I met Jean-Baptiste via an introduction from Elina Gough, who I interviewed several weeks ago for Masters of Many, talking about her reinvention of the art-world model in the form of Artsnug which was connecting consumers to little known independent artists.
Jean-Baptiste also operates in this space, but his business is in line with an interesting trend that keeps cropping up in my conversations with entrepreneurs – that of big businesses wanting to connect with creative independents in a different way. His business takes that trend and operates as an intermediary between brands and businesses who want to connect with artists, albeit in a multitude of ways. The model is a fascinating one and we caught up with him to find out how he’s made it work…
Tell us about your journey to date?
I did my BA in marketing at Georgetown, in the US, thinking I was going to do something in advertising. I went on to work at the agency Publicis, but I got frustrated with the push advertising model, the act of simply putting an ad out there and hoping that people will engage with it. Instead I went into partnership brokering at the agency – sports and sponsorship stuff mostly. I moved on to MEC (the media agency) and that moved my career in partnerships beyond sports – into music, film, fashion, and art stuff.
I was enjoying agency life, but at the same time I was becoming increasingly passionate about our urban environment and how art was helping people to engage with culture in a way that a lot of the marketing stuff that I was doing sometimes fell down on. At the same time I realised that the creative team in the agency was creating great work, but it was the account guy who was going and presenting it to clients, and they were really disconnected from that side of the process.
So I looked at this urban culture of art, particularly street art which was gaining popularity; and this need to bring creatives forward more – and thought – maybe there’s a way I can link agencies and creatives in a different way. I set out basically to broker partnerships between creatives and companies in a much more direct way, whereby I respect the integrity of the artist, but also manage the expectations of the brand and client.
When I quit MEC I did a masters in art at Goldsmiths, an 'MA in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship' with a Design Pathway, because I had no art background, so I wanted to better understand the artists side of the business. I did that for a year while I was setting up the business. . There are two of us in the business. My business partner was also at MEC. His background was art and gallery related. He left before I did to work at Apollo, the magazine; and 6 months later I left MEC, once I’d finished a project I had to get covered off and we started the business together.
It’s been a year and a half since then, and lots of opportunities have arisen and we've spent a lot of time working out which ones are the best to drive us personally forward, but also drive the business forward as a valuable proposition.
At the beginning I think we tried to be all things to all people and it wasn’t clear what we were or what we were supposed to be. We analysed the market, and have now segmented the business into three things that we should be offering. The first is ‘art for space’ in the more traditional sense, e.g. art in buildings, hotel rooms and lobbies. The second is ‘art for product’, for example a brand might want a partnership with a creative to create art for shoes, jewellery or watches. The last one is ‘art for media’ – rather than having generic art and imagery that businesses use in their owned media, this is art-work that people can use that is unique to them. The final space has come to life over a series of projects that have met that need.
The business involves meeting a lot of people and really getting out there. It’s a lot of discussions around what a business might need and understanding how they see art and what they perceive as art in order to create projects and outputs that meet their objectives.
What made you take the leap to do things differently?
I think it was timing ultimately. I wasn’t yet married, I wasn’t fixed geographically to anywhere and I’d saved quite a bit of money knowing that one day I might want to do something for myself. So I thought, ‘now is not a bad time to give this a shot’. It had been running through my head for about 2-3 years before, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew it had something to do with creativity, and un-locking the power of that for business. But I also knew I didn’t want an agency as such, I knew what that model was like and it wasn’t for me.
I set up the structure for the business as soon as I left, but it was through studying that I developed ideas and research that then fed into the final business model.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
I think we’re still making progress! When we had our first client that was a first degree of separation from people we knew already, we realised there was an appetite for what we were doing and the way we were doing it. The second moment was securing a client that enabled us to pay ourselves a salary each month – that was when we realised we might be able to actually survive by running the business! The next challenge is getting to the point where we can survive comfortably.
How often do you feel like ‘it’ isn’t going to work?
It happens all the time. You become the accounts person, the financial person, the marketing person…you don’t really know how to do all of those things or have that particular set of skills. So you worry you’re going to screw it up – but actually if you put your heads together and speak to the right people, you tend to get through it. It might take a bit longer than you would have liked it to, but you get there.
What do you find difficult about managing lots of different elements of your business at once?
You have to learn to focus, and not spread yourself too thin, because then you’re no use to anybody. That’s one of the reasons we segmented the business into art for space, products and media, because before our proposition was ‘you can get involved in art in any way you want’ and now we know which businesses we really want to be speaking to.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
Doing sport is really good to get your mind off it. I go and hit a tennis ball or go for a run. Otherwise I just try and write that particular problem down and get away from the laptop to solve it, because the laptop tends to suck you in to daily stuff.
