I don’t recall the first time I met Denise Knickerbocker, but I do remember what I said when we did meet. “FINALLY!!!!” For years, sometimes when I was out in SF, random people would come up to me, hug me, wave to me or just start talking to me like they knew me. I was always confused and would listen carefully for any clues as to who they were. Many times they would refer to a party I went to or a friend that I knew. I was dumbfounded and felt like a bad friend because I had no clue who this person was. Well, apparently, the same things was happening to Denise. People were confusing us for each other. What made it even crazier was that we both worked in the same industry, lived in the same city and had many of the same friends.
Once we knew what was happening, it became a running joke. One that still makes us laugh.
Denise was and is such a beautiful and wonderful person that I was always very flattered when someone made the mistake. She is a perfectionist when it comes to art buying and she is flawless when it comes to production. When she was an agent for that brief time, we were all very lucky to have her on our team. Now that she is back out there in the freelance world, please do get to know her. You will not be disappointed. And, if you know me, you can be a judge for yourself how much we look a like!
What did you “want to be when you grew up?” Are you surprised where you ended up?
From the age of 15, I wanted to be a photo editor and set designer for an interior design magazine. So no, I’m not surprised I ended up in the photography industry but I am a little surprised that I ended up in advertising. After high school I moved to Orange County to work at Surfer Magazine to learn the ropes of publishing. My friend’s father had a connection at the magazine so I jumped at the opportunity. After a year or so I was ready for a change of culture outside of Southern California so I moved to San Francisco for college. I studied liberal arts with an emphasis in art history and was able to get a few small set design assistant projects while in school.
There were no décor magazines being published in San Francisco at the time so I ended up managing a post-production house right out of school. Career-wise it was unfulfilling but it provided insight into the advertising agency world which was new to me. A friend, who was also a client, approached me about the opportunity to be the office manager for his new agency Leagas Delaney which was the first U.S. satellite office for a very long running and successful British agency. I had no interest in the office management position. And because it was a growing agency, there was the opportunity to wear many hats. So I pressed him to let me simultaneously take on a more creative role. That second role I accepted was the creative manager/recruiter.
I knew nothing about working inside of an advertising agency let alone what a creative manager’s role was, but working with the creatives was a big draw and it sounded like an intriguing opportunity. I was totally green and learned as I went. The agency was like a start up, incredibly exciting, very busy and growing rapidly, so I jumped at the chance to help out in art buying. At the time, we had the Adidas account which was incredibly busy and creative and required someone to search and purchase a lot of stock images for all of the ads we were producing. Working with photography and searching for a visual match to tell a story clicked for me immediately and so I transitioned into art buying full-time two years after those stock search days began.
Did you always love photography?
Yes, I’ve always loved it. It started as a teenager looking through magazines. I love that it is a medium that I can take my time with versus a moving image that you can’t really control. Both are powerful but I have always gravitated toward stills.
Growing up, what were your creative interests?
It was interior design and architecture. I also loved archaeology and was obsessed with flea markets/swap meets. I think this is why I gravitated toward art history in college. I still love to find and negotiate the best rates for treasures. I think that I honed my negotiating skills for art buying at those flea markets many, many years ago.
What roles have you held in your career?
In addition to art buyer and creative manager I also had the opportunity to be a junior agent during the dotcom downturn for Stephanie Menuez @ CMP. I had an incredible time working with Steph and the amazing talent CMP had at the time. Working as a junior agent offered invaluable exposure to how sales and talent management works and the delicate, tireless and patient efforts that are required with the goal of booking the job.
From this experience, I feel that I better understand all parties involved and what it takes to make a project come together. I realize that is a broad statement but I am respectful of what everyone brings to the table.
I still from time to time help photographers who are between reps with estimates and production. One thing I’ve started doing since arriving in LA that I’m really enjoying is working freelance with production companies.
How do you not compromise creativity while finding a workable budget?
It is a delicate dance. There are many ways to approach this but you hope that you have a stellar account team who understands what it takes to produce a good quality project and can go to bat for the creative to try and get more money. Another option on small shoots that I have done at times is to step in and produce the shoots for the photographer as well as location scouted, pulled wardrobe, and shopped for craft services among other things. I am happy to jump in and do what is needed to create the best work possible.
Other options could be looking at how can we utilize the talent differently? Can we cut back on wardrobe or talent brings their wardrobe, etc. We have all been there and you figure it out in a collaborative way as a team. I love it when 5 to 50 + people come together pretty intensely for a short period of time to create one common vision and goal. It is awesome.
My approach is to always be respectful and open (still protecting the client) about the budget so that I do not waste anyone’s time ~ especially the photo producer’s. I know how much time it takes for them to estimate jobs so I do my best to reduce the number of rounds required, but sometimes it cannot be helped.
You’re now based in LA. & S.F.
I freelance nationally so I can be based anywhere. I really enjoy having the flexibility to travel to new cities for work but for now S.F. and L.A. will be basecamps for a while.
