Thirty years into a career that has included marketing roles in television, newspapers, the museum world - and the promotion of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi during his time at Christie’s - Marc Sands is now tasked with pushing Bonhams to the forefront of the digital age.
His plan to reach a broader audience involves new advertising campaigns, more online auctions, new bidding platforms and, for the first time, the use of aggregator sites.
ATG: How is Bonhams now positioning itself in the market?
Marc Sands: We know where our strengths lie, and it is not necessarily at the very top end - in the £20-30m picture market. In the past it could be argued that Bonhams wanted to play in that field and were trying to be a mini Christie’s or Sotheby’s. That is a crowded space. It is not where Bonhams should be positioned.
Under a new management team, we now have clarity of purpose. Operating chiefly at price points between £2000- 1m we can charge the buyer’s premium and the vendor’s commission to further develop a profitable business.
Of course, we will sell some lots up to £10m (we sold the Osman Hamdi Bey at £5.7m very recently – pictured below) but our strategy is to broaden our customer base.
Bonhams wants to be accessible at all price points. There is a gap in the marketplace for Bonhams to operate. It is to be positioned between Christie’s and Sotheby’s and the regional auction houses. Our selling point is we can operate at both the global and local level.
In the world of online sales how important is a physical presence?
Bonhams has a unique footprint across the UK of salerooms, offices and reps to which we are committed.
We have an extensive network of local reps which is about bringing in consignments and clients. This is very different to any other auction house. This network on the ground is about growing our business and we are committed to it.
We have been a traditional bricks-and-mortar business. However, to thrive we need to develop our digital capabilities and to engage and sell to a wider client base. This is the key reason for our recent partnership with online aggregators where we get the best of both worlds.
Bonhams: a digital history
- 2002: Online absentee bidding launched
- 2011: Online live streaming of auctions
- 2016: Timed online auctions launched
Growth in online-only sales at Bonhams:
- 2016: 4
- 2017: 13
- 2018: 17
- 2019: 45
- 2020: Plans to double number of online-only sales
How does your current role compare with your previous one at Christie’s?
At Christie’s, marketing is about targeting a handful of people. A huge percentage of revenue is based on a small number of sales targeted to a small number of wealthy clients.
But a marketing person really wants to work with a bigger audience and to be able to make a difference. At Bonhams the marketing strategy is to broaden our reach across the market and move into the digital space. This was a principal driver of our partnership with thesaleroom.com.
So how will you do that?
There are many layers to the strategy. It includes digital advertising, online auctions and working with aggregators.
One part of the marketing message is telling the stories of the objects. I have commissioned videos from Front Row’s John Wilson to create a series we call Extraordinary Stories. They feature objects that have a great backstory and one that we want to show.
Creating content in the auction world is easy – there are so many wonderful stories - as long as you have a great relationship with your specialists to alert you to the objects coming in.
What else is changing at Bonhams?
If you look at our marketing next year, it will have a high emphasis on digital engagement and spend. To date, we have been far too reliant on old formats and old marketing thinking.
So, we are working closely with media buyers on digital campaigns which are ‘always on’ during 2020, rather than punctuating infrequently with print ads. It is very much a volte face.
But the auction business as a whole has been slow to this party. Our collaboration with thesaleroom.com demonstrates our commitment to our digital strategy.
Has the whole art world been slow to digital?
This is the only industry I know where the commercial sector is behind the public and museum sector. Museums and not-for-profit organisations are way ahead of the auction houses.
But there is a real opportunity here. We have a great CTO [chief technology officer Chris Tolson] who I am working with and I now believe within a year, Bonhams will be leading in terms of its digital footprint. The marketing push will be digital across all channels - whether it is programmatic, search, social media or content.
Do you believe art and antiques buyers and collectors are ready for this move?
Yes I do. They are already doing it and we and others in the art world are playing catch-up with our clients.
The argument that older people are not looking online is just not true. The older generation is looking at things online all the time. They are digitally literate. They are more ahead than most people give them credit for. But, of course, you can only go as fast as your customers allow you. You don’t want to shock people. Changes should appear natural.
So is the future online-only sales?
No, absolutely not. It is having a digital element to all our sales. On the one hand, we will increase the number of online-only sales. But of equal importance is to grow the degree of digital engagement in our live sales.
In practice that means viewing art and objects online, registering online, bidding online and eventually organising payment and shipping online as well.
What part will online aggregators play in this plan?
The lifeblood of an auction house is the continual supply of new bidders, new buyers and new registrants and online does this.
Using an aggregator, if you pick the right one, will work. We chose our partners on their reputation, their delivery and reach within their areas: thesaleroom.com and lot-tisimo.com in the UK and Europe and Invaluable in the US.
Which sales will be placed on the aggregator sites?
Our view is to put the majority of sales on the sites, with the possible exception of high-value classic cars.
We will test and learn to find out which categories and price points will benefit from inclusion on aggregator sites. There will be some real surprises and it won’t be a linear journey. I don’t expect there will be a huge cross-over in buyers between Bonhams’ current clients and thesaleroom.com
Can you explain the fee structure?
We think it is more important to grow our business than to add an extra premium element to the buyer’s fee. We will subsume the online fees because we believe it is more important to increase the amount of registrants, bidders and buyers coming to Bonhams.
It is a small price to pay for new customers. So buyers at Bonhams pay the same whether they are in the room, on the phone, online with us or online with an aggregator.
- 1988-1996: account director at marketing agencies
- 1996-1998: marketing director at LWT/Granada Television
- 1998-2000: brand marketing director, British Digital Broadcasting (ONdigital)
- 2000-2010: marketing director and board director at Guardian News & Media
- 2010-2014: director of media and audiences, Tate
- 2014-2018: chief marketing officer at Christie’s
- March 2019: joins Bonhams as chief marketing officer