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In Focus: Creative Director & Photographer Mark Tesi


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Mark Tesi is Creative Director and Principal of the agency Wander + Echo, founded on his years of experience as Global Creative Director for Reef and Roxy.

I knew Mark by reputation for several years before we actually met in person. San Diego, California has a thriving and tightly networked apparel community. It can seem like everyone you meet is involved somehow, whether as a brand founder, retailer, photographer, designer, or some role you never knew existed.

Within our community, Mark is well known as a startup creative guru, particularly for active lifestyle brands like surf and yoga. When we at Pixelz decided to take our “In Focus” interview series to video, he was my first thought. I wanted to get his take on creative, hear what he had to say about directing major brands like Reef and Roxy in comparison to the varied challenges of agency work.

The video above is excerpted from nearly an hour long interview. Below is the transcript of that interview, edited for clarity and brevity.

Photo of model holding surfboard overhead, wearing Kassia branded swimwear

Wander + Echo for Kassia + Surf

What’s your personal and professional background?

I’m a creative director and a photographer, and a designer. My quick extended background is, I grew up back East at the beach and I’ve been a lifelong surfer and musician, always interested in the creative arts in one way or another. I got into this world professionally as a designer and a photographer about 15, 20 years ago working at creative agencies back in New York.

Worked for Virgin for a number of years back East, and then I had an opportunity to move out West, work for Roxy and Quiksilver, which was a bit of a no-brainer as a surfer and a hater of winter, and I never looked back. After Quiksilver I was at Reef for just close to four years as creative director there and then about two years ago went out on my own. I started Wander + Echo agency and then Wilderness Studio here in Carlsbad about three or four months ago.

Would you say you started as a photographer and then graduated to a creative director? How closely related are those things?

I think these days they really go hand in hand. From high school on, I was into photography and always taking photographs over the years. In my first life as a musician, we toured and got to see a lot of cool places in the world and I always had a camera with me, and was always documenting everything that we were doing behind the scenes and other bands, and our friends’ bands, and in the studio.

I think that was always a big part of my aesthetic I think, was documentary photography, but simultaneously the way that I … I went to art school back East and then … I guess while playing in bands, there was always a need for posters, and record covers, and t-shirts and all that and I was the default guy with the closest skillset to do all that stuff. I started doing it for our band for years and then for other people’s bands.

I think my first design job was working at one of the labels that our band was on, and yeah, just designing albums for everybody in the label, and posters and T-shirts. At that point I was like, “Wow, I can actually make a living doing this and not have to be on the road 10 months of the year, and maybe have a little bit of a normal sort of life,” so then I actually went back to school for visual communication for design.

Woman on beach throwing back wet hair wearing Issa De Mar swimsuit

Mark Tesi for Issa De Mar

How did you go from being a graphic designer for Virgin to a photographer and creative director?

For me the transition from designer to photographer was really a seamless organic one. I’d always taken photographs since I was in high school really and documented, a lot of time touring and playing in bands and what not. With my first real big design job working for Virgin, a lot of that role was photo art direction, and I got to work with amazing studio photographers and lifestyle photographers.

I got to be a big part of all the national campaigns we were doing, and really got to see commercial photography on a very high level and in a very intimate way that even a photo assistant might not get. Getting to work one-on-one with some really big name photographers, so that for me was really amazing, was almost like graduate school for not only design and creative direction, but for photography especially.

From there I transitioned, and I took a job as creative director at Roxy and that was much more intensive. At Roxy the photo art direction was a really huge part of the job. From e-commerce stuff to lifestyle and campaign photography, we were shooting on a weekly basis. I got to work with some of the best surf photographers, and we would always bring in fashion photographers like Dewey Nicks or Angela Boatwright.

I got to see firsthand how these guys would operate, got to see their bag of tricks, and slowly but surely compiled all those in my head. At a certain point near the last couple of years I was at Roxy, the budgets would decline a little bit. We used to bring two or three photographers on set with us, a surf guy and a fashion person. When those budgets started to diminish a little bit, we would bring one photographer on.

