John-Paul Savant of Auction Technology Group
John-Paul Savant, CEO, Auction Technology Group.

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With a strategic approach honed over 20-plus years in finance and technology companies, Savant has renamed the 45-year firm as an outward expression of the structural evolution ATG – and its markets – are undergoing.

The introduction of ‘auction’ into the ATG brand is also a statement of intent, as the firm looks to extend its brand into other markets.

Now that the rebrand has happened and after 10 months on the job, Savant is talking to the Gazette about his obsession with bidders, peppering every second sentence with the b-word. The focus on bidders is, he believes, key to delivering maximum value to thesaleroom.com’s platform and its customers.

In his first weeks Savant embarked on what some might call an unorthodox approach to consumer research. To get under the skin of thesaleroom.com bidder, Savant gave his neighbours in Richmond money to bid on the site and report their experiences back to him.

He fused this feedback with his own bidder ventures, part-furnishing the Savant family home via thesaleroom.com, deliberately buying from regional auction houses to test the end-to-end experience.

This insight, together with regular trips to ATG’s UK auction house clients and dealer events such as the LAPADA Fair, is fuelling a pipeline of improvements to the site.

NM: Ten months into the job, what’s been the biggest surprise?

J-PS: The passion people have for this business. I hail from PayPal and other financial services companies like JP Morgan, where staff didn’t talk about the joy of working in corporate banking or their excitement in building back-end payment systems.

Yet the most common refrain I’ve heard from auctioneers and staff at ATG is they feel privileged to work in this industry, because they love the subject matter.

And the greatest challenge?

To live up to the mandate the board and our investors ECI Partners asked me to take on, which is to help make ATG a more digital company while respecting its publishing roots and the unique assets we have here.

What feedback have you had on the rebrand?

Most people said it makes complete sense. Some asked, ‘why change – the name was fine’. Others were confused, thinking we were rebranding the Gazette, which of course we’re not.

Cynics would suggest changing a firm’s name is a harbinger to a sale…

This rebrand is not a prelude to a sale. The name was changed simply to reflect the fact that the company is now broader than the Antiques Trade Gazette.

What didn’t you like about ‘ATG Media’ as a brand?

When you consider what the group now represents, ‘ATG Media’ was too limiting a name – to investors, the press and potential employees. In the past 12 years, ATG has evolved from traditional publishing into digital, and beyond the art and antiques sector into industrial and commercial. We needed a name to represent this reality and what we’re going to become.

You’ve mixed with dealers as well as auctioneers. What did you think of the fairs you went to this year?

I visited, among others, the LAPADA Fair in September and the BADA Fair in March. I saw a wonderful array of one-of-a-kind items from knowledgeable and passionate dealers.

It’s a vibrant part of our industry and one that the Gazette will continue to serve, both in its coverage and in the partnerships it undertakes with trade organisations and fairs.

So what should dealers make of the Gazette’s parent having a name that emphasises the word ‘auction’?

The Gazette has been there for the trade for 45 years and will continue to be so. We kept the ‘ATG’ acronym to stick closely to our Gazette roots.

The rebrand is the Gazette’s parent acknowledging its three different component parts: art and antiques publishing of the Gazette and catalogues, industrial and commercial online with iBidder.com and BidSpotter, and art and antiques online with thesaleroom.com.

I’d also like to stress that we didn’t rename the company ‘Auctioneer Technology Group’ but instead ‘Auction Technology Group’.

Why is that significant?

It recognises that we’re not just serving auctioneers but the auction industry – including dealers and bidders. Our auctioneer clients benefit from that.

How do you want clients to react to the name change?

I hope people ask what ATG will do for them, now that it’s Auction Technology Group and has even higher aspirations to help clients grow digitally. The name change itself is fairly uneventful.

What has ATG done recently for clients to justify the rebrand?

The changes we’ve made to live bidding are massively important – where all the sites are now mobile optimised. Whether you log-on using an iPhone, an iPad or a desktop, the screen reconfigures to give you a visual based on the device you’re on.

Having worked at eBay, I prioritised improving ATG sites’ mobile experience from the start. Some 70% of eBay’s items are influenced by the use of a mobile device and while we are not eBay, we are an auction-services business with bidders who can’t necessarily bid from a saleroom or even a room.

It’s highly likely that the sale of 50-80% of objects on our sites will be influenced by a mobile device.

We’ve also launched competitive auto-bidding to give buyers a better chance to win an item by placing bids before the auction opens. We believe this will deliver higher hammer prices and open up thesaleroom.com to a new segment of bidders.

All in all, we need to continually invest in our technology and bidders, as there’s lots of competition out there and auctions are global in nature.

Auctioneers want more private buyers. Is thesaleroom.com consumer-friendly enough?

Today I would say it’s not consumer-facing enough, relative to consumer expectations. We’re changing this by creating a much simpler buying experience, reducing the many hoops people go through before bidding.

When consumers buy online elsewhere, they click on an item, load it in their basket, pay for it, and then maybe create an account. To date we’ve been asking consumers to give us their payment details upfront and only then do we let them bid. That’s not what consumers expect today and so these changes will be pretty important.

Yet auctioneers value the security of having bidder payment details upfront

Exactly! We at ATG can’t lose sight of our mission to help auctioneers be comfortable with the bidders we bring on board.

The question is how we can let more bidders onto the system without increasing the risk for the auctioneer.

Auctioneers will retain the right to accept or reject any bid, but we want the steps a bidder goes through to be similar to other online buying sites.

Right now we allow auctioneers to take deposits and that process could be more streamlined.

Auctioneers and dealers ask, how can the antiques business compete with the marketing budgets of high street retailers like John Lewis?

Not everyone wants to buy from John Lewis. It depends on your target audience and that’s where ATG can help, with our understanding of what online bidders are looking for.

We’ll be the company spending those marketing pounds to bring the right bidders to our clients.

How will ATG do this?

One way is taking our expert Gazette content – we have 45 years’ worth and a team of people writing about art and antiques every day – and making that content available to the casual bidder. This is a real advantage ATG has over competitors.

We’ve made a good start with One of a Kind, a customer magazine sent to more than 240,000 thesaleroom.com registrants who are shy of bidding or have bid just once.

Can content convert browsers to buyers?

Oh, definitely. When you write about something there’s an element of trust and excitement being built.

This gives someone a path into an object beyond a photo. It makes you more credible as a business because anyone can connect two people on the internet today – it’s not hard.

John-Paul Savant, Curriculum Vitae

February 2016-present

CEO, Auction Technology Group, London

November 2012-February 2016

CEO, Think Finance UK and Executive Vice President, International, Think Finance, London

April 2003-October 2012

Vice President, PayPal Europe, Middle East, and Africa – Product & Experience, London, Cairo

September 1998-February 2000

Manager, Strategic Advisory Service, CapGemini/Ernst & Young, Boston