Vanessa von Bismarck and Carrie Ellen Phillips founded BPCM in 1999, which has since grown into a fully integrated global agency with offices in New York, Los Angeles and London, specializing in brand building and communications through a comprehensive style that combines experiential, digital, influencer and customer acquisition strategies in addition to traditional media. The Impression’s Dao Tran caught up with the women who launched Derek Lam and Stella McCartney, dress celebrities for the red carpet and influencers for the IG feed, and created the #RitzRainbow for Art Basel Miami Beach. We chatted about the changes in the industry, their recent merger with Modus in London, their passion for sustainability, and the things you do for your family.
How did you form the agency and how has it evolved?
CP: Vanessa and I met in 1999 at another agency where we worked together on a client together and got along. She suggested starting our own agency but I was 22 at the time and it was a little bit of a ridiculous plan so I said no, I don’t think so. So she went back to Germany but she was calling me every day, asking what do you think we should call the company, what do you want your business card to say, what kind of title should we have, do you know how to incorporate a company? Vanessa is very persistent and very persuasive – which makes her very good at her job – so she finally convinced me and we started the company in 1999. It’ll be 19 years in August.
We always knew we were going to do communication. I came through music and Vanessa came from business so we both came from slightly different places and different perspectives, but both of those perspectives have really helped us be different from our competitors. I think that we bring an outsider’s perspective and sort of a real world perspective to how to market brands and how to speak to customers. That’s always been what we really prided ourselves on.
You started out focusing on art at the beginning, how was that?
CP: It was our first year. It was interesting because this whole art and fashion thing had not really happened yet. Art was very big in New York at that time, there was a lot of money, a lot of people buying art and a lot of people wanting to be artists. But it was difficult to keep the lights on with what we were being paid by artists, and fashion brands just started calling. We had met a lot of people in fashion and we came from a background of doing luxury so we started taking on fashion brands and, before you knew it, that was sort of our focus. It wasn’t like a conscious choice. It really kind of came to us and it felt very natural so we kind of went with it.
VvB: There was a very cookie cutter approach to communications and PR at the time in the fashion world. I think that the brands that we were talking to and working with appreciated our approach of looking at them as if they were our own brand. We always wanted to know more than the upcoming collection and the campaign around it. We wanted to know what their business objectives were, where they wanted to go, what the story was that they were trying to tell behind the brand. From that perspective, we were quite different.
Derek Lam was one of your first fashion clients?
VvB: Derek Lam was introduced to us by a common friend. He had literally just left Michael Kors. He had a few sketches, he didn’t have samples yet, and he was working out of his apartment. The sketches looked great. I would have liked to see some samples, but I trusted that he had a sense of luxury. We did our first show with him in a furniture store and it was very exciting.
It was very exciting times. It was still quite pure and people were really curious about seeing new talent, in a different way than maybe they are today. So much is out there already, before people even put a piece of clothing on a runway – if they even go that way – because everything has already been communicated via social media. There was still this moment of discovery then. Anna Wintour came to his first show and I think that definitely helped move his company ahead a few steps faster.
One of our other clients was the German brand, Strenesse, which not that many people in America were aware of. We started working with them and the collection was so incredible that they all of a sudden found a lot of traction. Again, Anna played a role in that as well, then key retailers started building this brand up. It was an interesting moment for us because people wondered why she is going to the Strenesse show, who is doing the PR for that. It was us and we started getting a lot of phone calls. We started working with Stella [McCartney] right after Derek.
CP: Yeah, we launched Stella in the US. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun.
How do you mean it was very exciting back then, how would you say it has changed?
CP: There was lot of new, young talent. There was a lot of really exciting of-the-moment brands who were doing really exciting things. Somebody like Derek Lam – it was easy to see from his first collection an enormous amount of talent and an enormous amount of not only trend-setting, trend-driven things, but also really marketable and sellable without feeling commercial.
The same thing with Stella – she was really playing with new spins. I think that whole concept of incredible, sharp tailoring over things that looked like lingerie – that was a new idea at the time, it was something that didn’t look like everybody else. It was a lot of individuality. And there was no social media at that point. I think there was a lot less of people kind of knocking each other off or taking each other’s cues. It really came from the designers’ hearts and minds and inspiration rather than everything that everybody was seeing altogether, all at the same time, which is kind of what social media is.
VvB: There was also not this streetwear thing that we have right now. At the time, it was still very much trained designers who were creating beautiful collections and I feel that from that moment on, if you look forward to today, there are so many crazy things that go on the runway that nobody would ever wear, and then whatever you see in the stores is very different. Whatever Derek Lam put on the runway was exactly what he was doing in the store. The industry has changed a little bit.
