How an Instagram Side Hustle of Combining Photos Led This Artist to Quit His 'Cushy Corporate Advertising Job'
The man behind the mashup 'combophoto' technique explains how his art and career have evolved since he started posting his hybrid images.
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After years of balancing freelance work with a full-time job as an ad agency creative director, Stephen McMennamy quit his “cushy corporate advertising job” in early October to take the entrepreneurial route, based on what he’s learned from Instagram.
Specifically, he plans to launch a “small-screen agency” -- one that specializes in campaigns viewed on mobile. He’s honed this craft in large part through the art he’s posted on his Instagram account, @smcmennamy, over the past three years. His signature technique is what he calls the “combophoto,” in which he splices two mismatched photographs that naturally blend into each other to create a hybrid image.
Instagram, he says, has given him a taste of creative freedom -- and tipped him off to the need for more agencies that specialize in small screens. In fact, those types of agencies were often the ones reaching out to him on behalf of brands, so he’s decided to found an agency that creates content in house.
“In traditional advertising, you hire a photographer, you hire a director,” McMennamy tells Entrepreneur. “I think what's unique about the small screen space is the charm of the more handmade, the more amateur, in a way. But it all still ends up registering with consumers and it's charming.”
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As his account has gained attention and followers, McMennamy has partnered with brands such as Play-Doh, Jack Daniels and HP and created sponsored posts for them. He was also a finalist for “Instagrammer of the Year” at the 2017 Shorty Awards.
Amid his career shift, McMennamy says he plans to continue posting to his Instagram account regularly. In many cases, brands who commission him have fewer followers than he does (252,000), and he says he aims to grow his presence further to offer a valuable new audience to them.
“I have a lot of advertising friends who are extremely excited because it feels like this new model is getting us back to what advertising used to be. We got into it because we like to make stuff and we like to create,” he says. “I'm less of a business meeting guy and more of a ‘go make the cool fun stuff.’”
One downside to Instagram, he explains, is the rampant plagiarism. He’s encountered examples of this himself in the physical world as well as with help from a “watchdog community on Instagram.” Examples include his images going online with other people’s watermarks, ad campaigns that use his art without asking or other artists who sell replicas of his work as their own. In some cases, he’s talked to copyright lawyers and sent letters to start a dialogue with offenders, but it’s difficult to prove intent. For art that uses a juxtapositional technique but isn’t directly copied, it’s even harder.
“I don't want to suggest that I own it,” McMennamy says. “It's just, I think people associate me with that technique. And so, I can't ever say if people are actually ripping me off or it's a coincidence or what.”
He admits that lately, he’s felt a sense of “writer's block” when it comes to conceiving new ideas for combophotos, if only because his own standards for himself have risen. He says he’s now challenging himself to not only experiment beyond the combophoto format, but to take pride in his work regardless of what Instagram’s analytics tell him.
“It's nice from like, a focus group standpoint. ‘OK, people are digging this one, that's great,’” McMennamy says. “But that doesn't equate to self-worth or anything like that. I just need to do it because it's art therapy for me.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with Instagram?
When I got on Instagram, I was just trying to find my way through Instagram and understand how I was supposed to use it. I felt like, “OK, I've got this outlet again where I can express myself. Then, I started seeing more photographers that were doing significantly more interesting things -- very creative expressions that ran the gamut of styles and techniques.
I started thinking about, “How can I challenge myself to do something a little bit different and unique that would stand out?” And I can honestly say it wasn't like I was going to do that to see if I could amass more followers. It was more about, “Can I just do it and make myself vulnerable and put something out there?” Maybe it's just me, but it is scary to put something different out there. You never know how people are going to react.
I was exploring an app that allows you to merge multiple photos together. I brought in a picture of my daughter from her birthday and I brought in a picture of a balloon from her birthday. I combined her head with the balloon, and I just started thinking about these matching shapes these disparate images that could somehow seamlessly blend together. Shortly after that, I happened to be in New York -- this was about three years ago. I was working in a place that had a rooftop with a pretty spectacular view of the Empire State Building. I had a banana in my hand, and I just kind of impulsively combined the Empire State Building with a banana. And it was almost like that was my a-ha moment. Immediately that day I probably tried three or four more others, and I just thought, “Oh, there's just a lot to work with in this massive world that we live in.”
2. What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
I am not that active on the other platforms. Instagram is where I'm living right now. I made a combophoto page on Facebook, but I wasn't really sure what my end goal was there. I know that a lot of bloggers or popular Facebook feeds have featured my stuff, but I think it just plays much better on Instagram than me trying to promote it on Facebook. I do post my images to Twitter, but the character count hurts me every time because I like to tell a lot of backstory.
