Founder and head of the London photography agency We Folk, Olivia Gideon Thomson helps represent a roster of elite artists, including celebrated mavericks like Viviane Sassen and Todd Selby, who produce some of the most exciting contemporary work in fashion, advertising and editorial photography. We Folk works with such ad agencies as Anomaly, Havas, Mother, Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi and Wieden+Kennedy, as well as brands such as Adidas, British Airways, Levi’s, Max Mara, Smirnoff and Sony.
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How did you get your start as an agent?
I completed a master’s course in photographic and cultural theory, and I badly needed a job. You know how these things start—you meet someone at a party and get talking, and you
follow up and suddenly you have an interview. That’s how I met Katy Baggott, who was running Z Photographic in London, which represented Juergen Teller. I was quickly swept up into assisting the productions, then producing his shoots. I had lots of friends in the art world and had an eye on photographers like Hannah Starkey, Nigel Shafran and David Spero, who were just coming out of college and beginning to create work. I asked Katy if I could represent Spero, who was really an artist and not doing commercial work. We did a few projects together—a Volkswagen job, a few record sleeves—which gave me a taste for working with artists on commercial projects.
How do you curate We Folk’s roster of artists?
I work with people I like. We don’t often have time to explain jobs in detail, so we have to rely on trust, which goes both ways. My first meeting with photographers is crucial—it either keeps the door open or I wrap it up. I’ve made mistakes when I didn’t listen to my gut. It’s never that the work isn’t good enough, but there is just something that doesn’t sit quite right for me, and it’s impossible for me to sell that through to winning a job. I aim for a diverse roster because I like people to be of equal value. I’ve never felt comfortable with having one or two front-runners who support the agency. It’s very dangerous because if they leave, you don’t have a business.
What do you look for in the photographers you choose to represent?
The best business model for a freelance photographer is one in which they are supported by a full-time first assistant or studio manager, and they run a studio or office. We’ve analyzed the performance of photographers who have that structure and those who don’t, and the results are quite clear: prosperity comes through investing in support. So I look for an infrastructure.
Next, I look for some personality traits. Self-knowledge is important, as the camera is an extension of the photographer’s personality. Having a truthful relationship with yourself is the key to a long career.
Finally, commitment is essential, and it’s surprisingly absent in some very talented people. Being an agent is a double sell—you have to get the clients and the photographers to align. Your photographer needs to be available 24/7 if that’s what the job requires. They have to be willing to work together with the client to come up with solutions. Creatives no longer present complete ideas; they need the photographer’s input before they commit to working with them. Some photographers believe that they shouldn’t do any work until they get the purchase order. That doesn’t work anymore.
Why do photographers need agents if they have a support structure already?
The idea that agents can solve all your marketing issues—that you no longer have to “sell” or worry about money—is false. The photographer has to work incredibly hard alongside us to strategize, sell, pitch, budget, produce, deliver, wrap. Quite often we have to pitch and budget again and again and still don’t succeed. Photographers are often looking for immediate approval, but we’re not. We’re there to understand the rejection, learn from it and then do something about it to get better results. We can ask clients questions the artist can never ask. When you understand what’s important to both parties, that’s when you can make something happen.
Another important point is career management. Artists who have a strong voice, who should be turning down as much as they are accepting, really need an agent—they can’t do that on their own. Lastly, I see photographers over and over who have a few good years and they don’t remember to invest in their own work, develop creatively and make themselves continuously relevant. Then the work dries up, and they take it personally. Our industry likes what is new and fresh—we’re all so terrified of seeming out of fashion. And the young and talented are ruthless in condemning what’s gone before them. You need someone who can navigate that with you who isn’t caught up in the ego, who isn’t myopic, someone who is balanced, trustworthy, patient and has a little faith.
What suggestions do you have for photographers looking for an agent?
You have to treat your work as a job where you need to get things done. If you can’t invest in a business structure, try to work in an office with other people to whom you are accountable. Also, encourage companies you work with to include your work in their mailers and promotions. Send out your own direct mail, and don’t try to do a wacky sell. You can’t make everyone laugh, and some
people will just think you’re an idiot. Lastly, follow up! Seventy-five percent of our day is reactive, meaning we respond best to pressure. Get an answer, even if it’s a no.
What do photography agencies need to do in order to stay relevant in the current—and future—marketplace?
Everyone thinks that we need to move more solidly into film in order to compete with the rise of content production. My opinion is the same as it’s been since the arrival of the Red camera: let’s just wait and see what happens. Print and television are now meeting in the middle ground of digital, and both can lay claim to the territory. There is a fully established tendency to try to combine productions, and “shooting the campaign off the back of TV” is a phrase we hear a lot. It tends to suit lifestyle photographers who can work with ambient light and shoot live action.
It’s my experience, however, that the best creative directors still want to work with the absolutely perfect photographer or director for their project, and a single solution really isn’t what they want. I need to keep We Folk in the market for the best print campaigns out there. Sure, we can provide a one-stop solution—it’s not that hard to pick up a 5D and shoot motion, just as a director can easily stop the film rolling and get a still. But really, is that going to produce the best work?