BS: How would you describe the ideal Wilhelmina model both male and female (keeping in mind that you have all these different divisions)?
SP: I think, unfortunately, the clear tendency, when you ask a question like that, would be for the agent to say or pick the biggest star on the high end fashion board for men or the biggest star on the high end fashion board for women and I think that’s where a lot of agencies make their mistake.
I think the beauty of Wilhelmina is the depth of Wilhelmina, the diversity of who we represent and what we have here. We don’t want to just have a great high end men’s board and a great high end women’s board, we already have what I consider to be the gold standard of sophisticated women, the gold standard of plus women, the gold standard of sophisticated men, the best celebrity/artist management division in the business, I think our children’s division is second to none in the industry.That diversity is what so important to the stability of this company. There are a lot of crappy fly by night agencies out there where you don’t know if they’re going to be around tomorrow. I can name a handful of agencies that have popped up that were hot for 5 seconds and that have either folded or are about to fold. But overall, there are very few stable long term players in the business and Wilhelmina, thankfully, is one of them. And if I have any say in it, we’re going to become the dominant one in total at some point.
We’re already one of the most profitable, if not the most profitable in the world. I believe at a certain point soon, hopefully, we will be able to dominate or at the very least have a very strong showing in the areas where historically we have not had a strong showing.
BS: What do you think are the unique features that Wilhelmina offers its models as well as the clients that book Wilhelmina models?
SP: I think first and foremost when you look at something such as the sophisticated women’s division that I had just spoken to you about; you don’t last this long in the business without a certain amount of respect and regard with which you deal with people- you deal with your talent, you deal with your clients. I think it’s one of those situations where it’s a corporate culture here at Wilhelmina, and we ARE a corporation, we’re not one of those small mom and pop operations. We have many many agents, just in New York we have 75 plus people. We have offices in LA and Miami. We all truly believe that you treat people in the utmost professional manner possible and that you service them and give them exactly what they’re looking for. And you do the same with your talent, you make sure your talent is represented as best as possible.
It’s not the kind of thing where we tolerate agents that aren’t cutting the mustard or aren’t getting it done right, we can’t afford to, we have too much riding on it. We are a massive business and we can never afford to take shortcuts with representing the talent or servicing the client. So you will almost never find a complaint from a Wilhelmina client who felt like they had an issue that wasn’t immediately resolved or taken care of, cause we take that very seriously because we need these clients long term and hopefully they become dependent on us providing that sort of service for them.
BS: That’s why you have models that stay with you for decades…
SP: Truly for decades. We’ve had girls that have started with us in the children’s division and are now with the sophisticated division. We like to consider ourselves kind of like a Barney’s or a Saks, if we can make people comfortable shopping at our huge department store, where we service them really well and we have a great product in all the different areas they want to shop, then it’s comfortable and easy for them just to come and shop here rather than going to look a little bit at this boutique or a little bit at that boutique. We try to be as full service as possible. From a model’s perspective, we also have the stability because of the fact that we are as strong as profitable as diversified as we are, these models are never going to be wondering if anything is going to be happening to Wilhelmina. They know that Wilhelmina has been here for 40 years and they know that Wilhelmina will be here for another 40 years.
It takes years to build the volume with which you can go out and scout effectively, grow the agency, staff it appropriately, service the model appropriately. Models want to get paid within 2 or 3 weeks. So we float that money, as most big agencies do and we float that money in the period of time between when you give the model the money and when you collect the money from the client. A small company will find it hard to compete because there’s such a big barrier to entry in this business.
And on the other side, when you reach the size of a Wilhelmina, you are always hyper cautious and very conscious of the fact that you’re dependent on these clients and your talent and you treat them with the utmost respect and professionalism that is required, that’s the perfect balance. I think certain times in our business, agencies became big and successful and arrogant at the same time and we saw these agencies fall by the wayside. We don’t ever want to make that sort of a mistake and that’s what I mean when I say that at certain times, this job can be humbling; you have to have a real amount of respect for all the people that you’re dependent on in your business as well.
BS: What do you think is the next stage in the evolution of Wilhelmina?
SP: Clearly, right now for us, the big push for us is on the high end women’s side. We’ve had, what I believe to be, a really great run and amount of success on the high end men’s side, and as I stated before, the sophisticated, plus, children’s, artist management, creative, sophisticated men’s boards have all done exceptionally well. Our main women’s boards are extremely profitable, we service those girls really well. They tend to be slightly more on the commercial side historically but that’s changing rapidly right now because of the fact we brought on board some agents that I think that are able to kind of meld the two, both the commercially successful side of the business with the high end, image-y, cool, you know, Prada, Jil Sander, V Magazine sort of aesthetic at the same time. And you need to be able to strike sort of a hybrid chord there in order for you to be able to make any moves whatsoever on the high end side of the business with the women. I believe probably that is the last frontier for us, I think that we’re making some good headway and we’ve assembled a good team there who will now to be able to get us to where we need to be on that side. It takes time but we’re willing and we have the money to make the investment to get it done right.
