Our talk with Ben Maitland-Lewis of Pretty Instant brings us to discuss how implementing photography helps leave lasting imprints and boosts consumer engagement. The full transcript for Talk Experiential episode #27 Capturing Memories to Extend Customer Engagement is followed below.

#27 Capturing Memories to Extend Customer Engagement

Ben Maitland-Lewis on episode #27 of Talk Experiential.

JOEY: Welcome back to another episode of “Talk Experiential.”  Welcome Ben Maitland-Lewis. He’s the CEO of Pretty Instant.  Thanks for joining us.


BEN: Glad to be here.  Thanks so much.


JOEY: Yeah, we’ve worked on a few projects together.  I’ve known you guys for several years, I think through YEC.  I think the first time was either at a YEC event or you guys used to go to YEC Escape, and then in Austin, we actually did some work together.  Pretty cool platform. I’d love to hear your story.


BEN: I appreciate that.  We actually have another escape coming up this weekend, so I’ll be seen in Utah.


JOEY: I’m going.


BEN: Are you really?


JOEY: Yes.


BEN: Oh nice.  Yeah, again, I get to live vicariously through all you guys by looking at the photos that come through.  So, I kind of feel like I’m able to hang out at thousands of different events throughout the year, but in reality, I’m only actually attending probably like 100 or two, but that’s great.


JOEY: Cool.


BEN: Yeah, in general, in top level, we provide a national platform for companies and brands to work with and hire professional photographers.  It’s an awesome service that allows people to do what they need to do when they need to do it and always on brand and within their time frames and budges.  But it didn’t start that way at all. It definitely started out as something that sort of came organically out of our environment. It was never that my cofounders and I woke up one day and we were like, “let’s start a photography platform.”  It literally was, we were running different companies together prior to this, predominantly in the music and entertainment space.


So we were already working with a lot of brands on a national basis, doing a lot of different tours and brand activations and things like that, just as a means of distribution for our artists or anything really, and we were doing it in the entertainment space, the liquor space, and it was a fun time.  What actually happened is that we were co-producing this really large annual event that still happens to this day in Boston, Massachusetts, and we had a big-brand sponsor at the photo booth, and we couldn’t fit the photo booth through the front door the night of that event. Like it was something that none of us had ever thought about because, like who does?  You know, who thinks, or at least back then, who is like, “Oh, I’m gonna hire a photo booth company. Can their equipment fit through the front door of the building?” but low and behold, we’re in Boston, so we’ve got very old, old buildings, and that happened. So we were kind of in triage mode, and we needed to come up with a solution very quickly that, in brief, ended up being a point-and-shoot camera with an Wi-Fi card with a laptop and a backpack held up with a PVC pipe, and then we wrote a script that would auto-duplicate the photo from one desktop folder to another desktop folder, superimpose the brand, and then sink it through to drop off to an iPad so that we could then show it to the guest and e-mail them a Dropbox link.  


So they ended up getting their picture not instantly but pretty instantly, and that’s literally where the name came from, and we saved the party, and we basically had a client before we had a product, and the rest is history.  Fast Company wrote an article about it called, “The Difference Between a Joke and a Billion-Dollar Idea is Not So Far,” and we were kind of off to the races right after that.


JOEY: Wow, that’s awesome.  It’s amazing what ideas like, and really, you get engrained to these problems that you have.  You can’t fit a photo booth in the door, so what’s the solution? What are we gonna do? That’s pretty fascinating.


BEN: It works out actually.  Prior to that, we had done some random individual photo booth builds for some experiential campaigns we were doing, but we had never thought about starting a company around it, and we’re also pretty anti-photo booth, to be honest.  So literally, for us, we created, basically, this roaming photo booth experience segment, if you will, and we really drove with that in mind.


We ditched the stationary setup on the side corner and pulling all of your guests out of their organic experience to go have to stand in front of a booth and engage with a screen and hang out with these little plastic props.  There’s a time and a place for that, but for us, it was all about turning an entire event into a photo booth and being able to organically cruise around with a professional photographer to really catch these awesome happy snaps and be able to instantly brand them and share them organically through the guest’s social channel without them having to log in or touch the screen or whatever, and now it’s gone so much farther where we can collect consumer data on it for the CRMs.  We can accelerate share-to-win programs. We can push the jumbotrons and screens and wireless printers, and we can do pop-up surveys and disclaimers, so it just becomes so much farther than that and, again, that’s really just what started the company. At this point, it’s just a division of what we ultimately do.


JOEY: Right.  Again, I’ve used you guys before, and it’s just so seamless on booking, on just trusting that you guys have the right person, but then you’re providing me exactly what we want, the photos at the end.  Let’s kind of dive in. We were talking before on this show, you guys are more than just “here’s some photos and go.” We’d love to talk through your idea of what are the next steps? How are you using these photos more for value for brands or clients or events and engaging their audience a little bit more?


