The last meaningful conversation I had with Zack Roif was nearly two decades ago and probably went something like this: “Watch out for the bunt.”
Roif was the gritty third baseman for the Palisades Elite Giants, a team I coached for the Hastings on Hudson, N.Y., Little League. Now, with 125,000 people following his Instagram portfolio of stunning landscapes, cityscapes and occasional portraits of wayward travelers, he’s an “influencer” — although he has some reservations about the word itself.
“It can be a dangerous,” he says. “I think influencer straddles the world of professional photographers, and what they do, and those who are talented and gifted at understanding and executing on social media.”
The latter, ideally, are people who have powerful opinions or outlooks and are able to inspire others by expressing it. The former, adept as he or she may be, is strictly on assignment for the buck.
Photography is reserved for Roif’s off-time. By days — and often long into the night — he’s an art director at R/GA, the New York-based agency that was a pioneer in the digital space even before Roif was diving for line drives. But in his free time, he’s leveraging his Instragram following by shooting for simpatico brands such as Airbnb, G.H. Mumm and LG.
“An Influencer is authentic about what they view, or a particular style of entertainment that’s true to them. And I think that helps inspire other people to get out and see the world and sort of challenge the daily norm by which people live,” says Roif.
In 2012, Roif was majoring in film studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, when he discovered that the iPhone he was using to make videos was also pretty good at still photography. Photography initially “became an excuse” to explore the landscapes of the state every weekend. He started posting his shots on Instagram. Within a year, he had about 8K followers by engaging with other users, as well as by employing a liberal, if judicious, use of hashtags.
“Sooner or later, people take notice,” he says. And companies do, too, if your style of storytelling is aligned with their brand values, and your followers mirror the people and communities they want to reach.
“Like with any media outlet, you become a brand yourself,” Roif says. “And you feel responsible for delivering a certain caliber and style that the people who follow you are coming to you to see.”
Among them are frequency and consistency. Roif posts regularly and is aware — perhaps too acutely, he admits — that his audience expects a certain type of photograph. “Like with a TV show that’s a drama, he says. “If the next day it’s a comedy, people say, ‘what the hell’s going on.’”
Swiping though Roif’s photographs, you’ll see few that are readily identifiable as promoting a brand. Sure, there’s the bottle of G.H. Mumm champagne held at arm’s length inside a stable at this year’s Kentucky Derby. And that’s an LG V10 showing off its wide-angle capabilities, but this shot simply displays the device’s capabilities. Indeed, most of Roif’s photographs are discreet nods to an aesthetic or lifestyle rather than hardcore endorsements of any particular product or service.
That iPhone in the foreground of a sunrise above the Golden Gate Bridge is actually illustrating how “easy” is it to create a landing page with client Squarespace. And who’d have guessed that this sunrise shot on a mountain in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park was for an online accommodation-booking service if it weren’t for Roif’s “shoutout to @airbnb for helping me stay close to epic places like this.” Ditto this aerial for Driveaway Holidays, which provided the car for his recent two-week tour of the country.
Roif is now repped by 247Laundry Service, a New York-based social media agency that he feels does a good job of “organically” matching a client’s brief with its roster of creatives.
“I think the big mistake a lot of brands make is trying to force a lot of messaging into someone’s work, or getting them to adjust their style. That doesn’t feel authentic,” he says.
Recently, the 26-year-old Roif turned down a $15,000, two-week gig to travel around Ireland at the expense of a whiskey brand. He was too busy working on a campaign for a client at R/GA.
“It was one of those moments where I was like, ‘wow, where is this going to go?’ I was really torn,” he recalls. “I’m incredibly passionate about photography but I don’t want to make it my primary source of income at this time. I’m having a lot of fun doing advertising. Creatively, I feel very inspired.”
Nice jobs, if you can get them.