involved in the new business stuff. So, it's...

Juliette:

Right, right. You see what they have and...

Justine:

Yeah... it comes up and I see people working on it but for the most part we're open to anything.

Juliette:

And tell me a little bit about your background. How did you start out here?

Justine:

I actually went to Brooks Institute of Photography. Studied photography - absolutely loved it, but decided towards the end that it really wasn't a career that I wanted to go into and that I really enjoyed production and kind of being in the behind-the-scenes aspects, so to speak.

Juliette:

So, did you leave Brooks knowing you wanted to work behind-the-scenes?

Justine:

Yes.

Juliette:

Did you try to work with the studio first or did you go straight into an agency?

Justine:

I spent about a year just kind of researching and learning as much as I could; learning about agencies and how they functioned and also just about clients and that whole world since it was very new to me. And then I worked with a food photographer here in San Francisco for a little while, kind of gaining that background as a studio manager and liaising with clients. And then made the leap to art production. I worked with Draft FCB for a little while and then moved over here.

Juliette:

And are you the primary buyer here?

Justine:

Yes.

Juliette:

Are there other buyers?

Justine:

Just myself for prints.

Juliette:

And do you also produce?

Justine:

Yes. I handle anything and everything on the print side.

Juliette:

Negotiations.

Justine:

Yeah.

Juliette:

Contracts.

Justine:

Exactly. Everything. Manage the budgets. I do all usage, you know, licensing additional images, even illustrations that we've produced. I do all of it.

Juliette:

And do you find that the role of a buyer - from hearing from other people - do you think it's changing? Do you think coming into it now, that world is different than [what] buyer's past [duties] would have [been]? What do you hear?

Justine:

I think it's always changing. I mean with every project there's always a new element that's introduced. It's always evolving, you know, campaigns and clients are changing. The industry itself is changing and so I think our jobs are changing along with that. That said, I think it's different for each job in respect to what's changing and how we're moving forward. But... in the beginning, working with contracts and stuff like that, I wasn't as involved. And now I'm more involved and I really manage that side of it. So, it just kind of depends.

Juliette:

And what happens when you're trying to deal with the contract and there's usage and all that, and the agents that you're talking to or the photographers that you're talking to have a very different idea of the value of it versus the client? Is it the buyer's role to talk to the client about it? Or do you go back to the account person and you say, "You know what, this budget, there's issues. You need to talk to your account." How does that get managed?

Justine:

It gets managed in a couple of different ways. It ultimately really depends on the client that we're working with. A lot of the time... going into a project... I asked the account people to specify with the client ... what's our usage, the exact usage that they want. Are there any additional clauses that they're going to want pre-negotiated or set in place from the beginning? What's their budget? Outline all of this stuff for us, then I move forward with the agents and negotiating all that stuff. Things that come up after the fact, depending on what it is, I can always...

[For example,] we had a project that I was working on here where we had bid-out a photographer to shoot several different kinds of image packages for us and the client came back to us and was concerned with cost. And so I wrote a brief outlining all the general cost that go into it and what great value they're getting out of this deal, you know... retouching and ...

Juliette:

You're getting them to understand.

Justine:

Yeah, exactly. Just kind of breaking it down for them so they can really see, okay, this in comparison to previous projects [that we've done] that are along the same level of this project. We're really getting a great deal out of this and everything that's going into it... ultimately we're coming out on top for this.

Juliette:

Yeah. Do you have a problem with stock photography fighting for assignment... Has that been an issue at all?

Justine:

It's usually never an issue for us. We almost always shoot everything ourselves. We usually use stock [to help bring] concepts together, but ultimately we end up shooting pretty much everything unless - it's very rare - unless we have a seriously tight budget and time is a huge issue...

Juliette:

Good. And then how do you go about finding talent?

Justine:

Ultimately, it really depends on the project and any work that I've seen recently. Usually, working with art directors in the concept phase, I get a really good sense of ultimately what they'd look for when we go to execute it. I search the rep's websites and even AdAge, and I look through all those resource books, FOUND, just keeping an open mind to everything. And then kind of narrow down what's appropriate for the project and who's fitting their style and who will bring something to the table.

Juliette:

Do you find the art directors here are involved in telling you who they want to use, or do they just tell you "this is the project"?

Justine:

Definitely.

Juliette:

Do they bring up names and...

Justine:

Yeah. They like to do a lot of their own research. I think a lot of it is they're really interested in that side of it as well and ultimately [it's] their ideas, their babies. So, they want to make sure that it's kind of directed the way they want it to be. They definitely have a strong input there and I input as well.

