Since I’ve know Hugo, he’s had a flair for the creative and the entrepreneurial, so running his own business in the art world was a logical conclusion.
Hugo’s thoughtful interview traverses the difficulties of starting up, designing residual income in a business, getting clients above the buying line, telling vivid stories and the quirks of the art sales world in this diverse and wonderful interview.
You can read Hugo’s full biography here
Jamie: In terms of your sales career, what have you found most fulfilling this far?
Hugo: For me, it is the ability to create my own market and to really choose who I get to work with. Whether it’s deciding which suppliers, the right galleries to collaborate with, to the right artists for ArtThou, and in terms of the buyers; I can choose who should buy from me and who I want to work with long term.
Jamie: Does the interest in doing that come from experiences you have had where you have not had that sort of choice of who you work with?
Hugo: Yes, definitely. In my previous job, which was a pure sales job in the art industry, I had a specific geography that I was responsible for, specific goals. When a business is wholly focused on aggregating an entire market, the emphasis on quality business partnerships inevitably declines.
You basically start losing the control and the autonomy to say, ‘Yes, I think you are the right type of person and business for us’, and you just end up saying ‘yes’ to everybody. That is fine, but it goes away from my view to default on quality business partnerships.
Jamie: How do you choose the people you work with now?
Hugo: One, who can you trust and two, do you like them? It is as simple as that. There is often a leap of faith at the beginning, and you use that to know each other. When it comes to suppliers and partners – if it is a gallery partner that I want to collaborate with and represent one of their assets, then, I need to get to know them, know their office, and their values.
Jamie: What have you found the best thing about being in sales?
Hugo: The best and the worst thing is that it is personal accountability. You are in charge of your own schedule, and that is amazing, but it is also the biggest burden because there is this element that you can in a way never switch off and you can always be contacting more prospects or doing more emails.
If I was an accountant, for example, then, once you’ve finished my certain work on excel, the work is done. I can switch off my computer, and I can go home. This doesn’t happen when you are doing a sales job. It feels hard to switch off when you can always be doing more. There is always that thought in the back of your mind later, could I be working harder?
Jamie: What are the best and worst things about being in art sales?
Hugo: I think the worst thing as a business owner is the lack of residual income. It is a one-off transaction so someone can buy a painting and that is great. You can get to a place with a client where you have developed a relationship where you think that they are loyal to you, but nothing is saying that they are. With over four hundred and fifty galleries in London – it’s easy to go elsewhere. You try to do your best, but it’s not like you are agreeing to an annual contract and you are charging a monthly residual fee. That is what I would say that I am conscious of running a dealership.
Jamie: If you were an aspiring salesperson surveying different fields, is residual income in a business something that you would look for?
Hugo: I think if you are a business owner, then thinking about residual income is important. As an employee, it depends on how you get compensated. To get compensated as a one-off transaction, but it is actually residual, then it does not make a difference to you. However, if the infrastructure in terms of how you are getting paid is different; it might be more beneficial to be in a residual business versus one-off sales.
Jamie: What additional skills or traits would you say a salesperson would need to sell art?
Hugo: It is very transferable to other industries. I guess it is an emphasis on telling stories. The last business that I worked at, as I mentioned it was a marketplace and a marketing tool for galleries to promote their exhibition program. When you are buying a picture, that is something that you want, but you do not need. What you are seeking is this connection. “How does this picture embody my identity as a person somehow?” Whether it is my values, or how I want to be perceived or how I want my story to be told as a person. The ability to tell stories about the artist or the artwork is really important.
Jamie: Is that storytelling and fitting in people with people’s values not as true of other industries?
Hugo: I think you definitely need it in other industries and I think all salespeople in different industries can improve on how to tell impactful stories about their products. In more technical or tangible industries, it can be easy to forget.
Jamie: What advice would you have on telling good stories?
Hugo: You need to understand all the ins and outs of your product and understand the experiences that previous clients have had, to be able to communicate them – so speak and listen to your clients.