I have a supplemental feed that's called @combophotofail. It's not as much of a failure site as it may sound, and often I'll put a B version of whatever I've done on there. Sometimes it's minor. I would like to show more of the failing process, which I did a little bit more when I started it.
3. How much of your time do you devote to Instagram?
It fluctuates a lot. The pressure always comes in when it's a sponsored post. Usually there's a deadline -- somebody is paying for that. So I try to be very respectful of that. The pressure goes up when you have a full-time job, and a lot of your time is spent after work hours or on the weekend. My family is very supportive, but there have been just a few times where that's been tough for everybody. I love it when there are weeks when there is no pressure to do anything, but it just seems like it's a 24/7 thing for me. I'm always thinking about what's next and about how to improve.
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4. How do you promote your account? What's your number-one way to gain followers?
After I had been doing it for probably over a year, I went to certain art blogs and started sharing links to my work thinking, “OK, well, these blogs are looking for something to write about. Maybe they'll be kind enough to write about this.” One of them did a post, and from there, somebody from Fast Company must have been following them, because they did an article. Then, it started to spread like wildfire. I was just kind of blown away that people were wanting to talk about it and cover it.
I'd done that before in the past for advertising projects or personal projects. I just think people can be a little more crafty about how they get whatever they're trying to get out there. I'm not sure that you need to pay for PR. I think obviously some companies do. But the earned media is always an option. It's always there and something people should try.
5. How do you engage with others on the platform?
I have done some collaborations. There's definitely a few situations where I can't physically take the photo that I need. Like, I have a photo of an elephant reaching up for some foliage on a branch, and it's in Africa. I've never been to Africa, and I don't have access to elephants, so I found the photographer that took this picture that was a perfect match for what I was doing and reached out. He loved the idea and said, “Sure, yeah.” I'm not going to take credit for other people's photos.
It's one thing that does bum me out a lot about Instagram is, there are a lot of people who are using stock to create their visuals. I guess it makes me sad that they're not behind the camera. It just becomes so much more intimate when you're taking those pictures that go in the final piece. And I am absolutely not a photographer. I'm not good at photography. I wish I knew more. I don't want to make it sound like I'm completely inept. But I just know that the pros are so good and they just know so much, I just respect what they do a lot.
6. How often do you post?
I like to do once a week. I think there are plenty of people that offer very entertaining, stimulating stuff on a daily basis. But I try to insist upon myself that if I'm posting something, that it should be something interesting. And again, that doesn't apply to everybody. That just applies to me and what I would like to put out there for my Instagram feed.
I don't want to say it's easy for those who have become food Instagrammers. They work hard to do what they do. But it is nice to think, “OK, a plate of food comes in front of you, and you take a picture.” My process is just much more labor intensive and complicated. I hit stumbling blocks a lot. That would be very, very difficult for me to do something daily.
7. What's your content strategy?
This is what I say to my daughter all the time. She's 11. She's caught up in this whole social media thing that is swirling around all of us, but she's very, very inactive. Like six months ago, maybe, she posted something on Instagram, and she wanted to know why she didn't get a lot of likes. I said, “If you put interesting stuff out there, people will start to take notice.” It could be the movement is interesting, the story could be interesting, but whatever it is, don't expect people to like anything if it's boring or just like everything else.
That's absolutely the truth of advertising. People look the other way when ads come on. And I believe, just based on what I've been doing on Instagram, that advertising can be interesting, and it can be something that holds your attention. Now, I only say that because those are what the comments tell me. People say either, "Damn it. This was an ad, and I had no idea, and I loved it and I'm mad at you now," which is a compliment. Or, you know, "They should make all ads like this." I've done posts that people say, "I hate that company, but I love this post." These comments, to me, are game-changers for advertising.
8. What's your best storytelling trick?
I want to say to “do something arresting.” I just feel like doing something different or arresting -- I would like to do something that's very unique. Or, just for someone to flip through and think to themselves, "I've never seen anything like that before." And think that's what we're all looking for online, ultimately, are these things that we haven't seen before.
9. How do you leverage your Instagram and to what extent do you monetize it?
I monetize it through Instagram posts, but also, I've done a couple of complete ad campaigns that aren't really intended for Instagram. I did a campaign for HSBC in London, and I just finished a print campaign for a company that has offices in Argentina and France. I have work up in a gallery in Charleston, S.C., and that's seemed to do pretty well. I'm going to be doing a gallery thing in Sarasota, Fla. I sell prints online, that does OK. It's very infrequent. The amount of prints that I sell is not very frequent at all. And I have them priced pretty high. I mean, to me, it's art, and I'm not putting them on coffee mugs or mouse pads.
10. Do you have certain criteria when someone reaches out to you to determine whether it's a fit to work together? Some people say things like, "I’ll work with a brand if the brand values the same things as me..."
No. No brand has the same values as me. I mean, I'm a hippie. Corporations have a very different process than my own.
