Jonathan Klein: Under Getty's Images: Brand Values and Leadership Principles

Jonathan Klein is co-founder and CEO of Getty Images, the world’s leading imagery company, creating and providing the largest collection of still and moving images to communication professionals around the globe. Getty Images’ products can be viewed (and purchased) at their extraordinary website ( and can be found every day in newspapers, magazines, film, television, and other media.

Klein was born in South Africa in 1960 to a Jewish family that had left Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s. He was educated in law at Cambridge University but chose a career in business. Klein’s friendship with Mark Getty led the two of them to co-found Getty Investments in 1993 and then Getty Images in 1995. Mark Getty serves as executive chairman of Getty Images. Based in Seattle, Washington, Jonathan Klein serves as president and chief executive officer.

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Ethix: What led you to build a company focused on images?

Jonathan Klein: The choice of images was pure luck. A guy who worked for me in the media practice at Hambros Bank in London knew that Mark Getty and I were looking for the right business. He told us about a stock photography business that he had a mandate to sell. We didn’t even know what stock photography was! We looked at the business and became obsessed by the industry, even though we did not buy that company.

Mark and I both wanted to build a business over the long term. Normally investors follow a diversification strategy and make many investments, knowing that many of them will fail, some will be average, and one or two may turn out to be winners. They also never invest without an exit strategy.

This approach – the classic venture capital model – was not for us. We wanted to focus our intellectual and capital resources in one place and become the experts in that industry. That sort of expertise gives advantages which you cannot easily acquire. It also takes time and a focus on the long term. It also requires operating and managing the business. Another key thing was that we wanted to have fun. We decided that if we were going to devote the rest of our productive business lives to one thing, it better not be ball bearings, picture frames, upholstery, or wood chips. It had to be something we could get enthused about. Pictures fit the bill perfectly.

Your literature says that at Getty Images you have a “passion for pictures.” It seems that this is an acquired passion.

Absolutely. I didn’t decide on day one that I wanted to get into the picture business. Since I was running the media part of the bank, I knew about media and intellectual property and content and was advising companies on these matters. I was always very interested in photography. Since I was a kid, given a choice, I would go and look at photography rather than at paintings. But in recent years it has got into my DNA.

A Mission-Driven, Values-Centered Company

James Collins and Jerry Porras, in Built to Last, argue that if you want an enduring, successful company it must aggressively preserve its core mission and values—and that this must include more than a simple quest for profits. What mission and values are at the core of Getty Images?

Collins and Porras are absolutely right. We never set out to build a company to some day have revenues at a certain target level. Size was not one of our objectives. Making money was also not an objective. We always had the conviction that if the company had the right strategy, great execution and the right mission and values it would get to the appropriate size and be a financial success.

Our mission and strategy have evolved over time but it always goes back to our founding principles. If you want to build a business for the long term, one that will outlast the founders, if you want to be proud of what you have achieved, these issues, rather than short term “quick buck” considerations drive your decision-making. My father used to say it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only a moment to destroy it.

Mark was born to a very wealthy family and he is very long term focused. He has helped me understand the long term. In 1999 when I said to him, “Mark, your Trust must have had a fantastic couple years with the way the markets have gone.” His response was: “Yes, but we look at it over a sixty-year period. Over sixty years stock markets average about eight percent growth per year. The last two boom years may mean that they’ll average just over 8 % over the sixty years.” Of course, the most recent couple years might mean that the average will drop to just below 8 %! But the point is to think long-term.

In the last two or three years, we have focused on the mission of bringing imagery to the front and center of communication. We see ourselves as story-tellers. We want to use technology to make it easy for customers to use imagery. We are a media business, not a technology business, but we have always believed that our industry would be truly revolutionized by technology and the Internet. It has been.

It still comes down to the long-term perspective. Is this something we can be proud of? We define success very simply: we would like every employee at Getty Images to regard their time at Getty Images as the best in their careers. Our objective is to help our employees grow personally, professionally, and financially. If that is happening, we will have happy, motivated employees who will go the extra mile for their colleagues and for our customers. And we will outperform our competitors in the market.

Have you developed a statement of your core values and principles?

