Christie's paints consistent global message

With headquarters all over the world, the PR team works cohesively to host successful auctions

Christie's, the art auctioneer in business since 1766, has recently been in the news a lot for the auctioning of some unusual items, including a photograph of the current French first lady in the nude and a landmark modernist house valued by bidders for being a work of art as much as for being a residence.

Interestingly, there are more similarities than there are differences in promoting such various objects. Across all 80 sales categories at Christie's, most of its sales begin with a press release and a press conference with photo opportunities, typically followed by the scheduling of interviews with experts or consignors to discuss the merits of the works on auction.

Christie's internal communications team handles the majority of the PR workload, but it does hire firms on a project-by-project basis, including HWPR, People's Revolution, IMA in Moscow, and the Portsmouth Group in Dubai. Among other things, these agencies manage local events promoting large-scale upcoming sales.

The most newsworthy campaigns, along with all external and internal communications, are always global in nature, according to Toby Usnik, international head of corporate communications. He compares the approach of his team to that of the European Union or the US State Department, in that it acts as "diplomats try[ing] [to] present solutions versus obstacles, globally and culturally."

As a result of the global nature of the art world, the PR staff focuses on creating consistent messaging for clients and buyers, as well as the owner, Fran¬ćois Pinault, despite the variance in media markets and cultures among regions. Major announcements of particular objects up for auction or collections are coordinated around the globe, with the communications leads at its regional headquarters in New York, London, and Hong Kong reporting to Usnik.

But "a particular sale in a particular market doesn't mean that we have to launch news for the sale in that region, [because] we're now so globalized," with art buyers easily able to learn about sales around the world, says Rik Pike, senior PR manager.

Pike notes that the sale of the Lucien Freud painting, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which fetched the highest price for a living artist to this date, took place in New York, though its availability was announced in London to its press corps. Similarly, the Miller collection of impressionist and modernist paintings, which came from Indiana, was announced in New York, but will be auctioned off in London.

"Even when we announce something in one market, we're still going to promote in other markets because we have such a global client base," Usnik explains. "And our sales cycle is such that we will move and sell collections and works of art in the venue, and at the time, that is most optimal for our clients."

Pike notes that the climate for art sales is particularly favorable these days, in contrast to the dive that the market took following the "dot com" bust earlier in the decade. Two weeks of recent evening sales at regional headquarters involved three quarters of a billion dollars worth of artwork, he noted.

The company flatly denies any lingering effects of damage to its reputation from an incident in 2001, in which Christie's admitted to colluding with another famous auction house, Sotheby's, to fix prices.

"I can't think of a more competitive environment than we are in now with other auction houses, and I think our clients see that we are very competitive and very diligent about moving forward," Usnik says.

Finally, like many other communications departments, Christie's tries to contribute positively to the communities of wherever it partakes in business or has clients. For instance, Christie's recently aided relief efforts in China after the devastating earthquake, including donating proceeds from the sale of an 18th century Beijing enamel glass brush-pot.

"We have business there, and we are committed members of the community there." Usnik says. "We are finalizing what our response is going to be there in terms of contributions and matching gifts for employees who want to do something."

At a glance
Corporation: Christie's
Headquarters: London is the flagship; regional HQ also in New York and Hong Kong
CEO: Edward Dolman
Revenue: 2007 global revenue, $6.3 billion; 2007 US revenue, $2.7 billion
Comms budget: Undisclosed
Communications team: Toby Usnik, international head of corporate comms; Yvonne So, director of corporate comms, Asia; Catherine Manson, director of communications, Europe
PR firm: Project-by-project hires

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