How BFA Became the Most Important Photo Agency, Period
CEO Dan Otero on Snapchat, knighting new employees & the future of digital content.
Despite only opening their doors just a little over five years ago, it simply *isn’t* an event if there isn’t a BFA photographer present. The agency has built a sterling reputation on their team’s eagle eye, their unparalleled capacity for storytelling, and sometimes—like in the case of the Met Gala—because they’re literally the only photographers in the room. As CEO Dan Otero puts it, they’ve gotten the biggest brands in the world to tell them, “Go do your thing, we trust you.” But how? As Otero and the team welcomed us into their office-slash-headquarters-slash-studio space (complete with massive black and white prints of Rihanna and Iggy Pop welcoming you inside), we learned all about how they get *those* shots—head to their site after reading this and you’ll see precisely what we mean. That is, if you haven’t already.
How he found himself at BFA:
“For 10 years, I ran a business management firm here in New York City, and the opportunity presented itself for me to move on and to be part of BFA. It’s been almost two years, or coming up on that. The business management firm was bringing new fashion brands primarily to market—understanding that space, but having dabbled in other industries as well, prepared me to jump on board as CEO for these guys.”
What being CEO at a company like BFA means to him:
“BFA had an impeccable reputation, and so in conversations that led to me jumping on board, the reality was that the founding partners had the insight to understand that they needed a central point of leadership. I was honored and lucky to be tapped for that. [At the time it was] four incredibly talented, creative photographers running around the globe shooting; it was obviously difficult for them to further build out what they’ve done.”
How BFA is constantly innovating (& how they became such a big deal in the first place):
“It’s not just about photography, it’s about storytelling. That takes video, that takes social, that takes so many different moving pieces these days. The businesses, brands, and organizations that we work with are needing that more and more. Now we have these different departments that are carved out from partnerships, to social, photo, video, Air, which is our drone program, all the way through to weddings, which we do, too.”
Why reputation is everything:
“We’re lucky to work with some of the biggest luxury brands and shoot very high-profile individuals who trust us with protecting the subject matter. We’re only as good as the last job that we did, and the quality is everything to us. In our opinion, it’s what separates BFA.
“Being honored with, and being tapped to be the only agency allowed inside the MET is a huge undertaking. The CFDA Awards have the same type of prestige, where we’re their trusted partner in terms of media and content that we’re producing with them. It’s something that we hold near and dear to our hearts.”
...and access, too:
“One thing that we really pride ourselves on, and we work very hard to maintain, is our level of access. Having the unprecedented access that we have and being able to have the trust of the brands for us to go and tell a story [is important]. Being able to give our team that access results in a really compelling, interesting, and not cookie-cutter type of storytelling experience, and I think that’s what brands really want and need to see. We’re obviously given brand guidelines that we need to follow in certain circumstances and in some cases we’re told, ‘Go do your thing, we trust you.’”
What a not-so-average day looks like for him:
“I’m an early riser, so my alarm usually goes off around 5:30AM. I religiously box every morning for an hour to two hours. I can honestly tell you that from the minute I wake up, it’s game time. Working out is usually followed by a breakfast meeting. Then I try to carve out a solid two hours after breakfast to put my head down and just sign off. I usually put my headphones in, but it’s not plugged into anything, and everyone knows that’s my ‘Do not disturb.’ Then it’s usually off to a lunch meeting, and then the afternoon is generally filled with back-to-back meetings. I usually end up back at my desk wrapping the day up, then most likely a dinner meeting, wind down, and generally speaking, if there’s an event and/or a dinner, I’ll go, and then in bed by midnight.”
What the culture at BFA is like:
“I think that the most important thing is living a very healthy work-life balance. I try to push that ethos through the team, because this is the type of world and environment that’s 24/7, and you can burn out very fast. Whether you’re a core team member that’s part of the day-to-day team, or you’re one of our photographers or videographers that are running around and doing edits until 5, 6 in the morning to get it up by 8 AM.
“It’s also incredibly important for everyone that’s on board the ship to be in a very focused, balanced mind-set in order to accomplish what it is that we need to do. The ship only runs as well as its crew.”
His workday essentials:
“For me, it’s a notebook, pen and paper. My sanity is based on how clean my desk is. You can always judge where I’m at based on the state of my affairs on my desk. App wise, I’m constantly scouring news from BBC, US Weekly, New York Times. From a social perspective, to do what we’re doing here, you need to be constantly informed on where everything is going and what’s happening.
“My phone is a nightmare; it’s actually the complete opposite of my desk. I’m a big phone person still, so texting and Slack, all these things that we now use are imperative to running a smooth operation. That being said, there’s nothing like picking up the phone and hearing the tone of someone’s voice. That’s how you really get your ‘What’s happening.’”
Why he’s so focused on the details:
“There are so many moving pieces to any business. I put it on the wall: ‘Success is in the details,’ and that’s an important part of everything that we do. From entering the right caption and metadata, straight through to making sure that we’re servicing our clients in the right way—capturing and documenting a moment is half the battle, in my opinion. For us, we’re there to serve the client. We’re not there to go in and monetize a moment. We’re there to protect the ROI and the integrity of what it is we’re doing. From the minute the phone rings and someone wants to book us, every little detail matters and counts. We all drive that home in upper management to the team and we’re lucky to have an incredible team who, at the same time, pushes us.”
What it takes to shoot for BFA:
“We take a great deal of pride in how we train, and how we bring our photographers and videographers up into the ranks. They all have to be editors first, and then after that they shadow partners and seniors. Then, after doing a couple ‘coverages,’ they are brought in and knighted. Then they go through a pretty grueling process of two full-day working sessions, and to even be considered for that, they have to write an hour examination. By the time they get through, they’re junior associates. Then they write an exam every tier up.”
His advice for anyone aspiring to manage a creative business:
“It boils down to patience. You need to have the patience to understand the creative, and you need to have the patience to understand the business. We live in such a fast-paced world, that innately, we do things faster than we really should. Understand before you act. I don’t think there’s enough patience in the world.”
What’s next for the company:
“Historically, BFA’s been a photo agency. I think that more and more, we’re looking at ourselves as a media company. I think that we are a one-stop shop for content creation, for storytelling. Content is being consumed so ferociously these days, and you need cost effective, high-quality solutions. We are focused on providing that.”