PhotoOp met with Olivier Rose Van Doorne - President & Worldwide Creative Director of Select World, a global agency that specializes in beauty and fashion advertising.
Overseeing strategy & creative for 7 different offices worldwide, and having worked with brands including St. John, Fekkai, Davidoff, Nine West, Balenciaga and Halston, Olivier’s advertising and marketing experience has provided him with keen insights on the past, present and future of commercial photography.
In this candid conversation, Olivier explains why the days of “big name” photographers are numbered, how he manages a shoot with icons like Jennifer Lopez and Nick Knight, and why he prefers his fashion photographers to have an agent…
PhotoOp: What is your role at Select World?
Olivier Rose Van Doorne: I'm accountable for anything strategic and creative that leaves this agency. I define where the brand belongs - its territory, if you like - and figure out a strategic way to develop it. I honestly don't believe in advertising. I believe in an ecosystem of communications with the brand narrative in the middle.
PO: And what role does imagery play in this?
OVD: Actually I am much less image-driven now than I was fifteen years ago. I still think it’s important; but I am more narrative-focused. Why? In a world where nobody reads any more, but everyone seems to know a lot about images, I think words have a lot more power. Very few people know how to manipulate words.
We get to the images once all the storytelling has been completed. And I use imagery, words, everything to drive the narrative. I firmly believe that nothing is subjective in life, that everything is objective, as long as you have a point of view.
PO: How does this methodology translate to the creative assets the agency produces?
OVD: My creative must touch the human heart. I am looking for an emotional connection. I don’t believe in anything trendy. I don't believe in fads. I don't believe in being cool. I believe in pulling the right emotional strings. I make sure that once we define the world we live in - what kind of emotion we're talking about - then we use it in every act of communication. Whether it’s a window display, or packaging, or the choice in model, or the copy in the ad - it must follow a singular narrative.
PO: At what point when you're creating this narrative, do you decide which photographer will help you see through your creative vision?
OVD: I am trying to create a unique world. This means I might have to reinvent the world. So I start by putting everything on the floor - all the concept images and all the words. What kind of photographer I want to help execute this vision can come kind of late in the creative process now. Much later now than say ten or twenty years ago.
PO: Why? What’s changed in ten or twenty years?
OVD: I think twenty years ago there were ten big photographers that owned ten very clear territories, and they could take your brand somewhere. Now, photography has become less important. Moving images are very important. Social media assets have become very important.
We have to think more about the story we want to tell. Okay, how can we illustrate our key visual, which is kind of the cornerstone of the story? How can we illustrate in moving images the world we belong to and the message we want to convey? Also, how can we surprise people in social media in a non-marketing way with a reference to the core message, but with the freedom and spontaneity to make people believe it's not a marketing message? And when I say 'we' I mean my Creative Directors, my very talented copywriter and myself.
The thinking's larger in a way: it's rare now that we say, "Oh, we want this photographer." It's more like, "Okay, we want this kind of image, but we want a photographer that is going to work well with a videographer."
Just like the 90s was the time of the supermodel - the Linda Evangelists and Cindy Crawfords of the world. Then there was the super photographers, I think it's finished. I think it's totally finished.
PO: So today’s breadth of messaging platforms is pushing you to look for photographers who can help you capture more than just a still image?
OVD: Well, yes. And also, in terms of money, things have changed. Today, we have the same budget - actually we have half the budget - we had 10 years ago. And we have to produce a lot more with it.
Recently we were shooting in Mexico for a client and we had seven sets running at the same time. There was the main campaign, a secondary photographer for other products, a still life photographer, an ambiance photographer, a "making of," and two videographers for films. The main photographer is important, but it's a bit less important than it was. I think one of the most interesting things for us is to find a photographer and a videographer that work well together, because the videographer is as important as the photographer.
PO: You've got seven sets all working concurrently in Mexico - how do these photographers even get on your radar? Is it through your Art Buyers? Did you know about them already?
OVD: The main photographer is somebody my Creative Director knew from magazines. The second photographer also. And we built everyone around these two people - Nagi Sakai and Hans Neumann. For ambiance photography, we took somebody from Mexico City, but with a style that could marry with what we're doing. Then it is a question of briefing the people very well. If people are briefed very well and very clearly with the lead photographer giving the tone, then it's totally possible to have seven sets at the same time.
PO: The lead photographer was someone you brought from your own network, and that's someone from whom the other photographers took their direction?