Yes. We have identified five brand values. Getty Images’ “passion for pictures” is underpinned by the five values of service, relevance, accessibility, innovation, and creativity. Some of these values are very specific to our industry, like “relevance.” We may have sixty or seventy million pictures. But our customers care only about getting the relevant image at the right time.

In addition we have seven leadership principles governing how we behave. Every six months we grade our performance. We grade ourselves on the “what”—did we achieve our objectives, did we get it done? But then the other piece of it is the “how”—how did we get it done? We have elevated the how above the what in our culture. Did you do what you’re supposed to do—did you hit your numbers, get your technology project out on time, or collect payment in under sixty days? That’s the “what” and it is important. But if you do it the wrong way, not in line with the leadership principles, the how, you’re not going to do well at this company [see sidebar].

One day in Spring 2002 I sat down and wrote out the principles that have always been important to me and that I felt had to be front and center at the company. Leaders have the obligation to lead even if sometimes you look behind and no one is following at that moment!

We have asked our people if these leadership principles make sense and asked them to rate them in order of importance. We have asked how are we doing against these standards and used this gap analysis to identify what to work on. Our principles are kind of obvious but we work to embed them in everyone and in everything we do. I rate all of my direct reports against each of the principles and sit down with them to talk about how they are doing and where I’m concerned. Every manager in the company does the same thing with his or her people. Bonuses are dependent not just on empirical company performance but on personal performance, and in particular, scoring well on the leadership principles.

Getty Images’ Seven Leadership Principles

  1. Trustworthiness, Transparency, Openness
    Transparency and openness are absolutely critical. We are promoting a culture of acknowledging mistakes. We can always fix a mistake, but we cannot correct deception. I was amazed that Fortune Magazine’s list of key attributes of America’s most admired companies didn’t include trustworthiness. Never before in US corporate history has a reputation for trustworthiness been more important.
  2. The Obligation to Care
    The obligation to care means that we truly care about the business and our colleagues. We’re not just here to earn a living and to do something between the weekends. Caring is going the extra mile. Caring is bothering about how you are treating your colleagues and how you do your job.
  3. Lead By Example
    Leading by example is one of the most important principles. People watch much better than they listen. As people say, “walk the talk.” All of us are leaders. You could be working in our warehouse moving CD products but you’re still in a position of leadership because your colleagues are watching the way you behave.
  4. Raise the Bar
    An obligation to raise the bar means that “good enough” simply isn’t good enough at our company. If this year you do exactly the same job at the same performance level as last year, you won’t get a raise. We give our employees tools, training, and mentoring to help them improve, because we want to create an environment in which every employee can do his or her best work.
  5. One Voice: Collective Responsibility
    Too many companies have a culture where you all sit in a room and decide what you’re going to do—and five minutes later the real meeting takes place outside the room. I don’t agree with that. Collective responsibility must be embraced. Agreed-upon processes and decisions must be upheld, not undermined. It’s about “us” and “we” not “me” and “I.”
  6. Bring Me Solutions
    In a lot of organizations the person who points out the problem gets credit. Here you’ve got to also come up with a solution. At the end of her career, Ms. Thatcher, not somebody I admire politically, was asked which of all her ministers had been the best. She shocked people by saying “David Young”—hardly a household name—“because he brought me solutions. Others just brought me problems.”
  7. No silos.
    Finally, “no silos.” Most companies these days are functionally organized. People find it hard to understand that their function affects everybody, the whole business, all the stakeholders. We must think and act as one company, not a collection of independent silos.

Has your emphasis on principles led some people to leave because they don’t fit?

It’s another thing Collins and Porras are absolutely right about in Built to Last. Companies develop a culture and a way of doing business and not everyone fits. In a great phrase, he says those who don’t fit will be “expunged” by the organism. They will know and the company will know. It doesn’t mean they are bad people; it just means it is not for them.

Value Ideals & Realities

To what extent do you see your values and principles as a faithful account of who you are—or an account of where you want to go?

I would stress the very aspirational nature of our values and principles. These are lofty goals we are setting for ourselves but we hope to get close to them. Some days we think we are getting there. Other days we feel like we are getting nowhere. We don’t promote ourselves as paragons of virtue but we are trying to run an ethical business and it is a very powerful force internally. We have managed to do very well in a bad market and I hope that our excellent financial performance continues. We aim to ensure that the leadership principles and the brand values do endure, regardless of either market conditions or our financial performance at any particular point in time. I believe that they will help us in any and every environment. We’ll either succeed with this initiative or we will not but we will keep trying.