BEN: Well I think one thing that’s really hyper-unique about us than all the other “marketplaces” for you to be able to hire photographers or professional talent is that we take a hands-on approach to selecting the talent and then really have a deep understanding of what that vision is from the client and being able to translate that into something that’s executable on behalf of our contractors.  So what I mean by that is any other marketplace out there, you just go in, you sort of search through a bunch of profiles. You then negotiate a rate, because all the rates are different, and it’s kind of like a dog-eat-dog mentality, and each photographer has a different time at which they edit and turn around their images, and a lot of them all have different standards. If they’re delivering 5 images and you want 10 more, it’s gonna cost you this much more, or whatever it is.  


Those were all sort of the areas in which I thought needed improvement and kind of needed updating relative to the status quo that the industry’s been in for like a hundred years.  So for us, it’s much more about let’s handle and take an end-to-end managed approach for this entire client experience. So we hand-select all the different photographers in every market.  They go through federal and state background checks. They have to pass certain levels of vetting in order to even shoot for certain verticals of photography. So just because we hired them for event doesn’t mean that they can automatically go shoot real estate or commercial products, right?


JOEY: Right.


BEN: And then our clients, we’ve built these hyper-verticalized booking forms and flows so that you can literally book an event photographer, real estate shooter, whatever it is, anywhere across the country in under two minutes because we focus on vision.  There’s, of course, like the “no knowns” like the location and start time, whatever, but then it’s more about what do you actually need? What’s the end result here? What are you trying to do with these photos? Where are they going? Do you have anything that’s already pre-existing that we can even look at as inspiration and get a gauge of what you’re trying to visualize?  And then that goes directly through. Then we place the photographers based on location, experience, equipment, and then personality.


So our platform really goes in 85% of the way there to you putting in a booking in Denver, Colorado, for this type of an event at this kind of a time.  Okay, we already know that these are the photographers in Denver that are cleared to shoot this type of an event based on their equipment, their experience, and where they are, but there’s still a human reviewing every booking in our system, and then they do the invitations based on the personality and the culture fit because just because we can send somebody out at 2 a.m. at Brooklyn Bowl or whatever, it doesn’t mean that that’s the same person you’re gonna want to send to the White House for a NASA ceremony, you know?  You have to have the culture fit, right?


JOEY: Yeah.


BEN: Or if it’s with children involved, you don’t want to send somebody that has just come off from shooting a night club the day before.  You need to know that kind of stuff, and none of the other platforms really go that way. Then in terms of photographers, they literally go in, shoot, upload, and get paid direct deposit, and they’re out of the picture.  We have global distribution of editors that are also assigned based on their verticals of photography. Within our price points, you’re already gonna get professionally edited photos within 72 hours guaranteed, but we have options for on-site, 12, 24, and 36 hours.  So again, you’re not booking shoot for events or real estate properties or portraits or headshots or ribbon-cutting ceremonies, or whatever it is, based on the availability of the photographer. We are making it happen based on the needs and the deliverables of our client.  


JOEY: Right.


BEN: So I think even by being able to capture their vision and delivering it to them within a time in which they can utilize and activate on it, they’re already getting a higher ROI on those photos than they would be if they were kind of winging it and waiting until the photographer is done, going on an Easter egg hunt around the internet trying to find those photos based on whatever link or URL it’s stored on, and then potentially having to only have access to a few of them versus none of them, and it just allows us to be able to create these programs that allow our clients to scale their photography operations versus being bold and to [inaudible 0:09:34] their local contractors that they hire.  


JOEY: Right.


BEN: I think that’s crucial.  And then obviously just delivering them the photos in a shareable manner already is huge or incorporating our roaming photo booth experience where they can instantly push it to social accounts or instantly share it with their PR and media contacts, branded or not branded, is another avenue.  So at the end of the day, having them shot is one piece of the puzzle. Actually utilizing them to your benefit to grow your communities, increase your retention of talent, maybe increase donations or investments in your situation, showing off your executive team or whatever it is, like that’s the ROI, and I think that’s really where we help at the end result.


JOEY: That’s great.  From running and experiential company and staffing, and just having the visual of not being there and showcasing it, because really you want to extend that engagement longer than just that event.  Usually that event is a very expensive piece, but how can you promote it for the next year or just get more engagement? I think it’s fascinating. Kind of going back, from your background and your core values, let’s dive into that.  What are your core values or your company and where you’re taking this?


