Opportunity knocks

Scoopt picture agency founder Kyle MacRae talks about the early days of the venture and why he has made few fans on tabloid newspaper features desks

THE TROUBLE with any start-up, especially a dotcom start-up in a brand new media space, is that you don’t know any of the answers before you have to sell your house to find out. But you do need to know the right questions. In Scoopt’s case, these were: "Will anybody send us photos?"

"If they do, can we sell them?"

And, following a successful six-month proof-ofconcept phase: "OK, great, but is there really a scalable business here?"

That one was the killer. I’d already given up a freelance journo and technical authoring career, parked the family (ignored daily entreaties of "when will Scoopt be finished, dad?") and worked the statutory 25/8 start-up schedule for months on end.

We had "traction", whatever that means, with newspapers, magazines and broadcasters; we were fending off approaches from Silicon Valley VCs; we had massive media interest; and we were forging strategic partnerships with big players in media and mobile.

We were also selling pictures.

Not many, admittedly, but a simple extrapolation showed the potential. Ramp up from 5,000 members to five million and suddenly you’re bigger than Reuters. What we had to do was reach a mass market of cameraphone-wielding punters who would be in the right place at the right time to photograph everything that happens everywhere. To the tabloids!

But here we encountered a curious dichotomy.

While picture desks are only to happy to deal with Scoopt, the feature desks won’t touch us. You can see why. All newspapers (and broadcasters) can solicit pics from their own readership for free, so they have a vested interest in not promoting a company that tells their readers not to be such mugs. It was also apparent that they didn’t much relish us shouting publicly about how much cash they would pay for pics, so we judged it politic to shut up.

All of this pretty much ruled out a joint promotion with The Sun or a partnership with The Mirror. On a marketing budget of bugger all, we had to grow the brand through word of mouth, media coverage and partnerships instead. That’s what we’ve been doing.

When we launched Scoopt, we suspected that we would be held to account on all manner of ethical issues. Weren’t we encouraging people to run into burning buildings and oilfields for the sake of a quick snap and a buck? On the scene of an accident, would people whip out their cameraphones and take pictures before calling 999? Would Scoopt stringers stalk celebrities in supermarkets and thrust cameraphones in their faces? (Sorry, Mr Cameron.)

So it made sense to launch Scoopt as a news agency on the basis that it’s easier to defend the moral high ground when there’s a genuine news story at stake. But inevitably, and gratifyingly, celebrity material started pouring in.

After all, it’s not every day that a plane falls out of the sky, but there’s a reasonable chance of spotting a celebrity falling out of a nightclub or a dress. And celebrity material is where the money is — particularly the kind of celebrity material that Scoopt is perfectly placed to broker. You can stop paps at the door but you can’t stop the public. When a young actress happened to be arrested for drink-driving in Hawaii, it wasn’t at all surprising to get a call from a savvy New Yorker who had snapshots of the same actress getting pissed on tequila and snogging a barmaid the month before.

Photo opportunity, plus tenuous news angle, equals sales on three continents.

OK, it’s not a particularly edifying line of work but ScooptSlebs is undeniably where much of the action is. The difference is that these days we’re being more upfront about it.

So that’s pretty much where we are. Scoopt was first into this market, just three days before the terror attacks in London last summer, and the first to monetise (does that word even exist?) citizen journalism. A few Scooptalikes have since sprung up and traditional agencies are dipping tentative toes into these waters, but we’re ahead of the game.

Most importantly, we have answered that third question: there really IS a business here.

The plan is now one of rapid expansion through investment and partnerships. Any interested parties — or tabloid feature eds — please feel free to give us a call.

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