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'My first boss taught me the illustrative and commercial value of images'

My First Boss: The people who helped shape business leaders

Watch: SmartFrame CCO on his image mentor and leadership

With nearly 30 years in the image licensing industry, having held senior positions at Alamy and Getty Images, Alan Capel has been a driving force behind innovative commercial strategies and the transition from analogue to digital image standards.

Capel's journey began as a picture researcher at Tony Stone Images. He spent over two decades at Alamy, collaborating with more than 40,000 photographers and 600 picture agencies, before joining SmartFrame, the image-streaming network, in 2023.

The first office I joined was in Swiss Cottage, a converted house with a family feel to it. You knew everyone at Tony Stone Images after a week. The company felt small with around 40 staff, but it was an impressively growing international business.

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There were a lot of fundamentals that Tony would constantly repeat; whether it was intentional, as a mantra to make it sink in, or because he was so driven and clear. He was an extraordinary, visionary guy.

Read More: My first boss: James Brown, Loaded magazine founder

Digitisation had yet to come to the fore. Back then it was about finding a targeted group of images that would sell multiple times. We had the Dupe Master Collection (DMC), a wall of boxed images that we would search from and Tony worked closely with his creative team to select the right categories and situations.

I started as a picture researcher and then worked on the library’s keywording taxonomy approach in the mid 90s, before Tony sold the company to Getty Images.

 Alan Capel has navigated the photography industry through a profound digital transformation. Photo: SmartFrame
Alan Capel has navigated the photography industry through a profound digital transformation. Photo: SmartFrame

One of the biggest things Tony instilled in me was an image having an illustrative value.

If you have a picture of two lions looking at each other, for me that’s a picture of lions and perhaps the Serengeti. If you want an image of confrontation and the superpowers of the world facing each other that's also a fantastic conceptual picture for clients. Tony was always about concepts, following trends and times and he really emphasised the value in an image.

Tony understood the commercial and aesthetic value. Put those two things together and you've got a very powerful combination. That's the key thing I learned from him – that you've got to have an eye on both sides.

Read More: My first boss: Hannah Lewis, AMEX UK country manager

There's a lot of fear today around authenticity with some of the work that we do making sure images are protected. With 2.5 billion images stolen every day, there are a lot of challenges for people trying to make revenue from images commercially.

At SmartFrame we are looking at a new approach to display, distribute and monetise imagery online. Previously as a publisher you would pay a photo agency to use that image. We will provide imagery, say free of charge, and we all benefit from an ad-funded model, one where when images are seen, you can swap it out for an advert.

Lions fight for leadership. Battle of the Males.
Lions fight for leadership - an example highlighted by Alan Capel. Photo: Getty Images (Evgeniy Baranov)

The stock photo industry is worth around $4bn, while the in image advertising market is due to be worth $376bn by 2027.

SmartFrame may be disrupting the industry but we're going to be supplying a solution for content creators, publishers and advertisers. If anything we have the opportunity to save it, bringing in a completely new revenue stream and customers embracing it.

Read More: My first boss: Kyle Whitehill, CEO of Avanti Communications

I have learned a lot over the years about when to be quiet and listen, hear the ideas of others and when to also employ people, where you feel personally you might have a gap and think ‘I could spend years getting up to speed or I can employ a fantastically bright person who could come in and do that job.’

So strategy is super important. And as a leader you have to have trust in the excellent people that you have within your team to deliver and also to contribute as well. You can't do it all yourself and I think leadership is about collaboration and motivation.

It has to be about fun as well, but not at the expense of professionalism or strategic thinking. Sometimes you've got to be in a serious mode or sometimes if you relax you'll get the best ideas out of the people around you.

Watch: Is it financially worth going to university?

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