say hi to_ Thierry Kauffmann
We spend a lot of time speaking to and featuring the designers, photographers and creatives themselves but what about a look from the perspective of the ones who make their deals and manage their careers? As any creative knows, when your skills lie in creating - then skills are oftentimes lacking in the business and financial department. I think most of us dream to have someone there to guide us, mentor us, negotiate our contracts and let’s face it - bring us jobs and new clients. The Artist’s Management industry in Paris is generally still a bit old school, conservative and notoriously difficult for a young or emerging creative to snag an agent for themselves. One man pioneering the creative management industry, with a portfolio full of diverse creatives from feather artists, illustrators, colorists, photographers, set designers and more - is Thierry Kauffman. Starting out in the photo agent industry he was one day strolling along a small cobbled street in Paris, where he saw a ‘FOR RENT’ sign and that when he knew it was time to do his own thing.
Thierry chats to us about how the artist’s management industry works, how he is able to take artists with seemingly non-commercial fine art and artisan skills and pitch them to high end clients such as Hermès, Chanel, Isabel Marant - to collaborate on projects in a way that these brands could never have even imagined. From feather inspired detailing on limited edition Guerlain perfume bottles to abstract, kinetic window displays which rather look like a scene from a contemporary art museum to a fashion retail location to a botany artist trying their hand at living collectible furniture - we see how Thierry guides and helps his team of creatives develop their careers creatively and commercially.
| Kristen | Can you please introduce yourself?
| Thierry | I'm a photographer and artist's agent. I support and advocate the work of different people, I make the connections between the clients and the artists for project proposals while always staying true to the work and vision of my artists.
| Kristen | Could you tell us about a typical work day for you?
| Thierry | I start the day at 9am with my morning coffee while I check in on news from the artists that I represent, I follow the productions, plan and attend meetings which can take more time than you imagine!
Knowing in which direction to go with the artists, knowing who to contact, which clients would suit and which types of projects would correspond to the aesthetic of the artists are all important aspects to the job. On the other hand it is equally about proposing our artist's work to those who have interesting and or unusual projects, using new tools or creative methods to expand and develop their portoflios in new directions.
| Kristen | Did you study photography?
| Thierry | Yes, I studied photography and also spent a long time as a photographer's assistant. I worked with a quite well known photographer who worked a lot, who was relatively famous and who did exhibitions and published a number of books. Working with him, I had the chance to participate in all aspects of creating a book, layout design, how to put together an exhibition. At one point I was this photographer's assistant, studio manager as well as handling all book and exhibition organisation and production.
Working with demanding photographers I was often told that their agent's weren't working fast enough. Thus I eventually took over many of the agent's tasks, more and more work on the productions.
At the end of a great day this photographer came to me and said “But why aren't you an agent also?”.
So I started by becoming her agent, which I ended up really enjoying.
| Kristen | How did you learn everything that you needed to know about being an agent? Through another agent?
| Thierry | No, during 10 or 12 years I had seen the work of the photographer I was assisting's agent and after that I left and got started. I took 'le book' and I went to see advertising agencies and clients. I had started like this and then I stopped working with the photographer I had been assisting.
I was all alone and then there she [ the agency ] was. An agency of 10 to 12 photographers; I didn't know exactly know how to manage the entire team while simultaneously juggling all of the different projects. I met Yannick Morisot, one of the four or five people responsible for creating the actual profession of ‘the photo agent’. He was the agent of Jean-Baptiste Mondino over 20 years, Nick Knight and Stephane Sednaoui’s agent and of all of the biggest photographers from twenty years ago who I went on to work with for the next year.
| Kristen | How long were you an agent for before you launched your own agency?
| Thierry | I would say, about three or four years.
| Kristen | How did you decide to quit your job to open your own agency? It must be scary when it comes time to make that decision.
| Thierry | I really wanted to be able to choose the artists who I would be representing and working for. To be able to say, “I love your work, I would love work with you”, and above all, that the artists choose me.
The profession of being an agent is quite being in a couple, but in a way it is the same in that you must trust one another. In addition, these are people who have quite a specific style of work which is not always overtly commercial, so you have to keep the link to the photographer's aesthetic and creative integrity.
That was the moment to do something. To choose and to be chosen.
| Kristen | France is a notoriously difficult country to start your own business, What was the most difficult?
| Thierry | I had a lot of luck.