Juliette:

And on the promos you receive, what do you like to see in a promotional piece that you get?

Justine:

I have a few samples here.

Juliette:

What did you notice about samples that you pulled? What in particular? Is it the size, the shape, the number of images? What were the ones that you found that you liked? Was there any theme that you found about them?

Justine:

All the ones that I liked are very clean and simple as far as design and their execution. There are several different samples of images. It's not just one... a card with one image on it.

Juliette:

So, it helps you to see more?

Justine:

Yeah. Exactly. You get a sense of the photographer's style and how they shoot and projects that they worked on.

Juliette:

Does it matter to you where they are based, where they live? Do you tend to need somebody in California or does it matter to you?

Justine:

We're open to, you know, worldwide, anywhere. When we're selecting a photographer or talent for a particular project, then we sort of narrow that down. But, ultimately, when I'm collecting work that's amazing and it's ...

Juliette:

It's about the work.

Justine:

Yeah, it's about to work. It doesn't really matter location-wise. If the work is there, then it's great.

Juliette:

And what about the booklet that you pulled out? Is that something you like? When you have multiple pieces in [the promotional piece]? Is that a problem because it's more to open up or does that give you more of a story about them?

Justine:

It sort of depends on the initial outside packaging. I've got some samples here from Carlos Sorel and it's ultimately just a couple of images inside a little box. The design is very clean and simple. The images are incredibly stunning and just visually arresting. So, I'm very intrigued to continue to open it.

Juliette:

And the box itself has an image on the outside.

Justine:

Exactly.

Juliette:

Was there a label on the other side of the box?

Justine:

No, no.

Juliette:

Or this came in something else?

Justine:

It came in a little plastic sheet that had address labels on [it]. But it's just really clean and simple work. You open it up and it's got good-size images. It's got several different images that you can really see [is] a series of work. You get a sense of their style and their vision.

Juliette:

How would you file that? Would you put it in a category? Is it just that you keep everything together that you like, or do you separate them by style?

Justine:

I do have some folders that I've separated out by subject matter. Like fashion or lifestyle - just the kind of public and general pool to pull from. But promos like, this that really capture my attention, I definitely put them aside and have my "little favorites" pile. I'll even post stuff at my desk. These, here, are some promos that a local photographer did and they're just images, very similar to a Polaroid, and they're so beautiful and intimate and clean and simple, you know. There are several of them here, so I really can see her vision...

Juliette:

And when you look at this, does it matter to you if it's the commercial usage of it, or just that the photography is beautiful?

Justine:

Just the photography.

Juliette:

Right.

Justine:

That's all that matters.

Juliette:

It doesn't matter... if it had been used or not? It's just the vision of that photographer?

Justine:

Yeah, just the vision. When it comes to looking at photographers, when I see ad work, it's difficult to... I guess [the answer] is "no" if it's something they shot for themselves, or if it was an actual campaign they did. Because sometimes it can kind of stroll on that line and go either way. If you've got the tear sheets then you know they did it, but it sort of plays up the fact that perhaps they shot it.

Juliette:

Does it affect you if they personalize the message to you, if it includes a letter to you about why they want to work with the agency? If it's handwritten? Does any of that have any effect on you being interested in them as an artist?

Justine:

When it's somebody I know - definitely, I would be more willing to open and look through it. If it's somebody I've never met or had no correspondence with before, I'm not as likely to open it ...

Juliette:

It still would be about the photo and not about the ...

Justine:

Yeah. It's nice that they put a personal note in there but it doesn't make me open it any faster.

Juliette:

Okay. And then what about the other ones that are on newsprint and things like that? Does it matter to you the kind of paper? Do you find that it's artistic or would you rather see it on a nicer paper... How do you feel about the newsprint approach?

Justine:

I like the more artistic executions. I mean, the newspaper or the newsprint - I love it. I definitely think it should be fitting to that person's work. You know, I don't think a newsprint for execution...

Juliette:

This works for fashion, but doesn't work for food.

Justine:

Exactly. Or just general advertising, I don't think it meshes as well. The only thing that's kind of awkward in particular with this promo [is that] everything in here is vertical so you can read it like a newspaper and then you get to one page where it's a horizontal shot but it's put vertically. So, you have to turn... it's just kind of awkward and messes up the flow of it.

Juliette:

Right. Right. So, the design affects you?

Justine:

Exactly. Yeah.

Juliette:

Okay. And what about when you call in portfolios. Is there anything in particular that you find that's effective in a portfolio? The way it feels, the weight of it? Is any of that important or is it, again, about the images?

