Patrick Lor, North American president of, a microstock photo agency, was reviewing its advertising campaign at the end of 2010. He was concerned that everyone in the microstock photo agency business had the same message of what they had to offer: great images, great search, great quality and millions of images at great prices.

Each company's advertising had great pictures and all were featured as full-page ads in designer magazines. The ads were so similar that one logo could be substituted for another. The problem with the beautiful ads was that they didn't say anything special about any company.

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Mr. Lor decided it was time for Fotolia to do something different – but how?


Fotolia is a microstock photography agency launched in November, 2005. Unlike other agencies, it was started by Europeans and is more international. Fotolia sells in local languages, with its largest markets being France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain, in addition to the United States. To facilitate international sales, Fotolia allows online payments with all major credit cards, PayPal and Skrill (used in more countries than PayPal).

Fotolia and other microstock photo agencies source their photos from both amateur and professional photographers via the Internet. was the first global online social marketplace for creative digital stock images, and its mission is to allow photographers and designers of all skill levels to share and monetize their artistic imagery.

Photographers upload photographs, required releases and keywords to Fotolia. Its collection also includes vector illustrations and videos. Files are reviewed by Fotolia for quality and composition prior to being accepted for inclusion on the site. When an image is purchased, the photographer is paid a royalty, which will vary depending on the type of license purchased.

Customers download photos for virtually any design project, including websites, presentations and advertisements. Customers purchase the photos by using credits (starting at 75 cents each) or by purchasing a subscription plan. The price of a photograph will depend on the rank of the photographer and type of licence use.

Fotolia more than doubled in size from 2008 to 2010. In October, 2008, it had more than 800,000 members who uploaded more than 4.2 million photographs and vector illustrations. By July, 2010, it had almost 2 million members and 9.8 million images, vector illustrations and videos.

Despite this growth, Mr. Lor was aware that the industry was highly competitive and the need to differentiate Fotolia from its competitors was crucial to maintaining its momentum.


Mr. Lor wanted Fotolia's new advertising campaign to deconstruct the façade. His team wrote a request for proposal that contained Fotolia's mission statement, background information on the business and the industry, and examples of various (boring) ad campaigns from Fotolia and its competitors.

The information was delivered to Calgary's top advertising agencies with a request to meet with their top creative minds.

MacLaren McCann came up with an unusual campaign. It was everything that Mr. Lor's company asked for: different, unique, funny and interesting.

However, there was no use of pictures, no URL, no phone number, no offer…none of the traditional elements of a good ad.

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The ad immediately split the Fotolia team. Half of them loved it and the other half hated it.

Among those who loved it were comments like it was unlike anything they had ever seen; reminded them of an avant garde French poster (reflecting Fotolia's European presence); and offered a great message with likeable copy.

Among those who hated it were comments like it was too hard to read, the humour couldn't be understood or wasn't funny, people would not have the patience to read it, and it used crude language.


Mr. Lor made the bold decision to take a chance and run with the campaign.

He's unsure whether or not it worked from the standpoint of return on investment – there's actually a raging debate in the industry about the effectiveness of print advertising.

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The ad campaign did win the acclaimed Silver Pencil Award at the One Show Design Awards.

In addition, it has won Fotolia praise among top designers, creative directors and typographers – its key target market.

Furthermore, Fotolia's site currently has grown to more than 15 million images and over 2.8 million members.

Mr. Lor is sure the campaign was effective at one thing – jolting him and the rest of the Fotolia team out of complacency. They have stopped automatically doing what everyone else in the industry is doing.

That holds an important lesson for all businesses, especially those whose customers are creative: Never forget to be creative and innovative.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Sandra Martin-Malach is a professor of entrepreneurship in the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.

This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.

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