Q&A: Mary Dail of Big Leo Productions
November 8, 2017
There’s a tendency to describe photography as an “ever-changing landscape.” Sure, it seems a bit contrived at this point, but really, the medium is constantly evolving. I had the great fortune of being mentored early in my career by the legendary Harry Benson, portrait photographer of the Beatles, every U.S. President from Eisenhower to Trump, the civil rights movement, Muhammad Ali, Kings, Queens and so many other prolific figures. I learned so much about his journey from Fleet Street in London to LIFE magazine. I learned about the challenges he faced and how he navigated running a photography business.
I compared a lot of the twists and turns in my career to his, and I believe that, just as we feel things are changing, he and his peers did too. When asked today if he has any advice about becoming a photographer, he has the quick quip, “Go buy a guitar.” Well, perhaps the music industry is not the greatest these days either, but we get the point.
That said, I had the opportunity to talk with the photo editor-turned-artist representative extraordinaire Mary Dail of Big Leo Productions (and also my personal rep) to get her take on the state of the industry.
Ian Spanier: Tell us a bit about who you are, your work history and how/when you came to form Big Leo Productions?
Mary Dail: I am the owner and creative director of Big Leo Productions (BLP), an artist management and production company based in Brooklyn, New York. I started BLP in 2003 after working for three years as a photography editor at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) and then two years as an agent/producer with other artist management agencies. Working at a company like MSLO was a unique experience because of its groundbreaking “omnimedia” brand approach, which spanned editorial, marketing, retail, catalog, web, and television. As a photography editor, I found myself strongly advocating for photographer’s rights and, on my own time, helping artists edit portfolios and create marketing strategies. I also participated in many panel discussions and portfolio reviews.
As a “buyer,” I felt it was important to use my knowledge to help up-and-coming (and even some veteran) photographers keep their work fresh. That’s so important to stay relevant and to market effectively, especially since many were marketing to me at the time. When the time came to make the switch to becoming an agent, it seemed like something I had already laid the groundwork for.
IS: You currently manage a large group of photographers/directors, prop and food stylists as well as hair & makeup artists. Tell us a little about your support staff and how you all work together.
MD: Our roster wasn’t always this large. I started with just a handful of photographers with a much broader specialty. Even though I had come from a “shelter” magazine specializing in, just as the name implies, “living,” BLP started with food, but also kids, lifestyle, and fashion. At that time, I handled everything myself and produced a lot of our jobs which the smaller roster and time afforded.
About a year or so in I was asked by an ex-MSL prop stylist to help negotiate a freelance catalog contract and we immediately started working together. Our stylist division was born from that and it grew quickly to include food styling and set design. I enlisted the help of a very creative friend and neighbor, Willie Mullins, who came on initially as an office associate focused on billing—one of the most important aspects of our agency (everyone needs to get paid)! Willie and I, along with several producers, agents, in-house designers and office associates along the way, have grown the agency to what it is today. We shed the genres that we didn’t feel really suited our passions or expertise.
Willie, who has been with the agency for over 13 years, now handles our entire styling division. We have become very driven by the type of photography that started my career. We represent photographers and stylists who specialize in food and lifestyle, interiors and design, health, fitness and wellness and beauty, and we try to exemplify the highest standard of elevated living within our work. In the past couple of years, we’ve really hit our sweet spot in terms of the size of our roster. We still have a very boutique approach both with the artists and with our clients, but we are collectively quite a force.
In addition to myself and Willie, we recently started working with Kimberley Sirisalee as a lead photography agent. She is integral in helping to manage and market our photography division. The agency as a whole benefits from the support of Sara Feinstein, our social media and project manager. Sara, like Willie years before her, also started as an office associate and quickly demonstrated an interest in managing our marketing assets, social and digital, as well as printed promotional pieces. I firmly believe in promoting from within, because I think hard work, passion and a willingness to learn should pay off.
I am also extremely loyal. I recently rehired an agent who had left BLP for another great opportunity. When she mentioned that she was out of employment, I asked her to rejoin our team and she is now working closely with me in a new business development role.
And finally, two of our other team members, our bookkeeper Sita and a new office administrator, Audrey, work remotely, one from Maine and one from North Carolina. To that point, Big Leo boasts three locations, a generous product of our new-world communication technologies. Willie is based in Seattle and, just last year, I opened an office in Richmond, Virginia—a cool city and definitely one of the “next” East Coast creative meccas.
We have found that not being tied to just one location has really opened up our prospective market outreach and encouraged more travel. Our clients really are nationwide and we try to visit them in person as often as we can. Except on the occasions that we can all come together in New York, which is more often than you’d think, we have internal meetings via Google Hangout or our conference line and use FaceTime regularly as well. It’s a new world!
I’ll say this, too, because it is very important to me: Allowing our team members to thrive while moving toward their own personal quality of life goals means more focused and meaningful work hours. It’s an exercise in efficiency. I’ve had jobs where I had to clock in, park my a** in a chair from 9 to 6 and work ineffectively to create something meaningful. Despite being on the business side of the creative industry, we still crave inspiration and connection. That can’t happen stuck in an office all the time. I had a really generous and inspiring boss at Martha Stewart, and I always knew I wanted to give that back.
