Emerging leaders

How to achieve success in the creative industry? This producer has some tips

Wojtek Szaulinski, the founder of a boutique production company Baltik Studio, worked with some of the biggest artists and names globally. His portfolio includes campaigns for such brands as Tom Ford, Estee Lauder, LVMH, Salvatore Ferragamo, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. His journey to top-level production and launching his own firm in New York City included many unexpected challenges: getting fired from a bankrupt company, uncertain visa situation, driving a truck and helping with deliveries to survive financially. In the interview with W Insight, Wojtek reflects on the most important experiences in his career and shares some advice with young creatives globally. 

Joanna Socha: Could you describe what your producer job entails

Wojtek Szaulinski: I’ll give you an example. A few months ago, I worked on an ad for Belvedere Vodka – owned by LVMH conglomerate. A person from this company reached out to me and said: “Look, this is our budget and we want to have a video clip and various multimedia materials for TV, billboards, and so on.” I received a brief from them and, based on that information, I proposed particular location, permits, artists – directors, photographers, etc. Then I brought them all together at a location we selected and booked for this project. I hoped they would work well together and generate results as close to the client’s aspirations as possible. I would say my job is to produce the results the client wants, basically.

I imagine you must know many people in the industry and know their characters, so they can work well with each other. It doesn’t seem easy. 

That’s true. In our team, when we’re stressed sometimes, we joke to ourselves that it’s similar to a break in a kindergarten, and us as our team – are the caregivers. Our role is to create such conditions and atmosphere for the artists, so that they can focus on their job and do not have to worry about anything else. Their job is to create – ours – to make it possible and ultimately deliver results.

If an artist has a special request, do you typically fulfill it?  

Yes. And there are all kinds of whims. Sometimes easy to resolve, sometimes more difficult. It gets frustrating when you pull a certain lens from London for the shoot or you fly a model in for a show from across the world and they end up not taking part in it. 

My team and I sometimes have to take care of all the special needs.

We need to know where to buy the best chocolate babka in New York, where to get a photographer’s favorite Ethiopia drip coffee and which scented candles go well with a certain time of the year. We ubered steaks from favorite steakhouses and went to our stars’ homes to bring their kids’ favorite toys. 

I remember when I worked with one of the top celebrities in California. Very respectful and kind, she approached me at one point and said that she would really like to get a pack of such and such tea with such and such flavor and it should be in this store across the street. 

It was in Calabasas, California, about 45 minutes west from the central part of LA. I sent my assistant to the store that this celebrity mentioned. Unfortunately, they were out of this particular kind of tea. So the assistant drove to LA and spent about four hours looking for this particular flavor. When he returned, we gave the tea to this person, after which she thanked us and passed the tea to a stylist, who turned out to have a sore throat. This celebrity said it’s the best tea for a sore throat, and it has always helped her. By the time my assistant got back from LA, I was irritated and impatient, but I thought that was sweet.

Photo: Courtesy of Wojtek Szaulinski / On the photo: Alex McWhirter, Wojtek Szaulinski, Cleo Cwiek

Working with high-profile individuals, who oftentimes have strong characters, seems challenging. Do you remember any particular challenges you faced when trying to meet various artists’ demands?

After having worked in this field for a bit – you already know what to expect and that some people have a certain way of doing things. Depending on the character of the shoot, we try to bring on people who will work together well. For instance, when you need the photos to be original, creative, and out of the box, maybe a little crazy, you most likely look for an unconstrained, probably free spirited kind of photographer, who – on one hand – is difficult to work with in a systematic way, but on the other hand might create something completely original. 

But if there’s a strict plan for the photoshoot, and the vision needs to be perfectly executed, you are looking for a different kind of professional, one that may not have groundbreaking fresh ideas, but will do the job well and fast. For instance, when we worked on this campaign for Belvedere Vodka, we knew we were going to work in difficult conditions. We knew that if a person could start analyzing too much and spread that mood on set, it might jeopardize our project, as it was so demanding. We knew we needed a trooper type, someone who does the work fast and efficiently – no questions asked.

Photo credit: Kuba Kijowski / On the photo Wojtek Szaulinski working on the Belvedere Vodka campaign

Have you ever had a situation when the people you invited to the set had completely conflicting visions about the project? 

Of course, it happens. Sometimes a brand thinks that a particular artist will work well with their concept. But as a producer, I might already know that their interests might differ. I pay attention to personality research. I have a small group of favorite artists, who focus on the job and never crack under pressure.

Let’s say the sun sets in five minutes, and that we’ll sometimes have two or even just one take to get the shot we need. In such a situation, working with an artist who wants to perfect things rather than just make the very best out of the very unique moment is tough. 

As a producer, it’s very important to give the artists support they need to reach their full potential and at the end to get the perfect image. My team and I are there for them and they’re the ones that should shine.

