Art Buyer Insider: Cindy Hicks of The Martin Agency lets us peek into the world beyond her office door.
As I suspected with our first Art Buyer Insider post with Ilona Siller of Draft FCB/NY, an interview series that celebrates the art buyer for who they are rather than how to get their attention is powerful. As I mentioned in our debut post, art buying is such an interesting job to say the least. The people I know in this position come from such rich and diverse backgrounds and rarely do they follow the same path to become one. Cindy Hicks shines when she lets us peek into the world beyond her office door. Knowing what we know now, it is no wonder she is so dynamic, creative and thoughtful.
For those of you who do not know Cindy, she is not only a Senior Art Buyer at The Martin Agency, she is also a photographer. Be sure to follow her photography blog, you will enjoy the images that show up in your inbox unexpectedly. She is truly talented.
Here is what Cindy shared with us.
What did you “want to be when you grew up?” Are you surprised where you ended up?
Not in the least. Everything that I always wanted to do had something to do with photography. It might not have ended up exactly here, but I get to work with people I could only study in school and my job keeps me inspired. The first time I called Eugene Richards, he picked up the phone and I was amazed. I hired him and he was great. I went on a job with a photographer shooting with a 4×5 and I hadn’t shot with mine in a while, so pulled it out. It gives me a living and benefits and fabulous things like that and feeds my creativity.
I knew I’d do something with photography since I was a little kid. I never understood how people could go through their lives not knowing what they wanted to be. It’s why I like to talk with and teach kids and help them creatively. I had dyslexia and didn’t do well in school. And to give them the idea that you can succeed without being a doctor. There are a lot of ways to get there.
What was your path to becoming an Art Buyer?
I had worked in studio management, as a prop stylist and as newspaper photographer & ran a dip & dunk E6 Custom darkroom. Suzanne Sease at The Martin Agency called me and asked if I wanted to be an art buyer. It was Christmas of ’96. I rummaged around and threw on a skirt and came in for the interview. I was freelance at the time and I recommended three people for the job other than myself. One month later, they called and said they really wanted to talk with me. It was the winter lull, so I thought maybe it would be a good time to go full-time.
It turned out that it used all the skills from jobs I’d had: studio management, prop stylist, location scout. I was also a natural problem solver and saw like a photographer. I have lived in Virginia my whole life and am very lucky Martin is here. Good to leave to go to LA, Chicago and NY but nice to come home. I also like traveling to San Francisco because of the food and you can shoot anywhere.
Though I’d been doing it forever and didn’t know it had that name. I wish there were more options taught to photography students. I’ve always been a photographer but glad I don’t work as one. Someone coming in and saying they really love my work and then want me to do something different. This way I keep my work for myself and not valued by someone else financially—keeps it personal. It’s all mine.
With my photography, there’s a lot of stuff I do and stuff I do well. I’m confident about my photography. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it. There are things that matter. You cook something or pick a restaurant or your parenting skills. But the photography I kept for myself, not up for critique. I think if I worked at it as a professional it would be up for critique every day.
I see the art directors flip through their books everyday. When art producers are building relationships with reps, I give suggestions about editing their photographer’s books. I would say it to a photographer but not in a group setting.
What was that first moment of inspiration when you knew you would work in a creative position?
I can still tell you what was on the first roll of film I developed. It was a 126 plastic film cartridge. The kind you would break open in the dark and develop in a tray. When I flipped on the lights and saw it develop in the tray I had an ‘aha’ moment that I’d created something and then had to use science and chemistry. Plus I believe in making a product of some sort.
I came up being a studio manager, darkroom, newspaper photographer, studio manager and did an internship at a progressive high school – two weeks of volunteer work after Christmas break. I hung out at Richmond newspapers for all four years. I had a picture published on my second day and knew this was what I wanted to do.
Growing up, what were your creative interests?
Just photography, but my sister’s an organic farmer and we’re big on working hard and creating and making things. I say if advertising makes me insane, I’m going to go become a farmer with my sister. It’s crazy hard work, but I like the idea that growing something is creative as well. I feel the same way about flowers, vegetables and plants.
You recently were in a motorcycle accident. How has that experience influenced the way you live your life? See your job? Approach projects?
What was interesting about that was that it happened on a Saturday night and I went from having a meeting on Friday afternoon to three months being totally removed from work. I had to stop everything. It made me more patient. We’re always planning for that next thing and working two three months out. It allowed me to be more present and helped me be a better parent. Things just happen. It was an accident and I’m lucky to be alive, especially for my daughter.
When I came back to work, everyone asked ‘where’s your edge?’ I said that I’d left it on the side of the road. It taught me that stuff happens and we can be patient and pause for a moment. Patience and living in the moment which is something I never knew how to do.
Do you see your creative self in your daughter? How does it differ from your creative self?