I think a lot of our competitors are watching us because in certain ways, on the high end women’s board, they see Wilhelmina as the sleeping giant. I think that at this point, I think, for all our successes, we’ll be able to break through on the high end side to really have a pretty decent showing. There are a few women’s agencies that have it well buttoned up right now. I think that on the high end women’s side, I’d say, that DNA, IMG and Women all tend to have a predominant market share in that area of the business. I think that it tends to move around, I think that the really high end of the business can sometimes even be a loss leader. I think it tends to move around the industry and I think clearly that we’re poised and in a position to take advantage of those movements. I already see us getting some great traction in a lot of different areas in the high end women’s side of the business. It’s not whether we break through at this point, it’s a matter of when. As I said before, we’re focused and ready to do it AND we have the resources so now it’s just a matter of time.
BS: What can we expect from the upcoming VHI reality show, The Agency?
SP: It’s going to be extremely entertaining, I can tell you that. You know, I had the original idea for the show about 2 1/2 years ago and it’s one of those situations where as the show developed and as the process moved forward and as we sold to a network, you get nervous from time to time of the ultimate direction or to where the show would wind up because there are so many people involved in the creative process. There have been times during the process where it’s been nerve wracking where it was like, “Are we going to be where I really think the show needs to be?”
First of all, it’s got to be honest, you have to be willing to show what really goes on in the business that people don’t know goes on. Betty, you were an agent, and you know some of the craziness that actually exists in this business that people at home don’t realize. The making of a model, the creating of an image, the creating of a career, it’s really involved and nutty sometimes. We wanted to make sure to show what it is that goes on in a real light and not neuter it by eliminating the potential tension between agents, the potential tension between agencies, the things that happen that would be interesting to the home viewer. My thought always was, that I really believe in what I call the conscience of Wilhelmina- that at the end of the day, this place is filled with a bunch of really great hardworking young people who only want the best for the business and for the talent we represent and to really service the clients well. So I believe that no matter what, if we are honest and we don’t neuter it too much, that is what will come across to the home viewer is that Wilhelmina is actually a very caring place with a bunch of driven people, sometimes a little nutty and sometimes it can be a little bit off the wall some of the things that happen, but it’s an incredibly interesting place to watch and it’s the kind of place that they would want their daughter and son to be represented if they were models.
I think now, at this point, where we are just about done with it, I think we’re there. I’m feeling very, very good about the balance. Let’s not kid ourselves. If it airs one time and the show gets killed what advantage is that to anybody? From a branding perspective, you’re completely screwed, you got nothing out of it and this whole thing was an exercise in vanity. You need to really be able to show something that is of interest and maintains some sort of entertainment value for the viewer. This has all those things and I really believe it’s going to be extremely entertaining. I think that a lot of our competition are actually going to be watching it every week and be riveted by it and I think that they’re going to probably go to work the next day and maybe snicker or backbite us, because what else are they going to do? They’re never going to say, I love this show, it’s a great show.
I feel exceptionally good about how this show is going right now and I’m telling you, I think that people are going to really love it. People in the industry are going to like it and people outside the business are going to go, “Whoa, that happens?”. It’s one part Laguna Beach, Sex in the City, one part M.A.S.H-off the wall kind of thing, you have all these interesting characters. I feel good about the fact that the conscience and the soul of Wilhelmina comes through at the same time. We’ll see, I can’t wait for you to see it and I can’t wait to get your feedback! The response has been amazing, this is truly one of the biggest launches in VH1 history, the network really loves what’s going on. The idea is to get it out in July/August so they’ll look at what the best possible launch dates is for the show.
BS: What would you say is the secret to achieving longevity for a working model?
SP: I found that this can be equally applied to a girl or a guy, honestly. What I really find is the relationship that they share with their agent is absolutely the most important thing in having that long term career. The greatest models in our business tended to find one agent that they gravitated towards, they stuck with that agent for an extremely long period of time. Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Mark Vanderloo, these models who’ve had really long term phenomenal careers. Probably the only one whose made a career of jumping around a little bit is Naomi. Besides Naomi, most of the great models and the ones with the long term careers have tended to stay with one agent for an extended period of time and I think there’s something to be said for that.
There’s something to be said for someone who understands you, who believes in you, who’s willing to work through the slow times with you. As an agent, I guess you have to take it with a grain of salt, what I’m saying, but I truly believe that. I really believe that that relationship is the most important thing because as a model you can only control so much. Your connection to the greater fashion world is your agent. You put your trust, your life, your financial well being, your everything, in their hands so if you don’t find a good one and you don’t have that relationship, you’re not going to have the greatest chance of developing that great career. I think that’s probably what works the best. And you know what, having that good long term relationship with an agent, it helps you in those moments when your head may not be at the right place, where you may be a little bit down on the business or what’s going on. You need someone to say to you, “Hey, listen, this month wasn’t as busy as we would have liked but we really know that you’re going to break through and we know that we’re going to get another opportunity.” Most of the models that have long term careers have worked well but there’s always a slow patch here and there, and to have that person that you trust there behind you at all times, I think that’s a very special thing to have, and that’s what most models should truly be working for.
BS: Thank you Sean, so much for your time…
SP: You’re welcome!