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Tips From The Top: One One With Bill Wackermann, CEO of Wilhelmina Models

I spoke to Bill Wackermann, Chief Executive Officer of Wilhelmina Models, about his journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Bill: I think something that may surprise people is that I’m really a homebody.  When your livelihood is centered around interactions with people, I think it’s really important to find quiet time to recharge. It may surprise people that when you work in an industry where you’re always out and about, all you want to do is binge Netflix all Sunday afternoon.

Adam: What would surprise people most about the world of modeling?

Bill: The business of modeling – that it truly is a business. Everyone has ideas and images in their head of the photoshoots and people standing in front of a camera, but that’s just one part of a much larger business strategy. Whether that be the marketing strategy of a campaign, the editorial of a magazine or talent management.

We treat everything as business. Our models show up on time, act professionally and do their job. Being on set, being a working model, having seven hours to do fifty two looks is not just about dancing in front of the camera, it’s about knowing how to move your body, how to create angles images and angles to showcase the product.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Bill: Earlier in my career, I spent many years in the publishing industry. It was a boon time in the industry. One can get misled to think that the success of the industry is all your doing. When the print business turned and there were dynamic shifts in the marketplace, it was a tremendously humbling time. I tried to take a positive lesson from all of that. Work hard and do your best every day, but you can only control what you can control.

An additional lesson I’ve learned is reinvention.  You have to be able to recreate yourself. As business leaders, we have to find ways to stay relevant. I talk to people who say they aren’t on social media. That’s like being in the automotive industry and only wanting to ride a bicycle. It’s not a choice. You have to understand your business and adapt with it.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Bill: Leadership is never about telling, it’s about doing and showing. You’re not a leader because someone puts you at the front of the line. People follow you because you lead by example.

Adam: How has your experience leading Wilhelmina differed from some of your other leadership experiences? What are key lessons you have learned from leading a top modeling agency that all leaders can apply?

Bill: One of the lessons I’ve learned at Wilhelmina and throughout my career is that everything happens through people. This is an empowering concept. Whether it be getting a new account or strategizing about new business opportunities, there is a person somewhere (not a computer) who will say, “Yes, I’ll take that meeting with you.”

You have to find the person who can effect change. Don’t take “no” from someone who is not empowered to say “yes.” It’s like going to a restaurant or hotel and being told it’s booked up. That’s the biggest lie you’ve ever heard. There is always a secret room or table they can find—you just have to find the person with the power and authority to make it happen. This is a metaphor for all of business. There is a person who can effect change for you. You have to work at it and it doesn’t always come easily—you have to understand that charm, persuasion, and all the skills you have come in to play.

Adam: You have strong views on the future of modeling. What are three things we should know?

Bill: I think modeling is in a really exciting and dynamic time right now. We’re in a moment of change. Social media will continue to have a lasting and dramatic impact on the definition of a model. It has created an openness and a platform for diversity – different individuals with different body types and ethnicities are able to demonstrate their voice, audience and following. Brands are taking note.

It’s not just a special fashion editor or photographer deciding who will be a star—that doesn’t exist anymore.   It’s much more democratic now because there is the power of crowdsourcing. With social media, people who had no voice now have voices—they comment and tell you what they like and don’t like. Brands are taking that seriously and it’s changed our definition of modeling. You don’t have to be 5’10” or be a size zero. Being a model means people want to follow you. When you wear clothes or take a picture, people want to look at it.  People want to hear what you have to say. That’s the future of our business.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Bill: There are two pieces of advice that I think about, both personally and professionally, because every leader is just a human being trying to get through their own days, too.

First, any plan is better than no plan. That doesn’t mean to throw together a haphazard plan, but to sit and strategize and come up with something. It may change, the market may change, business may change and you may have to pivot on a dime – but to have a plan is better than waiting for a plan to happen that may never come. The fact that you’re out there engaged in the process will help you stay ahead.

The other piece of advice is to keep going. Everything works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out, you’re not at the end.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Bill: As a leader, something that’s very important is your time. If you have years of experience and knowledge in an industry, take the time to meet with people or answer a message. Because I run a modeling business, I receive many messages about how to get into modeling. I can’t get through all of them, but if I’m sitting on a plane or somewhere waiting, I go through a lot of them and respond. Giving your time to play it forward in someone else’s story may not seem like a lot, but you’d be amazed at how people respond to your advice or the fact that you got back to them. For me, that’s very important.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Bill: I’ve always been a sports and fitness person. I’m also a design person. I love renovating and flipping houses in my free time. I think it’s important to be both mentally and physically active and healthy. It adds to your overall wellness to make sure you engage in whatever you enjoy.  In addition to helping your energy level, it ups your sense of surprise, wonder and excitement around new ideas. My hobbies help shape and inform not just how I look at the world, but my job on a daily basis.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Bill: When I was young and coming up in the business, I could be arrogant and often thought I could do everything myself. That’s a terrible mistake. You can’t go on the field by yourself and move and score the ball. You need the other players on the team. Nothing happens without great team work. The lessons I’ve learned and the culture I try to foster at Wilhelmina is a culture of teamwork. When one wins, we all win. When one succeeds, we all succeed.

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