Boutique talent agency founder Lucy Owen: “We have to think bigger than Instagram”

Posted by Emilie McMeekan in News

8 months ago

It’s nearly five years to the day since Lucy Owen had her auspicious conversation with creator Erica Davies. Owen was working with Davies as brand director for her influential platform The Edited, another elegant brick in a distinguished career in fashion PR that has included agencies such as Modus and Ketchum and high-end labels such as Nicole Farhi and Calvin Klein. She realised that the industry she’d loved, the industry as she knew it, was “slowly dying before my eyes, and I was slowly dying with it”.

Owen had noticed something interesting: that after years of charming traditional media outlets to champion her client’s wares, what was actually converting to sales was the digital faces. “I would work hard to try and get a dress on the pages of Sunday Times Style and then the right content creator would wear it and overnight it would sell out.”

Creators like Davies, who had the authority of a career shaped by 15 years as a fashion editor but also the foresight to see where attention was drifting, and had grown The Edited into a smart counter-proposal to the usual print offering. One February evening, Davies turned to Owen and said she was unhappy with the big agency she was with. She didn’t feel that she was getting what she needed. Owen said: “Well, I could do that”. And Lucy Owen Talent was born.

The collaboration between Owen and Davies set the standard for the agency: “Right from the beginning, I realised that I wanted to have a niche.” In five years, she has grown her roster from one to ten, and what a roster it is, with creators as chic and niche as their founder envisioned it: Vogue beauty director Jessica DinerDaily Dress Edit’s Isabel SpearmanDouceur’s Sarah Clark, writer and journalist Katherine Ormerod, designer Zeena Shah. Owen also has a fashionable lawyer on her books, Thandi Maq. “Brands find it interesting being represented by a full-time lawyer.”

Owen trades in experience and in trust – like The Sartorial Lawyer, most of her talent have day jobs. Most of them, like Owen, have fashion backgrounds and skills that have been honed in an analogue world, in the days of fax machines when magazines were the last word. They are grown-up women speaking to other grown-up women and they are all about solutions. The follower numbers are not always huge, but this is boutique marketing in every sense of the word.

We talk about Sarah Clark, who built her online platform Little Spree over 11 years and has just rebranded to Douceur. “Sarah is the perfect example of someone on my roster,” says Owen. “The authority that I look for. Sarah was a pioneer. She started Little Spree in 2011 when people were just not working in this way. And she has stayed true to her own style. Her community trust her – so if she recommends a grey jumper, they know it’s the grey jumper they need.”

Owen understands that ultimately any successful endeavour in this space is about relationships, and this comes across in every touch point of her business. Owen ran away to the Lynne Franks PR circus in the middle of her degree in 1994: after a work placement Franks asked her to stay. “I learned more in two weeks than I’d learned in a year. You can’t really teach it in a lecture hall,” says Owen unapologetically. After 20 years in the industry, she has a rolodex stuffed with contacts, and she’s not afraid to pick up the phone. Not that she believes in cold-calling – Owen is totally proactive. “I’m not sitting waiting for the brand to come in. I’m constantly reaching out to brands and speaking to them about their strategy, how we can help.”

For Owen the secret sauce is long-term partnerships for her clients that have meaning and are truly collaborative. Take Erica Davies and her bestselling boot collection for John Lewis. Owen says of Davies: “She knows what people want before they know it.” The collection came about when Davies posted on Instagram Stories that she couldn’t find knee-high boots that fit. Davies, who has a following of nearly 200K, was inundated with DMs from women saying “me too”. Owen immediately took this information to John Lewis “and they went for it and it was really the most incredible partnership we’ve done”. The collection is now in its third season.

Owen is turning her talent into designers, not just tastemakers, and active participants in the process, leveraging their creativity into commercial deals. Clark has designed for Iris; Jessica Diner has collaborated with Seraphina; Ormerod has a capsule collection with Baukjen. “A big part of what I’m trying to do is to help them hold onto careers with longevity. You can’t just rely on Instagram. Instagram could be gone in a year. We have to think bigger.”

Owen may be charming but she is fierce and forensic on behalf of her talent – her agency may have grown tenfold in five years but she still goes through all the contracts herself. “Every contract is checked by me. All the brand outreach is done by me.” She is also critical of brands who have impossible expectations in the short-term. “Brands could be asking my talent to change the whole brand perception, for brand repositioning. It’s a big ask. Obviously, the metrics are important but it’s much more than that. It’s about creating these meaningful partnerships with the right creators who are going to bring that brand message to life and give it a voice in the right way.”

Owen is ambivalent about TikTok, and despite her earlier warning, Instagram is still the place for her talent to thrive. “I think Instagram will continue to be their natural home,” she says, “and it’s the place that brands want to be.” For Owen, despite her company expanding, ultimately this business is personal. “What I try and implement every day is partnership; encouraging brands to work with my roster on a long-term basis because that’s what resonates. And it goes back to that savvy consumer scrolling on Instagram. If they see something once on somebody’s grid, it might not land properly. It is just there and then it’s gone.” But Owen, and her talent, are here to stay.

By Emilie McMeekan, CORQ features director.