IS: How has the business changed for you as a rep? And as a result, what has changed in the way that you work with your clients?
MD: Well, for us, it has changed and yet it has not. I’m not revealing anything new by saying that budgets are certainly tighter. We are doing more with less but, to some extent, more frequently. And, with a lot less lead time.
We’re also working more with clients directly. Ad agencies have much more stringent production schedules which are valuable for us to know during the bidding process, but are also a godsend once the job is awarded. Plus, the industry grossly undervalues great art producers. When that role is decidedly absent, it puts more responsibility on our team, which is often uncompensated. We are also doing a lot more pitching.
Because we have always been a very approachable group, educating some of our newer clients on how we work (and how the industry works), comes rather naturally. As such, I think we’ve tried really hard to make sure that our artists and our agency are appropriately compensated for creative development and production where it’s necessary and relevant, in spite of what I said earlier about tighter budgets. There are some clients who think that these elements are just part of the package, but they’re not. It helps us to be able to offer an entire creative team from art direction and photography, to prop styling and/or food styling and production. It’s not uncommon that we have three BLP artists working together on a shoot, creating the entire concept and executing it together. The “team packaging” is a huge appeal to clients. They put their trust in our ability to orchestrate an entire shoot using the team we know is perfect for the project.
IS: What does BLP do to stay relevant in the ever-changing landscape of the commercial photography business?
MD: We’ve always embraced change. I think it’s more important than ever to be malleable. We have always looked forward to whatever, “the next thing” is, so that has helped us adapt quickly to industry shifts, changing media and technology. So, we’re out there doing that social media thing, sharing our work and engaging with brands.
That said, we also recognize that we are an inundated society. Inundated by images, media, messages, choices, etc. Right now, I think what’s old is new. In person meetings, connecting with people on a human level, showing the people behind the work. To me, that will always be relevant. Outside of work, we really encourage a social community between our artists. This mutual support helps us all maintain perspective and lift each other up to new discoveries within our industry. We love all our friends in the traditional marketing outlets such as At Edge, BLVD, Workbook, and more, especially those who are providing the in-person experience via reviews and meet and greets, but we do not mandate any one over the other. We relish traveling for the Big Leo agency portfolio reviews, where we get to meet multiple creatives within one agency and really dive into what they are working on.
IS: How did you curate the group of artists under the BLP umbrella? How do you collaborate with your artists?
MD: As I mentioned above, we’ve worked really hard over the years to bring our core focus back to where our passion and expertise lie—home, food, health, beauty—and we curate our roster based on artists who fall uniquely within that specialty and who are at the top of their game, both in talent and humanity. We strive to help our artists develop and maintain a strong personal brand identity and marketing plan of their own both via their websites and their targeted printed pieces. We often collaborate on projects with our artists when we are pitching a specific client and we encourage shooting personal projects as much as possible. Well-conceived, these personal projects often generate more client interest than a folio of commission work since they truly show off an artist’s perspective, vision and range.
I follow “The Art of the Personal Project” by Suzanne Sease on Rob Haggart’s aPhotoEditor. I’m in awe of how our artists see their craft outside of the commercial realm. Recently I launched an inter-agency project that I have been trying to get off the ground for years called The Zodiac Anthology. Creating content for test shoots or personal work can be daunting., so we thought the idea of working within a very popular, but highly interpretive subject like the Zodiac could provide a wealth of inspiration for our artists. And it just happens to fit the brand identity we’ve built: Big Leo Productions, The Den, Pride Creative, you see where I’m headed with this… Everyone has a sign. We decide to pay attention to or to follow what that means or it means nothing to us as at all. Still, there is a long historical precedent of interpreting the signs in art, in politics, and even in science. We were excited by an opportunity to explore that visually.
IS: What do you look for when it comes to photographers and artists? Maybe some advice for those seeking representation?
MD: Knowledge of self, realistic goals and a desire for true partnership. I think it goes without saying that no agent wants a photographer who has a passive approach to their business, desires to figuratively leave their career on your desk and say, “let’s see what you can do for me”. The agent/artist dynamic is a real relationship. It takes time and patience, it takes nurturing and focus, and it takes an enormous amount of personal perspective. Talent will always be the first point of entry for us, but we’re looking for marketable work that is relevant and that we are passionate about promoting. Almost equally important is the artist’s attitude, not only toward the business, but toward their work, how they handle competition and setbacks, how they communicate their goals and overcome challenges—it all contributes to our desire to invest in their career.
IS: Finally, what’s the future hold for BLP?
MD: We consider ourselves an evolving entity. We are excited about new opportunities and embrace the changing landscape of our industry. It all comes back to that “being malleable” thing. We want to stay one step ahead of even ourselves, never becoming complacent or settling for the status quo. And, of course, we’ll continue to develop our agency’s creative project The Zodiac Anthology. I see such great potential there.
Much like our earlier thoughts, the key to change involves being open to change ourselves—whether you’re an artist or rep, art buyer or stylist. No matter what the future holds, focusing on goals and keeping a finger on the pulse of the industry will keep us all grounded despite whatever is thrown our way.