March 4th, 2015
As founder of Storm Model Management (London), Sarah Doukas has shaped the careers of everyone from Kate Moss to Cara Delevingne. With her unmatched eye and boundless enthusiasm for her work, Doukas is a legendary figure within the modeling business and a constant force within an ever changing industry. Storm Models has stood the test of time and become a power player on the global scene via its innovative methodology and unique team. Handling all facets of a model’s career from that first sighting, to the runways of Paris and every stop in between with the goal of building lasting careers Storm sets the standard when it comes to mindful talent development. With the next revolution in modeling upon us, we catch up with Sarah and fellow owner, and brother Simon Chambers to discuss Storm’s evolution, changes within the industry as a whole and what keeps a model relevant in the digital age.
A Models.com interview by Janelle Okwodu
SD: Well, I started Storm in July of 1987. I had various careers before that; I was doing my own thing really. I had never worked for anybody. I was in music management and I had a band; I had an antique store in Paris and London. I actually modeled for ten years so I had experience of the industry working in Paris and then San Francisco. I came back to the UK in 1983 and had a child and a husband and frankly I was up against it financially.
I remember one of my friends saying, “Oh! you’d make a great model agent.” and then another photographer friend said, “You know, there’s a job going at IMG, you should apply” so I went and met with them a couple of times and I was like “hmm, I’m not sure about this.” Then they offered me a job and it was just one of those funny times in life that you fall into something without realizing. I thought, “Oh I really don’t want to work for anybody else, maybe I’ll spend a year there.” And, it just hit me after 6 months I thought “God I really like this!” and I stayed for about 5 years.
I knew at that point that I wanted to set up my own agency, so I left IMG. I didn’t take anyone with me but I drew up a business plan and started to approach potential backers. Richard Branson had heard about my plans; I had shared a room with his sister at school and we had stayed in touch. Richard approached me and offered to be my 50% shareholder and I was very lucky, because at that point I had no models!
I decided I would set it up with a girlfriend who had been a model, with a friend in the music business and another friend. They absolutely weren’t agents at that point, I trained them. I found talent mainly by scouting on the street because we didn’t have any models. Friends of mine in the industry said they were going to give me their foreign girls and that’s how I started the direct booking situation because I had English girls that I was developing that I HAD found, but I didn’t have any international models per se. People like David Brown – now of D’mgmt and Cyril Brûlée now of Viva; gave me models and that’s how it all started!
JO: Who was your first girl who really went on to do something incredible? I know Kate, of course, but who was the very first?
SD: There were quite a few, I found a girl in a school uniform she was only 14 years old and she did the cover of Lei magazine, which no longer exists. I had quite a lot of girls doing good stuff, but this was in 1989, which was not even a year after Storm started.
You know, probably just 11 months after Storm started I found Kate – everyone knows that story. That was just wonderful and obviously she’s still been wonderful.
SD: So many changes. When I started, models weren’t household names. They didn’t get any credit in magazines. Then it went on to the big supermodels that we all know: Christy, Linda, Tatjana and Naomi. When I started, it was still quite a pocket industry and it was a London market. It was beginning to become an international industry but it very much tended to be “oh she’s right for London but not for Paris or not for New York.” Back then the media never referred to the girls’s model agencies. Richard encouraged me to really talk about our clients and to promote them. Then we got in-house PR, very early on. I don’t think many agencies do now; they have out-of-house PR. We started really early. Once we started with Kate and we started a really thrilling career for her with Calvin, we started to do very positive press within Storm on her and we knew early on that we wanted to make her into a brand. When Simon, my brother, came to Storm a year after the beginning, it revolutionized things in a way because I knew the industry as both being a model and had been with an agency and Simon came from a very different background; he had a different set of skills. We just felt our way through it.
The business has been terrifying in a way because we became like the music business; where it’s very difficult to monetize the internet usage. But on the positive side the digital innovation now has created a worldwide opportunity for both brands and talent. It’s become a huge thing for our models to connect with brands and it was very difficult for awhile because we had to change the way we negotiated. People would come to us and say, “Oh yes it’s advertising… and it’s e-commerce, it’s on the internet.” Thinking that it was nothing when in fact, it’s huge. So, we had to actually educate our clients and educate our agents, and this was 5 years ago, how to actually negotiate this area.
Simon: Those words “internet” or “digital” were a big catch-all. The biggest was when a brand would have a website and people would allow that usage for nothing. After a while, it’s where everything is – and the editorial has become commercial because now everything has the opportunity for click-to-buy. We’re also moving on to the next stage where obviously brands are interested in connecting with the models’ social media audience!
SD: One of the ways we negotiate, is, we say she’s got a Twitter following and a Facebook following with so many thousands and you negotiate that.
Simon: It’s the opposite dynamic actually because on the one hand, the brand will want to hire the model’s services for modeling but if they then want access to the model’s audience, what they’re really doing is buying advertising. They need the audience’s engagement, they want the model’s audience, it’s the right demographic, so suddenly it’s a different negotiation. We’re selling media space at that point.
SD: It’s really interesting and a big revolution. We went through a period of transition and actually, we’ve embraced the changes and it’s fantastic.
JO: It’s really cool. The social media gives the girls a new kind of power.
Simon – Now it’s the “brand meets the brand” in a way.
JO: I of course have to ask you, since you discovered so many superstars. What do you look for when you spot a girl? What catches your eye or gives you that “ah-ha” moment?
