Editorial & Business
Sipa press: interview with the new owner
Martin Vorderwülbecke © Chamussy / SIPA
Martin Vorderwülbecke is the owner of DAPD and Sipa press. They are two, just like the "Dupont" by Hergé, but they are "owners" of many hundreds of "Tintin" in Germany and now in France, as a consequence of the acquisition of Sipa press. Peter Low and Martin Vorderwülbecke are both in their mid fifties. Two "business men", the shareholders of the second German press agency, DAPD. Neither of them will be at "Visa pour l’Image", "where the managers from Sipa and DAPD will attend for networking."
For years, on the boulevard Murat in Paris, in the offices of the Sipa press agency, a visitor could hear "From the depths, I chant towards you, Lord, hear my prayers". Year after year, the deficit in Sipa press would become deeper and its sponsor Pierre Fabre would grow older… And this year, two good German Christians have answered the prayers: Peter Low and Martin Vorderwülbecke.
Since 1993, both men have turned Psalm 130 into their currency. They hear companies crying in despair and, as good Samaritans, they rush to the aid of, for example "BluO", a company based in Luxembourg, what we politely call "a specialized hedge fund"… A business that does well "but has nothing to do with a press agency" as stated by Martin Vorderwülbecke during his exclusive phone interview given on the day before leaving for holidays.
Martin Vorderwülbecke, who replied to our questions, is a member of the Management Board of Deutscher Depeschendienst (DDP) and member of the Supervisory Board of « DDP media Holding AG ". He is co-founder of BluO SICAV-SIF.
"Hello, do you speak French? Are you Martin Vorder… becke…vulbeck.. ". A giant roar of laughter is heard over the telephone.
Martin Vorderwülbecke:"French is not easy to pronounce for me… I’ll do my best to answer you."
In the world of photojournalism, we do not clearly understand the reason for your acquisition of Sipa press. You have expressed your interest in producing both texts and photographs, while Sipa is a photo agency… Could you explain this to us ?
Martin Vorderwülbecke: "In Germany we manage the DAPD agency, born from a fusion of Associated Press Allemagne and Deutscher Depeschendienst (DDP). That means that we are in this business since 2004. So we know perfectly the difficulties of this activity, it is a profession that is difficult, if not impossible, to earn money.
Nevertheless, in Germany we have succeeded in building a real complete press agency with 300 journalists and 130 employees. We started with sales over 5 million Euros and now we’ve reached 30 million. The reason why this is going so well for us is that in Germany there was only one press agency, the historic Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) (Note: founded in 1949 under the allies’ control). Even if everyone in the German press says that DPA did its job, the service was expensive and the spirit quite a bit bureaucratic. Since our arrival in the market with DAPD, the editorial offices are really happy to have the choice."
How were you able to gain control of the Sipa press photo agency?
Martin Vorderwülbecke : "Sud Communication" contacted us about two years ago for the Sipa acquisition. Mr. Favre had invested quite a bit but wasn’t able to do so anymore and he would have a tendency to protect the people that made Sipa the agency that we know. A year ago, we had drafted a first plan for the acquisition, but we were skeptical of the future of Sipa. We estimated that the losses would continue. And that is what finally happened. The 2010 sales are precisely what we had originally estimated. (Note: around 10 M Euros).
Sud Communication contacted us at the beginning of this year again and we have replied positively as we knew that Sipa is a renowned agency with an extensive power of distribution and quality photographers. We care a lot about the history of Sipa, but we had to keep a cool head. We had said: We must first adjust Sipa to the new economic reality. Even if it’s hard for the people we had to reduce costs, as employees must be downsized as there aren’t many other ways to compress costs in an agency."
Remaining in the economic domain, even after 34 lay-offs, there are still over 60 employees… Talking about balance, It still seems quite a lot...
Martin Vorderwülbecke: "We have an expansion plan that we would love to start after the lay-offs. We believe that the historical economical model applied in a photo agency such as Sipa is quite old fashioned. The price of photographs in the magazines have dropped. There is also the pressure from Internet and from the cheaper agencies… And then there is another reason: AFP.
AFP began to focus around ten years ago on quality photographs. AFP, financed by the State, has enough money to spend in production… For this reason, we envision Sipa not only as a photo agency, but as a press agency producing text and photographs, as AFP. We find today a good reception from French regional press, radio and TV, but not yet from national press… I estimate a further fully state-controlled process in AFP after the elections, yet we believe it’s not compatible with the freedom of the press.
Furthermore, it must be stated that AFP is also competing with us with very low prices in Germany, which has destroyed the German market. I have expressed a number of times, to many presidents of AFP that they should leave Germany alone. But they didn’t want to, since they have, in their opinion, an international perspective…. I am free then to create a press agency in France!"
In order to produce texts, you’ll need editors; or are you under discussion with Associated Press France?
Martin Vorderwülbecke: "It’s a good question…. Even If I might not normally be very diplomatic on this issue, I must be. We have acquired Associated Press Allemagne and this was a good solution. Contrary to what has been written, we haven’t made lay-offs for journalists, only administrative staff. In fact, we have hired 119 journalists. In France we may have the possibility to acquire AP, but we’ll see…"
Will you be hiring editors and photographers?
Martin Vorderwülbecke: "I’m not on those details. I don’t know the journalists, nor Sipa, nor DAPD. I am one of the owners and we have managers for our editions."
But you are surely aware that Sipa press has very important archives, what are your plans regarding this issue?
Martin Vorderwülbecke: "We are glad to start with the archives… But it is a touchy matter. I must be careful. The first thing I must I want to say is that the archives will remain in France. Secondly, there are many problems to solve with authors. I have no miracle solution for this. To scan all the archives costs a fortune and we don’t have the available means. A solution with the State should be found, in order to make the collections available to the public, protecting the right of the authors. In the short term we will not use them as we don’t know how to solve this difficult problem."
Besides DAPD, you participate in a group of companies in different sectors…
Martin Vorderwülbecke: "I am a partner in a investment fund specialized in restructuring corporations (Note: BluO). We are in the chemical industry, alimentary, very diverse activities… But that has nothing to do with the activity of a press agency that is owned solely by Peter Low and myself.
A press agency cannot function under the pressure of companies, nor the need to make profits. A press agency doesn’t make money. We have created a press agency to keep the freedom of the press. We see that the big industries, the big groups own the press in France, which is quite a menacing situation. The big managers are close to the establishment… And we think that the press must be independent. We believe that an independent press agency works for the freedom of the press."
What is your relation with photography?
Martin Vorderwülbecke: "I love photography. When I was young, I would take quite a lot of pictures. I would develop my film and make my own prints, as a hobby. Photography interests both of us, Peter and I, as it transports emotions and is the strong part of a press agency. That is why we are in Sipa."
Interview by Michel Puech, August 11, 2011
On February 3, 2012, we made a correction to the interview conducted in French. The term "State Owned Agency" was not used by Martin Vorderwülbecke. Michel Puech's interpretation was taken from a poorly recorded conversation held in broken French. We apologize to those affected by this error.