March 26, 2013

Sipa Press reborn as court appoints new management team

Sipa Press photo agency, which went into bankruptcy in November after its German parent company closed its doors, will be saved, following a French court ruling.

A Paris court has ruled to save Sipa Press, which went into bankruptcy in November last year after the photo agency's German parent company closed its doors, finds Michel Puech of Le Journal de la Photographie.

The court approved the takeover bid presented by Miguel Ferro, CEO of the British agency Rex Features, and Paul Marnef of the Belgium agency Isopix. The court rejected the offer presented by NJJ Capital, a company owned by Xavier Niel of Free, in collaboration with Le Monde's managing team. Niel had expressed his desire to acquire the agency's archives to commercialise them online.

Unfortunately for Niel, he had also partnered with G Groupe X, a conglomerate of companies that have little to no relation to the agency and the media market in general, other than owning two weekly magazines in the South of France. Niel's offer was also rejected by the agency's employees, who argued that Sipa Press couldn't continue to exist without its archives.
Changes afoot?

The proposal – supported by Rex Features, which will own 50 percent of the new agency, and Isopix (13.3 percent) – received the financial support of two other investors: the US-based CJI Group (30 percent) and Novisys (6.7 percent), a services and solutions provider of cloud, web and middleware solutions.

Charles Jing, president of CJI Group, used to be a photographer himself and is now known as one of the 100 most important collectors of photographic prints. Novisys, meanwhile, was founded by Philippe Mackowiak, who has worked with Sipa in the past and is one of its creditors.

The new owners will now relaunch the agency, 40 years after it was founded by Gökşin Sipahioğlu, the celebrated photographer who died in 2011. Up to 30 employees are expected to lose their jobs out of the current 61 existing staff members. Details of these redundancies will be communicated on 02 April during a planned staff meeting.

The new entity will be called Société Nouvelle Sipa and, while the proposal was made successful thanks to the agency's deputy director Mete Zhinoglu's tireless efforts, SNS will be led by Miguel Ferro.

Rex Features takes control
Ferro, 43, has Spanish roots but is a French citizen. He speaks four languages. He first started working with Rex Features in 2007, advising the board of directors over the acquisition of Berliner Photography in Los Angeles, and was involved in a series of management and operational changes in London over the years, as Rex Features became the second-biggest British agency. In 2010, Getty Images attempted to acquire Rex Features. The deal, however, was scrapped after the Office of Fair Trading expressed concerns that the "loss of Rex as an independent competitor could enable Getty to increase prices for customers".

Interviewed yesterday, Ferro said he was happy to hear the court's decision. "This victory, however, is bitter as not everyone will be part of the new [company]. We will have to part with more than 30 people."

He adds: "I won't be able to move to Paris right away as I have two children attending school in London, but I will devote most of my time to Sipa. For the past year, I've modernised the management team at Rex Features and I'm now no more than an active shareholder."

"One of the biggest flaws with photo agencies today is that they aren't run like a business," Ferro continues. "Instead, they are run like paternalistic companies that report to one charismatic leader. This type of management style belongs to the past. Our business has changed, so our methods must follow suit. At Rex Features these days, selling images accounts for just five percent of our revenues. Today, an agency cannot simply sell photographs, it has to offer different services to its clients. At Sipa, we are going to have to strengthen the sales team; we'll have to change people's mindsets. And the photographers must be taken care of. In London, we have two employees that are in charge of managing photographers. We have a lot to do."

When asked who he will choose to support him, Ferro doesn't hesitate one second: "Mete Zhinoglu will be my right-hand man. He knows the customers, the photographers and the employees. As I said, we have to build a strong team so that, whatever happens to either one of us, the agency will continue."

Mete Zihnioglu doesn't dismiss the idea of moving Sipa out of its current location. "I've been negotiating with the landlords for years now," he says. "We are already in agreement that we won't move our archives from the secured basement. But we have to renegotiate our terms when it comes to the offices. If we can't agree on a new deal, it wouldn't be difficult to move 100 metres down the street."

Yet the agency will change. So far, only the photographers who are under contract with Sipa will form part of SNS. "For the others, we've reached an agreement that will see Sipa split 50/50 on all archives sales, even for our staff photographers." Yet this was news to every single photographer I spoke to.

In the end, Sipa's photographers are disappointed, especially since this latest acquisition follows years of uncertainty. In fact, there are still 20 cases awaiting trial following the latest round of redundancies.

SNS's future will also be reliant on the promise, voiced in court, that the agency will deal with all photographers who have requested the return of their archives. This could lead to more legal woes.
While the photojournalism community has welcomed the news that Sipahioglu's agency will survive, few are willing to bet on its future.

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