Sotheby’s video: how to make 370 high-quality films a year

How do you produce hundreds of high-quality films a year - with a team of just ten people?


As one of the most distinguished names in world-class art, Sotheby’s production of high-quality video is prolific. We sat down with Nigel Hilditch, Sotheby’s Director of Video for Europe, to find out how his experiences at the forefront of brand video could help to inform comms professionals.

Sotheby’s video strategy

With almost 300 years of history and a global turnover of more than $4 billion, Sotheby’s is the world’s most recognisable fine art auctioneer, connecting art with collectors of all backgrounds.

Nigel Hilditch, director of Sotheby's video team
Nigel Hilditch, Sotheby’s Director of Video for Europe

Nigel Hilditch is the first head of Sotheby’s Europe video arm and credits his background in television documentary and journalism with giving him the preparation he needed to head up Sotheby’s European video output.

With a small in-house production team and lots of help from external production companies, Sotheby’s now produces vast quantities of video.

In 2018, 373 videos were made between the UK and New York. That’s more than one per day.

Unlike some video producers, Hilditch enjoys strong institutional support from Sotheby’s. The auction house has prioritised digital content, and more specifically video, as a part of their long-term growth strategy.

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Unique objects, unique stories

Sotheby’s is well positioned to make engaging video content. As an auction house, the selling point for Sotheby’s has always been the uniqueness and rarity of the objects displayed.

The most expensive pair of trainers ever sold

Indeed, the firm holds the auction record for the sale of both an Impressionist masterpiece, Meules by Monet, and the most expensive pair of trainers ever sold at auction, a pair of 1972, Nike Waffle Racing Flat Moon Shoes.

Hilditch recognises that video offers a level of engagement with these objects which other forms of media simply don’t. “We want collectors to be able to devour the information and the story in the same way as a football fan tracks who is being sold and who is being bought.”

Benefits of video

For Hilditch, there are two key benefits of video. Firstly, its capacity to provide a quantifiable measure of engagement by tracking registrations and consignments.

Hilditch explains that taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times or FT, which would be extremely expensive, doesn’t give you any information about the kind of impact the ad has had. “Whereas on the website, we can track it and see the click-throughs and we can put a price on how much we spent to get x registrations.”

Secondly, the impact video has on Sotheby’s smaller and less well-known departments. Because the brand is known for having the most desirable artworks, video isn’t always going to tip the balance for buyers of high-end art. For Hilditch, it’s also about raising awareness of smaller items, “like Beatles memorabilia, or Nelson’s watch, things that might not have had as big a platform before.”

Hilditch says that lots that weren’t necessarily expected to get lots of views, were generating a lot of traffic, “It wasn’t always the video about the Picasso or the Monet. We’ve had really high viewing rates for videos about an Iraqi artist, and a photograph of Elizabeth Taylor on a visit to Iran in the 70s. That one got a million views on an estimated £5,000 photograph.”

That may seem small fry in the Sotheby’s world, but those lower value items matter. They represent a large proportion of total sales, and they bring collectors into the Sotheby’s network.

Quality and brand

Sotheby’s video output has garnered plenty of positive attention with both a Webby, a Lovie and a Cannes Corporate award for the Treasures from Chatsworth series in 2018. Hilditch puts this down to the nature of the brand. “Sotheby’s is a super high-end luxury brand so everything we do needs to reflect this.”

This makes investing in high-end equipment essential. “You quickly realise if you’re getting a commercial level DoP with their box of lenses, what they’re doing looks simple, the output they produce you get used to and seems normal until you try to reproduce it with inferior equipment”.

Innovation in video

Hilditch’s team has also pioneered new VR methods. Sotheby’s was the first auction house to use VR to publicise an object. Their 2017 exhibition displayed four different surrealist paintings on sale, from artists such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte.

According to Hilditch, VR was used “as a means of getting people into the exhibition who might not ordinarily visit, and it got a lot of publicity which meant that extra bit of spend was worth it”.

Their use of VR here marks a change from the more conventional forms of video used to display fine objects in their Treasures from Chatsworth series. That doesn’t mean that Sotheby’s has fallen for the latest technological fad.

Instead, this example demonstrates how different forms of video are appropriate for different contexts, as Hilditch notes: “You have to come back to the story, you wouldn’t necessarily feature a diamond in a VR experience. Whereas something surreal, like a dreamscape, that makes a lot of sense.”

See more in-house team profiles 

Nigel Hilditch’s top three tips for commissioners:

Invest in high-end video – a high-end production is worth the spend, high-end luxury brands need high-end visual output.

Use video wisely – use it to engage new collectors and showcase unusual or less well-known items.

Use video to give potential clients more – quantifiable tracking, and visual impact.