Woman in colorful swimsuit standing on yellow car at beach wearing Reef

Wander + Echo for Reef Rover

Sometimes as creative director, I knew what our needs were going to be, and at a certain point I just started bringing a camera along and would go, “Okay, I know we need to get this, I’ll just get this product stuff,” or really shooting some of these candid moments that I would always see. When all the big fashion stage stuff would be happening, you’d have little Kelia Moniz sitting there with her surfboard just thinking, and try to capture these real intimate moments. I think that really inspired me.

At Roxy and Quiksilver is where I met my current studio partner at Wilderness, David Troyer. We were in the studio almost on a daily basis. He’s a real master of the studio and lighting. I really got to learn so much there, to see all the possibilities that could happen in a studio setting. Then from there, I took a creative director role at Reef down here in Carlsbad closer to my house, which was nice to not be commuting after 10 years of hardcore commuting.

At Reef, it was a situation where we had limited budgets. We could only afford to bring one photographer on a shoot or trip. That’s when I started getting real cameras and digging into the photography side of things. Maybe to some of the photographers chagrin, shooting around them or shooting different things. Then after being at Reef for nearly four years, I just wanted a change.

I saw when you work on one brand for a long time, there’s really great things because everything becomes second nature. You have this innate knowledge of what the guardrails are for that brand, what’s going to work, what’s not going to work. It’s amazing because when you know what those guardrails, you can really push limits within that and you do it very quickly.

I think you’re able to have a lot of impact and a lot of influence over one company or brand, but conversely once you’ve been around the sun multiple times with a brand, you do know there are those guardrails and sometimes there’s limitations on what you can do creatively. I think as a creative it’s important to always be pushing yourself and growing and challenging yourself. For me, going out on my own was just a natural progression.

I had a lot of opportunities to work with some up-and-coming brands like Amuse Society and Vuori and a bunch of others that were really just starting up. I had the opportunity to have a lot of influence on their creative direction, and the look and feel, and the storytelling for these guys. For me I was just chomping at the bit to start something new and try something new. It’s been amazing. I think the thing I love about being on my own is every day can be different.

One day I might be in the studio doing product photography or e-com for a brand, the next day we’re shooting a campaign outside, the next day we’re designing product for someone, doing social media campaigns. It’s always changing and evolving, but I really do love working on one brand as a creative director and trying to seamlessly stitch together all their communications in a way that feels really natural and organic but that’s still compelling and interesting across every different medium. Again, whether it’s product photography or lifestyle photography.

Model wearing black Amuse Society bikini standing in front of gold circle

Wander + Echo for Amuse Society

When you’re with a new and upcoming brand, like Amuse Society or Vuori, how do you go about helping them to find their creative aesthetic and carry it over to all the different mediums you’re talking about?

Finding cohesion in creative direction for a brand, it’s always a different scenario for each client that you work for. A brand like Amuse Society, the founders Mandy and Summer have a really strong point of view on their product design, on their brand story, who their girl is, on styling. In a scenario like that, my role is really to help them take that vision and bring it to life through imagery and through video and through product photography.

It’s about trying to dig into their brand DNA and their product inspiration and pulling out those nuggets of gold that are unique to them and are going to be inspirational to others. Then taking those pieces and transforming them into images, videos, campaigns that are going to tell those stories for them, exactly the way they want it to.

Female surfer in water wearing Kassia wetsuit

Wander + Echo for Kassia + Surf

A lot of people think about product photography and e-commerce as, “It’s boring, it’s just white background, turn left, turn the other way 45 degrees, turn another 45 degrees.” How do you make that interesting and keep unique branding?