A lot of things are changing, from questioning the viability of shows for different sizes or types of brands to see now/buy now. How do you see that?
VvB: The industry is changing all over again because people are moving their show schedule and their production schedule around. At the moment, it’s an interesting time.
Not everybody has the budget of Chanel to create a life-size cruise ship, but a runway show today has to be more than just a runway show, you have to show the story behind it. I think you need that more and more. People want to know what a brand stands for. It’s less about the product than what people are trying to communicate. That’s obviously a fantastic thing for us, because we can help them refine their stories.
I had this conversation with somebody who wants to do a runway show in the fall. I told him, ‘Great: We live in NY, it’s really a cultural hub, you have the most incredible talent in theater, dance, you name it. So tap into that. Why not collaborate with one of these amazing dance troupes or an amazing theater production and bring your clothes to life by setting it in a scene?’
Donald Schneider talked about the 90s in NY, how creative and exciting it was back then and how it kind of feels like that now, too, with all the change and the possibilities. It seems like what’s happening now begs the same creativity and doing things differently approach.
VvB: I would totally agree with that.
CP: The difference now is that it’s really big brands doing it. If you look at Nike with Virgil Abloh or Tom Sachs, those are the highest selling and fastest selling out sneakers. That’s kind of new.
VvB: But you also see Gucci using extraordinary art and putting it on walls. People are searching for the sort of grimey, artsy New York, but are having a hard time finding it. You have to look a bit further afield because a lot of the artists have been pushed out. And I feel that a lot of this is actually coming out of LA, more so than NY; there seems to be a much more free attitude there.
We did a men’s show for Hermès in downtown LA and there was all this graffiti, super cool, super grimey. It was a really interesting experience, something so extraordinarily high luxury in an area where I think most of those Hermès guys have never gone. Or the launch of the H&M Conscious Exclusive Collection was in a tiny house that was done in a very exclusive way, you just can’t do it that way in NY. Out there people take advantage of the architecture, of design. I feel like there are a lot more opportunities in LA compared to NY because so many things here have been done before.
How do you see yourself prepared for the change that’s going on?
CP: We’ve always focused on doing things that we love, that speak to us, that keep us interested. One of the things that I’m really interested in is sustainability and I developed this interest 5-6 years ago. It’s now one of those things that everybody in fashion is talking about. Fashion has an incredibly large footprint.
Absolutely. It’s the second-most polluting industry after oil.
CP: That’s correct. I think what’s really interesting is this is a place where fashion has a chance to truly redeem itself with what we put out into the world and how we put it out because it’s such a big industry and it’s an industry full of creative people – we’re working with creative minds.
I think we’re probably the only PR firm in the world with any focus on sustainability. And it’s been very exciting for our brand to have our expertise in that so we can help clients come along with the conversation. Vanessa has been very instrumental with creating collaborations between our brands and artists and designers and things like that. I think we’re always trying to keep things interesting and relevant and giving our brand a voice that I feel not everybody else has.
It’s people and planet, right? It’s how you treat the people in your supply chain, are they making a living wage, are they treated fairly, what kind of conditions are they living under. The Rana Plaza disaster was 5 years ago. A lot of fashion has moved forward from the standards of that time.
The other part is the environmental part, how we treat the planet. That no longer just means switching from conventional cotton to organic cotton or from polyester to recycled polyester. What it really means is technology. And there’s an enormous technology boom that we’re about to see in how our fibers and fabrics are made. People are growing leather and silk in labs, they’re growing feathers. People can take our garbage and make things out of it. 80% of American post-consumer garments go to landfills, doesn’t get recycled, it’s all post-consumer waster. 98% of that waste is cotton or polyester. There are scalable technologies for recycling both of those types of things. I really predict that in the next 5 years, we will see a complete shift in the way that we source our raw materials. Rather than being virgin resources, it will be our own trash.
I think it’s being driven by consumer demand as well, with generation whatever they call it now demanding that people take accountability.
CP: Vanessa’s done a lot of amazing work around millenials and Gen Y and Gen Z and how they think. That’s their thing – they vote with their dollar and you can see that.
VvB: At the Condé Nast luxury conference in Lisbon, Stefan Siegal from Not Just a Label made an interesting point that there is sustainability in brands that create extraordinary pieces not for the volume, but for the creation part. It was a beautiful way to round out that conference, where you heard from so many people who overproduce and put out things that are more mass.
I think that not just the consumer but the public in general is extremely engaged in causes. It’s a good time to talk about sustainability and to talk about things in a different way.
Do you select your clients on the basis of how engaged they are?
VvB: Yes. We definitely select our clients on the basis of how engaged they are or how engaged we think they can be.
