March 19th, 2015
After a number of years out of the business, Katy Barker – one of London’s most renowned agents of the 90’s – has made a quiet but steady approach to her return. While the common fear in fashion is of fading away should one ever take the enormous risk of pulling out for a time, the past 12 months have included a number of comebacks that leaves one wondering whether or not a break away is exactly the secret to success so many in dire need of a reboot have been seeking. Brokering some significant deals for her new but talented roster members, it would appear as though Ms. Barker still has what it takes to come out and play with the big boys of the agent world. That being said, having been a part of the business over the past number of years, or having been away, has not made it easy for all to keep up with the incessant evolution and lightning fast progression of technology with all of the newfound demands that have accompanied it. If fashion were as basic as riding a bike, one’s ability to come back to it without incident may be the common belief. The reality is, however, that this machine is more comparable to computer programming and keeping up is anything but an effortless endeavor. Let’s discuss.
KB: I took 4 years out and bought the rights to a book that I had read 12 years ago. I went to live in the countryside where I started to work the book with a producer. I learned very quickly that film is a very long process. Throughout that time period, I had heard from a number of clients asking when I was coming back, and received various emails from new talent who had similar inquiries. At a certain point, I just decided it was time to come back.
CM: Do you find the industry has changed quite a bit since your departure?
KB: If I put it into one word, it’s time. It’s been so compressed by the needs of social media or clients needing a lot more than just a press shoot. At one point there was maybe press, point of sale, posters, in store, and some collateral. It’s extraordinary the amount of work that we have to do on a daily basis to maintain social media alone now. Even to the point that as an agency, we have to address those things for ourselves in terms of our own awareness of the industry. Previously, there was a bit more time to work on jobs, a bit more time to look at layouts. There was a lot more of an emotional attachment because there was a little bit more time to work on budgets and to look at casting. For me, that seems to be the greatest difference because we are racing towards budgets, we are racing towards trying to facilitate the clients’ needs, and there isn’t much of an option, because I think financially there is a lot more pressure for clients to deliver with creative and what they need to cover.
KB: Budgets, particularly one we are working on right now, they have our shoot and everything required taken care of within the confines of our initial budget and now we are discussing moving image. Not necessarily behind the scenes, but creating an actual separate film which is additional usage- whether it’s online or in store. At that point, one has to address the moving image ability of the photographer and whether or not that’s a part of their background. There is a leaning towards great moving image because there are some photographers who lean towards it very naturally. Even in the early days when I was representing Carter Smith, it was an immediate for him to look at moving image. The first time I ever looked at his pictures, I shut my eyes, and I could see his images moving. So I asked him, “How do you feel about film?” For some, this is just a natural instinctive lean towards moving image, and for those who don’t… Well, as it is a necessity, I think it’s important to start collaborating with good DP’s and just a great team behind them. Finding that synchronicity with them and whatever team they are bringing in for that element, and yes, to be able to execute that with not much more of a budget in many cases. To do effective images that are not just behind the scenes- obviously, there is the time element because you want to produce something that is as effective as the still shoots, and that’s where the challenge lies. To manage to capture this and maintain continuity with the cast and overall visuals, with not so much more time. For me personally, with my artists that have a very keen interest in film, that’s great. Otherwise, I’m not going to push someone into film if it’s not necessarily their thing and, instead, bring in a separate team for that component. Which, so far, has been working out really well.
CM: Do you find that you were working a lot with moving image in the past or is that something that is newly a part of your role?
KB: Not that much. I think that some things were commissioned separately. For example, if you were asked to do a commercial, you would never be asked to do it within the same time. You had a separate day, and all of that. Also, going back to the budgets, they were bigger then. I think that if you’re a big director that’s really positioned yourself properly over the past number of years, whether it’s Mario or Peter Lindbergh, they’ve already set themselves in a place that people actually appreciate the fact that they are also directors, and they are appreciated for that. So we are looking at smaller directors that are coming out in response to the needs of the clients. For some people they step into it with ease. It really boils down to having a good budget, a good DP, and a great team to work with. I have a huge amount of respect for people that are working behind the scenes.
CM: Is it very important for you when making a decision on taking on a new artist that they do moving image? Or do you not mind so much?
KB: In my experience, I don’t think it’s a necessity initially. Because if they don’t’ have any luggage from before, they seem to step into it with a lot more interest. The young and inquisitive photographer very rarely says no and they will look into it. Certainly for some of my emerging talent, if you say moving image, they are immediately inquisitive. They don’t worry as much about the additional work or lack of time. They are quite eager to find what they can bring to the table.
CM: Despite the diversity in your roster, there is also a constant somewhere… what do you find that constant to be?
KB: The obvious is that they are all quite individual. The common thread of it for me is the emotional reaction to the imagery. Whether it’s one picture or several, when I get that feeling in my stomach when looking at images, I feel compelled to make a connection with them. If you make a comparison between the people I’ve taken on, despite how different they are, what they really all have in common is the kind of work that makes you feel and makes you react. Also, most of the guys are emerging talent and they don’t have the previous experience of being in the industry during that 90’s period where people had that wealth of time. So for me, I’m starting with people that are all sort of equal in their capacity to be excited. At the moment, there are no squabbles. They are all very excited to work in the same gang.
KB: I mean I can’t put Michael up against Cameron or Paul because all of their creative visionary is very very separate. They are all quite eager to meet one another.
CM: As the agent, a large part of your role is to have a vision that is not only cohesive with their vision of their own work, but also one that is only possible because of your experience and your ability to connect the dots to create a certain trajectory or career. With that in mind, how would you sum each artist up in a statement?