E-com and product photography are often overlooked, but never unnoticed by consumers. I think that when done right and done really well, the product syncs, looks amazing, and can influence consumer behavior. Conversely, when people shoot on an iPhone and it doesn’t look as great, consumers might not be able to articulate what’s going on, but they really quickly understand the value proposition that’s before them.

A product shot well can feel luxurious and desirable and beautiful and interesting, and I think a product that’s shot not very well, consumers will have a negative emotional impact upon seeing that photograph. Things aren’t siloed anymore with the internet, everyone is seeing everything, right? Everybody sees J. Crew and Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, and the high levels that these big brands operate on visually.

I think that whether your brand is a $10,000 a year brand, or a $100 million brand, everyone needs to operate on the same level from a creative point of view and visually. The great thing about the present is that any brand, regardless of their size, can have really great looking imagery and creative for a really reasonable, affordable investment.

If brands invest just a little bit in great e-commerce studio photography, invest just a little bit in great lifestyle photography and good talent, there’s no reason that a startup can’t look like a $100 million brand.

Woman wearing Vnda lounge wear leaning against car

Wander + Echo for Vnda

10 years ago this wasn’t necessarily the case. Cameras and film, and it took a huge crew to pull off what you can do now for a few thousand dollars most of the time. I think that’s something that’s really exciting today. We work with a lot of startups, and they always are very excited about the results. Once they see their product shown in a way that’s elevated, the reaction is almost always across the board like, “Wow, that’s us! This is amazing.”

We see conversion rates on their sites literally overnight jump 40%, 50%, 200% sometimes when we swap out new lifestyle imagery, new e-commerce imagery, maybe clean up typography or whatever just a little bit. Time and time again we’ve seen that with the right creative direction, the right imagery, you can turn your brand around overnight.

How has your experience affected your workflow?

We’ve done hundreds of seasons of e-commerce photography, of product photography, of lifestyle photography, so I think we have a really good sense of how long it takes to do something and how much we can get done in a day.

A studio day is 10 hours plus whatever, and we try to maximize that time for our clients and get as many shots done as we can. We’ve got a streamlined process managing intake of product, we have a great system that we use to manage the shotlist, manage naming conventions, manage file export and upload to retouchers or post-production houses. We’ve refined it over the years and I think is really efficient, which maximizes that investment for customers.

Man walking surfboard while riding wave in tee shirt

Wander + Echo for Reef Surfaris

Have you built your own system, or are you using an out-of-the-box system?

We have a proprietary workflow system. Truthfully, it’s not incredibly complex, but it’s just a few different interactive documents that we’ve built that help us organize everything and keep it on track. Then when we work with third party vendors, like Pixelz or whomever, we can quickly export everything to them. They understand exactly what needs to happen. We get great results in return when we can deliver our third party vendors everything that they need.

What sets you apart from others in your field?

I think it’s my good looks that really separates me from all the other creative directors. No, if there’s anything that differentiates me from other people doing this work, it’s my experience outside of photography and creative direction. In my life as an underground touring musician for all those years, I got to see DIY culture at its height. It opened my eyes to the idea that anything is possible regardless of money or age or place or location. I think those experiences still affect everything that I do.

The idea that you can make something out of nothing, and that it’s not about the size of your audience or being associated with some huge brand or anything like that. To me, some of the best things I’ve ever seen have happened in basements with 40 kids. The things that still stick with me today are bands and people and artists that did something because they had an idea or an emotion that they wanted to express, and really made magic out of nothing.

Hands and forearms wearing bracelets on a yoga mat for Manduka yoga brand

Mark Tesi for Manduka

What else carries over between artistic mediums?

I love being a collaborator and getting to work with people and brands and groups that have some sort of magic in what they are doing, and being able to help them pull out those ideas or nuggets of gold out of what they are doing and turning it into something that’s going to communicate exactly what they want and more, and really be gratuitous. I think one of the most important things, that I try to focus on always, is giving back to your audience.