There's nothing more rewarding or refreshing than a client that says, “We hired you because you do what you do, so go do what you do.” That's the best feeling in the world, because in advertising -- the best analogy I've heard about what it's like for a creative person in advertising is, a creative person builds a beautiful, perfect sandcastle, and then each person comes by and knocks a little piece of the sandcastle, moves something, changes it. And by the time it's done, it's not your sandcastle anymore. It's somebody else's, or it's the group's. So, as an artist, when somebody just trusts you, that's very, very good for all of our self-esteems as artists.
If a brand, out of the gate, says, “We just want you to do what you do,” I wouldn't say I don't care who that brand is, but I would say that they absolutely rise to the top, because, I feel like that shows a lot of trust and respect.
I always ask, when they reach out to me, if I can do something other than a combophoto. And generally, they say yes. I really like that people typically find me because of combophotos, but they also are willing to let me try something different. I'm into interesting visuals and telling little stories.
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11. What advice do you have for other Instagram influencers or people who want to build brands?
Don't be boring. Do stuff that someone would say in their head, "Wow, that's really interesting." Or, "I want to look at that." I hate to make it so simple, but that's all it is. Then it becomes like the sky is truly the limit. You could say, "I'm going to do videos." "I'm going to do animation." "I'm going to do flowers." Whatever you're doing, do it in an interesting way. Do it in a different way.
I'd also say not trying too hard. And I really do think it's the slow and steady approach. At least that's entirely how I've looked at it. I'm not trying to become anything overnight, because I'm not that thing. I'm just trying to slowly find my way through this social media platform and really understand it and take care of it and nurture it. I have seen people who completely flame out on Instagram. They're doing too much to fast. I think I've been fortunate to actually see that happen, so I keep that in the back of my mind to just take it slow.
12. What's a misconception many people have about Instagram?
There are a lot of people who have fear about Instagram, because there is so much great talent and creativity out there that people who aren't interested in doing that, they feel utterly intimidated or threatened. But you can post a video of your dog farting, and people will probably love it. You know? It's like, who cares? There are no restrictions, and it can be whatever you want it to be, or what's important to you. Other people can judge that as boring, but are you excited about it? Or are you posting just because you feel like you have to post? That's not the right reason to post. If you love it, I think you should post it and share it. Or, keep it private. It's all up to the individual.
Click through the slideshow to see five of @smcmennamy's favorite posts.
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Booze + Cement Mixer
“I love messing with scale and I like contrast (neat drink/dirty cement mixer). This has it all. And as fun as it seems, I definitely incorporate a bit of a message with some of my creations. People do like their large portions, and that is definitely reflected in this particular execution.
“I had proposed that idea to a potential client, and they thought it would be too dirty and it wouldn't appeal to people. I went ahead and did it on my own, just as an individual, and it's hands down the most viewed thing I've ever done on Instagram.
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“I'm not guaranteeing that my instincts are going to have those same results every time. But I do think we as creatives have a louder voice to say, ‘Look at what I did, and here are the results. And look at what you had me do, and here are the results.’ More often than not, I would say those creative instincts that got someone as far as they currently are on Instagram, there's a very, very legitimate reason to listen to them.”
booze + cement mixer here's a little something to help all those thanksgiving travelers get through the week. this ones been on my "things to combine" list for quite a while now. I guess it required me taking a vacation to make it happen. down in the Bahamas this week, and though I don't drink, it only seemed appropriate to throw some festive spirits in a cement mixer. I tried it with milkshake ingredients (my preference), but it was done hastily and didn't quite land for me (milkshake version over on @combophotofail). regardless, happy early thanksgiving. major thanks to uncle Bryan and @lmcm2 for helping coordinate the first dual video #combophoto.
A post shared by stephen mcmennamy (@smcmennamy) on Nov 22, 2016 at 5:05pm PST
Fries + Smokes
“This is an idea that had been bouncing around in my head for a few years, but I never saw it as a combophoto. I visualized it more like the classic image of the Marlboro man on a horse, but instead of smoking, he would be eating French fries. But then combophotos came along, and this is what I ended up with. Either way, I just think it’s odd that we have these iconic American brands that once were celebrated, but now are condemned as agents of death. Of course, I didn’t say that, but I guess I am now.”
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Crab Leg + Excavator
“I feel like this one best captures the essence of what a combophoto is to me. Playful, fun, abstract, childlike. ... I think I look at the world that way.”
Paintbrush + Spaghetti
“This one was really well received, but it’s also one that I probably spent the least amount of time on. I did it all before work one morning. I cooked some noodles, grabbed a brush and just shot it. I guess it works as a constant reminder that I can’t predict what’s going to resonate with people.”
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Hand + Legs
“I think I like this one primarily because it creeps people out a little.”