Sotheby’s bids its future on a Web strategy

October 21, 2011

Most stories of rebirth begin with confession. Sotheby’s starts the process at Scene 1.

“I’ve always wanted to be an artist,” says Kevin Ching, who is not but instead is CEO of Sotheby’s Asia. He admits this secret longing in the opening scene of Sotheby’s documentary series “Your Art World.”

Tobias Meyer, the dapper, Vienna-born principal auctioneer at the centuries-old house, echoes Ching’s confession, recalling a childhood spent grappling with oil paint. “It was so hard … whatever I made became brown.”

“I did a couple of pictures and put them in the exhibition here,” continues Henry Wyndham, board director and chairman. “Two people were very complimentary about the frames.”

The four-episode Web series aims to introduce the auction giant to a new Web audience, particularly the Asian market, that may not be familiar with the storied house. But the executives are so chummy and disarming it’s easy to forget these buttoned-up art connoisseurs sell seven-figure-plus lots for a living. One by one, in crisp, continental accents, the top brass at Sotheby’s discuss their failed artistic ambitions. If a therapist were present, they’d be instructed to lie down.

Instead, a camera captures their self-deprecating stories and an unbiased audience is likely to be charmed by art executives, a group not often associated with charisma. Thirty seconds in, the men are sympathetic. Accessible. As warm as the chicken soup that Meyer claims to eat before every auction. And in case you doubt a genuine connection with this house, contemporary artist Jeff Koons appears next, grinning as he describes his grandfather’s ashtray shaped like a half-naked woman, and how, from an early age, he knew inanimate objects not unlike his multi-million dollar works, could, yes, become art.

“It’s a clever marketing strategy, and I’m amazed at how successful it is,” said Benjamin Genocchio, editor in chief at Art+Auction magazine and Artinfo.com. “They present the auction experience as being accessible, but not so accessible that it’s without social status. They draw a fine line between being elite and glamorous, but not so elite that it’s intimidating.”

Decades ago, this sort of congenial approach to art sales would have been reserved for private cocktail parties with loyal clients. To the outside world, auction houses were exclusive, and thick catalogues of weighty essays didn’t argue the contrary. Now, with print catalog circulation decreasing, digital content doubles as marketing and entertainment, and doesn’t need to list the price of a single property. These videos could service billionaires in Asia or high schoolers in Topeka who stumble upon the series in Google searches.

And that’s part of the hope. Today’s math whizzes are tomorrow’s collectors.

In a sense, digital platforms give auction houses new opportunities to informally rebrand and reach out to newcomers in unconventional ways. And, after weeks of negative press concerning unresolved union negotiations, Sotheby’s is redefining the narrative.

‘Something Different’

Last year, Sotheby’s worldwide director of marketing Amy Todd Middleton approached her friend Mimosa Jones Tunney, a screenwriter and filmmaker, to brainstorm. Sotheby’s was restructuring its Web site and wanted a new digital initiative that could set them apart from competitors.

For centuries, Christie’s and Sotheby’s were the dominant auction houses, competitors rarely described independently from one another. It’s unfair to call them Coke and Pepsi: they were Coke and Pepsi before cola existed.

But in the contemporary art market, where Sotheby’s thrives, Christie’s and other smaller houses are making the market increasingly competitive, particularly in Asia.

In the digital arena, Christie’s was ahead of them with a greater social networking presence and an the online bidding system Christie’s LIVE, which allows clients to bid online for all Christie’s auctions.

Sotheby’s didn’t even have a Twitter feed.

“Sotheby’s wanted something different for digital,” said Jones Tunney. “And since I’m a storyteller, I thought, ‘Why not tell the Sotheby’s story? Let’s really get into the art world and look at people’s fears and inspirations in this eight-minute format.”

The short films, which Jones Tunney calls “docuettes” break the traditional documentary feature into Web-friendly segments. The films tell a carefully crafted Sotheby’s narrative through four perspectives: artist, collector, auctioneer and staff. For four weeks, a new episode appeared on its Web site, with the last film short “The House” debuting last Tuesday. With big names in contemporary art like Koons and famous collectors like writer James Frey offering commentary, the series vacillates between education and promotion, all as an upbeat, catchy soundtrack plays through every frame.

In many ways, the films are not unlike the traditional auction house catalog, which has always served as both a promotional and educational tool. The difference with digital is its immediacy, its sweeping reach and, of course, its ease in doubling as entertainment.

Lisa Gold, director of Washington Project for the Arts, points out that nonprofits like Art 21, the long-standing PBS television series on contemporary artists, have utilized the documentary format for over a decade.

“Auction houses walk a fine line between exclusivity and access,” said Gold. “This provides a form of access and demystification which people want, especially as few people will ever visit an artist’s studio or go behind the scenes at an auction house.”

The films also cater to the growing Asian art market. One of the largest growth markets for auction houses is Hong Kong. One only needs to see the Chinese subtitles to know whom Sotheby’s is targeting.

“The wealth creation from the digital era has been incredible,” said Jeff Rabin, cofounder and principal of Artvest Partners, an art investment advisory firm in New York. “They want to reach the Asian market, but they also want to reach young people who want to collect and might not feel comfortable with it yet. These videos seek to attract new customers, and right now, auction houses have no idea where their next customer will come from.”

Stop the presses

So far, Sotheby’s has seen a significant spike in online registration and traffic. Going forward, they expect these large-scale digital projects to be cost-saving, as well. Todd Middleton claimed that even high-production costs of the documentary series were on par with the cost to manufacture print catalogs for every sale.

Christie’s has also seen its digital efforts pay off. “Since July 2006, we’ve had about 24,000 people participate in auctions through our Christie’s Live channel. Over half of those folks are new,” said Michael O’Neal, Christie’s digital media director.

“Sometimes the brand gets in the way of itself. People think you have to have an art history degree or be a blue blood. In fact, you can shop many of our sales the way you’d shop Fifth Avenue in New York or M Street in Georgetown. We’re not rebranding, but digital certainly helps broaden the base.”

As with other industries, digital efforts could mean adverse effects for the print auction catalog. In 2009, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s were struggling financially. Both houses laid off workers and Sotheby’s, which is publicly traded, saw its share price fall to single digits, from a high of over $60 in 2007. To cut costs, the usually fat catalogs slimmed down and houses sent fewer copies to clients. Now, both houses are boasting record half-year sales of over $3 billion, and they have international markets to thank.

For these markets, digital is more practical. IPhone and iPad applications are becoming commonplace features, and some collectors find digital catalogs preferable.

“There are always going to be people who want a physical catalog,” said Rabin. “And the catalogs are exceptional and second to none on research. But print images rely on printer quality. At times, you can get a better image on an iPad or screen.”

Local gallery owners find that digital catalogues to be an invaluable resource for business. “All these digital tools are tremendously practical,” said George Hemphill of Hemphill Fine Arts. “For one, I don’t have bookshelves filled with old sales catalogs anymore. Researching the price of something from 10 years ago is much easier. But print catalogs are disappearing. There will always be deluxe editions, but those will be reserved for the upper-end clients.”

“We’re never going walk away entirely from print, we have to honor client preference,” said Todd Middleton. “I would imagine though, in the future Sotheby’s will be printing fewer catalogs. When you think about far-flung places of the world, we can reach those clients more quickly, without language and delivery constraints, through digital.”

Putting the subtitled videos out in the digital ether is a test run for future film-based endeavors. Sotheby’s hopes the series will anchor a Web channel that can reach new clients in the Asian market. “There are language barriers that hinder our ability to communicate from the West to the East,” said Todd Middleton. “But as that market grows, digital initiatives are a great way to share our story.”

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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