Is patience necessary for this job? 

It is probably the most important asset to have – especially in the creative sector. I remember working on a photoshoot for a big beauty brand. The concept involved kissing.

Before the shoot, we had the concept ready from the client. We had models arranged. Their agents knew all the details regarding this job. We all agreed on this. We had contracts, rules were clear, and so on. Unfortunately, one of the models had an issue with kissing another person. He said he had not agreed to that. I quickly called his agent and confronted him, saying, we have all the papers we need, and asking what went wrong. He said that he had informed the model about the concept and he didn’t know what had changed. One of the artists who was at the shoot started complaining that that was the worst production ever, that we worked for a world top-tier brand, and I dared to invite models who had no idea about the concept and so on. Again, instead of defending myself, I quickly searched for another model to make that shoot happen. I knew that this incident could have put the entire campaign down. Fortunately, we managed to make it happen. 

Photo: Courtesy of Wojtek Szaulinski / Photoshoot for Vogue Mexico in Essaouira

Before starting your career in fashion, you studied at a business school. Didn’t you want to work for a big four consulting firm instead of going into the creative sector? 

Before I studied at the Warsaw School of Economics, I studied at the Warsaw Institute of Technology for a year. That year made me realize what I did not want to do. And I certainly did not want to work for corporations. I asked myself what I liked to do, and I realized I liked culinary, electronic music and clothes, particularly shoes. I come from a touristy city in Poland, Kolobrzeg, and although I love everything that involves food – I realize it is an extremely difficult job. With all sorts of electronic music, I enjoyed listening to it, but I knew I could not work in this “party world” for 24 hours. And fashion turned out to be this fascinating new world for me and I really wanted to learn all about it.

My mom, who is a doctor, went to a medical conference to Warsaw one day. She stayed at the InterContinental Hotel. When she went to use the hotel swimming pool, she saw a photoshoot. She already knew about all my doubts and ideas, so she randomly decided to approach a stylist present at the shoot and asked her if she could get her contact information for the son who was interested in fashion. 

The woman was startled but ended up giving my mum her business card. I couldn’t believe when my mom told me what happened and I was so embarrassed. I eventually decided to e-mail the lady to apologize – thinking that if I already had her contact I should use it. 

I asked her if she needed any help with anything. She turned out to be a freelance stylist who worked and knew everyone in fashion. The industry is pretty small in Poland, so she invited me to an internship with the Fashion Magazine. She put me in touch with a few of her friends, saying, “He seems like someone who knows how to work hard – please give him a shot.”

I believe that in this sector hard work is the most sought-after quality. It’s not so important if you have a good sense of style or some very specific qualities. The willingness to work hard is what helped me in these first gigs. 

When was the turning point at which you started to work with the world’s biggest brands?

Things did not happen overnight for me. But moving to the US in 2015 was definitely a bold decision and a turning point for me. I was 23 and I got an internship at one of the very best photo and production agencies in the world. I expected it to be an eye-opening production experience and a chance to see how the biggest artists work with the most celebrated artists and models in the world of advertising and fashion. It turned out to be a very mundane office job where we would mostly sort tear sheets (from magazines that the artists represented by our agency worked with). After time I learned to appreciate that experience – it really taught me really basic things – like how to talk on the phone properly in the US (seems easy until you try it), how to send business e-mails and how to sound like you know what you’re doing. 

The internship paid close to nothing and in New York that’s probably even less. I was running out of savings, so to get by I started driving a truck, helping in a moving company and doing all sorts of deliveries. After hours I networked, I wrote to people who were at a similar career stage, emailed friends in Poland who worked in the creative world, and used every opportunity to ask people: do you know anyone living in New York City, who might need my help? 

My acquaintances in Poland put me in touch with some Polish folks living in NYC. This was a group of about 20 people, models, photographers, stylists, a hairdresser etc. We made a promise to always try to support one another. We always tried to recommend one another for jobs when it made sense – to work with each other on projects. Eventually, my photographer friend recommended me to his agency owner. I desperately needed a visa. Unfortunately, the CEO said he wished he could hire me, but he just hired someone else. I was devastated. Two weeks later, he called me asking if I was still looking for a job. The new person just lost someone close, quit her job and left New York. I was of course sorry to hear about her dramatic experience, but I also knew this was my last chance and I took the job.

Unfortunately, the agency was not performing well at the time. One big photographer quit; a producer followed his suit. I took her place and all of a sudden I started working with quite well-known people in the industry. It seemed lovely on paper but was a really tough lesson – it was a very fast-paced environment and there was a lot of work for a producer. Unfortunately, the owner of the agency, a legendary figure in photography world, fell ill with Parkinson’s, and this illness made it difficult to continue his work. Our board eventually decided to sell to another company. That company was later acquired by a Swiss capital group. It worked okay for a year; my team got back on our feet and started to perform really well again. Suddenly we received news that the Swiss company moved liquidity to another company, so they couldn’t pay the artists, employees etc. and they eventually sank the company financially. It was one of the most scandalous stories in our industry in the last years. My company stopped existing; my visa situation was not clear. 