CP: Sometimes clients need to change and we have to judge whether or not they’re just paying lip service or they’re really willing to let us come in and help them. Because we really like to get in up to our elbows. We’ve had clients up to 8, 9, 10 years, and that is because we feel like we are in-house to them, but we bring all the benefits of not being in-house. We have to judge whether we think a relationship can be that long term and how willing they are to listen to advice and let us be a part of the process. Because otherwise, it’s not worth it.
VvB: We also have a team here and it’s important that our team is engaged. We make sure that the team meets potential clients and wants to work with them because if they are not excited about the story of whichever given client, then the work that we would be able to produce is not going to be effective. There’s a lot of outward-facing but also a lot of inward-facing work that has to be done.
Speaking of inward-facing, how is the merger working out?
CP: You know what, when we opened our first London office, we already thought about creating an agency with Julian or merging with Modus back then. And we’ve been great friends for 18 years so there’s an enormous amount of trust there. There’s an enormous amount of love and a lot of understanding of what everybody’s strengths are and how we can add to each other. Honestly, it’s been great, we’ve been really really enjoying it. It felt like coming home in a lot of ways.
VvB: Absolutely. In terms of mergers, it was so easy. Everybody who knows us and Julian think we naturally belong together. And the beauty is that we’ve been talking about this for so many years, exchanging stories of each other’s business –
CP: – giving each other advice. 9 out of 10 times meeting a potential client in London, we’d be pitching against Modus. At the end of the day, it all makes a lot of sense. Now we have a partner in London. For the clients, there’s that owner-operator there, and it gives them an extra added level of comfort and security.
VvB: And also additional services. We had a 7-person office in London. Now we have a substantial operation there that can also take care of beauty, that can take care of digital, hotels, wine sector. Basically, now it is kind of a mirror image to New York. Which is amazing because now we can really work with all categories across the board and have a substantial footprint on that side of the Atlantic, which really makes a huge difference. And as Carrie said, having an owner in place is a huge difference. Having had offices in Paris and London, I can safely say that it is really complicated to have the same kind of operation if you don’t have an owner in place.
CP: Same with our business partner in Los Angeles, Ali, who has been with us for 14 years, there’s just a level of trust, a level of ease. We have this incredible network and expertise to work with celebrities, VIPs, we have a beauty department in LA that deals mainly with beauty influencers, so Modus BPCM gained an entire network there, which is super valuable in London. With digital, the different offices are strong in different areas and different aspects. I think that we’ve really been able to learn from each other and enhance what the other team is able to do.
Are there any difficulties involved, because it just seems like plus sides up till now?
CP: The stages of a merger are forming, storming and norming. Forming is when you start and everything’s great. Storming is everybody vying for positions and doing it their way. And then norming is when you figure out the working style. I think we’re in the norming phase now. Everybody has to get used to each other and figure out what their role is. I think that that storming phase was short and relatively uneventful.
VvB: There’s a lot of respect and trust and that’s very important. And a common goal.
CP: Also, we have a lot of fun together. We laugh a lot, we’re friends. On top of a huge level of respect and business synergy, we have a really great time together. For Vanessa and I, that’s always been so important in this business. Vanessa came up with an amazing rule for us in our first 6 months. She said if it ever stops being fun, we stop doing it. It’s just really important for us that these things are fun and that we have a good time, are able to laugh. Because, you know, work is work. Work can be serious, work can be hard, work can be frustrating, but if you’ve got people that you can laugh with, and at the end of the day you can have a drink and joke and talk and leave the office stuff on the side, I think that points to something lasting.
It’s funny because I always say Vanessa and I met as colleagues and we became sisters. I feel the same way about Ali, I feel the same way about Julian. We spend more time together, I would say, on the whole, than with our kids and our partners. So it’s like family. We interview people many many times, and they stay here for a very long time because of the environment.
I think we have a couple of responsibilities. One is to treat them well and create an environment where they feel supported and trusted and able to do their job. They’re held to a very high standard, but also given a ton of support. And then the other thing is that we see it as our responsibility not only to get great clients who are amazing to work with and are great partners, but also that the team is passionate about and that they want to work on. Those are the things that you do for your family. We don’t just say yes to the money clients who are going to run you ragged and work you to the bone and not be worth it in the end. If you’re only doing it for the money, that’s not good for the family. If you’re doing projects where everybody brings something to the table and feels like you can do great work on them and be really proud at the end of the day, that’s good for the family.
In terms of being good for the family, what makes for a great client?
CP: We have an official no assholes policy.
I would say that is rule number 1. We’ve said no to things before that would have been really good for the agency in terms of our profile. But you can tell right away if somebody is not going to listen to you, not going to trust you, and just be an asshole.