Either way I didn't have a choice really, it was necessary that I did something, that I opened my office. I stopped by this street one day, I saw ' for rent' and I told myself “this is it”.
As for the team, I had photographer, Frank Hülsbömer, three to five artists and then it all went quickly.
After that I needed to go to the bank and tell them “Its me, I need a loan, believe in me!”. I knocked on wood but it always went well without any problems, there has always been people who trusted me and made things in life easier for me.
| Kristen | How many artists did you start with?
| Thierry | Frank Hülsbömer was the first photographer. Diego Alborghetti, who I represented for a long time also. In general, I work with people for a long time. It was mostly young photographers who take a some time to develop and advance with.
When a young photographer arrives they think everything is easy. It's my job to explain that there are clients involved, the editorial is much more complicated than they think, a lot of requests going on behind the scenes and the photographer can not simply always just do what he wants.
All of this takes a bit of time to put into place, to be fully understood – that is the reason it's necessary to work together for a long period of time.
Photographer_ Frank Hülsbömer
| Kristen | How did you earn the trust to have artists sign with you at the beginning? It must be a bit scary for them if they don't yet know that you will be able to find them jobs. Or did you already know some of them beforehand?
| Thierry | Not really. They were young, had a lot of meetings and then one day someone approaches them and tells them they are interested and believe in their work. It was at a time where there were a lot of new agencies springing up, so it was relatively easy.
It is also important to make them understand that we love their images but at the same time we don’t have the same emotions or feelings towards them as the artist may have. We have to construct a portfolio book with their images which in the end, may not actually be close to reflecting the artists actual feelings toward these images or their work.
The clients, or agencies - when they see an agent, must be able to quickly understand what the photographer is able to do, what potential they have. They don’t have time to chat with the photographer, the meeting or introduction to the work must be quick and precise. The photographer has to be able to show a concise breadth of their work, their perspective or style, what he is able to propose to the client.
| Kristen | When you launched your agency, did you already have contacts or did you contact prospective clients people spontaneously?
| Thierry | No exactly, the advantage to having worked with different people is that once I went out on my own I was able to call all of them up and let them know I started my own agency.
| Kristen | I have a friend who is trying to open an agency and I told her that she should start by working as an agent. She’s extremely talented but she I think it was important for her to start to construct a network.
| Thierry | Yes its necessary to really meet people there. When you work in advertising agencies or art buying, you are over solicited all the time. It is much easier to get in touch with them if you already know them. That’s the case for most agents. They’ve all worked in other offices or did jobs with the same network/genre of clients. It takes time to know who does what, to have everyone’s e-mail addresses.
| Kristen | What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who want to open their own business in France?
| Thierry | Everything is easy when you really want to do something, you will find a way to make it work. After, it is necessary (and maybe it is in my personality) to truly love what you do, show everyone you feel close to and admire your work. I think that its more complicated for someone who is a little bit introverted.
One thing that is really important for a photo agent, and explains why I work alone, is that if I’m working with an artist, we speak directly - not through an assistant. I was an assistant and have a lot of respect for them who do this work but with these things, I consider them to be sensitive information or topics in an ongoing relationship between agent and artist. The photographer should deal directly with the person who will represent and show their work.
say hi to_ Thierry Kauffmann - Aude Bourgine
say hi to_ Thierry Kauffmann - Aude Bourgine
| Kristen | Was it difficult to get your first client?
| Thierry | Not that difficult. I believe that I opened my agency in the month of June and the first contract arrived in the month of September. With a new photographer who I personally knew. It all came quickly after that.
| Kristen | What is the key to keeping good relationships with clients and to building long term partnerships?
| Thierry | To trust, to exchange, to have a glass of white wine? I wouldn't say that you are to be 'friends' but you have to have trust in one another. If I say or suggest something, I know it is taken into consideration. It's an exchange and if the artist has something that I should know in order to develop his work, then I keep that in mind. There are the artists who are based in Paris who I can talk extensively with over a long lunch. With those who live abroad, it would take a longer time to build that relationship for example. From the beginning it is difficult because they do not know the way that things operate in Paris - the agencies, the clients. Sometimes when the artists come to visit Paris, I feel as though they do not understand why things don't move fast and take off right away.
| Kristen | Do you prefer to discover artists at the beginning of their career and guide them, to help form them or to represent artists more developed in their careers?
| Thierry | I prefer to work with someone whose work has never been seen. This has mostly been the case so far. It's much more exciting for everyone to work with people that no one knows.