Preserving Core Values in an M&A Environment

How do you preserve Getty’s core values through acquisitions—bringing in companies from other parts of the world and telling them this is now the way we want you to act?

You have to put even more time, energy and focus on it. Our different cultures and geographies needed something to knit us together. What is our common ground? Our company in England has the largest archive of historic photographs in the world and some of people who work there behave much as if they are working in a museum. Photodisc, a technology start up we acquired, had a start-up culture as “uncorporate” as you will find. We have news photojournalists literally being shot at in Iraq as we speak—very different from our experience sitting in the office here. How can we knit all of this together?

The common ground we found was the passion for pictures, the five brand values of service, relevance, accessibility, innovation, and creativity, and then the behaviors expressed by the seven leadership principles. If other companies join us, this is the non-negotiable description of our common culture. With hindsight it looks like a very clear plan but it only emerged out of a hard struggle to bring these companies together culturally and organizationally.

What are some of the ways you spread this message through your company?

I do a live quarterly webcast around the world. I kicked off this webcast recently with the leadership principles, showing how they make Getty a great company with an environment good for every employee. The Senior Management Team meets twice a year for two days and we assess how we are doing against the principles and also on the how issues I discussed earlier in this interview.

Our HR people are also key allies. They have worked very hard with me in the dissemination and reinforcement of our statements of values and principles. Our interviews, surveys, performance management, and promotions forms all highlight the principles. And, frankly, I’ve had to lead by example. I’ve had to consequence some poor performance against these principles by my direct reports. One simply has to make it real.

Organizing for Accountability

You described holding your direct reports and senior vice presidents accountable. Do you and Mark —and your board of directors—hold each other accountable? Some recent business scandals occurred where there were passive boards made up of cronies of the CEO.

Mark and I, without actually writing it down, have always held each other accountable. I’ve only recently begun sharing these values and principles with the board. They are attracted to them. I have asked that my compensation review be identical to my senior vice president’s in terms of being rated for performance against our values and principles. You are right about some corporate boards but I don’t think that ethical or principled behavior comes from boards—or from legislation. It comes from management creating a culture of transparency, a spirit of accountability, and only tolerating people of integrity. If you have those three components, Sarbanes-Oxley and all the rest will take care of itself. If you don’t have those three, we can be legislated up and down and those problems will remain.

Virtual Organization

A lot of companies these days build virtual instead of actual organizations, building relationships without actual ownership of everything. You seem to have actually acquired some functions pretty far down the chain, such as your own photography staff. What is the thinking behind that?

When we began, we had nothing. We had to build something from scratch, coming up with a brand, developing customer relationships, and either contracting with photographers, or, alternatively, buying. We decided to acquire. So the first stage of the strategy was to acquire. But we didn’t buy pictures. We bought expertise. We bought brand names with customers. We bought distribution. We bought contracts with photographers. Only on one or two occasions did we buy big historical collections of pictures.

We have not bought anything to speak of in three years because, by March 2000, we had what we needed for building the business over the long term. Now we do partnerships much more often. Our web site has imagery from our competitors which we distribute and then share the revenues. We don’t employ many photographers. On the commercial or stock photography side, which is 85 percent of our revenues, we don’t have any photographer employees. They are all under contract. They retain the copyright.

This brings up an interesting point about ethics. Our unusual industry is based on trust. For example, a photographer comes and signs a contract with us. We take the photographer’s images that we want and contract to market them, agreeing to pay part of what we will get if someone uses the image. We send the photographer a monthly report which says how the image was used and what money was paid. But the photographer relies entirely on us. They don’t really know if People Magazine paid us eighty bucks or eight hundred for their image. It is based on trust.

We also have agents who sell for us in other countries. We don’t know if our agents in certain countries sold the $100,000 of our images listed on this month’s report, and therefore gave us our fair share of $60,000, or if they actually sold $500,000. So there’s a lot of trust in the business.

Products and Customers

Who are your primary customers?

