With a storied career and extensive knowledge of the continually evolving digital landscape, Bill Wackermann is bringing his business prowess to Wilhelmina as a truly modern CEO. The company's inherently bold origin story has laid the perfect foundation for our featured PLANOLEADER to push the business forward which is evidenced in agency-wide initiatives including an overhaul of Wilhelmina's celebrity talent division and other exciting brand partnerships for Wilhelmina's growing talent roster. Naturally, the rise of social media platforms has also played an important role in this exciting expansion as well, and with more plans underway, we had the opportunity to briefly visit Bill and learn more about how Wilhelmina has adapted a digitally-savvy approach to community-building. Read on as Bill shares the backstory of his career, how he guides Wilhelmina's talented marketing team to create compelling storytelling moments for the company, and his thoughts on what genuinely makes someone influential in 2019.
Please introduce yourself! Before Wilhelmina, what were you up to professionally, what role did digital play in your job description, and what have been some notable moments throughout your career so far?
I'm Bill Wackermann, the CEO of Wilhelmina, and an Aquarius. Before I came to Wilhelmina, I was Executive Vice President at Condé Nast for almost 20 years. In that role, I oversaw not just the print but the digital versions of many brands including Bon Appetit, Glamour, W, and Condé Nast Traveler. We had thriving digital businesses. Some notable moments throughout my career were the turnaround successes of several of the brands I had the pleasure of working on and building a team of people who were passionate about reaching and exceeding goals. I also had the opportunity to work with creative and business-minded individuals that were able to keep the art side of creativity but understood the commerce side of the business. That's what we do today at Wilhelmina. Today, one of the things I'm most proud of is not just the success of Wilhelmina's day-to-day operations and team, but also the development of our Aperture business, which is our commercial representation. We've expanded into Willy Social, which is thriving, influencer-based talent representation. I think we're transforming the look, feel, and culture of a modern day modeling agency. That's something I'm very proud of.
As a CEO, tell us more about your days. How would you describe your involvement in Wilhelmina's content and marketing, and what has been your favorite aspect of building out the marketing department, and subsequently, its social storytelling efforts?
Most modeling agencies are not brands. Most of them are recognizable names, but there's a huge difference between being a recognizable name and a brand with a personality, narrative, culture, and history. We're diligently working to expand Wilhelmina as not just a recognizable name but a brand with a personality and a culture. We have an incredibly rich narrative to pull from. Wilhelmina Cooper was a dynamic woman who started this agency as a model at the height of her career and did something in 1967 that women just weren't doing. She was a pioneer who founded this agency because she saw the world in a different way. She saw the beauty in diversity and that we should be celebrating and promoting different body types. We're just at the beginning of really telling that story in powerful ways. We have film development projects and scripted projects we're working on. Last year, we did a series with E! And Snapchat.
When looking at Wilhelmina's Instagram, how would you say the platform's content reflects each of the agency's divisions and talent roster? Can you point to an example of a successful campaign that you feel really embodies Wilhelmina's social POV?
Wilhelmina is a multi-national company that is publicly-traded. We have over 100 agents representing over 3,000 models on a daily basis. In doing so, our Instagram and social media must reflect the diversity and the breadth of who we represent. It's not just about couture and runways. That is a vital part of what we do, but equal to that are beauty campaigns, sports and fitness, curve, and the Miami and Los Angeles markets. They all need to be represented fairly, but it's the aesthetic that makes a difference. We choose images that make sense for our brand. You can go into a store, and if the brand is doing it right, it all feels like it makes sense even though there's product diversity. We're striving to do that at Wilhelmina. We want our brand to feel young and fresh with a bit of attitude, whether that be a Nike ad or the runway.
"Our Instagram and social media must reflect the diversity and the breadth of who we represent."
The rise of social media and influencer marketing have redefined how brands work with talent across all industries. What do you think makes someone "influential" and what should brands be looking for when working with talent in this day and age?
What makes someone influential in my mind, or what makes someone a model in my mind, is someone who creates fantasy. That picture that makes you want to buy the lipstick or the pair of jeans or be a better person or join a cause — that's creating fantasy or action. Today, with the power of social media and the accessibility and democratization that it provides, different voices are being heard because they now have a microphone. I'm interested in signing all those voices. If someone can motivate action or create a fantasy, that's someone we want to talk to. Today, that's redefining what a model is.
You've worked with and personally signed some of the world's leading modeling and celebrity talent. What are the top pillars you consider to be non-negotiables when working with select individuals, and how does one's social media POV play into that?
A non-negotiable is that everyone signs a contract with Wilhelmina. If we go into business, we are really going to be partners; we are going to be part of the management team. We're very proud of Shawn Mendes. We signed him almost three years ago, and we've been part of his fashion and beauty strategy. We couldn't be prouder of his Calvin Klein campaign, which is the result of many years of working toward that goal. Today, the first place everyone goes is someone's Instagram. It's something that we look at. But most of the talent we're talking to are either developing talent (you've heard their name before), or they're established. Their messaging matters to us, but we'd never try to control their social media or dictate what they do. We have to work within the confines of who the artist is and what they're comfortable doing.
Speaking of personal brands, you also have a growing following on your Instagram page! How would you say your experience at Wilhelmina has informed your own aesthetic and content?
I look at Instagram as a creative outlet for myself. I work in an industry around photography every day, and it inspires me every day. Do I think I've achieved a level of artistry? The answer is 100% no, but you can't be afraid to put yourself out there. You can't be looking for someone else to validate who you are. It's a trap you're never going to win. I always say, "Even God had enemies." He had the devil! If you don't have enemies, you aren't doing something right. You don't stand for anything.
What advice do you have for models/talent/influencers looking to use social media to build their brands positively, and in turn, develop relationships with leading agencies like Wilhelmina?
What are you about? People connect on three levels on social media. Either they find you funny and relatable, inspirational, or they find you attractive and your life interesting. What are you putting out there and why would someone try to follow it? If you don't have an answer, then people probably won't follow you. The more raw, the more real, the more open you are, the better. You may not get everybody, but you'll get the people who like that area. There is reach in niche. There is nothing wrong with being a niche. If you're a sneakerhead, that's awesome. But you can't be a sneakerhead and a chef and Mother Theresa. You have to have a set DNA of what your brand as an individual is about.
What are your top best practices or tips for using social media to build global and enduring businesses in the modern business landscape?
- You have people that are consuming content voraciously every day. Think about those messages you are putting out there. You can't say, "I want people to think my hair brand is innovative and creative," and then you look at their Instagram and it's lame and boring.
- People aren't dumb. Have fun, take chances. You have this incredible multimedia platform to say who you are. Many brands are afraid to let go of the reigns, and it feels controlled and inauthentic. Other brands are popping up that people are relating to because they feel like they understand the mission, the people, or the story behind the brand. What's your story?
- Be consistent with it, and don't be afraid to have fun and be creative. I tell my models, "You are living the dream as someone who gets to do this." Don't worry if it's a bad picture.