When I started to work with Janaïna Milheiro, who works with feathers, I was told - “but what are you going to do with someone who makes things out of feathers?!”. We didn't even know. Yet we went on to work with Chanel, Guerlain, Hermès; right away. I love those who do something very specific; I'm not drawn to artists who do everything per-se.
“She was a textile designer so her work was truly destined for haute couture, embroidery. That domain didn't interest me but I told her to apply that background to imagine things in volume, to make installations for window displays. She then got it right away and that's how we got started.
I have the impression of bringing them to a place that they had not yet considered or thought of before.”
| Kristen | For say hi to_ for instance, we may find a very talented object designer who we go on to collaborate with on a series of objects together. Although I may find their work incredible, I still guide them with my knowledge of the market and demographic. That is how we can guide and help develop certain designers in a specific direction.
| Thierry | Yes that is exactly what it is about. I think I am beginning to really understand the luxury industry which I mostly work in. They have the same needs, problems and codes. Once one understands those things we can play with the artist to create things together.
When I went to see Janaïna she did not understand what I wanted. I said, “reflect on the installations and the possibilities in that realm.” She was a textile designer so her work was truly destined for haute couture, embroidery. That domain didn't interest me but I told her to apply that background to imagine things in volume, to make installations for window displays. She then got it right away and that's how we got started. I have the impression of bringing them to a place that they had not yet considered or thought of before. That brings me satisfaction!
say hi to_ Julien Colombier - Thierry Kauffmann
| Kristen | Do you define or choose the type of project that they should look for? How does it work.
| Thierry | Yes I know the brands, I know how they communicate what they do for events, so I go and propose people that the brands can grasp. That doesn't mean that a project will come immediately out of that but somewhere the client will understand what our artist could do for their brand. That's what I was saying earlier, the brands want to work with artists who are able to work on projects they commission. I don't work with artists who simply take their canvas' and hang them in the store window. I love fine art but that's not what we are looking for. It's necessary to be able to work according to the project, it's commissioned work, new creations that were specifically made for these brands. I love this. There are some artists who do not want to work like this, who prefer to be in a gallery and for some others, they enjoy it and it goes in the same direction as their work.
| Kristen | I think that it brings something new to work like that. I understand if certain artists don't want to be too commercial but I think that if they translate the style they have in their art to this type of installation, it could become something super interesting.
| Thierry | Of course and anyways, if the client respects the work of the artist and if it's a nice brand... why not. Afterwards, obviously some requests come in from very mainstream brands asking to make collaborations and we would have to say no. You can't work with Chanel, Hermès and Cartier and then work with an uninteresting brand. It's not a question of money, we know that it wouldn't work so we don't do those jobs.
| Kristen | The artists that you represent are very creative yet able to translate their work commercially, that is why I find your selection of artists so interesting. There are tons of photo agencies but I think that yours is one of the most interesting.
Is it easier or more difficult to find commercial projects for these types of artists? Most agents have very commercial artists, you fill a specific niche.
| Thierry | Yes of course and I want to stay like that, I want to do interesting and strange projects. There are PR agencies who call me and tell me they're looking for someone doing a specific type of work, they saw my site and none of the artists I represent necessarily correspond to what they need but they ask if I know artists who do. I see this as a really great thing because if I am showing very interesting profiles and artists, I know that I'm going to receive calls about it. I on the other hand, am a little bit difficult to decide on working with someone – it takes a bit of time.
| Kristen | Do you find the artists that you want to work with or do they contact you to show you their portfolio?
| Thierry | Both, Janaïna and Najla El Zein, I found by accident on the internet and thats how that happened. There are some people who come to see me too.
say hi to_ Najla El Zein - Thierry Kauffmann
| Kristen | Do you have advice for photographers or creatives who are looking for an agent? I think that a lot of artists or photographers don't know when they should start looking for an agent. I know in New York at least, they say “Don't worry, the agents will find you.”
| Thierry | We also have to take into consideration that the agent is someone who can give advice. For a long time I would see everyone, because I think that it's my work to advise in a way. In general, I at least take a look at the website. If the person takes photos of weddings, it's not interesting for me. But if it is someone who I see potential in, I think it is my job as an agent to meet with them and advise them and say “This is good, but be careful because such and such is not working”.