Then it’s about trying to keep it as simple as possible. Focus on the basic structure or the arc of storytelling which is about developing a setting, and then there discussing change or sharing the challenge that someone has had, and then there is this resolution stage, how your product or service helped. By consciously developing the habit of thinking about these rules when communicating, it’ll help engage prospects and give your stories structure and impact.
Jamie: Would you be willing to give a specific example of when you told the story about a piece of art, and it really helped to sell it?
Hugo: Something that I am working on at the moment is a new exhibition, and I have just been talking about framing it. I am working with three different artists, a Lithuanian and two British artists – Erin Hughes and Jo Minoprio – and they all produce landscapes, and their work is all about nature. One could just show the work and say that these are landscapes. For this exhibition, the story explores two theories called biophilia, and the other term is called biomimicry. It’s all about humanity’s connection to nature and how there is this longing, this need for people to want to crave nature because it is good for their wellbeing because it helps them to think more clearly. The recognition that humanity gets a lot of innovation by looking at different aspects of nature. A known example of that is the bullet train in Japan that was inspired by the Kingfisher’s beak for its aerodynamics. Art ultimately helps us all find meaning and shape of personal identities, and stories facilitate this.
Jamie: Would you recommend art sales to any sales person?
Not if you’re just starting off. I think it is an industry that is very backwards, and you require a lot of flexibility. If you were someone starting off in a sales career, I would focus on a pure sales role that has more structure. Some artists are relatively erratic as well, so you need to be quite flexible in the decision-making, and the sales cycle can be very quick, but it can also be really, really long.
Jamie: How do you adapt your sales style to eccentric people?
Hugo: You just have to get to know people, by listening and observing and avoid pigeonholing at the offset – “I think you are this type of person by the language that you are using to communicate and what you dress like,” and things like that – then you can figure out whether they are someone who might make a decision ASAP or if they are actually not quite ready.
Jamie: As an entrepreneur designing an organization, what elements of culture have you identified that make an organization successful?
Hugo: I think it comes down to the mission and the leaders of the company. I used to sell business intelligence a long, long time ago – like eight-plus years ago – for the construction industry. I had an extremely autocratic manager, and the mission was purely about generating revenue but less about growing the industry. Not every business’ mission needs to be growing huge within their industry, but personally, I think it needs to be more about just making money.
Jamie: What is ArtThou’s ulterior mission further than making money?
Hugo: One of the things that I have come across over and over again, it is people’s misunderstanding of the contemporary art world. Often that’s an intangible belief that it is extremely complicated and they cannot understand it. My mission when talking to buyers is to help them understand that it is quite simple, and one does not need to overthink the stories; the process is simple. That is my mission, in essence, to simplify contemporary art buying.
Jamie: As a salesperson on the outside looking into an organization, how would you test for higher purpose and quality of leadership?
Hugo: I can be challenging interviewing at a new company, you have just got to ask a lot of culture-based questions. Try to go for lunch with the team you would be in, catch future colleagues in an informal setting and don’t just talk to your future boss. I think that is really useful because then you can get to know; how are the people working, what is their impression of their boss, what is their impression of the company and where it is going? Is it an uber-competitive, overly boisterous environment? These are things that you need to figure out pretty quickly before you sign a contract and devote your time to someone else’s dream, and I think that you can get that from the people on the front lines who are doing your potential job.
Jamie: What advice would you generally give to aspiring salespeople?
Hugo: Trust the process; is something that I have always told myself when starting a new company or just generally. I think trusting the process, especially the beginning if you are starting at a new place and you have not sold that particular product/service yet, you just need to focus specifically on things that you can control. Then it is about being curious; adapting your mindset to “How can I learn as much as possible about the people that are buying from me, about the business, and about the cycle?” Curiosity is a really important and underestimated trait.
