Phil O'Brien - Founder of Empics Sports Agency.

phil o'brien How did you get into photography?
My dad was a journalist at the Liverpool Echo so I grew up with an interest in journalism. For passing my 11+ exam I got a camera from Boots, and each year would take a couple of rolls of film. At 16 I couldn't decide between pursuing my interest in railway modeling for photography. Luckily, I sold my model railway and bought a better camera!

What was your first professional photography job?
After doing a year long NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalist) press photography course in Sheffield after A Levels. My first job was with Mercury Press Agency in Liverpool. My first week was the Toxteth Riots so it was somewhat of a baptism of fire!

Torvill and Dean Why did you start Empics?
After Mercury Press, I came to the East Midlands and worked for Raymond's Agency in Nottingham and then at the Leicester Mercury. At 23, something drove me to start my own business and that was how I came to start East Midlands Picture Services, which became EMPICS.

Did you always intend to be sport-only agency or was general news photography also a part of the business?
My real love is local news and that's what we started to do in 1985. At the age of 25, I got a passport and fancied the idea of travel. Sport fitted in with that as events are so well planned in advance so that was what drove the move to sport.

Empics went from humble beginnings to having photographers at all major sporting events throughout the World and working with big sports organisations like UEFA. What was key to that growth?
As well as my passport, the other drivers were the de-unionisation of the newspaper industry, the move to color printing, the development of technology to transmit color pictures and the growth of sport in terms of entertainment. We became photographers for the UEFA Champions League from it's inception. That was a significant change in the fortunes of football in general and EMPICS.

arthur scargill How did you make publishers and other picture users aware of the Empics brand?
We always believed in getting great pictures and the money would look after itself. However, that only got us so far. In 1995, Caroline Hoddinott joined the team and lead the business to be a professional marketing/licensing business. That was a key to our growth. She had worked for places like Marvel Comics, Sony Signatures, Alan Pascoe Associates, etc and had real business experience to help this growth.

The switch to a full digital workflow from camera to client’s picture desk was inevitable in a business like Empics. How did that work out?
We lead the change from film to digital from the early 90s. We were often too far ahead of the game and it was a painful process.

How did your investment in technology contribute to Empics’s success?
We were definitely a high risk entrepreneurial venture. The costs were huge back in the early 90s. For example, I bought a 20GB hard drive for archiving our digital images. This cost £25,000! Unimaginable now.

How different was the business at the end when you sold it compared to when you started?
Our business, when we sold, was a well respected professional licensing business competing in the worlds of Getty Image and Corbis (owned by Bill Gates). There were 60 staff and an amazing reputation for our use of technology, our standards of sports photography, our archive and professional licensing.

Which did you enjoy more, the photography or running a business?
They are both "drugs" but I think that the business gave me more a sense of achievement. I was a good photographer but I know so many colleagues who were/are much better than me. On the business, there is something unique you create. Less tangible than a photograph but enjoyable all the same.
In the autumn of 1994, I decided to “hang up my cameras”. EMPICS was growing as a business and it needed me at base. I’d tried to bring in senior managers to take on my role but that was not successful, probably my fault rather than theirs. I also felt it was time to not “run away” to foreign parts every time the bank manager called to chase a reduction in the overdraft!

Luge Is there anything you miss about running a picture agency?
I've now moved on to publishing a local magazine in Hell's Kitchen, New York - W42ST Magazine. I am enjoying working with a very small team and building something from scratch.

Photography is a serious addiction. It’s an absorbing occupation especially when working in a journalistic capacity. You need to predict the story, visualise what might happen and then be in the right place at the right time. It was also great fun travelling the world with some very special photographers. It was hard to give up and I admire my colleagues from those days who are still very active. I still spend half my time watching news and sports events spotting them in the background!

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
No regrets, we managed to surf through the high and lows, just.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to make a career of sports photography?
You will have to be world class to really cut through. The quality of photography these days is exceptional. Work hard, love what you do, take lots of pictures and don't just think of the big events!

What was the best bit of business advice you were ever given?
Navigate the river of cash! We nearly ran aground a few times but just stayed off the rocks!

Phil's website is here:

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