BEN: Well I appreciate that question.  I guess at the end of the day, our core values are to really serve both our photographers and our clients to the best of our abilities as possible and create win-win scenarios for everyone first and foremost.  So for our clients, we want to be able to save them time, energy, money, aggravation, back-and-forth. We want to provide them always with the highest quality service from end-to-end. We want to give them what they need when they need it.  We’ve created national standards of pricing, process, of delivery. We’ve taken all the heavy lifting out of it, and we’re just making it super streamlined to the point where a lot of our clients are actually telling us that they’re booking more photography than they were ever before because it’s so easy, and that makes me happy because at the end of the day, especially for me, I’m coming from the music industry background for 20 years, it’s so nice to be a part of something that’s actively growing and strengthening in the industry versus just poaching from it, and that means a lot to me and my team personally.  


On the other side of it, for the “artist’s” side of it, which is our supply side, our photographers, by hand selecting the best ones out there and providing them with amazing work with epic clients that they normally wouldn’t have access to and picking up that 80% or so of the back end that they’re not naturally good at, is also a huge value to us.  As an example, photographers are really great at being photographers. They’re great at knowing the ins and outs of their camera bodies, of their lenses. They’re knowing specifically to whatever vertical it is, like how to get certain things. They’ve got the eye, right? But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve got customer service and marketing and sales and logistic skills and all this other jazz that comes with it.  The editing is probably the highest pain point for all photographers.


Then there’s customer service, then there’s invoicing, then there’s hosting, and by us handling all of that, it’s a win-win, because we get to provide our clients with the best photographers at more affordable rates than going direct because we had so much of that back end.  And if they win, if our photographers win and our clients win, and ultimately the guests the win, because depending on the service that they’re using, the guests are also receiving their photos instantly in a state of euphoria versus days later or getting their photos taken at an event and all of the sudden that photographer dips away into the abyss of the event and they’re like, “I’m never gonna see that photo again,” which I absolutely can’t stand, when they’re given a business card to go to their website so they can download it by paying something.  If not, it has some crazy watermark over it. Like all that stuff, I’m just against. You know what I mean?


At the end of the day, everybody has a really good camera in their pocket.  What they’re lacking is the eye, the ability to actually be in a photo correctly and be present to an event, and mainly, what’s more important for our clients is that our clients can’t dictate their brand or style guides if it’s a completely democratized photography industry with everybody using their cellphones.  This way, what we do, we can still dictate and create together what that national brand and style guide is gonna be, and I can give you countless examples of clients that come to us and they’re like, “We’re nonprofit, we’re giving out 405,000 winter jackets this season to underprivileged kids in inner cities. We can’t handle hiring 58 different photographers in different markets.”  Yeah dude, we can do this, and we can make it so that it’s 100% rinse and repeatable any time you need it, no problem, and a junior person on your team could help manage it, no problem. Because we’re allowing people to do what they do best and we handle the rest of it, it’s a win-win for everyone. I think that’s the ultimate philosophy, you know?


JOEY: What’s an event that you can think of that you’ve done recently that was pretty bad ass?


BEN: Oh man.


JOEY: I know that’s the hardest thing.  People ask you that all the time. I already know we do.


BEN: It’s just such an honor, honestly, to be a part of all these things.  You know what I’m saying?


JOEY: Yeah.


BEN: We recently just did a crazy welcoming ceremony type of situation down in Orlando for Aetna and CVS as part of their coming out because CVS just bought Aetna.  We’ve got that kind of a thing going on. Next week, we’ve got a three-team interactive photo experience going on at the IBM conference in San Francisco. The client I just mentioned was Operation Warm, and last year they came to us, and they had 30 events where they were doling out winter jackets to intercity kids for free.  It took them four staff members to run everything on an Excel spreadsheet. They were constantly dealing with photographers not showing up or, in this case, over 40 galleries in different locations and hosting sites, and some photographers would get their photos delivered to them in three days, some would get them delivered to them within two weeks.  


You and I come from an industry where it’s like, dude, if you don’t have photos of that event, did it ever really happen?  And these guys are constantly trying to deal with stuff, so they came to us, and not only did we save them a boatload of money for doing, we allowed them to 3X their efforts with only one person on staff, and it was on a repeatable basis ongoing, so every market, we’re going off the same type of style guide, same type of shot list.  We’ve got dedicated editors on it, so that there’s that constant kind of look and feel, and that’s why clients like Black Girls Code, as an example–another massively growing community–Entrepreneur’s Council, Forbes Council, all those guys, they all were wanting us for these national campaigns. It’s almost like even if their local reps book the events on the ground, the brand is still dictated by corporate, and that’s awesome.  


