Maisie Willoughby, photographer and art buyer at W+K, on the importance of staying culturally aware
Imagine getting iconic photographers together with British sporting legends to mark a historic moment in the making…in nine minutes. It’s all in a day’s work for Maisie Willoughby, creative producer and art buyer at Wieden+Kennedy. Commissioning the best talent to complement the current brief at hand, Maisie is constantly on the lookout for bright and undiscovered photographers. ‘Ultimately, I want to feel inspired or moved’ says the London-based creative, who is also a successful photographer in her own right – an out-of-hours pursuit that her role leaves just enough time for. She tells us how a background in fashion photography helped her grow an ever-expanding network; why it’s important to remain culturally aware and how to avoid a different type of traffic.
[Rose] Maisie Willoughby
Art Buyer, Wieden + Kennedy London (2015–present); Freelance Photographer
Art Buyer, Anomaly London (2013–2015)
London College of Fashion, BA Fashion Photography, (2006–2009)
Art Foundation, Cheltenham School of Art (2005–2006)
How would you describe your job?
As an art buyer at Wieden+Kennedy, my role is to source, curate and commission photographers for print advertising campaigns. Ultimately, my greatest responsibility is to the ensure the best possible creative output, predominantly in the form of print (such as magazines) and OOH advertising (Out Of Home, such as billboards or bus shelters). I also work as a photographer so this needs to begin in my spare time, in the evenings and weekends. I get just about enough time to shoot in my free time.
What does a typical working day look like?
Sometimes I’ll walk my dog Tetsuo on the way to work. It takes about 45 to 60 minutes, and is a nice way to start the day. Other times I’ll get the bus which is a lot less soothing. Official working hours are 9am to 6pm, but Wieden+Kennedy is fairly flexible. Often you need to stay as long as it takes, particularly in pre-production and during final supply, but this is counteracted with time in lieu for those days when things are a little quieter. Usually you’ll have several projects on at once, so the division of my time changes depending on the brief on the table – creative development is around 10-20% of my time, pre-production 60%, production 100%, and post 20%.
I like to physically list out the day’s tasks, writing on paper as opposed to typing on my mac. I feel like it sticks once it’s written down. There are particular tracks and albums that help me to really focus at the start of the day (Aphex Twin, Xtal and Burial, Untrue album) I focus on producing original, relevant, thought provoking, and always visually arresting content. This means a blend of inspiration, organisation, creativity and final on-the-ground production. This could be in the form of scoping timing and budgets, to compiling a list of enigmatic creative talent. Ideally, I would love to look at and sell in beautiful talent all day long, then shoot it, but I would never get to actually make anything if that were the case. You need to put in the hard labour up front to get beautiful work out the door, especially when working somewhere like Wieden+Kennedy, who are so focused on craft.
How did you land your current job?
The role was a natural progression from being a photographer’s agent and producer. I actually freelanced at W+K for a year before becoming full-time. It’s a really lovely way to get in somewhere and see if it’s a good fit for them and you. I have always been a big fan of Wieden+Kennedy; to me they feel like one of the most creative advertising agencies out there, so I jumped at the chance to go permanent when they offered it to me. People respect your drive to create when it is for nothing but your own pleasure. My personal photographic work could be what gave me that edge. It shows just how much you love imagery. It could also just be down to the fact that I got on so well with my team, it counts for a lot.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
In the office (Spitalfields, east London), where I work with the creative teams. Photographers and their agents also come to the office to show me their work. When we are shooting, this could be on location or in a studio, depending on what we are trying to capture. Natural light is always my preference but not always possible. Most of my day is spent in front of the computer, so I try to allow myself time to sit with a photographer each day and really take in their aesthetic. I don’t like to look at people’s work on their iPads – I could do this without them. Taking the time out to appreciate imagery in person, feel the paper and chat about the work is very important.
“I freelanced at W+K for a year before becoming full-time. It’s a really lovely way to get in somewhere and see if it’s a good fit for them and you.”
How collaborative is your role?
Very. I work with a mixture of talent, agents, creatives and sometimes directly with clients. The creatives often know what they are looking for, so you need to find the best solution for the brief.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Sharing work that really excites you and then having someone else get just as excited is great!
Completing ‘traffic’ [passing on information back and forth, without input] is by far the worst. All jobs have an element of this, and while it can feel tedious it is necessary.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Commissioning Jamie Morgan to shoot Sir Mo Farah for Nike was pretty special. The end of Sir Mo Farah's track career was a big moment in British sporting and cultural history. We knew that at the time of his last race, the public would look back and take stock on his overall contribution to our society and our progress in sport. Nike wanted to celebrate him in a way that had never been seen before; photography of Mo in the past had shown him in one of two familiar lights; a friendly smile or a hard-core athlete. We were interested in going deeper and wanted to create the definitive, iconic portrait for this moment, and depict him clearly as the true timeless British legend he is. Who better to shoot this historic portrait than the iconic Jamie Morgan?
