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Christie’s goes digital to make sure it’s not going, going, gone

With technology disrupting our lives, almost every part of our lives, it was inevitable that it is causing a major rethink in the venerable and historic business of auction houses.

Speaking to CNBC's "Marketing Media Money", Marc Sands, chief marketing officer at Christie's explains he sees digital disruption "in every way possible."

A member of staff takes a photograph of a 'Prime Ministerial Red Morocco Dispatch Box' during a press preview at Christies auction house
Carl Court | Getty Images News | Getty Images
A member of staff takes a photograph of a 'Prime Ministerial Red Morocco Dispatch Box' during a press preview at Christies auction house

"There are more artists creating within the digital context through to the engagement of art, reading about it, learning about, it looking at art online through to the purchase of it."

While Christie's may have been founded in the 18th century in London, it is now the world's leading art business with $7.4 billion in sales in 2015. And its global reach is undeniable. Asian clients now make up 27 percent of Christie's global art sales. In 2014 it opened new offices in New Delhi and Shanghai.

Christie's revenues are split into three divisions. While its auction sales saw a respectable 15 percent increase in 2014, it was easily outpaced by a 60 percent jump in ecommerce sales.

However, Sands adds that ecommerce still only accounts for between 4 percent and 7 percent of total revenue, putting it just slightly ahead of the industry as a whole.

According to the 2015 Hiscox Online Art Trade Report: "The evolution of online art sales mean that the value of the global online art market has risen from just under $1 billion in 2013 to an estimated $2.64 billion this year. Based on that growth trajectory, we estimate it to be worth $6.3 billion in 2019"

Works hang in Christie's auction house on January 20, 2010 in London, England.
Dan Kitwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Works hang in Christie's auction house on January 20, 2010 in London, England.

Sands stresses that, contrary to the perception that their client base is "ancient, moneyed and about to kick the bucket", the auction house's clients "range from in their 20s through to old age. So it's a very broad audience and we are having to operate different marketing strategies for different constituencies.

Christie's marketing campaigns can vary from completely digital to a 60 percent to 70 percent mix of traditional, analog, sales methods.

And in China, social media is leading the way when it comes to client interaction. Marc Sands says WeChat "is the single biggest means of engaging with our clients in China. They engage at very light touch through to very profound touch and ultimately purchase they can do entirely through WeChat.

"So some of our marketing modules in mainland China are entirely WeChat-based and that is drawn by the fact that, as a platform, it is widely used. The money in China is mainly going into digital engagement. That is very sophisticated."

Sands adds that because of the prominence of WeChat in China, Christie's is forgoing print and catalogs in the country. A vastly different approach to other parts of the world, like Europe or the U.S. where print is often still the dominant form of marketing.

Next frontier - Virtual Marketing?

Asked whether Christie's is close to dabbling in the latest marketing trend - virtual reality - Sands concedes:" I think it's not immediate and it's not necessary at this stage."

"It's a relatively small constituency. I mean there are hundreds of thousands of people involved with us but not millions. And so I think where virtual reality is happening it's happening increasingly in the museum space where they're beginning to play with that. We have not gone there yet but I can imagine a scenario where we will do exactly that."

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