Justine:

Definitely something that's not super heavy, is always appreciated. I love when I call in a book and, whoever sends it to me, it's completely buttoned up. You know, like the packaging slip is already included. It's not messy, it's not just kind of thrown together.

Juliette:

Feels professional.

Justine:

Exactly. Feels very professional. I don't like when I get books that don't come in a portfolio case or, if it's a box size, that's not a normal FedEx size. We only have FedEx boxes here, so if I have to search to find a box to put it in, it's not going...

Juliette:

It's not going anywhere!

Justine:

Yeah, it's going to sit there... I try to save them but my desk is only so big. I don't have room to save a huge box of...

Juliette:

Do you have a day where books are put out for everybody to come look at, or is it only if there's an assignment that everybody would come together to look at them?

Justine:

I do portfolio shows. I try and do, like, one a month. I usually don't do any more than that just because our guys are so busy and I notice when I start to do more shows, I don't get as many people coming. I think the special-ness of them is lost, you know. It's kind of "oh, there's one every week. I don't need to go to this one."... sort of feeling.

Juliette:

And what about meetings? Do you take meetings with photographers and reps and illustrators?

Justine:

I take meetings as often as I can. The only thing that's difficult is since it's just me here, when I'm busy, I just can't see anybody.

Juliette:

Do you go on shoots?

Justine:

I try to go on as many shoots as possible. Sometimes it doesn't workout.

Juliette:

Right, because you could be off on a shoot but then there's this other one that's being negotiated...

Justine:

Exactly... You're expected to do it all. But it works out.

Juliette:

Do you bring in freelance producers or would that be up to the artist to bring in on a job, if you needed extra help?

Justine:

Each photographer that we work with has their own producer or agent that also does production for them. And that's the person I usually work with. As far as bringing in an art buyer specifically, to work on our side, the option is there. Just because of the economy and everything right now, it's not something that we've done.

Juliette:

Okay. And what about email promos? Do you look at email promos?

Justine:

I do. However, there are some that always get by me.

Juliette:

Is there anything that you like or don't like about the ones that you do get?

Justine:

Yeah. I find it funny because I think people need to really research and understand the clients or agencies that they're targeting.

Juliette:

Or who they're sending their promo to?

Justine:

Yeah. I mean I love seeing all kinds of work because it's always great to be...

Juliette:

And it's inspiring.

Justine:

Yeah. It's very inspiring. It's always great to be informed of what's going on and who's shooting what... and I love to see new work. I don't like seeing work that's over six months to a year old - like stuff that you've already done promos for. It's like, okay, I've seen it. Been there, done that. I check the rep sites and a lot of photographer sites fairly regularly, so I'm seeing that work anyway. I want to see something fresh, something new. The other thing is, I usually get a ton of email promos at the beginning of my day, anywhere from 5 a.m. to like 9 a.m.

Juliette:

So, you walk in and they're all there.

Justine:

Yeah, they're all there. I don't look at any of those. They will go straight into my folder...

Juliette:

Because there are too many.

Justine:

Yeah, there's too many. But also I spend most of my morning trying to catch up on emails because we've got clients in Milan [and] they're a day ahead of us. So, I get in, in the morning, and I'm checking the emails and keeping up with them and finishing things for their end-of-day. All those emails that come in before 10 a.m., they go in my Save folder which I hope to look at later, but I really never get the chance to.

Juliette:

And would you then organize them from there? Do you keep them or do you just...

Justine:

No.

Juliette:

Kind of overview them and get rid of them? So, it's just a quick refreshment. This is what's going on and then...

Justine:

Yeah, just a quick refreshment. There are ones that I'll come across that really capture me and I'll definitely star those and save them. Maybe go to their website.

Juliette:

Do you bookmark websites?

Justine:

Yeah, I bookmark tons of websites, you know, go there, check out the rest of their work. The thing is, a lot of times people just send one image and it's really difficult to get an impression of somebody's work from that. If it's enough to get me to go to their website, and then I look through it and I like it, I'll save it. If it's not...

Juliette:

So, you would like to see more [images] in the email so you can overview?

Justine:

Yeah, I love to see more. Yeah. You know, ones where they've got a little bit more of a series... kind of a storytelling. You really get a sense of what somebody shoots.

Juliette:

And then when you get to their website, is there anything in particular that you find that you like or don't like in the website?

Justine:

Yes.

Juliette:

You made notes.

