In the next installment of our series of articles about Burnham Niker, we talk to owner and director Katy Niker. Katy's career is unusual because the first company she worked for after graduating is the same company Katy works for now. Initially joining the founder of the company for work exprience, Katy stayed and some years later ultimately became the owner. Katy tells us how this unfolded and what it's like to work within the commercial photography world.
How did your interest in photography begin?
I studied a GCSE in photography whilst filling up my academic calendar when re-taking an A level. I was meant to do a degree in Geography, but fell in love with photography and so completely changed all my plans
You studied a photography degree in Blackpool, in which area of photography was this and why did you choose this particular course?
At the time, Bournemouth was the place to go if you were interested in a more art based career and Blackpool if you wanted to work more commercially, particularly in advertising. The idea process, problem solving and collaboration involved in working in advertising really appealed to me, hence I applied to Blackpool
Are you from the North-west?
No, I am a Southerner and when I went for my interview it was the first time I had ever been to Blackpool. It is an unusual place and itís own little world, not really typical of even other seaside holiday spots. I think because the college was not set up like the larger Universities, (no student union bar etc..), students had to be more self-motivated in searching out the fun stuff. I had 3 fantastic years there and will always have a soft spot for it.
You must have done well during your work experience with David Burnham. Why do you think you impressed him enough to offer you a role as his PA?
Almost as soon as I started my work experience I knew I loved the role of an agent. Working with an eclectic group of photographers on all sorts of projects. I guess I had a natural aptitude and good attention to detail, he must have seen some potential.
What was it like moving to London to work for your very first job with David?
It was a big step. I moved in with my best friend, who had been living and working in London already, so she was a massive help in helping me get my London legs. Davidís office was at the bottom of Caledonian Road, quite dodgy back then, and on the first morning I walked past an older man who was smiling broadly at me. I can remember thinking how friendly and smiled back, but as I walked past he asked me how much for a blow-job?í That gave me a bit of a reality check.
Why did you prefer to work with photographers rather than becoming a photographer?
Twenty odd years ago the colleges really wanted you to specialise, put you in a neat, small box. I loved all aspects of photography and so didnít want to be so restricted. I also think I was realistic enough to know my skills were better behind the scenes, than behind a camera.
How did that degree help you as a PA at a photographersí agent?
It was more unusual 25 years ago for someone to study photography, but go into this side of things. So I think having all the technical knowledge of lighting, shooting & printing, (it was way before digital & retouching was a new tool!), and all other aspects of coming up with ideas and taking photographs was something the photographers on Davidís books really liked. David had no experience of photography at all when he fell into being an agent.
What did you learn on the job that wasnít learnt at university?
The way the real world worked!
Running a business is very different to being a creative. What was it like getting to grips with becoming a business owner?
It was a bit of a baptism of fire. David suddenly retired at the very end of 1999 and so I went almost overnight from being an employee to owner /director. It is a challenging way to learn, but I am a strong believer in common sense and lateral thinking and that got me through whilst I learnt the job on the job!
What are the important skills and traits that make you a successful boss?
As I started as David Burnhamís PA and then moved on to being his right-hand person and eventually taking over the company, I have worked all the various roles and hence, I hope, with that experience I educate, support and encourage both Jenny and Alex, who are now in those roles. We are a small team and so I have always tried to make sure that the work environment is one that we all want to be in and be part of. Good communication, as ever, is always key.
Being a business owner is both a challenge and exciting. What are the highs and lows of running a creative company?
I think that the highs and lows of running your own company are probably the same whatever industry you are in. Being your own boss gives you the flexibility to manage your work, time and business the way you want to, but it also means you never really switch off in the same way an employee does.
How has the agentís role changed in the years since you first started?
Hugely! When I first started it was all about promoting the photographers & quoting the jobs when they came in. Once we got go-ahead it went straight to an external freelance producer and we then only really got involved again at the billing stage. Nowadays, and for about the last 15 years, we have much more of an executive producer role and oversee every aspect of the shoot from start to finish. It means that despite all the constant twists & turns on productions these days, we can ensure that it still runs smoothly, on time and on budget!
What are the challenges facing a creative business like yours in the future?
The biggest challenge for both photographers and agents is clients trying to avoid paying usage fees. None of us will survive on day rates that have not really gone up in the last 5 years. It is usage fees that allows me to run my company and offer the kind of service we do to our photographers and clients. It is usage fees that allow my photographers to invest in new equipment and fund personal projects, which in turn enables us to keep promoting them.
How do you keep on top of running a business and up to date with the latest trends and styles in the world of visual-media?
With three of us in the office, as well as doing our varying roles, we all keep our eyes open as to what is going on in the creative world across all medias. We make sure we always share that information between ourselves and with our photographers.
What qualities do you look for in the people you take on to work for Burnham Niker?
My 2 key qualities are common sense and lateral thinking. They cannot be taught, you are either wired that way or not, but those qualities are worth more to me than a particular qualification and an invaluable production skill. I obviously want them to have an interest and passion for photography. Good communication skills and generally an interesting personality with a good sense of humour. I spend more time with my staff than I do my husband, so I want us all to get along well!
As a business owner do you factor in any time for your own career development, further education or working with a mentor?
The nature of this job means you are learning all the time. We never know what kind of layouts/ideas are going to come in with any particular project and I love the challenge of turning a creativeís ideas into a reality by solving the production puzzle that brings their drawn visuals to life.
What was the best business advice anyone ever gave you?
When I first started working with David, over 20 years ago, one of the first things he said to me was, ďI canít sit down and teach you this job, but listen carefully to every telephone conversation I have and you will pick it up from that, but it will ultimately it will take time and experienceĒ. However, I am conscious that all those years ago this advice was before www and email, of course now so many conversations happen over email, hence I make sure I cc Jenny in on all the written discussions on projects, so that she can learn from me how I handle everything.
What would you be doing if you weren't an agent?
No bloody idea! I still love the process of helping our photographers to create great advertising imagery and, after all these years, still get the same buzz when I see their work on billboard posters, in magazines and online, or however else they are used.
For more articles about Burnham Niker and one of the photographers they represent, car photographer Simon Stock, see the links below.
All images are © the photographer and used with permission.
The Burnham Niker website: www.burnham-niker.com
From our series of articles about photographers' agent Burnham Niker, we talk to newly promoted joint Director Alex Wilshire. Alex tells us about her career to date.
Our interview with car photographer and director Simon Stock who tells us about his career and what it's like to shoot cars for a living.
From our series of articles about photographers' agent Burnham Niker, we talk to the newest member of their team, Production Assistant Jenny Wickens.