David Hicks

An Ugly Business

David Hicks
An Ugly Business

 (Or, why you need to reframe your ugliest challenges and constraints right now)

On a scale of 1-10 how beautiful/handsome would you say you are? OK, let’s look at things a bit differently: on a scale of 1-10 how ugly do you consider yourself to be?

Were you honest with your assessment or did you try and massage your figure? It might just be a matter of mindset over matter.

Tricky questions, skin deep.

Now, what if you wanted to break into the hyper-competitive beauty industry, or more accurately the ‘beautiful industry’, where you made your money connecting models to brands and famous fashion designers. However, you notice the market is saturated, characterised by shrinking budgets, tight timescales and too many beautiful models?

That was the grotesque challenge faced by Marc French, that gave rise to the Ugly Models Agency in 1969. The Ugly Models Agency is now the world’s largest and fastest growing modelling agency exclusively focussed on providing ‘character models’ to the biggest designers and brands globally.

A jobbing fashion photographer, Marc French saw the modelling agency world as a real opportunity, though not for the humble photographer. How, he asked can a ‘lowly photographer’ break into what was already a very competitive arena, one that was fast becoming saturated with beautiful models and agencies alike, with no models on his books.

Most of us, facing this type of unattractive challenge would sit, squirming in discomfort, looking at how we could do it cheaper, take only a few models onto our books or generally downgrade our ambition for our business. Feeling victim to the striking circumstances these posed and taking all the work-around strategies we could identify to move us forward would be a natural response.

Beauty is a foundational premise of the modelling business, you can’t challenge that. Or can you?

For Marc French looked to achieve a different outcome. Yes, he started feeling victim of his situation, ‘at the start I just couldn’t couldn’t see a way in’; however, he decided his ambition was just too important to allow such constraints to thwart him, yet the modelling and fashion world was all he knew.

Bring on the Uglies

What if he could respond to the challenge with a completely different mindset and challenge the modelling industry, by taking a transformative approach to the constraints he faced, and also to the very assumptions the industry was founded on?

Remembering he’d been asked in the past if he knew a model with ‘very unusual characteristics’, Marc realised there may be a market for, well, ugly models. It seemed for Marc that Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, one person’s ugly is another person’s character and that mindset could be his way into the modelling agency industry. Deciding it would be a Fool’s Paradise to simply sit with his idea and wait for the ‘perfect time’, Marc placed his one and only advert calling for ugly models – The Ugly Model Agency was born, and born to challenge all the dependencies of the industry as it existed.

Image © Ugly Models

Image © Ugly Models

A model citizen

Not one to sit on his laurels, over the past 5 decades, Marc identified the growth in brands seeking to transform their own markets by telling their stories in much more compelling ways. As part of this movement, Marc started approaching brands with a proposition based on them using more authentic (read ‘human’ models) in their marketing campaigns, live promotional events, shoots and shows.

Initially, the approach was a ‘slow burner’, with brands, recognising the risks associated with such a departure from the ‘safe’ environs of beauty. Marc was characteristically evangelical with his message and soon some of the edgier alternative brands recognised that to run more authentic campaigns utilising ‘characterful’ people in their marketing could be a powerful way to create drama and surprise to stand out in increasingly crowded markets.

Marc says ‘It’s why we called the agency Ugly, it’s a very powerful word, maybe more powerful than ‘beautiful’’.

Now, clients include Calvin Klein, Levi's, Diesel, Vogue, Elle, and Cosmopolitan and the agency has supplied models for films such as Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and James Bond.

Ugly Models’ most successful model is a chap called Del, an ‘ordinary citizen’ turned Ugly super-model. Previously a courier, Del was delivering a package to Ugly when Marc spotted him and suggested he was actually quite beautiful in a characterful way. Watch his rise to fame in this National Geographic documentary:

How to be a Runway Success

Ugly Models are now the largest character model agency in the world that dominate both the European and American markets. So what can we learn from this story:

  • Adopting a mindset like Marc’s, that raises our ambitions in the face of seemingly intractable, deeply embedded constraints can make new markets within an industry.
  • Challenging the usual paths and premise that your industry and markets are based on opens opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have identified.
  • Reframing your ugly challenge by raising your ambition and making your constraints beautiful can lead to innovative ways of responding to fast-changing markets.
  • Believing it’s possible to transform your market from the outset and making a start (avoiding procrastination at all costs) is the basis for establishing the critical early wins.
  • Having the creative confidence to impose constraints on yourself, your business challenge and industry can bring truly innovative solutions that can’t be found by simply ‘thinking it through’.

So, what are you going to do with that ugly business challenge you’ve been avoiding for so long? You can keep airbrushing it, in the vain attempt to pretend it’s attractive or reframe it with a proactive and transformative mindset, harnessing the beauty of the real life constraints you need to deal with.

Ignoring your constraints any longer is not an option, that’s the ugly truth.