SD: It’s really funny for me, in the beginning as I said, for me, everywhere I went, I had to keep my eyes open. Obviously the first thing is height and bone structure because that makes you photogenic, but I’m still completely…. I’ve got some kind of 3rd eye thing going on. Faces intrigue me. I just hone in on this. I was on a train in Singapore recently; it was already 12 at night and I was exhausted. I saw this mother and daughter, and my husband said “No Sarah, not this time of night…” and I had to talk to them because the daughter had such an interesting face. They both looked absolutely exhausted and had been traveling from somewhere remote in Germany. I thought the girl was amazing. She’s 14 years old, I didn’t have a pen or anything, so I gave the mom my card. I had a business card which was a miracle.
It’s just that, you just see somebody and you think, “I’ve got to do it!” Sometimes when you find somebody that hasn’t walked into your office, you get more opportunity to look at them and see if they’re going to be photogenic. You see a lot more about them, you probably see personality and everything in their movements or their interaction with other people. You know, whatever they’re doing and they’re not aware that you’re looking at them. It’s more awkward when you are confronted by someone who says, “I want to be a model.” It’s much easier for me and for everyone I suppose if they’re not aware that they’re being watched.
JO: I think you can see their real personality and the way they move.
SD: Exactly and I still find this so exciting!
JO: Now, I want to talk to you also about Storm itself and what makes it so different and special from other agencies. I actually wanted to know, how did the name “Storm” come about?
SD: It’s a difficult thing to think of a name! Whether it’s The name of a child, or the name of an agency. Richard Branson of Virgin, my 50% shareholder, he jokingly would always say “Virgin Models would be a marvelous name!” I was like, “Not on your life, Richard! Never!” So, I was having none of it, and I was in a desperate state to think of a name. I would think of a name, live with it for a day, and then hate it. Then I was looking in Roget’s Thesaurus and I liked the sound of tempest, or storm. Then I lived with it for a day, a week, and I thought “All right! That’s it.”
SD: Can you imagine! – No offense to Richard, Virgin is a fabulous brand, but Virgin Models wouldn’t have gone down well.
JO: What makes you guys different?
SD: First and foremost, we’re not part of a network. They’re all the rage and they’re everywhere. I take it as a positive. We have to have very good relations with people. We offer 360 degree management to all of our clients and we really do take the long-term approach because I don’t have other investors. I don’t have venture capitalists or some fabulous person who is looking to say, “Hey! you need to pump up these chickens” and get the 100,000 pound booking as opposed to the fabulous piece of editorial that the girl needs. I look at the account and say, we don’t need that money, we are going to take the editorial. I don’t think many agencies can really say they do that, but we do. The long term benefit is phenomenal. It’s like, you could buy a seedling or you could start by getting seeds and I think that’s what we do.
We keep on developing and there are many people in here who are no longer just model agents. Re-managing has brought a range of talent that we’ve never had before. We support our young actresses that we bring on; we get involved in acting workshops and managing their commercial opportunities and building their profiles. We’ve just got lots of different types of diverse, unique, personalities here that are not only just models.
Simon: It’s not just about PR and social media; a lot of what we do is done quietly and we build strategically, we have internal teams collaborating with our talent and outside teams.
SD: With some of our biggest clients we have teams of up to 7 people with different expertise. We’re very strategic about careers. We register the trademarks, and we manage the intellectual property. We want to be able to cover all ends; it’s very rewarding and it’s incredibly helpful. You can get all of these people out of house, and we’ve had situations where some of our fabulous talent have said they’re going to get out-of-house PR for a little bit or they’re going to get this, that and the other one; it’s actually very difficult for them to manage it all because you’re not all singing off of the same song sheet. We have time to go over who should be doing what, why things might cannibalize an opportunity.
JO: I wanted to talk about the Storm Artists as well. The actors and actresses that you’re representing.
SD: Well, we’re doing very well with Storm Artist Management. We represent a lot of talent. You know, models who have turned to doing acting, doing brilliantly and we do this in a very low key and respectful way. The point is that we’ve got them doing the acting workshops and we are supporting their interests.
Simon: There are a few casting directors that are happy to champion really new talent. Here we’ll work with them and find out and when we’ve got someone to a point where we really know that they don’t just have the talent but also the work ethic and the hunger, then we’ll put them to agents.
SD: Simon and I have always grown up with that and Storm Artists was actually pure acting for a long time. It was difficult for us to manage and then we kind of brought in other elements to it.
Simon: The other element we added were a lot of well known very successful people in the creative world: actors, musicians, whatever. Now they come to Storm Artists for them to manage the commercial side of things.
With the careers of people we’ve represented we’ve always taken a very strategic approach to brand relationships to maximize longevity and with it, add value. Hopefully that gets recognized by other people who come to us and often with a very specific brief. They don’t want any brand relationships and they’ll come to us and ask if we’d look after that for them so that’s been great.
In a world of social media where content is king and everything has to have a story to have virality and pick up worldwide, before there can be another story or another element; something that makes it unique is so powerful. It’s great when you can find these other elements to people’s lives and their other abilities. And the brands really appreciate it too.
Simon: We want our talent to have the maximum careers that they can. And I think that going on that journey with them; it’s so exciting and it’s so rewarding. So, it just makes the whole experience better and hopefully it’s a richer longer one, too and we can be there for the journey.
JO: I love that you guys are talking about a really long and fruitful career with many facets.
SD: Mainly, we train everybody at the start here. If people come to us from another agency, sometimes we take them but sometimes we prefer not to! Because everybody is different and Simon and I have a specific idea of who we want to work with and we’ve got a fantastic team.
There are lots of different expertise and everybody is like-minded and that’s just the way we choose them and there’s a great camaraderie there. It’s very supportive and it’s a lot of vibrancy and fun. I just like people that are really enthusiastic and everybody can get involved! Everybody has a say in here and I try and run a very democratic office. Everybody has something important to say and as far as I’m concerned it’s not too many cooks, “it’s many hands make light work”.