Getty Images chief executive Jonathan Klein arrives for our interview fresh from the 2002 Picture Editors’ Awards the night before, where his company provided the title sponsorship. Tony Blair was also there – to hand out the gongs – and Klein is keen to relate what the Prime Minister told the assembled throng. ‘”The first thing I learnt as a politician”, Blair said, “was the power of the still image”.’ Klein seems pleased with the spin that puts on his business.
Most empire-builders start small and think big and Klein is no exception. Together with co-founder and executive chairman Mark Getty, and more recently creative director Lewis Blackwell, he has taken the picture library from zero to hero in seven years (literally, in fact, as ‘Heroes’ is the name of Getty Images’ latest catalogue).
‘Mark and I began in an office this size, just the two of us,’ says Klein, gesturing around the pristine, 15m2, glass-walled meeting room at the company’s London studio. That may be true but Getty Images is hardly the sort of business that sets up in a garage. Both men were formerly investment bankers in the City, while Getty is part of the billionaire oil family. What Klein describes as a ‘modest start’ financially involved pooling ‘various Getty trusts’ and securing blue-chip backing worth £15m.
Most of the capital was used to buy Tony Stone Images in 1995. With the business up and running, Klein pursued a remarkable acquisition strategy – expressly to consolidate a fragmented market.
‘Between March 1995 and March 2000, we made about 30 acquisitions – from small, 1000-picture libraries to our biggest competitor Visual Communications, which cost us $220m (£142m). The thinking was to bring together the best of each category: the best brands, the best collections and the best distribution,’ he says.
When Klein repeats his corporate strapline, ‘The world’s leading images’, he has wire services like Reuters and Associated Press in his sights. But, more significantly from a design point of view, the company is remaking stock photography in its own image.
As well as managing brands such as Stone, FPG, The Image Bank and PhotoDisc, Getty Images – headquartered in Seattle – wants to be perceived as a tastemaker and claims to be the first picture library to art-direct its stock.
‘We don’t see ourselves as passive providers of raw material but creative partners and visually literate commentators on the visual landscape,’ says Klein.
A creative research team under Lewis Blackwell in London monitors how images are used across magazines, advertising and graphic design around the world, as well as studying what Getty Images customers are buying and why. Publications such as Soon: Brands of Tomorrow (Review, DW 28 March) are evidence of the company’s penchant for punditry. But this data has a hard commercial edge.
‘Remember, our business is purely predictive. If someone calls and says they want a certain image and we don’t have it, we don’t go out and shoot it for them like an assignment, so our sales opportunity is lost,’ Klein observes.
Like assignment photographers, however, Getty staff brainstorm ideas for shoots and stay ‘ahead of the curve’ by developing collections for different communities. Among the trends now being mapped are the rise of the Hispanic population in the US, the power of the 40-plus market (‘people such as Madonna and George Clooney’) and, of course, Heroes, which speaks to the ‘dignity of the individual’, he says.
The Internet has revolutionised the picture library business and Klein’s website serves up 70 million images a day, generating $1m (£650 000) in revenue. On-line delivery has been good for both customers and his business margins, though Klein maintains quality catalogues are vital to impress ‘print fanatics’ like designers.
Born in Johannesburg and educated in England, Klein is every inch the jet-setting businessman. It’s therefore something of a surprise that he declares himself a West Ham football fan. ‘I saw Tony Cottee’s first game when he was 19 and barely missed a match for 20 years,’ he says.
These days, Seattle’s outdoor lifestyle appeals to him. ‘My three sons keep me running around,’ he laughs. ‘[But] I miss the English sense of humour and irreverence. The West Coast is pretty buttoned-up.’
Klein also enjoys the theatre. ‘There’s this whole scatological thing in New York – all to do with bodily functions,’ he tells me, his South African accent growing more apparent the more he relaxes. ‘The last play I saw was “Urinetown”, a fantastic parody, taking-the-piss musical.’
Klein relishes an alternative career on the stage. But what’s the next act for the visual content industry? ‘It will continue to grow by 5 or 6 per cent a year in normal conditions. I see 100 per cent on-line business and two or three global players – the Web lends itself to aggregation,’ he says.
And Klein certainly regards Getty Images as the Amazon.com of the piece, not least for the way it democratises access. The average licensed picture costs $500 (£323).
‘Technology is opening new markets. Fifteen years ago – before desktop publishing really got going and the cost of full colour became very cheap – only the biggest marketing spends could produce a colour annual report. Now, the local hairdresser can afford a colour brochure and get a damn good picture from Getty Images within their budget,’ he says.
So forget big-shot brand campaigns. I, for one, will know Getty imagery has conquered the world when it crops up in publicity for the Kut Klose salon in Camberwell.
Jonathan Klein’s CV
Education: studied law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Career:1983-93 Hambros Bank 1993 co-founded Getty Investments with Mark Getty 1995 Getty Images created with acquisition of Tony Stone Images – Klein, chief executive; Getty, executive chairman