Sixty-five percent of our sales are to advertising agencies and design companies. Twenty-five percent are to media companies such as book, newspaper or magazine publishers and producers of movies, television commercials and documentaries. Ten percent of sales are direct to corporations.

Would you enter a different kind of image business if a new technology enabled it?

It is possible but we don’t really look at it from the technology end. It has more to do with market potential. We don’t distribute cartoons and animation or fonts and typefaces because, even though we have the technical capability, we don’t think there’s a good enough market for it at this point.

Al Jazeera was recently criticized for showing images of captured and dead US troops in Iraq. Are Getty photographers in the war zone allowed to photograph such things? Would you photograph someone is in a humiliated, painful, or degraded condition—and sell these images to the media?

Yes. There is a war going on and the job of our photojournalists is to capture what they see through their lenses. Then it is up to the newspaper editors and media outlets to decide what to put before their viewers. If what they choose is found to be offensive, it will hurt their business. We do, of course, have a code of ethics for our company.

You could say that people’s ability to see things in all their brute reality enables them to make better judgments about life. But how far does this logic extend? When is image-making and selling voyeuristic and dulling to the senses rather than helpful to truth and humanity?

Whenever I ask any of our photographers why they put themselves in harm’s way, they always say that their job is to tell the story. Thanks to Getty Images’ connections and their talent and dedication, they have the necessary access and ability to tell the story. One of our photographers, Joe Raedle, is covering the war for us and was wounded this weekend in the battle of Nasiriya. Joe’s photos were used today on over forty covers in major metropolitan newspapers across the country, including the New York Times. I actually think we have an obligation to get these photos out to the public. Eighteen months ago, in the middle of the Afghanistan war, we sued the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense, because they would not let our photographers in to shoot images of the detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. We were able to gain admission, which was very important to our photographers, who felt that they had to be there to tell the story for our customers.

A Right Not to be Photographed?

Do people have any right to not be the subject of an image? You’re not asking your subjects whether you can photograph them in all cases, I suspect.

There is a fundamental difference between commercial photography and editorial photography. In commercial photography we cannot photograph anybody unless they are comfortable and they sign a release allowing their image to be used for commercial purposes. But when it comes to editorial photography, photography we see in newspapers, our approach is that anybody is fair game in a public place. We do not do highly invasive paparazzi photography. If Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck visit a restaurant in Manhattan, we won’t shove a camera in their faces inside the restaurant but we will take a picture of them coming out of it.

Image Saturation?

Is there ever a danger of too many and too powerful images? As images dominate our senses, is our capacity to listen carefully, to think in a linear fashion from premise to conclusion, and to communicate ideas and truth through the spoken or written word imperiled?

When everybody and his dog has a digital camera and some basic software to play with, images become a dime a dozen and before you know it we’re drowning in imagery. However, I also think that people get more sophisticated about what a good image is as they get more visually aware. Our children, the next generation, are growing up very image-literate.

Kids are very image-literate but can they read?

They certainly don’t read enough. They get their information in sound bytes with a lack of depth but then, thanks to the media, so do we adults.

True and False Images

Images today can easily be enhanced or modified as Time Magazine famously illustrated with their darkened OJ Simpson magazine cover. Is this lying with images? Is it ever appropriate to modify what the camera sees?

On the commercial stock photography side, we modify every image. We manipulate the image to make it more saleable, by cleaning up the foreground or background, removing visible logos or enhancing color and contrast.

With the possibilities of digital photography, can the line between commercial and editorial weaken?

The fundamental difference is that we have releases for commercial purpose photography. Any person in any of our commercial photographs has signed a release.

A promo film for Seattle showed a ferry coming in to its dock with Mt. Rainier right behind it. The producer had moved Mt. Rainier to make it a better picture. Is that crossing the line?

We wouldn’t do that because that is never what it looks like. We might make the sky bluer or remove some seagulls for a cleaner look or clean up the water around the ferry. If the ferry had a very prominent logo we might blur it because we can’t license pictures with logos for stock photography. So too we would have generic running shoes, rather than branded ones. But we wouldn’t otherwise make the shoe or boat or mountain range or skyline look different. We could do it in two minutes, but we wouldn’t!