OVD: Well, I think they follow our combined direction. I leave my Creative Director to run the main show with the main photographer. I'm with them half the time, the rest of the time I go from one set to the other to make sure it’s all going smoothly. Honestly, I had very little to say though. If the brief is clear and well-explained then there isn’t much more to do. You need to give the photographers some creative freedom.
PO: What is a good on-set experience for you?
OVD: To me a shoot is tough, because it’s a twelve or fourteen hour day and can cost up to 2 or 3 millions dollars a day. But it should be a happy day. I don’t want any problems. And I don’t usually have any problems, because we are extremely well-organized. I don’t let anybody interfere. I am very good at keeping the client at bay.
PO: How do you prepare for the shoot? And how does this translate to your expectations from the photographer?
OVD: I rely heavily on research. When I brief the photographer, I don't say, "here's the image of the suit”. I say, "Here's the world we have to talk about. It's a world of fairy tale and legend”. I give him the whole background. I think very few people do that, because it takes time. But I believe that we work with smart people, and smart people work better when they have all the information. I'm very explicative and spend lots of time explaining and discussing. And I expect the photographer to arrive at the shoot very prepared.
PO: So it is a dialogue? You actively solicit the photographer’s input?
OVD: Of course I want their input.
PO: You have worked with some formidable names within the fashion industry, are there any photographers that particularly impressed you?
OVD: You know, I began my career on Lancôme when I was thirty working with Isabella Rossellini. And thanks to her I started by working with the best: Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber, Mario Testino. Everybody.
Lancôme is a classical brand, but it gave me the opportunity to work with top fashion photographers. I was even able to give some other photographers opportunities. People like Craig McDean. I gave him his first big campaign.
But the two that impressed me the most are Nick Knight and Javier Vallhonrat.
OVD: They are able to perfectly mix the technicality with the lyricism. Sometimes it’s just a question of chemistry and the way they work. There are some photographers that I would not work well with: somebody like Mario Testino, who is a great spontaneous photographer. But I think me giving him a brief would be a waste of time.
Mario’s work is great. He has a dinner party, he says something to a girl, the girl starts laughing and he captures it. These pictures are beautiful. But you can’t do that with advertising.
PO: Because of the risk? There’s too much at stake to be left to spontaneity?
OVD: No, it's not that too much is at stake. It’s more that we don’t have 20 celebrities sitting round a dinner table with the lights, etc. It’s a unique circumstance. Of course there are some photographers who thrive in this environment - like Bruce Weber or Enrique Badulescu. You hire these people for something very special.
And I loved working with the Nathaniel Goldbergs, the Sølve Sunsbøs, the Mario Sorrentis. They were incredible.
PO: What do you get from these “big name” photographers?
OVD: Look, Steven Meisel is one of a kind. Nobody knows how to give a fashion brand a unique look and feel like him. He understands fashion better than fashion people. Nick Knight - less now than he once was - is a magician of colors. Javier Vallhonrat doesn't work very much, but I worked with him last year in his first fashion campaign in years and he is so precise. He knows exactly how to treat the depth of field, and color, and emotion, and everything. There are few people like that, who are that amazing.
PO: But you’re not working with these photographers at all any more?
OVD: Sometimes, but we work more with younger people. People who have a little more freedom. The “big name” photographers are so protected, and always looking to make money out of every little thing. You need authorization from the repping agency for this, authorization for that... Who has time? I need photographers who are more flexible, more agile.
PO: Do you feel like this shift toward younger, more “agile” relationships is across the industry?
OVD: I don’t know. The thing is all these famous photographers were assistants first for other famous photographers, who then went on to become famous Sølve Sundsbø and Craig McDean for Nick Knight, David Sims for Robert Erdmann and so on.
What I think is that in the old days photographers were paid too much for too little.
PO: What do you mean?
OVD: Well as a branding and content agency I need to get many, many assets, with less budget. And I am there for the long-term, not just a shoot. The agency is accountable to the client. It’s all about how strong, clear and directional we are. We should be paid more, because we take the risk.
And for shoots today we need to have five videographers along with the still-life photographers. We need to deliver the moon at every shoot. We need to capture five hundred digital assets photographically and in film. We can’t deal with somebody who is overprotected by his agent. It’s not all about the photographer any more. That’s so ancien regime.