If you’re always trying to sell or push some direct marketing message at people, people won’t care and they understand that you’re not giving them anything. But when brands and people can create work that operates on multiple different levels that is giving consumers some real art, or some real ideas, or spirit, or truth, or beauty, those viewers are going to be much more apt to have an affinity with that brand or that product.

If you’re always trying to sell or push some direct marketing message at people, people won’t care and they understand that you’re not giving them anything.

Where does video fit into your overall creative direction? How much overlap is there between photography and video?

To me the video and photography and design and every aspect of a brand communication should be seamless. Obviously the mediums are all different, but I think the ideas you’re expressing through still photography should be directly carried into a video.

For Vuori it’s a story about this alternative take on men’s performance and active wear. Visually, the story for them is about this healthy, above-average everyday guy who lives on the coast, who might be surfing in the morning, running in the afternoon, going to the gym at night. I think those ideas and that storytelling should be seamless from stills to motion to the written language and brand voice and tone and everything.

Three women wearing Kassia springsuits seated on the beach

Wander + Echo for Kassia + Surf

I’ve seen you use influencers as models for brands like for Vnda. How does social media affect you as a photographer?

Social media right now is almost everything in the sense that it’s your national ad campaign. I love social media in regards to everything we do because I think it forces you to make sure that your images, your video, your copy, your design is that much sharper and impactful and compelling. You’re lucky if you have half a second before someone swipes you away.

As a creative, I really love social media because you can get instant feedback from the world. Right now so many brands and people are less afraid to try out new ideas via social than they ever have been before. Years past, every communication would go through a six month to a year-long filtering down process. That has its benefits, but I saw over the years it would stifle spontaneity and risk taking a little bit.

Now you see every day brands and people and groups trying things out and just putting things up. Sometimes it’s terrible, but sometimes it’s really exciting. There’s nothing better than when we go and do a shoot and that night, somebody from the brand will throw up one of the selects that you did that morning and it gets 5,000 likes or something. It’s a great reaffirmation that what you’re doing is right and makes sense and people are liking.

Us creatives types tend to be pretty sensitive. Sometimes we need that reassurance. It’s about communication at the end of the day, I think. To get a conversation happening with an audience that fast and that directly, I think it’s really special.

Closeup of model with lip ring and necklaces wearing white Amuse Society top

Wander + Echo for Amuse Society

What was most important to you when you were setting up your studio?

When my studio partner Dave and I were trying to work out what we really wanted in the studio, a few things came to mind. Having a big enough space with high ceilings and white walls and really clean big floors, so we could do anything that came at us in here was obviously first and foremost thing.

After that we wanted to create natural light. I think the great thing about the space that we have now for Wilderness is, we have roll up doors that get amazing, direct light half the day, the second half of the day. We’ve got a big skylight that shoots beautiful even diffused light the entire day, if we want it. Location is obviously a really important one. We’re steps to the beach, which as surfers and active people is really important to us. We can sneak out at lunch or beginning or the end of the day and reconnect and recharge.

It’s important to us to have that balance. The space for Wilderness now has a bunch of different rooms. We have the offices for Wander + Echo agency up front, so we can sneak away, do creative work and bounce back and forth in between the studio and the computer and the rest of the team, which is really good so we can be shooting things and then pulling them out and retouching, color correcting and then throwing them into websites or campaign docs right away to see and to be able to test things.

It’s huge to have that full 360 process happening all the time, it’s really important for us. Equipment, we’ve got really great state of the art Broncolor lights and all the C-stands and backdrops and cameras and lenses, anything you could ever want in a studio.

Old van with Compassing logo and surfboard on top driving down beach

Mark Tesi for Compassing

What is post production’s role in the workflow? What do you think it should be?

For us, it’s really important to have a great post-production partner. We work so hard on pre-production and then obviously creating the images and work, and having a great post-production partner who has a great sense of aesthetic and workflow and understands what we’re trying to achieve is really one of the most important parts of the puzzle.

