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Where have all the art buyers gone?

You’d be forgiven for wondering what an art buyer is. They are, it would seem, as rare as hen’s teeth in the Middle East. Elsewhere, however, they are important players in the creation of fresh, groundbreaking and innovative campaigns.

In London, for example, the sheer volume and diversity of work is such that a person is needed within agencies whose sole function is to keep on top of new and interesting photographers, designers, illustrators and artists. There is fierce competition to use the best people, and a lot of brands – Adidas, EA Games and Diesel for example – are constantly on the lookout for something different.

In the UAE, however, you could probably count the number of dedicated agency art buyers on your fingers. Conservative clients, tighter budgets, and a feeling that art buying is not a necessity can mean the role is often dealt with on a brief-by-brief basis by creatives themselves or by an internal traffic manager.

Yet an experienced and talented art buyer can elevate the quality of any given campaign exponentially. So why do only a handful of regional agencies have art buyers?

“Because most agencies in the Middle East still suffer from a lack of understanding of production in general, let alone the role of an art buyer and the impact such a position can have on the quality of the work,” says Emilie Haddad, head of broadcast production at Impact BBDO. “[And] probably because the industry doesn’t always have artistic integrity and quality as KPIs.”

“Good question,” adds Craig Hawkes, creative services director at Leo Burnett Dubai, “and one we at Leo Burnett Dubai asked ourselves four or five years ago having had a collective experience with such a system in the rest of the world. In fact, we identified the requirement for not one but two art buyers within our agency structure, defined the role, identified the correct knowledgeable and experienced art buyers and placed them in our creative services department.

“The responsibilities we gave them were twofold. There is, of course, an important administrative role to acquire competitive quotes and coordinate the workflow of outsourced projects. As importantly, if not more so, we wanted to be more far reaching than this and we empowered them to proactively search for, manage the start-up, and maintain the partnership with good suppliers, wherever they are in the world.”

If only a handful of agencies have chosen to employ art buyers, that begs the question of whether they are important or even add value in an era dominated by procurement and the tightening of client budgets. “Perhaps because we have seen for ourselves the value that can be added by defining the role of a qualified art buyer, we feel that more importance should be placed on this function,” replies Hawkes. “It is critical to have an experienced person in a role such as this that can help elevate the work and provide value for money, especially in today’s market, both of which don’t always go hand in hand. Art buyers should be seen and given the same importance as a TV producer is given in this market, as their jobs are actually very similar.”

So what needs to change?

“At the moment quality art buying is the exception not the rule. It needs to become the rule,” asserts Haddad. “By taking quality visual communication seriously; by hiring more people expert in sourcing quality talent; by encouraging and helping local talent to understand what they are competing against.

“An agency should have a proper, fully-fledged art buying department with the right talent and eye to spot artists. The old school method of having a production house locally suggest talent is outdated, promotes bias, and at worst can damage a production. Production houses usually tend to work with people with whom they get good deals, and this is a trap an agency should not fall into. The only way to avoid this is to make informed decisions by having enough art buyers inside the agency playing that role and researching the best talent. It’s beneficial for everyone, and mainly for the work.”

Those agencies that do have art buyers, such as Leo Burnett and Impact BBDO, can then be faced with a shortage of inspirational artistic or photographic talent to draw from. They can therefore stand accused of paying insufficient attention to photographers, designers and illustrators from the region.

“There has always been a challenge finding fresh new talent, but there is a big network of talent that exists either in the UAE or abroad,” admits Sylvia Trinidade, an art buyer at Leo Burnett. “We often reach out to our colleagues in our network and take their advice and recommendations, but we also keep our eyes open to new and exciting young talent that comes to this market too.”

So where does the industry need to improve in the field of art buying? Or is it a lost cause?

“Good, cheap, fast: please pick one,” says Haddad. “Good and cheap can’t be fast; fast and good can’t be cheap; and fast and cheap can’t be good. Currently, and unfortunately, the industry focuses on cheap and fast. It is our role as an industry to change that way of thinking, and that’s a long term objective, which can be achieved with the right people in place.”

1 Comment

  • There’s no art to buy when clients are telling their agencies to use royalty-free stock images.

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