Mags and Mods with Wilhelmina’s Bill Wackermann

by Eddie Roche
Bill Wackermann
Bill Wackermann

Elisabeth Erm and Ronald Epps give Wackermann a posing lesson.

When Bill Wackermann parted ways with Condé Nast in November after 20 years with the company, all eyes were on his next move. Naturally, he landed back on top as the newly minted CEO of legendary agency Wilhelmina Models. Get ready for a poaching spree…

How did you score this gig?
After leaving Condé Nast, I didn’t think I would immediately go back into a corporate culture. I planned to spend some time consulting and take some time off. Initially, when I got a call from a headhunter, they said, “There’s an opportunity, would you come in?” I wasn’t sure, but the moment the person said it’s at Wilhelmina Models, I almost jumped across the table. There are those a-ha moments in your life. One of them was when I was 29 years old and Details relaunched. They shopped it around, and no one wanted the job. I knew I could do it, and I had the same feeling about this opportunity at Wilhelmina. It’s such a powerful brand.

Will you also be modeling?
[Laughs] Unless we’re starting a senior division, probably not.

How is the modeling world similar to publishing?
In publishing, we were in the business of taking content and developing, promoting, and creating opportunities in the market to drive revenue around that content. What we do in the modeling business is not too dissimilar—instead of a magazine, it’s a person. We’re going out in the marketplace, and we’re developing that talent, and we’re talking about ways to create opportunities through editorial, advertising campaigns, and runway shows. The similarities are quite aligned. In the modeling world, we’re talking to the editors of magazines, advertisers, PR people, and casting agents, and a lot of those worlds are really symbiotic.

What’s your focus?
We will push more aggressively into high-end editorials for women. We have a great stable of leading talent, but it’s about continuing to attract the best talent in the marketplace and get the highest level of visibility.

What kind of research have you done?
I’ve spent the past couple of months in the vetting process, so I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time with [executive chairman at Wilhelmina International] Mark Schwarz and the board of directors. I’ve spent time understanding the financials of a publicly traded company, and the responsibilities that come along with that. I’ve also been reading and researching Wilhelmina Cooper herself, her life and her legacy. I’ve also been talking to all my friends who have relationships in the fashion and modeling communities to understand the key players, where Wilhelmina’s strength lies, and where we can develop moving forward.

What have you learned?
The modeling business grew organically, and that agency was driven around personalities and relationships. In 2016, modeling is a big business that affects advertising, as well as the ability to help move product and create trends. Today, Wilhelmina is a multinational modeling agency that doesn’t just cover high-end women’s and men’s but has a full line of commercial, fitness, and curve divisions.

What are your other priorities?
Raising the visibility of the brand. We’ve photographed talent for our new campaign wearing “I am the face of Wilhelmina” shirts. When Wilhelmina Cooper started out, her vision was always about celebrating diversity. She was the first agent to book an African-American woman on the cover of Vogue, and that was Beverly Johnson. Wilhelmina today looks at celebrating the diversity of faces all around the world, and so the “I am the face” campaign is to support the idea that if you are a high-end editorial girl, this is a home for you. If you are commercial model, a curve model, a fitness model, this is the home for you. You can all be the face of Wilhelmina.

Which divisions are you excited about working with?
Wilhelmina men’s division is a leader in the industry, and it’s under the direction of Taylor Hendrich, who is a tremendous talent. He has built a team here, so I think they are in a really great place. The direct business, which is more the commercial business, includes curve and fitness. It’s had 40 percent growth in 2015, so they are in a great place. My immediate focus is going to be in changing the perceptions of Wilhelmina’s high-end women’s board as a place that you can go and grow your career long-term. Sometimes the impression [for models] was to start at Wilhelmina, get to a certain place, and move on. I’m dead-set on stopping that impression. I want every young girl around the world to dream of being a Wilhelmina model, and to know that if they entrust their careers with us, we will create opportunities that no one else can.

What have you learned from the managers you’ve sat down with so far?
I learned that the similarities of my old position and where I am at Wilhelmina are not so dissimilar; they are both filled with tremendously creative and passionate individuals who really care. I’m convinced that we’ll grow our business in powerful ways, but at the core, I want to fill this agency with people who are passionate about the idea of helping someone else fulfill their dreams. As you walk down the halls here, the energy and the love that people have for this brand is palpable.

What was the reaction from your peers about getting this gig?
I was overwhelmed by the amount of support I received in the marketplace. When you’re at a place for as long as I was, you have such a healthy respect and admiration for your previous employment and the talent that exists there. There are some incredibly talented individuals. But when you leave it, and you get out there, you realize there’s this other incredible world that exists of other opportunities and new faces to meet. It almost feels like I graduated a little bit—you leave your friends in high school that you were very close to, but you start making new friends in college. It’s about adding to relationships as opposed to taking anything away.

How did you spend your time post-Condé?
At the end of the day, I learned a valuable lesson—you have to know who you are, and at my core, I’m a hustler. There was a fantasy of lying on a beach somewhere, or working out three times a day, or all the things we tell ourselves on that really crappy winter night, when we’re like, “Why am I here? I just want to be in L.A. with a Starbucks cup in my hand.” But I was bored in a week and a half. I was driving my partner crazy, I was driving my friends crazy—if I don’t have a phone attached to my fingers 24 hours a day, I don’t know what to do with myself. That realization was really powerful for me, because I was excited to dig in to a project that was going to be a full-time commitment.

Did you occasionally turn on General Hospital?
I watched zero television. I don’t know how the days went. Our dog did get a lot more attention! I had the leisure of lengthy lunches, but you can only do that so many times.

How did you handle the public nature of the departure?
You can’t have the reputation of being a tough, business motivator, and then be super sensitive, so the answer is I laughed out loud. When I saw the picture in The New York Post of me jumping into the water, pushed overboard, I texted it to my kids and laughed. My son said, “In some way, I know you’re liking this.”

Are you thinking about exploring a relationship between Wilhelmina and one of the big talent agencies, like ICM or CAA?
We have a division already called Wilhelmina Artist Management, and under our celebrity division we have Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, and we just recently signed [singer] Shawn Mendes. We won’t merge with anyone else—we have those capabilities here, and we will be building up the talent and hiring in those areas to further develop Wilhelmina’s Artist Management. We have to be deeper in that game. It’s essential to our success that we do that.

Should the other agencies be scared?
I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to say anyone should be scared. There are a lot of great agencies with a lot of great talent out there. Wilhelmina is committed to increasing opportunity for our talent. Competition is good and raises our game. If you are a spectator, prepare for a good match.

You seem ready for this.
I couldn’t be more thrilled. I have opinions; I’m going to change things. In six months, the people who are here and passionate will feel like it’s a whole new place with a whole new day happening around them.

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