03 Dec 2015 Cavan Images
In 2011 I came across a stock photo company called Cavan Images. They had an interesting business model at the time: doing buy-outs of images and shoots from photographers. But what was more memorable was their images. I really loved them. There was a naturalness about them that I hadn’t seen in stock. The style was consistent and super current, and every image was stunning.
I downloaded as many preview images as I could and made an album of them on my phone. I reviewed them regularly over the years, trying to understand and learn what it was about them that made them so appealing.
Fast forward a few years to 2015. I get an inquiry about some consulting work. I quickly Google the contact and it’s Corbin Day, from 77 Ventures. Then I spot on his LinkedIn profile that he’s co-founder of none other than Cavan Images!
I do my best to minimise the gushing in my reply, and a week later I’m shaking his hand at the Cavan studio in New York. [In case that was too subtle, disclosure: I’m working with Cavan]
The Cavan Story
The way Cavan came to be is not the typical story. It isn’t about a photographer being given a classic camera as a young child. It isn’t senior executives from agencies leaving to start their own production studio. It’s much more interesting than that.
Peter Hannert, Co-founder and CEO, was previously an assignment photographer selling family pictures and scraps from his assignment work through Getty Images. He later left assignment photography and founded Stella Digital, a high-end retouching business. Stella served high profile clients like Rolex, Mercedes Benz, Yves Saint Laurent, as well as global brands like H&M and Gap, and worked with high-end photographers including Inez & Vinoodh and Annie Leibowitz.
While running the retouching company Peter’s monthly royalty checks from Getty continued. Corbin, who shared the office with Peter, was curious about what business kept sending regular checks so many years after doing the work and asked about it. They did some analysis and came up with a business plan to get into stock photography.
They started building a premium quality image collection that would be officially launched as Cavan Images in 2008. Initially they built the collection by hiring photographers and buying shoots outright which gave them a lot of control over the quality of the collection but was difficult to scale. By 2014, with the combination of in-house production and talented photographers, Cavan was able to reach a size they felt was strong enough to offer a meaningful rev-share program. It was then they made the switch to their current contributor model paying photographers a 50% royalty.
Premium Royalty Free
Early on, Cavan distributed exclusively through Getty Images under the re-named RM contract Peter had from his assignment days. This decision was based in the perception that RM was the market to be in for superior quality content, and they were among Getty’s top sellers.
From discussions with their contacts in New York City’s advertising world, they learned that the changing nature of image usage – where social media and content marketing accelerated the quantity of image use and shorted the time images were seen – meant exclusivity was less important, and ease of purchase was more important.
These ad agency buyers were buying premium imagery, but less and less RM. They wanted Premium quality with an RF license, or “PRF”. So that’s where Peter and Corbin decided to take Cavan.
The timing worked out well as Shutterstock was just launching Offset, exposing Cavan’s collection to the hundreds of thousands of paying Shutterstock subscribers. While microstock and premium are different ends of the quality spectrum, most premium buyers also have a subscription with Shutterstock for the ‘other’ images they need. A Shutterstock subscription costs less than a single full-res license at Offset, so it’s an easy decision for those buyers.
Once the images were removed from Getty and with new partners, Cavan’s revenue and RPI rose considerably & immediately. Today, they distribute through 9 PRF agencies, and have recently launched their own direct sales website to serve the buyers who were already coming to them directly.
“You’re Saving My Marriage”
At the PRF level the value proposition for buyers is reversed from what it is in microstock.
Most creative directors spend an inordinate amount of time searching the vast pool of mid-quality images for something specific, compelling & high quality. Rather than wanting millions of images to cover all conceivable subjects and styles, they want a tightly curated collection to save them time in finding the images they need. They’re time-sensitive rather than price-sensitive.
So the value is in the curation. Cavan has very high technical, aesthetic and commercial standards, which you can see clearly when browsing their images. This is what time-sensitive buyers seek.
This has proven to be a very valuable point for customers buying at this level. One art buyer contacted Cavan to express his gratitude for their collection, stating that Cavan was literally saving his marriage. He had been working 80-hour weeks, spending a large portion of his time combing through stock photo collections in search of high quality lifestyle images. Once he discovered Cavan he was able to significantly cut down his time spent searching – by over 8 hours each week – allowing him to get home in time for dinner with his wife and daughter.
Peter and Corbin share this story with almost everyone they meet. They feel it embodies who they are as a business. They’re not interested in being everything for everyone like so many agencies. They’re driven by the premium quality of their content and marketing it to those who are happy to pay for it.
Cavan for Contributors
By design, Cavan has a relatively small quantity of contributors. As you can imagine, the quality bar is extremely high.
Through their in-house retouching team called Lumatik, Cavan does all the post production, leaving contributors to concentrate on shooting. They also do all the keywording and distribution. So photographers can literally upload the memory card from the camera and immediately focus on their next shoot.
It’s image exclusive, so their contributors do dedicated shoots just for them. They provide a lot of art direction and guidance so photographers can shoot what’s in demand and in a style that works at the PRF level.
Because the bulk of their sales come via third-party distributors, they can’t promote the wholly owned portion of the collection above contributed images. This is key because it means Cavan has skin in the game just like their contributors, leading to them pushing the entire collection harder, negotiating better distribution deals, and fiercely protecting the brand.
Cavan doesn’t count many career stock photographers among its contributors. As you can see from the style, the images are not stocky at all, yet sit closer to commercial than artistic. It’s not a rule, but stock photographers need to shoot in a way that’s consistent with the Cavan style. If you’re a stock shooter and interested in working with Cavan, it’s better to apply with a link to your personal work rather than your stock portfolio.