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A plate of shish kabobs rests amidst brushes, nail polish, and other tricks of the food prep trade before a product shoot at food marketing agency The Hot Plate's Toronto office.Darren Calabrese

A common knock against social media is that people simply use it to share photos of their lunch.

But in a sunny office in Toronto's east end, where a food stylist arranges peas by hand one by one on a gleaming white plate, getting the perfect shot of lunch or dinner is an art – and a lucrative one.

At food marketing agency The Hot Plate, rustic distressed wood tabletops are stacked against the wall. A prop closet is stacked with colourful plates, bowls and ramekins in all sizes. Four refrigerators are needed to keep the test kitchen running.

The agency has built a growing business out of helping clients, such as Campbell Soup Co., Nestlé Canada Inc. and ItalPasta, to produce content such as photos and recipes at a faster clip than they have needed to before.

For companies in the business of selling food, all those photos of lunch on social media are not an obnoxious trend. They are a golden opportunity: a digital culture where a kind of daily scrap-booking is cool, and where self-styled foodies see the perfect Instagram or Facebook photo of their quinoa salad as a kind of status symbol. That environment gives food marketers a way into the conversation on social media that often feels forced with other brands.

Food marketers have embraced the opportunity, producing high-resolution close-ups of doughnuts for Pinterest, zucchini fritters on Facebook, shrimp quesadillas on Twitter, and blackberry cupcakes on Instagram. By joining in on a growing culture of recipe-trading and vivid food photography, marketers are hoping to endear themselves to consumers who are more interested in playing with their food.

But it has created a challenge as well: all this content costs money. And with marketers under more pressure to control costs, the price of renting props and hiring food stylists, photographers, photo retouchers and recipe developers is a burden. And while giants such as Kraft Foods Group Inc. or Loblaw Cos. Ltd. can afford to maintain fully staffed test kitchens in-house, that is not realistic for many companies.

"We're trying to produce so much content, and we have limited resources," said Noemie Bessette, director of communications at organic food brand Nature's Path and a client of The Hot Plate.

To keep consumers interested, the company needs to be constantly refreshing the photos and recipes it posts, she explained. That's important for food companies, because recipes are a way to make consumers think about using the product more. Nature's Path wants people not just to eat its cereals at breakfast; it wants them to make Vanilla Pineapple Ice Pops with its chia, buckwheat and hemp cereal.

Welch's, another client, does not just want people to drink its juice: the brand is hoping they will use it more often during the summer to make frozen treats.

"A few years ago, it was just Facebook and our website. Now we're on Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, we have a blog – we just have many more places where we can publish things," said Erika Jubinville, PR and digital marketing specialist at Welch's. "So there's a constant need for fresh content. … When we had individual, isolated efforts, we didn't have as much control over the cost."

While she was still working as a freelance food stylist, The Hot Plate's founder, Amanda Riva, heard these complaints often.

In early 2013, she launched the agency with the idea that she could offer marketers an easier and cheaper way to manage their digital communications. It started with her and a photographer, in a 750-square-foot condo. In just over a year and a half, it has grown to a team of 24 full-time employees in a 2,500-square foot office that they have already outgrown: a second office is under construction down the hall.

The payment model is different from many ad and PR agencies: there are no time sheets, and they never work on retainer. Ms. Riva decided to sell service packages to clients at a flat fee.

"Marketing budgets are not what they were several years ago, and the clients we're working with are first in the line of fire when budgets are being slashed," Ms. Riva said. "… They don't want to feel like they're in a big commitment [with an agency] that they can't afford."

That does not just apply to companies; commodities boards and other industry marketing associations have also gotten in on the action. The U.S. Popcorn Board recently approached The Hot Plate to produce a stop-motion video, for example.

"Pinterest, for us, is getting huge," said Heather Nahatchewitz, marketing and communications director with Ontario Independent Meat Processors, which represents butchers and delis in the province. "To have professional recipe photography, it's such a bonus."

The control over costs has allowed OIMP to double the number of recipes it produces in just a year.

The group produces recipe books it distributes to members for use in their own marketing. Sharing recipes and photos on social media attracts food-savvy consumers whom the OIMP can then encourage to visit a local butcher or to consider locally-sourced meats.

"In the social space, people are there for themselves and to find out news about their friends and family," said Ms. Jubinville at Welch.

"We want to tell our story in a way that doesn't feel like we're advertising to them too much."

Food styling itself has changed dramatically, as well. The old tricks – lipstick on strawberries, motor oil to give a glossy sheen – have fallen out of vogue. Online photo-sharing has given consumers a new sense of the way food is supposed to look. The most appealing photography does not broadcast its high production values; it is more organic-looking.

"Consumers are more knowledgeable than they were, and they're looking less for that picture-perfect, nuclear family experience," Ms. Riva said.

Hitting the right tone of authenticity is critical for food brands.

"In the past, brands were kind of dictating a bit more to consumers what they should be interested in, and it was about a bigger brand message," Ms. Bessette said.

"Now, the power has shifted a lot more toward consumers. It's forcing us as brands to put much more interesting things together. There's a lot more clutter. If we want people to be interested in what we have to say, we have to be interesting."

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