KB: It’s tricky to simplify things in such a way. For me, when I choose talent, it’s a combination of my reaction to their work and understanding the needs of where the industry is going.
Michael, for example, came from a very different background, he didn’t go to art school he went to fashion school. He instinctually takes pictures; he had never looked at a fashion magazine in his life. That was the excitement for me with him. His model choices, the graphicness of his images, each and every detail, are all pre planned. Growing up in Prague, he didn’t have access to all of those things, so he really had to work purely from instinct. Clients are finding themselves drawn to that because he has something quite special to offer. Also, as a youngster, they see the world from a different point of view. If you look at the amount of photographers that are in the industry now, with the onset of digital media, there are just so many more. I think personally that it’s difficult to differentiate between a certain middle ground. So for me, I look at each one of them and think of the social needs of the world, where the industry is going, what clients need, and I actually do think there is a need for the young talent to come through with their fresh approach. Whether it is clothes, fashion, or beauty projects, it’s about bringing something which is fresh and new to the industry. Creatively, it’s something that we all need and that’s what’s always been unique to me as an agent- trying to bring that something fresh. I suppose that can be the risk in taking some people on is that they may not be guaranteed to have that longevity and credibility, but can walk into a creative brief and absolutely comprehend it.
CM: That was something I was going to ask you next, which is that the market is so much more saturated than it was in your previous years as an agent. How do you plan on navigating that from a management point of view for your talent, now facing this flood of other talent that they are going up against for work?
KB: What is exactly the same now as it is then- is the response to individual talent. It’s about planning, it’s about taking their unique point of view and being true to it when curating the kind of productions they take on as an artist. When I do a big trip and I’m presenting their work, it’s incredibly exciting because you actually get an instant reaction from clients. There is no guarantee that someone I take on will be massively successful, but it boils down to instinct and the emotional reaction to what is going on in the world. There is a move to want change and there is a move to want to bring something new to the table. Some of the things we are not able to discuss due to confidentiality agreements, but you will be surprised by the incredibly large brands that we are working with on some of our new talent. People are really looking to freshen things up in that way, so the timing of their need and our arrival feels quite perfect really.
The other thing that I really have is that I’m so passionate about imagery. The passion that I wake up with in the morning, I can’t wait to race into the office and play with them. The excitement you get from somebody who genuinely almost walks into their creativity blindly because they have no idea; you’re working with them, you’re trying to help them see where their future is, see what works editorially, building a great platform for them to work from. Then you get a lot of fantastic talent, whether it’s the stylist or the hair and the makeup, and you find this amazing combination… which we just have, that’s where you see wonderful things happen and people begin to trust. For me, coming back was literally like coming up for air and breathing properly.
CM: Well yeah, it seems to be your way of expressing yourselves and everyone certainly needs that outlet. In terms of publishing, you now have the commissions that are exclusively for digital platforms, which is no longer restricted to the sort of DIY culture publications like an i-D or Dazed. We are also seeing this from the more traditional publications such as Vogue and all of the rest. How are you navigating that as an agent for your talent in terms of where you place value and prestige? Are you still differentiating them with one having more value than the other?
KB: When I first stepped back in, I had a little bit of a look back and for me I dedicated the work that I’m doing to print. In the last year I started to look at the requirements to do digital online work and there are extremely good teams coming together. I don’t think print will ever disappear but, for me, what I’ve really noticed is that the digital realm is where you get a clearer gauge as to the feedback the work is getting. It’s more interactive in that way than print for example. In the end, it’s always the same once you’ve got a great team together and are able to create incredible work. It can only work in the same way, and certainly because it aligns itself with online work for clients, and the enormous of online work that is aligned with the main press campaigns.
CM: While fashion remains obsessed with the idea of new- new models, new photographers, new magazines, new stylists, new designers…. it seems to always have a little bit of a reaction to itself in that there is also the continued interest in a comeback story. In photography, it’s not so much the obsession with new talent as much as it is a constant complaint of the reigning 7 dominating the advertising world and the rest of the industry being left to pick up what remains when they are done accepting their season’s commitments. Yet ironically, you have more photographers now than you have had in the past, how do you see that unfolding over the coming seasons? Do you see people being more excited about new talent and maybe shaking the thrones of those “royals” a little?
KB: First of all, I think that top 7 absolutely deserve to be sitting on their thrones. You can’t really look over your shoulder and worry about that sort of thing, because there are many more clients. I think people are excited about new talent, but I think there is also a safety net that they put out. Which is why certain people of a certain genre are working with certain clients. But I feel that there is a window approaching in for new talent and I think that the most important thing is that they can deliver shoes and the expectation of the amount of work they have to do in a day. I think as long as you support the young talent and they sustain their creativity for their clients. However, saying that, there is always a 10% margin on it where they have to appeal to the needs of the client. There is always going to be a bit of muscle flexing of what they need, but that to me is really healthy, because it means that the people are really passionate about what they are doing which leads to the production of great imagery.
CM: A lot of the “royals” have done such an incredible job at adapting to social media and being more interactive with fashion’s audience, where as some others have not and it’s yet to hurt them because they’ve been able to sort of just ride off of their pre-existing success. Obviously for new talent coming up now, adapting to that ‘new way’ is far more crucial because it’s a way of developing their brand. Is that something that you put pressure on your talent to really focus on? To be digitally present in social media?
KB: Yes, but they instinctively do it, because it’s the generation they were born in. To be honest, the majority of them are far ahead of me with that which is another thing I find quite exciting about working with them.
CM: Is there any sort of difference in the “scouting” process of finding new talent that you use today versus before?
KB: Absolutely not. I still have to have faith and simply follow my instinct, I don’t look over my shoulder, and I can’t.