I fortunately managed to figure things out and could work again – but was too fed up with corporate structures and inefficiency. I decided to take a leap of faith and start my own small production company. When I look at it now – it was a bold if not dumb move. But I was more keen on trying and potentially failing and going back home than being on a sinking ship again. I was waking up every single day wondering if my job was going to be there tomorrow. It was time to get the control back.

Photo: Courtesy of Wojtek Szaulinski

So what did you do first as a freelancer? 

I reached out to this producer that quit my previous company. I knew she worked for an e-commerce company. I asked her if she knew of any freelance gigs. And she said: actually, please dress-up nicely and come to a meeting with my colleague, Jeanie. I went there, she looked at me, asked if I was a producer and said: “Well, okay, you seem like you know what you’re doing. You start on Monday.”

What did you wear? 

A navy blue sweater, white shirt, and suit trousers. I think I had some sneakers on. 

Does smart casual style help? 

In New York, definitely. I used to dress much more casual, and thought only my skills matter – my very wise producer friend asked me once to try to be a little more elegant – especially if the client is around.

New York is the world’s capital of fashion and everyone appreciates a good style. I believe it really makes a difference and shows you respect the people you work with, by taking their comfort above yours. My honest advice to everyone in this business is: if you can – try to find a good quality sweater (cashmere if you want to splurge) nice smart pants and you can go far with it. No one is going to say you’re not dressed for the occasion.

What was the first gig? 

My first project was supposed to be for Under Armour. Unfortunately, three days later, my supervisor told me it was cancelled. Again, the gig was gone and I was devastated. I found my friend and begged her to find me anything new. In this business, if someone cancels, you receive a cancelation fee. I told her I didn’t want the fee, I just wanted a job. So a few days later she reached out to me saying that her company was doing Victoria’s Secret’s shoots and I should come. I started with this project and I stayed for five or six months, working three to four days a week. In the meantime, I was networking as much as possible.

I used every occasion to go for coffee – or very often a drink with new people. Even if I didn’t know if it made any sense – but it turned out every one of these meetings mattered. At first, I did not know that, but when I received some callbacks a few months later, I realized networking is a key.

At some one point, my friend and a former colleague called me and said that she now works with Carine Roitfeld. I was a huge fan – her time at Vogue Paris’ as editor-in-chief was super important for fashion – then she was starting CR Fashion Book. She was my first boss’s favorite stylist and he made me familiar with all her work. My friend introduced me and it turned out they needed help with a show for Yeezy. Her colleague was the casting director, but needed help with street casting (finding non-model talents).

I reached out to about 300 people on Instagram. I invited them to our casting studio, where I also met with the whole Yeezy team. It was so nice – I was a huge Kanye fan growing up. The moment when I met him was so nice – made me realize that we’re really lucky to work with the most important creatives of our times and a lot of really special people in general. 

Photo: Courtesy of Wojtek Szaulinski

You worked with the biggest brands and the most famous figures in the creative industry. What are your plans and aspirations?

We were later invited to shoot a campaign for Yeezy – definitely a turning point of my career, but I felt like it was an accident.  I was just lucky to find myself working with these extraordinary people. I didn’t feel, however, a partner with them; I didn’t think I had enough experience or knew enough. I look at it much different now – If what you’re doing works – then that’s the most important thing. That gives you more confidence and later when I worked with many amazing people and brands I learned that we all have our job to do and also that I feel quite good at mine. I remember when I finished a project for Tom Ford and was able to share it with my friends and clients, I finally felt like things are in the right place – I really like my job and I enjoy the people I work with. Even the practical sides of the job – the salary – in my field when you focus on doing things well – it starts working out. 

As for the future we’ll see what it brings – I would love to produce a movie and keep producing great ads and campaigns – starting 2021 also in Europe. Also – production is pretty much often intense project management – so it does apply in a way to a lot of things you might want to do.

I ended up building a little cottage with a friend and it was pretty much a similar process to putting together a shoot – just this time building a house. 

So let’s see what the future brings – maybe I can link my love for gastronomy with something now? 

I took some notes of the advice for aspiring creatives you shared. You mentioned such elements, like hard work, networking, trying out new things, and persistence as keys in your career. Is there anything else, besides the cool cashmere pullover advice, you’d like to mention? 

I know many people working on weird projects for some time now. At first it did not work at all. But then the market changed, and for some reason, their ideas eventually clicked. If you like what you’re doing, if you enjoy doing it, continue to do it even if that’s not profitable yet.

Interview by Joanna Socha

Edited by Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka

All photos provided by Wojtek Szaulinski

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