How a gallery assistant with "no future" built a global recruitment empire

From her parents’ basement to an office on Madison Avenue, Sophie Macpherson has done it all

Imagine being told your career was over before it had even begun? Well, at 24-year-old Sophie Macpherson experienced just that.

After a few years at an envy-inspiring job as a gallery assistant, the ambitious languages student thought it was time to hunt for a better job in the art world.

When she went to recruiting agents, however, they didn’t exactly share her enthusiasm.

“I was told there was no future in the art world, and that I should go be a secretary,” says Macpherson. “This was totally not relevant to my experience and it became clear that none of these recruiters actually understood where the industry was going.”

Many would give up after a hit like that, but not Macpherson. Instead, she quit her job and set about solving the problem. Ten years later, her recruitment company SML has almost the entire art world on its books, servicing the likes of Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Kate de Rothschild, Damien Hirst’s Science Ltd., De Beers, the Serpentine Gallery and the Scottish Gallery Edinburgh. The list really just goes on and on and stretches across three continents.

As it turns out, 100 envelopes held the key to turning her life around.

“After my recruiting debacle, I sent out self-addressed envelopes to 100 galleries and museums. I asked whether they thought that there was room for some kind of service that would help them in the recruitment process,” says Macpherson. 

“The response was incredible. Practically all of them got back saying that they were struggling to find good people. Many were just hiring relatives and friends of friends and would always find it very awkward when things didn’t work out.”

So out of the glitz of gallery world went the young Macpherson, straight to the comfort of her parents’ windowless basement. It was here armed with a lone phone that she started amassing a client list and made a profit in her first quarter. That was in 2002.

Ten years later, SML has offices in London, Paris and New York’s Madison Avenue. A fourth is also on its way in 2013 an East Asian location. Nor is Macpherson confined to traditional art hubs. Last week, she placed someone for a leading job in Azerbaijan.

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So how did she do it?

“It was quite simple really. I put out a newspaper advert asking for applicants,” says Macpherson. “I was expecting 20, but in came some 500 responses.”

Everyone was suddenly jumping on the recruitment train. Very senior people down to assistants and even interns were desperately looking for an in, or and out, of an art job.

“The thing with the art world is that it is very small and confidential and you shouldn’t try and get your CV out unless you totally trust the people,” says Macpherson. “This was something easy enough to solve.”

Macpherson - and increasingly her small devoted team of recruiter – does this by having face-to-face meetings with clients and recruitees. In the early days, meetings took place miles away from her basement office, now they happen more often at her plush Charlotte Street base. But the principle remains the same.

As only a small selection makes the final cut, SML carries out the vetting process discretely behind the scenes, getting references together and ensuring the candidate will be a good fit.

After years in the industry Macpherson already knew a fair few industry people already, but this only made things easier. Her buoyant personality helped her achieve the rest.

In retrospect, Macpherson’s biggest weakness has also been her biggest strength.

“I can always be a little too punchy, I was very, very young and I went bulldozing my way in,” Macpherson says. “Then again, I wouldn’t still be here if I wasn’t a risk-taker and if I had taken on a more casual approach.”

So when she blazed around galleries offering up “just some friendly advice” there really is no way of knowing what the little blonde with a bold mouth may have said. But whatever it was, it worked, and has continued doing so. 

SML remains the leading art recruitment specialist. Competitors have only zoned in on niches and SML is the only agency to cover the increasingly diversifying art world.

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It’s this sheer market domination that furnishes Macpherson’s coffers in an industry otherwise renowned for its stingy pay. The love of art, naturally supersedes the love of money, daaarrrrllling, or at least it did until Macpherson put her foot down.

SML only works with people advertising roles paying more than £18,000 p/a.

“I just don’t think that it is fair to be paying someone that little,” says Macpherson. “A lot of these galleries can afford it and you need to be paying people well to attract good candidates.”

By matching around 12 – 20 candidates her month, SML gives itself the freedom to work both ends of the market. And since the senior roles are increasingly better paid and the art world increasingly more professional, recruiting revenues are plentiful and rising.  Like other agencies, the company charges a percentage of the first year’s pay as its commission, with rates depending on the size of the starting salary.

Don’t let this fool you into thinking the art industry potters along in a bubble. It has been tarnished by hard times as much as, if not more, than others.

In 2008, Macpherson suddenly saw her “slow and steady increase” in customers plummet. Luckily she knew what to do. It wasn’t quite back to the basement, but back to her living room.

“I had to slash all overheads and it helped me stay alive and ride out the storm. Shrinking your expenses to a minimum is one of the major blessings of a service-based industry,” says Macpherson.

Middle East institutions also came to the rescue. They needed to boost their prestige and needed western talent at the exact time that UK and US galleries and museums started shedding staff. It was an arranged marriage based around both love and money.

Hard times might be upon us once again, but this time around Macpherson knows that ploughing through head first to new markets is key.

“Asia is the next growth spurt,” says Macpherson. “Demand is growing, tastes are diversifying and - unlike Russians and Emiratis who prefer to come to London for their art - the Chinese like to keep closer to home.”

In come plans for a SML’s HK or Shanghai base in 2013.

For now though China, and the art world, will have to wait. SML is awaiting an important addition – the arrival of baby number one.

Six months pregnant and counting, Macpherson has spent the last year in hyperdrive getting her company ready. From New York to Vienna to Oklahoma, she has been jetting around all over the place. She now faces the frenzies of London’s Frieze week where over 60,000 art lovers will descend on Regents Park. 

“All I have to do now is get myself and the bump through Frieze and then I’m going to have to calm down for a while,” says Macpherson. With Macpherson a “while” is destined to be the operative word.

December and January may be a generally slow period but give me a “month (after the birth) and I will probably be back on a plane with the baby in tow”.

That’s just the nature of the art world, she explains. “You constantly have to be moving if you want to succeed.”

And what does she say to all those young art history graduates the country over desperate to get their foot though the gallery door:

“Always be open to new possibilities, learn as you go along, never say no to anything, don’t seem precious and work the hours you are asked to work. It is the only way, really and everyone will have to do it at some point.”

Otherwise not even Macpherson can help you save your career before it really begins.

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