Marlene Taschen, CEO of art-book publisher Taschen, talks leadership ethos, her hopes for the publishing industry’s future and why she doesn’t need to prove herself.
Inside Taschen’s small but theatrical shop in London’s Mayfair, the publisher’s poised ceo Marlene Taschen picks up a pile of six chunky photobooks without a flinch. “You have to be quite strong to work in our shops,” she says with a smile. “Our books are very heavy.”
She is speaking from experience. Before rising to the top in the publishing house her father Benedikt Taschen founded 40 years ago, she worked across a few roles – including opening shops in London and in New York. “When I was working at the shops, I never told the customers who I was,” she says of her time finding out about Taschen’s readers first-hand. “I really enjoyed the random interaction.” Her experiences have led her to consider introducing a policy that requires all employees in the company to do a stint as shop assistants. “I have met interesting new people and new projects have been suggested. It’s a good point for dialogue.”
People have come to associate Taschen with a specific kind of publication: compact, well-researched but relatively affordable coffee-table books aimed at a wide audience. Despite starting out as a humble comics shop in Köln in 1980, the publisher soon made its name with extensive art monographs and grew into the global company it is today. In the 1990s, Benedikt surprised many by launching a line of collectible and large-format books. Yet arguably the biggest surprise for Marlene was his decision in 2017 to appoint her as the company’s ceo, when she was 32, without much in the way of warning. “He just announced it in an interview,” she says, laughing. “It was a bit of a shock.”
Since then, the father-daughter duo has been working together on editorial choices but the operations side of the business rests largely on Marlene’s shoulders. It’s a responsibility that she has taken to with determination but the generational shift came with its own set of challenges. “Some people at the company have been there for 30 years,” she says. “They’ve known me since I was a child, then all of the sudden I was the one in charge. It took some time for adjustment, but I can see how trust towards me has changed.” Employees also had to adapt to a shift in management style. “Because I am an open-hearted type of person, sometimes people have misinterpreted this: just because I’m nice it doesn’t mean I can’t make decisions,” she adds. “I don’t mind if people underestimate me. Over time, things become clear. I don’t need to prove myself.”
“Because I’m an open-hearted type of person, sometimes people have misinterpreted my management style. Just because I’m nice it doesn’t mean I can’t make decisions”
For all the modifications that she has planned for the business, a change in company culture is one of the developments she’s most pleased with. Encouraging more teamwork and shared responsibility, as well as accepting mistakes as a learning opportunity, has made for what she feels is a more collaborative and creative atmosphere. To ensure she can continuously feed ideas into editorial programming, Marlene has adopted a particular weekly schedule: from Monday to Wednesday she books in time for colleagues and day-to-day duties, including travelling to the Köln HQ at least once a month from her home in London. Thursdays and Fridays are kept free for external meetings with anybody from artists to architects and creative agencies. “What can easily happen in management is that you focus only on the bad, the existing – it’s also good to focus on the new and the positive,” she says.
That’s how a number of projects came to be, including a new side to the business dedicated to documentary production. Even if the future of the publishing industry is no longer considered to be as precarious as people once feared, Marlene is positive about the ways in which it can evolve. “If you have great content, that’s translatable into various forms, it’s interesting to move into different formats,” she says. For Taschen, selling limited edition prints of artworks and the “Sumo” books (enormous publications that retail for thousands of euros) have long provided a different revenue stream, which complements the sales of cheaper books. But even at its most democratic end, Marlene is convinced that the market can thrive. “There’s so much room to develop,” she says. “Books have a place to stay in our niche market because they are objects; they are cultural companions. There is still an aesthetic culture that supports that. [Books have] an ingrained legacy feeling to them.”
Despite the obvious difficulties that this year has thrown at the business, she focuses on silver linings. “[The pandemic] has helped us to look more inwards,” she says. “Without it we would have had such a good year, and we would have been blind. My father has this funny saying: when the tide is out, you see the naked swimmer.” Still, besides an ambition to centralise distribution, simplify the sales structure and reallocate some resources, Taschen’s central drive remains the same. “People appreciate us as editors to choose the information for them; they trust it can be something interesting,” says Marlene. “It takes time to build up [this reputation] but we have it. Books can open up whole universes.”
When are you at your desk?
More or less 09.30.
What’s the best place to prepare for leadership: MBA or on the job?
I would argue on the job.
Do you prefer to be liked or respected?
It’s good to have both but the minimum is respect.
Are decisions better taken by one person?
Any decision needs to be carried by a group.
How would you describe your management style?
I try always to be constructive and to lead with positivity.
What does your support team look like?
My biggest supporter is my father because he’s the one who believes the most in me.
Hardest part of the job?
That it never ends – but that’s what gives me most fulfilment. It’s also difficult to learn how to spend your time well.
What do you do with employees that disagree?
I don’t mind disagreement; I like confrontation. But I don’t like it on a personal level.
Have you ever made a mistake you wish you could take back?
As long as you learn from it, I don’t regard it as a mistake.
Who do you ask for advice?
Depends on the problem – it’s very important who you choose for what problem. You need to be smart about that – in life, not just on the job.