Interview with Joe Lombardo of Curated Artists
October 5, 2017
Joe Lombardo and I are Facebook friends. We’ve never met in person, but we’ve probably passed each other at photo parties once or twice. (He’s been an artist rep for nearly 20 years, most recently with Curated Artists, Inc.) Other than us both being in this great industry, we’ve strengthened our online connection by bonding over our love for flat-faced dogs, a french bulldog named Butters (isn’t that a great name?) and my own pug named Joey Ramone.
Joe has worked in fashion, lifestyle and conceptual advertising modalities in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. In this interview, we talk about his long career and what’s shaping the future of the industry.
Peter Berberian: Tell me about the how you became a rep.
Joe Lombardo: Honestly, when I was thinking about my career when I was younger, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I was working for the United States Attorney’s Office whilst attending Seton Hall University when I decided to drop out of college and take my chances at being an entrepreneur/actor/dancer/waiter-type in the big city.
I had no place to live and decided to move in with my best friend at that time and her lover Lori Watson, who coincidentally was the East Coast representative at The Workbook. I was trying my hand at all sorts of careers unsuccessfully, so Lori asked me to try and assist a photographer who was taking reportage photos at one of her events. My job was to hold the light near guests and then take down the names of the agents to be entered into Workbook’s printed book.
I don’t think I was very good at the lighting part, but I recall drinking lots of white wine and being very social with the guests, and three of them subsequently offered me jobs and gave me their cards to follow up.
Through those connections, I started off managing a busy still-life studio in NYC and decided that there wasn’t enough energy there for me to be happy. After six months, I left to become an associate agent to another big commercial rep in town. Three years later I was hired by a commercial fashion agency in the city to be their lead photo agent and to groom their roster, and my career really took off from there.
I opened several more agencies in the city until I decided to open my own production company with some bar-backing money I had saved on the side. To do that, I had a friend and designer make cards for me that we glued together (because we didn’t like the thin card stock) and I set out to learn everything I could about production. Eventually, I was asked to bring my production company in-house with a fashion agency and to combine the two companies. And voila! Here I am now 20 years later with my latest passion: Curated Artists, Inc.
PB: Is there a particular image from your childhood that made you want to go into the visual arts?
JS: Ha! That is a great question. Yes, I’ll tell you when it clicked for me: George Watson (of Watson Spierman) represented a photographer named Kan Nakai and he shot a Tropicana ad that ran on the sides of NYC buses. The photograph depicted a juicy orange slice cutting through orange juice in a free-fall, and I was blown away by how macro and delicious it looked. It made me want to drink orange juice, swim in the orange juice and run after the bus and touch it to see if was real somehow. That is when I truly felt the power of advertising. Before then, I never really drank orange juice and I had no interest in its vitamin-y goodness. I was suddenly converted.
PB: What was your evolution from photographer to rep? Did you start out as a photographer and then find that the business side appealed to you more?
JS: No. I was always a go-getter, non-technical, people-type. I couldn’t have fathomed at 28 years old that I would have ever hankered down to learn about f-stops and apertures. Back then, I was still using a rolodex and a desk phone! That was all I needed. As technology became more important and computers advanced, I eventually learned how to shoot. Nowadays it is still a hobby and I do love everything about shooting my own personal work, but it’s weird because I never studied anything about the visual arts in college—but it always spoke to me.
PB: Was there an event that made you want to transition to a different agency outside of the Midwest?
JS: There was no event in particular. The Midwest market that I worked in (and loved by the way) didn’t have the need for the type of creative exploration that I had a background in—fashion, dance, music and all the new technology on the horizon. NYC and LA had that market, however, it required being there with the right talent at the right time. The competition is fierce.
I could see that NYC was priming itself to move in the integrated dynamic content direction, so I decided to pursue those types of things. I have a bad habit of watching a lot of TV and music videos and browsing online sites like Nowness and ShowStudio, I took notes and tried to recognize the things that were really about to shift again in the industry, social media in particular. You see some really weird and fantastic and eff’d up stuff on social media.
But all of it spoke volumes to me about how we consume content, what stops thumbs and what does not and how that plays into true engagement with brands. The interplay, and in some cases the bi-polarity of social media and traditional media made me think that it might be time to see how the two sides meet on the same roster. The challenge, of course, was that not a lot of agencies knew 9 months ago what they were doing with social as a strategy yet, and I find myself navigating the social sphere pricing standards every day. Whilst we do represent influencers on our roster (most of them millennials) they first had to prove themselves as pro-photographers first, and have an eye and a vision and a marketing plan that didn’t rely on their IG account solely for visibility. Their social feeds became elevated due to their accomplishments as ambassadors for other brands and writing things like the first Instagram novel. You need to have an eye, a vision and a marketing plan that doesn’t rely on an Instagram for visibility.
