Working on Media days

You may or may not be aware, but a great deal of the “Content” you see nowadays is generated on media days. Much of the time, when you read an interview with a celebrity, or see pictures of them at a certain event, using a new product, or wearing the latest apparel from a certain brand, those images, and those words were gathered on a media day. So what the hell are they, and how do they work?

The Celebrity Media Machine.

Well, here’s broadly how the celebrity machine functions. Sponsor X approaches Celebrity Y to represent their brand or product. Well, in truth, they usually approach the manager or agent of celebrity Y, but you get the idea. Assuming the celeb says yes, then they agree to pay them a certain amount per year, or for a set amount of time. There will be dozens of really exciting clauses in the contract relating to things like how often they’re supposed to mention the product, be seen wearing it, or not be seen wearing/using a competitor, but one thing pretty much all these contracts have in common is that there will be some sort of “media” commitment per year. The same goes for actors in films – they often have to agree to do some publicity stuff to help promote the film/TV show they’re in – you’re probably familiar with the image of a film star being interviewed whilst sitting in front of a poster of the film they’re starring in.

Since the time they’ve got to promote this brand or product may be limited to only one or 2 days per year, Sponsor X is keen to make the very most out of it. They tend to then call in a PR agency, or a media agency, who we’ll call Z, for convenience. This PR agency will then organise a “media day”. Essentially this is a way of bringing together the media and the celeb in an organised fashion, in one place, and at one time, and then trying to keep about about 20 plates spinning at once.

Media Days
Ben Foden at the university of Essex, Bear Grylls at CTCRM Lympstone, and Lee Westwood at Wimbledon Golf club. All shot during media days.

These days can vary hugely in format and content, of course. Sometimes the PR agency has gone to great lengths to create an atmosphere that is conducive to generating good content – the media might be able to train with the celebrity, or play a sport against them; the venue they’ve hired may offer a whole range of interesting backdrops and situations to create memorable imaging, and so on. It’s also possible that they will have hired a couple of meeting rooms in a travelodge on the edge of an industrial estate beneath the flight path of a major airport, and then forgotten to provide any catering. I have worked at events on both ends of the scale!

Getting the most from the day – from both sides.

Both the sponsor and the PR agency will be keen to get the absolute maximum exposure from this day, and their time with the celeb as possible, so the day will usually be broken up into time slots, with each representative of the media granted a slot of their own. Sometimes though, it’s just a pure scrum, although happily these are quite rare. Whilst it can be amusing for a few seconds to elbow other photographers and film crew out of the way, it doesn’t make for great imagery. The slots may also come with a specific location attached – you may not have free reign of the place, or someone may be already set up and shooting in the spot you really like the look of. Tough luck matey, should have got there earlier and bought the PR a coffee!

Media Days
An ice cave in Switzerland, the Everton training ground, and an MMA gym in the city of London. Media days don’t all have to be in Travelodges on the edge of town!

As a photographer sent to one of these days by a magazine/website/blog/newspaper, you may find your slot varies from 5 minutes to a couple of hours. Needless to say, it tends towards the former rather than the latter, so be prepared to work very quickly. My advice would be to have several ideas ready to go, and as set up as you can make them. If you’re able to build more than one setup, as I was with Rory McIlroy earlier this year, then do it! Keep in mind that unless you’re first in the queue, the celebrity may be getting a trifle tired, bored, and even frustrated by the time they get to you. They’ve likely been asked the same questions half a dozen times so far today, and stood in the same poses, so be prepared to handle them with kid gloves. Don’t be too surprised if you’re scheduled late in the day to find that your allocated 15 minutes becomes 10, then 5, then 2. The celebrity will usually be guaranteed a set time to finish, and if the people before you have overrun (and the PR hasn’t allocated any time to account for this) then you’ll find yourself squeezed.

All the skills you’ve been practising that allow you to work quickly under pressure will now come to the fore. Complaining after the event that you didn’t have much time will receive sympathy from your client, but won’t get you more work, so get good at pulling results out of the bag in a hurry. Create a long shot list before you start, get there early to scout locations, setup your shots as much as possible in advance, and shoot test images. Have backups in place – both in terms of ideas, and equipment. Be as self-sufficient as you can – the venue you’re in may not even have mains power, and certainly can’t be expected to have decent lighting. If you’re working at a crowded event, beware of other setups already in place – not just actually physically getting in their way, but less obvious things like setting off flashes using the same trigger system.

Arsenal/Citroen media day
A good team is vital if your media day is to run smoothly. Here you can see the members of “Team PPR” in their matching sports kit, and some goon on a ladder behind them.

The make-up of a day can change quite significantly if you’re there on behalf of the PR agency organising the event. If this happens, you’ll benefit from things being organised a bit more to your liking, but on the down side you’ll have a MASSIVE shopping list of images to get through on the day. The PR agency will likely be farming your imagery out to a range of different media, and their requests can vary from simple portraits, to stuff that’s much more elaborate. I’ve had days where I’ve shot for nearly 10 different “clients” in one day, and it can be quite a headache keeping track of everything. Needless to say, you’ll get off to a good start if you liaise closely with the agency ahead of the day to plan your time out. After the shoot you’ll likely also need to split images into different folders, or even provide them in different formats and resolutions. Make sure you charge accordingly!

Multipower media day
Shot in the gym at Leeds Rhinos training ground. I was the only snapper on the day, and we generated a HUGE amount of content – including this opener for a feature in Men’s Fitness

If you’re working as a professional in the PR, editorial or commercial world, you’re certain to encounter a media day sooner rather than later. As long as you’re prepared to work quickly, and don’t expect to be the centre of attention, you’ll do fine. Actually, that’s pretty good advice for any shoot – I shall go and have that tattooed across my forehead so I don’t forget it!


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