So it’s tough for me to say, which his super, super cool.  I think they’re all awesome in their own right, and that’s another great piece about being where we are is that we kind of help facilitate and help them sort of attain or accomplish their goals by being able to capture it and have this tangible asset afterwards.  


We do a lot of work with the media production houses in LA and New York, so TNT and Turner is a longstanding client of ours.  We do all their premiers and things like that, to the point where there’s celebrities like Snoop Dogg and James Corden, and all these guys know our teams when we’re on site and they love us because we’re known as the “good paparazzi.”  It’s because we’re there for them. We’re not there to capture their photos like so many photographers are and then just go push it to a tabloid and get paid. We’re there for their own enjoyment, for their own experience, for them to be able to encapsulate that night, that event, that milestone, as well as archival purposes.  There’s a lot of shoots that we do that are specifically for the corporate account that have archival photography as their growing legacy, and I’m honored to play a small role in that, you know?


JOEY: Yeah, and it’s great talking to you too.  What you’re saying is something that’s just easy, something that’s quick, but also hiring people that actually know what they’re talking about or know how to shoot, but the quickness is so key in our industry.  Just with your background too, because you come from experiential marketing, and I think you understand, and this is why you have a company like this. Where do you see this in 5, 10 years? Is it going to be more, just quicker, or where do you see your sales in a couple years?


BEN: For us, I think it’s all about access and ease of use, right?  So obviously, right now you can go and book a photographer anywhere across the country in under two minutes for many different projects.  But that’s only one side of it. I think for us it’s gonna be much more around strategic partnerships and aligning ourselves to be able to include us in different buyer journeys and be able to add these things on, almost like a natural component to your everyday life, almost like allowing us to capture it and share it for you instead of you constantly out there with a selfie stick or trying to tap into your guests Instagram feed.  So I would rather it be a situation where you’re gonna go sell your house on Zillow and you pull up your Zillow account to create that situation, and there’s a button there that just says “Shoot this property,” and boom, we went in, we make it happen, and, Bob’s your uncle and you’re selling your house for higher than the market rate because you’re getting pro photos instead of using your little cellphone.


Same with events.  We’re going into some really cool, strategic partnerships with some really awesome brands, and I’m all about that.  I love that side of it because we’re helping them do their job better and more effectively. At the same time, we’re able to provide great work to great photographers on a national basis.  So, for me, I guess it would be global, like I would love to be able to go global, and I would love to be able to do it with a great partner or partners that allow us to be at the forefront of constantly pushing access to great photographers, drone pilots, videographers, basically just helping people be their outsourced content creative department really, and doing that scale in really cool ways.


JOEY: That’s great.  These partnerships, I think, are so key.  I think you guys have something really special, and we’re excited to continue using you guys here in the future.  Hopefully we can meet in the near future as well as have you on another podcast. I really appreciate you joining us today.


BEN: Yeah 100% and thank you.  I think the key takeaway here for anybody that’s listening to this is that the most important thing you can do, specifically within the experiential marketing, which is what we do, is to provide people with a really unforgettable experience, almost pull them out of their daily norm and give them something that they can absolutely remember on a visceral level, and that may or may not be to do with a brand, or foundation, a profit, or like a purpose or something like that, but that’s the whole point.  And what we have learned by doing this for four or five years or whatever and thousands and thousands of events, with over 2,000 clients, is that utilizing a photo experience, an interactive photo experience or just even great photography to help sell your brand and share that story, is absolutely crucial.


If you’re incorporating, let’s say our roaming photo booth experience and any lessons around that, in an organic manner where there’s still a human touch, you are gonna go farther and succeed farther as a brand because if there’s a human element to the experience and they’re not just interacting with the screen, which so many people are sort of doing these days for the hell of it–and virtual reality is a totally different situation, and I am a huge fan of that, and that is very different where you need to engage with a screen or have one over your eyes–but if you’re doing just on-site photo activations or you’re doing big outing brand activations up in Aspen on the mountains or like where you’re at in Colorado, like there’s constantly brands that are promoting their stuff on a mountain, you know, incorporating an engaging photo experience with a professional photographer so you look dope in a cool environment is gonna enhance that share, and it’s gonna make that touchpoint way more meaningful for you in the end.  That’s where we’re happy to be.


I appreciate the time here for sure and hope that it was useful for people that are listening.  If they want to check out what we do, by all means, they can go to our site, PrettyInstant.com. Anybody can get 10% off if they use BML10 as a code or just hit me up anytime.  I’m always happy just to talk experiential, pun intended. I’ll end it there.


JOEY: Very cool.  Well thanks again. We’ll put on the show notes PrettyInstant.com, and we’ll add the promo codes for 10% off.  So thanks again, and I appreciate your time.


BEN: My pleasure, thanks so much.


JOEY: Thanks.


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