Have you always loved photography and how do you keep the same level of inspiration you had when you started your job?
I have always loved photography and still do. I stay inspired by keeping my eyes open and by getting out to galleries, museums and art walks. One of the first things I did when I had a free night here in L.A. was to check out the City Arts and Lectures series and the museums. I am also exposed to so much every day. Yesterday, while in Culver City for a shoot, we walked to a café during a break and there was amazing graffiti along the walls and creative window displays in cool storefronts. If you’re open to it, you can see it everywhere.
Of course online has endless resourcing options. You can spend hours linking to different sites finding inspiration.
What one word describes your working style? Is it different than when you first started?
I have always been collaborative, but it has evolved as I have become more experienced and confident with all the different team members: account directors, clients, the photography team, crews, and the creative team. I know how to make sure all parties are happy and how to be strategic in figuring out a way to make that happen. In the beginning stage of my art buying career I was so green and learned as I went along. I was the only one in my department and did not have a mentor or any guidance so I was not always sure what I was doing. Thankfully Leagas Delaney hired Darcy Diamond for a big Adidas location shoot so I was able to shadow her during that production which was truly amazing. She is a rock star and so very talented. I hold her in the highest regard not only for her production skills but for having been so patient with me in those early days.
How do you describe your job to your mother or someone not in our industry?
I start off by explaining that once a creative team sells through an idea to a client I then find the appropriate photographers or illustrators that are best suited for their vision. I work on the details and logistics of project, i.e. talent, wardrobe, casting, locations, catering, etc.
What do you love about your job?
So many things. As a freelancer, I love that I get to go into different agencies and meet new people all the time and see how different agencies run their businesses. It is fascinating. I love the variety of the jobs, never knowing what I’m going to get handed. And I absolutely love production and photography crews and being on set. It is so fun.
What about the industry/your job is exciting right now?
The various content needs are growing quickly with digital capture being the most requested for web. Producers need to cover an entire range of skills sets because more broadcast producers are taking on print. And print producers are overseeing video production. I am curious to see where it will net out and the skill sets everyone will have to have for these roles that are no longer segregated.
Favorite way to spend a Sunday?
My favorite way to spend a Sunday is hiking or biking with friends and reading interior design magazines. I love having a tangible printed magazine and taking my time engaged in all of the lovely images and stories behind them.
I keep my own interior design pretty minimal right now due to my recent move. I used to go to really cool flea markets all the time collecting amazing finds but after a few moves that desire to accumulate finds has been curbed a bit. I still go but not as much to buy and acquire as I once did.
One thing people reading this would find surprising about you?
I worked at Surfer Magazine in the advertising department which was really was a lot of fun. As you can imagine, it was very laid back and had a chill vibe with very talented people involved. It was very similar to most advertising agencies.
If you weren’t an art buyer/producer/consultant, what would you do?
I would have a home staging business or something in that world. It would be a blast and somewhat an extension of the art buying world…visual execution, logistics and budget management that in the end, creates a beautiful and compelling scene.
What at the moment do you see happening in the culture that you find inspiring or interesting?
Anyone can put their art and talent out there for others to see and that is inspirational. Talk about freedom and opportunity. How cool is that!
If you could change one thing in the creative industry right now, what would that be?
One thing that is and has been a challenge are tight budgets. My philosophy is that if clients are wanting to advertise then there should be proper budgets in place to do so regardless of the scale. The creatives should be aware of the budgets before they begin concepting so that there is an alignment and understanding of what is doable before work gets presented to the client. One concept can be in line with the budget and another can be wildly outside of that should the creatives want to go there. It is then up to the client to choose and provide the appropriate budget for that direction they end up choosing.
If you could tell photographers one thing, what would it be?
Continue to create personal work that is of interest to you and to make personal connections with art directors. It can be hard to reach them, but art directors read blogs so it is great if an artist can get their personal work on design blogs, etc. I would also suggest hanging their artwork at a local gallery or bar and invite people in the industry. Start the relationship there. People love to go out, especially if you cover the tab the first hour or so.
Do you have a favorite photo of yourself that you are willing to share? Can you tell us about it?
For my 1st grade portrait, my mom and I discussed whether or not I should have orange ribbons in my hair. I wanted them in but she did not. I left the house without them and put them in right before the picture was taken. Obviously I did so without a mirror to check if they were straight. lordy. I guess you could say that I was art directing photos from the very beginning.
I am currently co-producing a shoot in Culver City and have been seeing the emerging restaurant scene and cool furniture stores around the Helms area. I will go back and check them out when I have more time to really explore what is there.
I have also been very pleasantly surprised by the access to the trails on the Westside. I have one right across from my place called Temescal Canyon. I can go straight down to the beach and go on a bike ride. And I just discovered Mandeville Canyon with a photographer I just met and went hiking with friends from Storyboard Inc.