Jamie: If you were starting your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Hugo: It is funny because I did not think that I would be in a sales career. I have kind of ended up in one. I wonder if a lot of people who end up in sales do not know that is something they would do, right from the beginning? To try and answer your question, I think I would focus on product categories first. I’d probably cut my teeth in tech sales, and I think about location. So, I mean if I am in the UK, I would go to London or Edinburgh, or in the States, the Bay Area or Austin, the big cities that are known for that industry.
I would do that specifically to allow myself to generate more opportunity; being in the ecosystem of the industry, where you can meet the main people and be able to network as much as possible. Location is really important to the beginning of your career.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a specific time when you did not make a sale that surprised you and taught you something?
Hugo: At my last exhibition, a metaphysical exhibition, there was this one guy Arnaud, the COO of an Energy company and he came in at 8:30pm in the evening, and I was with the artist and him, having a look at all the different works. His wife was really engaged, and he was really engaged, but he did not buy in the end. Thinking back on this encounter, I think it comes down to me losing control. I had the artist involved, but I was trying to use him wisely; you are leveraging him to share his story and about the process of the works, but you do not want him to over-talk. I just lost control of the sale process; he was way past the buying curve, and I was not able to set up a concrete next steps, and I should have taken control at the right time, thanked the artist at the right time in the right, politically correct way and managed that process better, so the lack of control hurt me.
Jamie: Can you just explain the term “buying curve” that you just used?
Hugo: You’ve got an X and Y axis, you have ‘interest’ on one axis, and you have time on the other. It’s a bell curve, and there is a period from the beginning when you first meet someone, and initially, you are establishing rapport, you are chatting to someone, and they are getting to know you and you are establishing credibility. Then they start trusting you, and then you talk about the artist and the body of work, then there is a point as time goes on and that bell curve goes over the buying line, generally 20-25minutes. There is a point when they are most interested, and at that point, that is the point when you need to be wrapping up to your meeting and suggesting next steps, “Okay, let us make some decisions.” It might not be buying right now, and it might be, “Actually, you do not like this artwork, and that is fine.” Making that decision might just be, “Okay cool. The next step is to meet again at your house with the artwork so you can see it in play,” so whatever objections they have will have come out. Still, it is about capitalizing on and identifying when that biggest point of interest is and then just wrapping things up before the bell curve starts going down the other end of the curve, and everything starts taking too long and then they are no longer interested enough to set up the next step or give you a positive decision.
Jamie: Can you tell me about a specific sale you made that shows off the skills and knowledge that you developed in your career?
Hugo: I was in Berlin for a weekend last year. It was the Berlin Gallery Weekend, where all galleries in Berlin open their doors for the public. I was there to talk to a bunch of different galleries and art business leaders and get them to join this marketplace. I went to see this gallery called Galerie Brockstedt. It is a 20th-century art dealership; I remember walking in, and there is a strong, pungent smell in the gallery – at first, I thought it was incensed. There was just one assistant in the entire place, she ushered me down this narrow corridor with William Wauer Sculptures aligned on plinths and opened the door to Mr Brockstedt office, a large square room, right at the back, through a grey cloud. The owner was sat at his desk, he doesn’t stand up, and I go over, and I try to shake his hand, but he’s smoking a cigar.
This guy is super old school, no pleasantries and we sit on the wooden chair opposite of each other on this big wooden table, and there is old art scattered around the office, and he tells me that he is looking to grow his business using the internet, but he is using Windows 95. The process of patiently explaining benefits to a Luddite, while matching his direct manner of communicating, was why he bought from me, amazing really, I guess that it is a fulfilling story because when you look at it from the outside, you are like, “Wow, how can someone like that engage?”
Jamie: So is that a lesson on adaptability?
Hugo: Totally, yes. I think that the main thing that I did there was an ability to really connect on a human level and for him to really understand the business that I was working for at that time was not a big corporate American firm.
We are run by people, and we try our best to help them with their galleries, and I think the credibility came from me being able to connect on a human level and matching his style of communicating.