I'm not talking about technique, just about the approach, so that they understand that there are some challenges ahead. It's necessary to do this with young artists, it's really important.
Little by little, if the artist then takes in the advice he is told, if they apply it in their work then suddenly someone is going to say to them, “I think it's great, let's work together!”
| Kristen | Do you have any advice for those who want to open their own agency?
| Thierry | For someone who wants to open an agency, it's the same. I think that it's necessary to know a little bit of the domain, the industry. It doesn't mean you have to have tons of friends in the industry but it is important to have contacts.
No one is going to be waiting for you so you have to push the doors open and show something different.
say hi to_ Julien Colombier
| Kristen | Do you handle a lot of public relations and marketing or do your artist's take care of that?
| Thierry | You have to do everything at the same time.
| Kristen | Do you use social media at all?
| Thierry | Yes, you have to communicate with all of that; we send out newsletters, sent out updates on the artist's portfolio websites and things like that.
After that, the artists all have their own Facebook pages. As for me, Facebook isn't an interesting tool. The agencies website is a window display, I have a bit of a hard time getting myself to see it as a necessity to put the same media on other networks. I prefer to concentrate on the website and the artists can communicate in other ways. Everything is online so we always see what everyone is doing on their own social networking profiles.
say hi to_ Sarah Illenberger - Thierry Kauffmann
| Kristen | Is It problematic at all for an agent to have artists from all different creative backgrounds and with different talents or to be known for one specific style?
| Thierry | There are agencies who have 10 photographers whose work all looks the same and one is unable to differentiate between all of the artists represented. I don't see any interest to do that. I prefer to have a project and to send the right person to do the job.
| Kristen | I also imagine that it is difficult to have trust in the agency if all of their artists are all the same. For instance, what would make you suggest on photographer over another for a specific project.
| Thierry | Yea and it's the same for the clients when they go on the website and the photographers are the same, how do they choose one photographer over another. So this is a world I don't know, and something I'm not interested in knowing, it doesn't interest me. I honestly have a hard time understanding how one could show interchangeable artists.
say hi to_ Janaina Milheiro - Thierry Kauffmann
| Kristen | What is the most exciting job that you got for one of your artists?
| Thierry | Just today I got a job in from Guerlain. I had a project with them for my artist Janaïna. She did something for them using feathers, limited edition. For three years we had worked on it en it finally was released recently. It was the first meeting.
| Kristen | It's a job very specific and different.
| Thierry | Yes exactly. We had a good budget and everyone was content. It all takes some time and something the project can not advance until we know exactly what the brand would like to do. This project was the for the launch of a new perfume and for brands, it can be years of swimming upstream to launch a perfume.
say hi to_ Janaina Milheiro
| Kristen | For a job of this type, how does it work to organise it as it is a very specific project. Guerlain saw the work of Janaïna and had the idea?
| Thierry | Yes and we had a meeting and right away we had someone who presented us to the director of marketing who saw her work and said “I have something for you”. This is how it happened.
All projects in this genre, for large luxury brands or the very specific (here, we have a very limited edition, its a perfume bottle for a collector, who would be able to find this version in Harrods or on the Champs Élysees but not in Sephora for instance)
| Kristen | So you have to find them?
| Thierry | Yes of course, that's the reason that it takes some time. You can not meet the assistant of the assistant of the assistant.
say hi to_ Duy Anh Nhan Duc
| Kristen | What would you like to do next? A big project, an idea, something you you've been wanting to do or something you would like to see one of your artists do?
| Thierry | What I've had in my mind is to do exhibitions, to show all things. It would be necessary to find the way to present this in a way that corresponds to the team and which corresponds to me. Its a gallery, but not like current galleries that exist for the moment. It's the project that I have in mind for the moment, but I have a bit more research to do, to develop it, to find a way to do it in the best way.
It's not just renting a gallery and putting people in it. Thats easy. One could do everything and that doesn't interest me. I don't have collectors and this is not my way to do it. There are so many already on rue de Turenne, you rent a space, you hang work and once it's over you do it all over again. I'm not interested in doing that, I'm not a gallery.
| Kristen | It's more of a way to show the artists but like a platform – more of a showcase?
| Thierry | I don't know yet, it will be more than showing canvas... But everything I've seen up until now hasn't resonated or corresponded with me. I haven't found the the right thing yet, I have to continue searching.