Much has changed since Karla Otto set up her eponymous PR firm in the early 1980s. Fashion was a relatively niche industry, and many of the brands that are today household names were just starting to emerge. Print publishing remained unchallenged by the digital platforms that are now ubiquitous, and a handful of magazine editors held the keys to this magic realm. Fashion PR, as we now know it, was in its infancy.
The German-born Otto has been at the forefront of much of this change over the last 36 years. She has been referred to as “the queen of PR” and “the stateswomen of PR”, and her agency is one of the most influential in the world. She handles public relations strategies, media consultations, show production and showrooms for over 70 brands, including Givenchy, Valentino, Marni, Berluti and Moncler, as well as a host of beauty and lifestyle brands.
It all started quite by chance. Otto was studying in Japan and was offered work as a model, her first real introduction to the world of fashion. She moved into PR at the behest of the Italian designer Elio Fiorucci, before taking up consulting, primarily for Italian brands that were looking to crack the Japanese market. She set up her own firm in Milan in 1982, and was soon working with the likes of Jean Paul Gautier, Prada (to coincide with the launch of the brand’s first clothing collection in 1988), Marni and the notoriously reticent Jil Sander.
She looks back at the 1980s as a magical period for both fashion and culture. “The 1980s were an extremely optimistic period,” she tells me. “There was a unique energy and atmosphere of progress, with so many then-new design talents starting their labels – many of who still heavily impact the industry today, such as Dolce & Gabbana, Junya Watanabe, etc. Today, again the industry is going through major changes, thanks to new technologies and means of communication. The pace has accelerated, which again makes it such exciting times.”
The way people consume information has evolved radically, as reflected in Otto’s own multi-pronged approach. “Travelling most of the year, of course, digital and social media are essential to receive information and keep up-to-date. But I still love to get my hands on beautiful print publications and read newspapers and supplements when I can,” she says. “I take a lot out of personal encounters also, when meeting and speaking to people – whether it is with clients, media, my teams or at the various events and happenings I attend.”
Does social media make her job easier or harder? “Social media has made our job much more fast paced,” she says. “It’s not necessarily harder, but it does require more time, as we now have so many channels of communication these days.
“The communications industry is now fundamentally more complex than it has ever been. Traditional media – and their authoritative power – have changed beyond recognition, and the pulse is no longer a matter of a few star editors, but the product of multiple streams of opinions and styles that are evolving at a mind-numbing speed.”
It was this growing complexity, as well as the increasingly globalised nature of the industry, that led Otto to last year join forces with K2, an experiential marketing and events agency co-founded by French entrepreneur Isabelle Chouvet in 2002 that has proven particularly adept at understanding the Asian market. By joining forces under a new umbrella entity called The Independents, Karla Otto and K2 are able to offer a truly holistic and global offering to their clients.
“The communications market for the fashion, luxury and lifestyle industries remain very fragmented, with many talented boutique agencies operating each in their local markets,” Chouvet explains. “Our vision for The Independents is to create a collective of the best agencies, leveraging their talent and local insights, but connecting them through a network organisation that allowed us together to reach a new scale.”
To this effect, The Independents announced last week that it had entered into a strategic partnership with Dubai luxury communications and events company, The Qode, to further extend its global network and leverage on local expertise. Chouvet says that this tie-up should definitely be taken as a sign of the emirate's growing stature in the global luxury industry.
“That is precisely why we have taken this exciting step with the Qode, to solidify our footprint in the hub of commerce and creativity that is Dubai,” she says. “But this is just the beginning for this market; we can see a lot of potential in the coming years and it is very exciting.”
Founded by Ayman Fakoussa and Dipesh Depala in 2010, with a client list that includes Givenchy, Roberto Cavalli, Berluti and Rimowa, as well as local brands such as Namshi and La Ville Hotel, The Qode is well placed to understand the specificities of the Middle East market. "As with anything, each market has its own idiosyncrasies, its own way of doing business and cultural sensibilities. The media are very different in each region and require a different approach. Timelines and deadlines are very different in this region than in Europe, for example. Furthermore, we offer clients insights into the nuances of each country within the GCC, which can sometimes have significant differences," says Fakoussa.
“This market is also different from other markets in that the purchasing power of customers is substantially higher, and we see from some of our online clients that the average basket of shoppers on their sites is significantly higher than other markets in which they operate,” Depala adds.
“Also, it’s worth mentioning that campaigns often need to be adapted to this region due to cultural sensitivities and this is something which we as an agency often have to give insight into.”
Just as the fashion, luxury, PR and events industries are changing around the world, so too in the Middle East, where the prolific uptake of digital platforms, along with the growing prominence of bloggers and influencers, have added a new sense of immediacy to the way that information is disseminated.
Otto maintains that influencers will be a permanent fixture in the media landscape, but suggests that there may be some kind of market correction on the cards. “Influencers are obviously here to stay but, as in any business, the market for influencers will continue to evolve and to a large extent normalise. There has been a lot of inflation on influencers’ sponsorship agreements, in particular in Asia, with some influencers possibly posting too many ‘ads’ without thinking how it potentially impacts the long-term engagement of their fans.”
Whatever the future holds, Otto, flanked by her growing band of global collaborators, will be ready for it. She shares her tried-and-tested recipe for success: “Always be curious and open-minded. Always have an open ear for new ideas and drive to explore new possibilities. Surround yourself with the best people. Think global.”