PB: How has your business evolved to meet the needs of the photo buyer?
JS: Here’s the deal: This is now a relationship economy. In order to create relationships with agencies and brands, you have to have menu items that get them out to dinner with you. You have to be able to showcase that you add creative value to what they already can do in-house. The clients are smart and the consumers are smarter. You can find alternatives to brands you always loved as a kid almost anywhere on the net. Legacy brands have had to step up their game in the way they tell their stories to continue to have impact, but still allow for something magical to happen in the storytelling. Attention spans being what they are today, you have to be able to make a consumer pay attention to interact with your brand on many different playing fields. We wanted to be there to service those creatives that want to push the boundaries still.
We’ve become a much more cynical world in the recent year—reality is not only harsh—it’s sometimes really boring. I think what Curated aims to do is to preserve the creative’s wish to “practically” dream. Curated honors the old time-tested beauty of a photograph, the human story, the lifestyle (both real and elevated) but offers a 360 degree serving platter to tell those stories in; be it a digital short, a fashion film, an Instagram take-over, a dynamic animation (GIF/Plotagraph Cinema-graph banner ad for example), a live-action/broadcast piece, or a gaming solution. We even create original score music for TV, short films and gaming. It’s the interplay of it all that I think separates us from the pack a bit. The goal again was to get creatives to come to the website and feel like they were having a visual experience – like a night out at the movies. I want them to want to use the imagery for their comps and “imagine” again.
PB: What do you love about the industry?
JS: I love the people. Plain and simple. I love the art of a good conversation that leads to helping someone solve a visual or communication problem. I love helping an artist craft their vision and grow as a result of doing the hard work. I love hearing a part of other people’s symphonies as I create one of my own.
This industry is full of some of the most interesting, creative and evolved souls, and every time I get the chance to break bread with or talk to someone, my life is enriched. I feel like I grew up in advertising. Technically, I did. My work became my hobby in many cases. But I’m also happy to announce that I’m trying to teach myself the guitar—it’s good to have something to talk about other than photos, crystals and alternative healing techniques, right?
PB: What would you like to see change?
JS: I want social media photographers to get an education in usage rights and learn how to produce so if we need to compete with them in any sphere, we know that they will respect the craft of what it is to be a photographer, not pretend to be one with their iPhone. I want to create a platform for those influencer photographers to come to that helps give them a strong foundation on what to do when it’s their turn, so they don’t mess up a good thing for themselves or what I consider to be the sacred ad business space.
PB: Tell me about the roster at Curated.
JS: Curated’s roster is an assembly of all generations—from millennials to baby boomers. We have all four generational types assembled together in the group which makes for some really interesting banter among us, as the industry continues to evolve. You’ve got younger millennials teaching some of the more seasoned creators about how to leverage social influence and build authentic followings and increase engagement. You’ve got pro’s teaching the younger types about lighting and certain technical techniques or post-production/editing tricks that have enhanced their work.
Marketing conversations are always fun because you find out new things (even as an agent of 20 years) on where and how to promote across digital platforms like specialty blogs. I’ve never Vlogged before, have you? Well, my people are doing it every day in their Instagram stories and learning how to more effectively brand themselves to a larger audience in the advertising community. My people are creative forces of nature that know how to dream and get you to dream with them.
PB: How does the Curated roster fulfill the needs of the ever changing photo buying community?
I think now more than ever the photo buyer/agency producer has the most challenging and most dynamic job at the agency. In the past, especially with print, producers never worked so closely in the space of motion and animation. Many agencies are now merging production departments, so traditional still producers are becoming live-action producers charged with the task of finding photographer/directors who had an eye for how motion and animation play into the storytelling of the brands they represent. There is rarely a request for photography (RFP) that I get that doesn’t have some motion or animation component in it.
Curated’s roster is filled with accomplished photographers who have reels that far surpass what is required for integrated work. I think that there is truth in the fact that it is more difficult for a director to master the craft of photography than it is for a photographer to master the craft of storytelling as a director. Curated’s roster is proving that every day. The artists at Curated have developed stills portfolios, motion reels and dynamic content portfolios. Their portfolios are a reminder that photographers need to be multi-disciplinary and that this can not only be a creative possibility, but in some cases a cost-saving approach in a world where budgets require that flexibility. Our creators have a distinct ability to craft it all under one-roof and most times, through the adept mastery of technology, a job can be completed by one person. This is what I think separates our artists from the pack and provides value to the agency or brand searching for that key player to help tell their unique story. It doesn’t always mean we are the cheapest, but we can be scrappy when called to task and still deliver on brand, on budget and through the funnel of the Curated Artist chosen for the task.
To learn more about Joe and Curated Artists, have a look at www.curatedartists.com