In order to have the concept bought by the client, you need to sell in the creative. We knew the basis of how we wanted the campaign to look but finding the perfect photographer to execute this, alongside marrying the perfect graphic design was tricky. Ever since I saw that iconic image on the cover of The Face, I had wanted to work with Jamie. Plus, his work completely communicated the powerful and timeless message we wanted to convey. I knew Jamie would do an unbelievable job on this and put him forward to the creative directors who loved him. In the end, we had nine minutes on set to get the shot!
What skills are essential to your job?
My job requires me to have extensive knowledge regarding photographers and their artistic style; as well as an ability to source new and original talent. I have to remain culturally aware while fully understanding the creative process and brief, so that I can commission the best possible artist to complement the creative brief. The role is ultimately a production role, so once I have commissioned the talent, I produce the brief and this involves organisation, budget control and management skills.
Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
I hold a heavy interest in the art world, most significantly in art photography and continue to shoot in my personal time. It reminds me why I became involved within the artistic industry and the enjoyment that can be gained through producing such works. I also helped to curate the Makers’ Residency at W+K. It’s a highly curated collective of artists, who create, exhibit and sell, live from a purpose-built installation within the agency. I looked to mix interesting aesthetics and intriguing characters with unique connections across the art scene. Over the course of six months, the residency featured a ceramicist, tattooist, illustrator, painter, jeweller, milliner and sculptor, who crafted live from within the workshop and gallery at W+K. The project was so successful W+K will run the scheme next year, linking the agency and clients to original and fresh cultural insight.
Set apart from my working career, I love to discover and work with new and exciting talent to expand my own global network. I am part of an ever-growing international female creative collective, host photography discussions and exhibitions, and partake in industry meets and lectures. I’m always excited to meet and inspire the next generation of creatives.
“People respect your drive to create when it is for nothing but your own pleasure. It shows just how much you love imagery.”
What tools do you use most for your work?
Photoshop; InDesign; Google Drive – all the basics. But for inspiration, I look everywhere and use everything. This can be across blogs, Pinterest and Instagram; but mainly in journals, exhibitions and publications. I like to see photography that is totally pure in its concept and then think of how that specific photographer could really propel a creative advertising brief to something new and original. Ultimately, I want to feel inspired or moved. Undiscovered photographers often focus on what is important to them, which adds something very real to their work. It can go above and beyond what’s written down in the brief. Instagram is great for this.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be creative, that much was sure. I went from a fashion designer one week to a painter the next, but I always stayed within the creative realm.
What influence has your background had on your work?
Last December I did a talk at Nicer Tuesdays on my personal photography project ‘Girl on Girl’ and this question came up in regard to my photography. But speaking from the view of an art buyer, a background in fashion photography set up my knowledge.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Extremely useful – my love and knowledge for photography comes from my art foundation and my fashion photography degree, although I am pretty sure I would have pursued this path regardless of studying the subject or not. I met a lot of the contacts I use today at uni; brilliant make-up artists, photographers and set designers.
What were your first jobs?
I worked in retail for many years (Agent Provocateur; YMC; Liberty; American Apparel). A lot of the people I met and worked with in those shops are leaders in the creative industry today!
“Shooting in my own time reminds me why I became involved within the artistic industry – and the enjoyment it can produce.”
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Taking a substantial pay cut (from retail management) to become a photography producer. It was worth it and I built myself back up quickly.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Not one in particular. It was more a case of gaining experience overall, which took time.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Organisation, managerial skills, coping under pressure, process management.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
It can be tough trying to stay cool under pressure, especially when you care so much. Learning to cope with pressure has been a big challenge.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
It is actually. A role is what you make it.
What would you like to do next?
I’d like to look at opportunities in different areas of the world. I think it’s good to get out of your comfort zone, work, exhibit and live in new places.
Could you do this job forever?
I can definitely do art buying forever because it is something I am genuinely immersed within. Whether the role will still be necessary in years to come is another question entirely…
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I think that depends on how we consume imagery in the future. I personally believe that people like to feel moved regardless of the medium, so as long as we can achieve this through photography, my role will still be essential.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a creative producer or art buyer in advertising?
Get fully immersed in to your creative environment, whether that is your local community, school or university. Having gone to a creative university in London, I lived and worked here for over 10 years and a lot of the creative industry contacts I look to now, were around back then and have developed their careers as I have. It’s great to have had a wide network set-up without even realising, simply because you all love what you do!
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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