What or who do you find intimidating?
There isn’t really a ‘who’ – everyone is human at the end of the day. The ability to work with someone for a long time and build up the trust you need to run a business together, that can be really hard. Running a business comes with challenges, it comes with failures and all of those mean that it’s important to maintain open communication.
When you worked with your business partner for the first time – how was that experience?
When we first met it was clear that my partner had an amazing art background and that has really borne out in the business with the connections that he’s made for us with artists. It’s really cool working with someone who doesn’t have the same profile as you and is complementary to you – but of course it also creates tensions because they’re not like you – although that’s a good thing too!
What makes you feel good / powerful?
I think it’s when we produce really good art for people and they feel that it works for their company, for them, and feels right. We’re really dealing with subjective things with this business, much more than I am used to. The other thing is when we are actually able to measure the impact of the work. Sometimes it’s as simple as media reach, or people going into a building which features our art and getting great feedback that has been given to the receptionist. Having that tangible feedback is really rewarding and makes you feel like you’re doing something that impacts people’s lives on an emotional level.
However, ultimately I think it’s hard to quantify or measure, so it shouldn’t all be about the metrics!
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
That I keep pushing, always.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
That’s a really good question. I’m getting married this year, and it’s really prompted me to think about why I’m doing what I’m doing. I haven’t found the exact answer, but it has got me to an answer on the legacy question. I’d like to own three arts based spaces before I die and make them run at zero net cost / profit. They would be mixed use spaces (most likely industrial) focusing on art / design / music / restaurant / cafe / bar / artist studios and possibly even accommodation.
How do you define success now?
Ultimately it’s about seeing the business grow; getting better artists, better clients and creating a bigger network of people that are in line with the vision that we’re creating. All of that then effectively mirrors that we have money coming through the door.
How do you start your day?
I tend to work from home or from the Southbank. Either I go for a run before heading out, or do some planning for the business and then go. Because of what I do I have to meet a lot of people, so the Southbank is amazing for that, but my location is also quite ad-hoc, finding places to work near the meetings that I have. When I’m not out and about, I focus my time on writing concepts and proposals etc.
How do you organise yourself?
I synch everything across my devices – my calendar, my contacts, gmail, google – everything is fluid. All of my social media is linked in the same way, i.e. if I post something on Twitter, it posts on Instagram.
I have a 'to do' list that’s organised into strategy, operations and admin. I then focus on the things I absolutely have to get done to make money! I try and have 3 things that are important to achieve each day and make sure I get those done.
Aside from this I’ve been really bad at taking any time for myself. Work and broader life have merged to some extent, which is definitely something I need to fix. When you’re working on Sundays and on Monday nights, you’re not segmenting things right.
What’s the biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
I think I’ve become more personable and empathetic. I value my relationships with people much more. That’s a big change from working in a big corporate machine. As a big corporate you can effectively go in and impose something you want to do on someone, but as a start-up you just can’t do that, they don’t know you!
Is there anything you miss about being in the corporate world?
The structure. When you work for yourself it’s really easy to lose track of what you’re doing, and the overall direction, so I miss that a bit. I obviously miss the consistent salary part!
How do you come up with new ideas?
Honestly, that’s the point of being out and about so much and meeting new people. Ideas don’t necessarily come when I’m there, but they feed into my subconscious and then occur to me when I’m in the shower or somewhere later and am thinking about the links between different things.
Just by talking to a lot of people, you get so much information that I’ve actually stopped consuming unnecessary information where I can. I keep facebook and Google for basic engagement stuff but I don’t use them much, I try to focus on information with more meaning.
What idea do you wish you’d come up with?
There are tons! Both Air Bn'B and Tinder have a strong match-making component that’s impressive. I’m a huge fan of Nike and everything they’ve done, but I guess that’s more old school stuff.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a sports agent – I guess now I’m kind of an artists agent!
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
I wrote a thought piece earlier this year about the future of work. As video and machines are taking more of the jobs that are on the market – you’ll either need to be somebody who can create the machines, or you’ll need to be creative in the way that the machines are used. I think I’d want my kids to think about that huge shift that is going to happen and where they fit.
How do you treat yourself?
We (myself and my business partner) try and do a couple of dinners out a year where we go out and the company effectively pays. Otherwise it’s just going to the pub and having a chilled, non-work related chat.
If you could do any other job in the world, what would it be?
Data science: analysing the interactions across all personal social networks. I find the ability to quantify, measure and track all relationships across a network fascinating and extremely powerful. The power of the network is so strong in relation to what we are doing, and if I could analyse it in a hard-core way, that would be amazing.
What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
Stay focused. I’ve had that advice a couple of times, and I didn’t listen to it at first, and it came back to haunt me. I can be un-focused at times.