VvB: One of my favorite clients right now sat down with us and wanted to go over the collection, the campaign, who’s going to shoot it, who’s going to be in it, what it will look like, what the script is. Let’s try and think about a really interesting way to bring this brand to life in the American market together. Perfect client. Because I can really get involved. I think a good client is somebody who really sees us as a partner.
How have the services that you provide evolved with the needs of the clients?
CP: Any new office that we ever created we started because our clients kept asking for it. Like LA – clients kept saying we need someone out there. So I went and met with the PR agencies and there were just LA-based communications firms out there; the approach was not high end enough, especially for the Europeans. It was too sporadic and it was too throw it against the wall and see what sticks and the European clients had a very different relationship-based mentality with celebrity. They were also very concerned, back in the early 2000s, that celebrities could hurt their brand rather than enhance it. I know it’s hard to remember a time like that, but there was a lot of sensitivity around that. So we started the LA office in order to meet our clients’ needs.
Same as we had no intentions of starting a European office, but we had clients like Derek Lam and Theory, who wanted to expand into Europe. So we started with a freelancer in London, and we were giving her more and more work until she finally said I can’t do this from my kitchen table anymore, let’s just open an office. So we did. So a lot that we’ve done was in response to our clients.
What happened to Paris?
CP: Well, we opened Paris and closed it after a couple of years. Whenever people ask what your biggest mistake was and what did you learn from it, I always say opening an office in Paris. We were really on a roll, the agency was very hot, we were doing great work in LA and London. I thought that we’re doing such great work everywhere else, this is a no-brainer, let’s just open in Paris. But it’s very difficult to go into a culture that’s deeply ingrained. Paris has a deeply ingrained culture, not only in fashion, but also in terms of how work gets done, and I think it’s very difficult to make money there with the social charges and what people are willing to pay.
VvB: The way the agencies were structured at the time in Paris, there was a relations publiques and a relations presse person, so instead of one director, we needed two. Already that division blew our mind and our budget. It was just crazy expensive. But the fees that you could charge were not very high because a lot of the other agencies were charging nothing and would have one person working on 15 accounts and not really providing very good work – they were completely undercutting prices.
Actually, one of the big thoughts was that having an office in Paris would allow us to have representatives there who would work for us on the French brands and bring them to the American market. But it turned out that we were meeting the French brands and they came directly to us to work on the American market, so we didn’t need the office for that.
And again, as I said earlier, if you have no owner-operator in a market, I really believe that you will have a hard time breaking through and competing with an owner-operator. We had that office in London and now we see after the merger that it’s really a different story having a strong partner that owns the agency. If we would expand the agency, I think it would be more through partnership or mergers than opening our own offices.
CP: We have a few different agencies in Paris that we really love working with, so we have an owner-operator there. There everybody specializes a little bit differently in some things, so you can get a slightly different approach for different clients by using different agencies.
VvB: In Germany we also have great agencies that we like working with. But I don’t think it’s necessary to go into that market because it’s quite saturated. In terms of markets that are and will become interesting, we should start looking at partnerships in Asia and South America.
CP: There are people in South America doing amazing things and there’s a hunger for brands. I think the brands that take advantage of it are really going to win. A lot of brands only sell to Brazil, but there’s a lot there – Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, to name a few.
VvB: I think in terms of expansion, Asia would make a lot of sense.
But there are other things that we are more focused on. As Carrie mentioned, sustainability is a hot topic and for us as an agency to create an arm that’s really specialized in sustainability would be very intellectually satisfying and an interesting and natural way for us to go.
The other opportunity that I see in the market is to potentially start investing in some brands, taking part ownership and being strategic in that.
VvB: Exactly. Why not? It makes no sense not to. We build these brands from day 1, why not invest in them?
Thank you for sharing that.
CP: We’ll let you know when we start our fund.
So that’s what you are looking forward to next?
CP: For me, I’m very much looking at sustainability and new technology. Those are the things that I’m most interested in and see the most promise in, technologies that are going to change our industry and kind of reverse the damage. And also the education of younger designers and younger professionals who are going into fashion, helping them understand sustainability as a point of view when they’re going into their careers and how they can be a part of that.
Vanessa and I both do a lot of speaking and we have a really robust internship program. We try to spend time with the interns when they come through and be a part of helping them understand these perspectives. I work with the Bard Sustainable MBA program. That stuff is definitely a passion and those people all want to change the world, which is very exciting.
VvB: What I’m excited about is to find a way to work with clients to guide them to a new way of thinking about communicating about their brand and positioning their brand. And I’m also very excited about the idea of starting to look at brands as potential investment opportunities.
Very worthwhile and exciting endeavors. Good luck with everything and thank you both so much for your time.
VvB: Thank you.
CP: Thank you, it was really nice.