Justine:

I did. I made quite a few notes. As far as websites that I feel are really effective and help me to get through them quickly, and also make me want to go back and see more of them: definitely clean and simple design, nothing too crazy or flashy. Flash websites are okay, but I'm really just there to see the work. I don't need all the extras. I love when they've got thumbnails that you can scroll over and the images just change and pop up. I don't like the fading in between images because it wastes time...

Juliette:

You just want to go.

Justine:

Go to the next one. After looking at hundreds of sites, you're just ready to get to the next thing. I don't want to have to wait for it to load and fade in and out. I love that websites have little categories so it's a little bit more specific for rep sites. But they'll have food shooters, auto shooters, lifestyle... and I can scroll over and bold whoever is appropriate for that category. And I can go directly to those people and view that work.

Juliette:

Right. And then are you trying to make a list of the different sites that you want to send somebody [at CUTWATER] to look at?

Justine:

Definitely. Yeah. I'll go through... I'll usually provide a list if it's very specific. If I worked with the art director, we've narrowed down to a very specific look that they want. I try and give him at least 5- to -10 options.

Juliette:

And then how many people do you usually have actually bid on a project?

Justine:

It really depends on the project and the client. We don't have any triple-bid minimums or anything like that. We usually...

Juliette:

Because your clients are okay with that?

Justine:

Yeah, they are. What we usually do, our process is that we'll present a few recommended photographers to the client. We will have our top recommends, and our guys will put together a PDF, some samples of work. And we'll have a discussion with the clients - this is why we really like this person's work and we feel they're appropriate for this. A lot of times we'll even call in treatments from such photographers and we'll share those with the clients. And it also helps for the art directors to see where this photographer would take it, what are their ideas, what can they bring to the table and make sure everybody's vibe-ing on the same level. Our clients are usually okay with our top recommends.

Juliette:

That's great.

Justine:

And then we usually just bid out that one person. Occasionally, we'll bid out two or three people

Juliette:

So, you're not calling in ones you're not interested in just to get an extra bid in.

Justine:

Correct.

Juliette:

That's good.

Justine:

Yeah. I mean, you know, very rarely do we bid more than one person. And it's usually just because... we honestly haven't made up our minds of which photographer. And not that the cost really drives it because they usually actually come in very similar. That way, we're ready to roll with whoever we decided to go with.

Juliette:

And what about the illustration? You said that you also use illustration?

Justine:

Yeah. We've been doing a lot more illustration work recently and it's a slightly different process. It really depends on what the project calls for.

Juliette:

And how do you find illustrators?

Justine:

I go through some of their rep websites. Also, just seeing who's out there that has done work for maybe band cover art, or concert posters. Things like that. It's who's out there and who's doing what work, what's striking. Ultimately, if you find something good, usually they have links or they lead to other people that are sort of in that same vein.

Juliette:

And do you find that you can sometimes hire people just from their website or do you always need the book because you need to be able to show it to the client?

Justine:

We rarely call in books anymore. We pretty much base everything off of a website... another good point for websites is having fairly decent size images. Like images that are almost like little wallet size in photos.

Juliette:

So, you need it big enough to...

Justine:

Yeah. You can't really see enough detail. You'll get a sense of the quality of work from those tiny images. But we do pretty much all of our searching for talent, and actually awarding jobs, based on work through websites.

Juliette:

Do you like being able to meet the photographers before you work with them or is talking to them on the phone enough?

Justine:

It would be wonderful to meet them in person. Most of the time, logistically, just doesn't work out. We do have several conversations on the phone. Once we've kind of narrowed down our creative list, we usually have a creative call for the art directors to introduce the creative concepts, talk to the photographer about how they see it playing out, and also discuss ideas on what the photographer sees or ideas they have, how to play it out, you know, whatever they can bring to the table.

Juliette:

Do you find that you work with a lot of different photographers or that there's this same group that tends to come up?

Justine:

We work with a lot of different photographers.

Juliette:

That's exciting.

Justine:

Yeah. It's really great. It's nice to work with a variety of people. There's definitely the campaigns where we'll shoot it twice a year and we'll use the same photographer for both. Sometimes that same campaign rolls into another year and... depending on the direction that the client and the creatives want to take it, we usually stick with that photographer.

Juliette:

Is [San Francisco] the only location for this agency?

Justine:

Correct.

Juliette:

Okay. And who did the website for the agency? Was that done here through the agency?

Justine:

Yeah.

Juliette:

It's a great website... really creative.

Justine:

It definitely fits our name.

Juliette:

Yes. Exactly. Alright. Well, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.

Justine:

Great. Thank you.

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