My daughter loves loves dance and any kind of art. She is amazing, but everything she does is through movement. I love to take photos of her and she’s eight and finally allows me to do it. She helps me see things and has helped me slow down a little bit. They grow up so fast and I don’t want to miss any of this. I want to be present for it. Being a creative person – when we paint, we go get big canvases. She’s never going to be at a loss for art supplies.
I was cutting the grass one day and she asked to try it and I said sure. She was pushing around in patterns and no straight lines and it looked like a Pollock painting. We laughed and took photos of it and then went up on the roof to see the design in the grass. She thought it was awesome. That kind of stuff is how to live in right now.
How has your experience as a photographer informed your art buying?
I just have a different eye and know what goes into things. When we used to shoot film, I remember a cost consultant ask why we needed so much film. You can help photographers. When they send an estimate wanting to get the job I can see if they have enough assistants and money listed for pre-production.
Every art producer can learn that, but when you’ve done that it’s easier. It’s also very helpful when you are explaining to cost consultants why you need before and after days for a shoot on a set that has to be built and disassembled.
It makes me more of a photo snob for sure. There are a lot of photographers out there who maybe got into it because they love the equipment and working as a career. But not all of them have an eye for what they are doing. There’s an inherent way of looking at things when you have an artistic eye. It can be for anything, typography, illustration, photographer. There’s something extra. An appreciation for the craft. Seeing how light falls across something. If they know if morning or afternoon light hits their house. Visual thinker vs. non-visual thinkers.
I’m also more astute when evaluating trends. I see where things are going. Where they’ve been. When they’re circling back around. Trends are really hard. Things move so quickly not even sure there’s time for things to trend. I’m interested in it being based on craft and quality. Remember when snapshotty style was in? It’s going away. Then things were de-saturated. That’s gone away. HDR – hopefully that’s gone away.
What one word describes your style as an art buyer?
Unexpected. Years ago we had Saab. They wanted somebody who had a Big Daddy Roth style and I was out at a band and saw a guy who had that style tattoo. I found the guy who did his tattoo and brought him in to do the illustration for us ;Bob Gorman; a member of the band GWAR. I found it on somebody’s arm at a club one night instead of a traditional sourcebook. Art is everywhere and artists are everywhere. I once hired a woman who was a gate guard at my pool. Just keeping your eyes open.
How do you describe your job to your mother or someone not in our industry?
I once saw the film Wag the Dog with Dustin Hoffman. It describes how one creates a diversion so no one sees what’s really going on. We make all that stuff happen and if we’re really good, it all goes off without a hitch. And when bad stuff happens, you fix it.
Where do you, as an Art Buyer, look for inspiration? Stay inspired?
Everywhere. Blogs, yes. Sourcebooks are a tad bit dated because by the time they go into production, it’s a year and a half old work. I really like blog sites and subscribe to so many of them. And, believe it or not, mailers. I look at every piece of mail I get.
I have a tendency to stack things. So I stack them and remember where they are. But I’ve started using Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/chicksva/) for my visual interests. If I’m into a certain style, I make a board. But now the legal stuff is getting tricky. I deleted my photographer page for fear that someone would not see it how I saw it. I always sourced and linked, but pulled it down.
What do you think is important to do in your personal time to keep you inspired at work?
To get away from work. To truly do something not work related. I love to work in my yard. To see a lot of music. I try to get away from advertising. Live outside of that crazy world. Advertising is not a real world. And so it’s nice to sort of detach a little bit.
What do you love about your job? What about the industry/your job is exciting right now?
I love that it’s different every single day. I like what’s happening at Martin Agency and it does feel like we’re coming back to more creative and design inspired ways. And that makes me happy.
It is also gives me great stories. I was working on a Walmart job. They wanted to use photos from a woman on Flickr who did nothing but dress up her dachsunds in clothing. I had to reach out to this woman who did this because Walmart wanted to use her images for their Christmas advertising. She posted “I’ve stopped photography because photography killed my dog” on her Flickr page. She told me a terrible story of something that happened to one of her dogs. Told her would pay her more money and she said it would honor her dog.
I come from a family where we sit around the dinner table, drink wine and tell lots of stories. Martin Agency has given me lots of stories. You never do same thing twice and can’t imagine not working some place where over-the-top hilarity ensues.
Flickr is huge. Asking for usage, people would just want a new HD card. But I pay them more of course. If there’s some kid out there who shot a photo we really want to use, I can give them $1,000 and they can buy a new camera and put them on a road they wouldn’t necessarily go down.
Do you have a personal aesthetic that comes through in the photographers whose work you are drawn to?
I’m sure I do because I don’t like humor unless they are European because they are higher brow. I have a tendency to like things that are lush and well lit. I like the paper that it’s printed on. It’s the whole package. It’s visual. Something that evokes some sort of feeling. If it’s really good food photography, I don’t care if you just ate you’re hungry. I get teared up when they are so gorgeous and not sure exactly why, but something about work that speaks. But it’s all about craft and about someone who has really spent some time looking at things.
If you could change one thing in the creative industry right now, what would that be?