You can work really hard on great concepts and making great imagery, but if you don’t finish it properly it’s all for nothing.

You’ve held a lot of different roles in the creative world. How does that play into your work on a day-to-day level?

I think the ability to be hands-on with every aspect of the creative process, whether it be creative direction, or design, or photography, or directing, allows me to have this innate deep understanding of what a project is going to look like from the beginning. Being able to get granular with the photography or the design allows me to provide a consistency throughout all the communications, and to quickly come up with solutions that I know are going to be successful before we go down any particular path.

I think it’s being able to pull back to 10,000 feet and understand, “Okay, this photo scenario is going to work great. This one might not work so well. This storyline might be great, this one might not work so well,” from having done it personally hundreds of times.

Black and white photo of model wearing Amuse Society jacket holding rail and leaning back

Wander + Echo for Amuse Society

Are there advantages to brands in working with a smaller agency?

As a boutique agency, we’re able to be really nimble. We’re hands-on with every aspect of the creative process, so we can go from studio photography to creative direction and design to lifestyle photography or video, seamlessly and quickly. I think for a lot of our clients, being able to have all those pieces come from one place is really valuable.

Rapid Fire Questions

What motivates you?

I’m motivated by new experiences and new things and learning. I’m really a student, and I hope that I never stop being a student of everything, whether it’s photography or design or music or fashion. I think every day that I see something that I’ve never seen before, I’m amped. I’m excited. That gets me the most excited when I see things that I’ve never seen before.

Whether it’s a track from a 15 year old Jamaican DJ that I heard this morning that’s mind-blowing, or it’s a new silicon wrapped water bottle I saw the other day that I thought, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. This is amazing.” It’s a really exciting time that we live in right now. Access to information and new ideas is unbelievable right now.

Photo of smiling woman's face through window glass for Vuori clothing

Wander + Echo for Vuori

What’s your favorite piece of equipment?

I think my favorite piece of equipment is my brain. I’m not a real gearhead kind of photographer. I like working with old 40 year old film cameras sometimes, or the newest Canon 5D Mark IV that just came out today. The equipment and the technology are just mediums to me, ways to get at emotion and ideas and communication.

For me, it’s really more about ideas and emotion and magic than it is about any of the technology that allows you to get that. They’re obviously important and I am a bit of a nerd, but again, to me it’s more about the ideas that anything else.

Who are your biggest influences as a photographer?

My biggest influences as a photographer are probably guys like Glen E. Friedman and music photographers like BJ Papas that probably not a lot of people know about. She’s an old New York City hardcore photographer in the 80s and the 90s. I love photographers who are able to immerse themselves in a scenario and capture real things that were happening in a seamless way.

It’s reportage photographers, ones that are really part of a scene or a movement. I think that stuff always really inspired me, but I love the classic fashion photographers from Irving Penn to Bruce Weber to Mario Testino. I love photographers that understand the full 360. The importance of the full 360 creative direction of making an image. From location and set to styling, to hair and make-up, to talent first and foremost.

I think the photographers that can consistently make really amazing imagery understand that full set of needs that it takes to make really great work, time and time again.

Woman standing in rowboat on beach holding signal flags in her hands

Mark Tesi for Swim With Me

Are there currently brands or individuals out there whose creative ambition you admire?

There’s a lot of brands right now that I really admire and love. Outdoor Voices is a new apparel brand that I’ve seen that’s really exciting. There’s a brand Vuori that I work with, I think we’re doing some super fun stuff together. Brands like bkr who I saw the other day that are making silicon wrapped water bottles, just have a really clean aesthetic.

It feels like every day I see something new that somebody is doing something differently, or stripping back all the unnecessary parts of a brand and just doing really cool stuff.

What saves you the most time in studio?

The thing that saves us the most time in the studio is preparation and pre-production. If we have a good plan going into a day, we know exactly what we need to do and what the goals are and what the creative direction is, that makes the day fly by and super-efficient.