PO: Speaking with Alia Ahmed-Yahia (Read Interview), she was telling us that working with bigger photographers minimizes risk for the decision-makers at a brand. What are your thoughts on this?
OVD: People that work in the fashion industry are very insecure. If somebody else at the company says “I don’t like the images”, you can say “Well Mario Testino did them”. I think some people still take those big, big names because it’s an insurance policy for their career inside the company. “It’s not my fault”. I am exactly the opposite: if something isn't right then it’s all my fault.
PO: So you’re giving more up-and-coming or less established photographers an opportunity now. How and where do you find these photographers?
OVD: I've got great Creative Directors and a great Art Buying team. And it’s their job to be aware. They see all the agents, they look at all the magazines.
PO: A big question to many photographers: how important is having an agent if you want to land commercial or advertising jobs?
OVD: For me it's very important because I need to be able to call somebody from the shoot if things aren’t going to plan. I almost never do it. But if I doubt something the photographer is saying then I call the agent to ask: “are you sure they can do that?” There are very few agents that would not tell me the truth.
PO: Generally what’s your interaction like with agents?
OVD: I don’t really deal with agents much, I have a team for that. I will say that some agents are stronger than others. Cooler than others. There are two or three agents we work more with because we tell them: “You know what, we want to work with this photographer but we have no budget this time. We cannot pay what they’d normally get. Can we work something out?”. They know we will go back to them when we do have budget, so they play the game. Some people play the game, some people don’t.
Also a few agents realize that young photographers can do well working with me. It’s a good thing for them, because I will teach them a little something.
PO: Over your career you have worked with some notable celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce, Ewan McGregor and Kate Moss. And up until recently, you have been using big name fashion photographers to shoot them. What’s the dynamic like on-set with celebrities and these iconic photographers?
OVD: What’s often the most difficult thing for the agency guy - my role - is to find a suitable place between two icons. But honestly, I have never had a problem here because I overwork. I over-research. I make sure that when I work with a celebrity, I bring culture to the celebrity. Not pop culture though. When we shot the first Glo by J-Lo, all my reference pictures were Russian icons from the 15th century. Jennifer Lopez had probably never seen a Russian icon before. But she was impressed and she got it.
Another time, when I shot with Nick Knight and Jennifer Lopez, people were concerned. These were two big stars. But it was fantastic. I never want to be the guy who's there between two icons, and kind of doesn't know what to do. I always make sure, through a lot of work, a lot of research, a lot of generosity and by briefing them so well, that when we get to the shoot, they're both thankful to me because it goes amazingly. That makes me feel good.
PO: Sounds very harmonious!
OVD: Yes, but I never try to be their friends ... Eventually, I can become friends, afterwards, but I never try to become their friend. I just try to be this very confident, hard-working person that can prepare them the best for what they're going to do, and save their energy and their time. I'm the kind of person that if we get what we’re looking for then I stop the shoot. Why? When we know it’s great, and we’ve captured what we need then what’s the point of making them tired and belligerent? You won’t get anything better. It’s perfect. I know exactly the moment it goes away. With models it’s very quick, but with celebrities you’ve got a couple of hours.
PO: You sense the dip?
OVD: Yes. If you have what you want, you say “That was so great. Thank you very much.” “Can I go?” “You can go. It’s perfect”. Then they’re thankful for the rest of their lives!
PO: So I am a young, up-and-coming photographer and I want to work with SelectNY. What do I do?
OVD: You need an agent. I don't see too many photographers without agents. Why? Because it shows you are going to be organized. Then if you have a good agent, you meet my Art Buyer - and if she finds your work interesting she will make certain I see it.
Recently a photographer called Benjamin Lennox came to see our Art Buyer. I was passing-by and she said: “Olivier do you have 2 minutes?”. I said hi, looked at his work… and we’re shooting with him next week. Another photographer I really wanted to meet came by. We met for 10 minutes and I knew I would not be able to shoot with him. There was an ego, and that doesn’t work for me.
PO: How important is a photographer’s social media presence to you?
OVD: It’s becoming more important because a big following is hard to get. A reputation is acquired by proximity. A photographer or a model with a big following can be helpful. It’s added value to the client. But it would never determine my decision.
PO: Final question: what is the difference between a good photographer, and a great one?
OVD: I guess I could explain why a good photographer is a good photographer, but I could not entirely explain what makes a great photographer - because you cannot explain genius.