I would put the value back in to certain creative. It’s not about money, but it is about value. You can have it good, fast or cheap, but you can only have two. And people are leaving ‘good’ out of it and want it fast and cheap. I would like everyone to slow it down just a little bit to bring back the quality. To have the appreciation for things that are of quality. To just want the job done well and with passion. Nothing is free, the fact that seems to be lost lately.
If you could tell photographers one thing, what would it be?
Show me your passion and why you do this and what you love. Don’t show me what you think I’ll like. I’d much rather see their personal work because it wasn’t done for someone else. It’s hard to look at someone’s work sometimes because you don’t know if it’s art director or client driven. But something they shot for themselves tells me more than anything.
What do you think is the key to keeping it relevant?
Adaptability. Always learning something. This is the way to stay fresh. Do I miss the days of big photo shoots and budget? Yes, of course. Do I think they are coming back? Maybe. There will be a shift back to craft at some point. YouTube made us think everything can be 72 dpi. We have a new creative chief: John Norman he has nurtured a very designer based/ creative environment They truly believe in craft, in making things. We’re pulling our own silkscreens. A trip back to organic, a comfortable place for me.
My grandfather was a forest ranger and the first person to teach me about natural farming. We would go fishing and clean the fish and bury them in the garden for fertilizer. Now there’s a return to people wanting to have this hands-on approach and I hope it sticks in all aspects of life.
I love the return to really good typography and good art and there will always be 12-year-old-boy humor in advertising. There’s a place for people who think everything is new. There are also the older creatives who say we’ve done that. And I straddle the two and say “How come we can’t reinvent it and bring it up to date.” I have a fine art background so more akin to the creatives than the art buying side.
What is challenging right now?
I don’t want to say the death of print, but it has changed. Still photography has changed. It’s turned into “Can’t we use screen grabs from the TV spot?” I’m constantly trying to educate about this. Everyone has confused HD for film with HD for everything in the world. It’s not the same. Photographers craft an image for that moment. With a screen grab you’re just grabbing a little moment and hope it translates. I feel like I’m constantly fighting the good fight. On the Red site, it tells you the screen grabs are not hi res enough for a full page print ad, I am still learning .
I have to show it to them. Look, this is the equivalent. I used to be able to talk in film equivalent —35 mm vs. 8 x 10. Now nobody understands this, but I show them how pixilated and flat it is. And sometimes the client says it’s fine. If mediocre is ok, that’s a much bigger problem I can’t fix. Producers are fixers. One thing I’ve learned I can’t fix everything. But I want to get as close to it as I can. You can go nuts like that, but it’s what’s kept me in this business for 15 years.
The next time is going to be perfect. I am afraid that if I ever have the perfect job, I’ll get hit by a bus (but not so funny any more). I always want to do it better next time. I love the quote by Imogen Cunningman, “Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I am going to take tomorrow.”
This is the opposite of trying to control everything. I’m an optimistic producer. I know all the bad things that can happen, but I look at things like everything is possible.
I’m very DIY. We can figure it out and make it work. My mom & dad are very much like this. I have a very supportive, competitive family and was taught everything is possible. You just have to go out and try it. Because I’m a born photographer, I would shoot anything and it led to other things a BFA, newspaper work, commercial studio, prop maker/stylist/ locations all led to where I am now, who knows where it leads next.
Favorite way to spend a Sunday?
Working in the garden and being with my daughter. Used to be motorcycle riding, but not so much of that anymore.
Replaced motorcycle riding with anything?
I decided to have a show this year. I’ve always wanted to have a show and have one planned for fall. We have First Fridays and John Mills of Release the Hounds who does work for the agency has great space on art walk so we decided to have a show at his space.
Latest discovery? (website, blog, store, flea market…). Latest Pinterest board?
Even though I collect arts and crafts furniture from the turn of the century, I’m a huge fan of architecture and love the idea of inside and outside spaces coming together. So I’ve started admiring mid-century modern furniture (mostly posting on pinterest) and believe it or not, there is a lot of mid-century modern architecture and there are a few of dealers here in Virginia, I tend to look for pieces for other people, like a furniture love connection! I try to watch Mad Men for propping and styling but it’s too stressful to watch advertising at night.
I also love cooking and like to bake, to make things for other people to eat.
On your home office walls?
I tend to have a lot of illustration and not a lot of photography. I have framed photography that sits on the floor thinking about being hung. On the walls, I have wood-block prints and illustrations from early 1900’s mostly Sir William Nicholson and modern silkscreens. If I got to frame something, I’m never sure I’m crazy about it after I’ve framed it.
Do you have a favorite photo of yourself that you are willing to share? Can you tell us about it.
Most are ones I’ve shot myself. Then you can delete stuff that you hate. With the iPhone you can put so many apps on it you don’t look like yourself any more. It’s awesome.
And, a special thank you to Alison McCreery of POP Blog for her outstanding interview skills!