One of the most common conversations we have with photographers is about agents. What does an agent do? What do they charge? Do I need one? How do I find one?
Many photographers see having an agent (or rep as they’re sometimes called) as validation that you’ve “made it” as a photographer. They also love the idea that they can just concentrate on being “creative” and have someone else handle the “business.” But what’s it really like to have a rep, and how close does that dream match up with reality?
In part one of our two-part series on how to find a rep, we’ll look at what a rep will do for you, whether or not you should pursue representation, and (if you do decide to go this route) how to find one. With some insider info from former rep Melissa Hennessy and Mark Winer of The Gren Group — combined with our own experiences — we’ll give you the low-down on pursuing representation.
In part two of this series on finding a rep, we’ll get into the nitty gritty regarding commissions and contracts. But for now, let’s start with the basics!
A rep (short for “photographer’s representative” and also known as a “photographer’s agent”) serves as a liaison between photographers and clients and helps their photographers get assignments. They can forge connections you might not have, savvily negotiate assignment fees, and provide perspective and guidance to help advance your career.
Some reps lean more toward branding and marketing and farm out the production. Others do the opposite. Nearly all reps handle cost estimates for their photographers. Some reps specialize in a particular genre of photography, while others focus on a particular type of client. Still others only work with photographers in a particular geographic area. All reps build a roster of complementary photographers to cover the needs of whatever clients they’re pursuing.
What reps don’t do is manage your entire business. You — or your studio manager — are still going to have to handle bookkeeping, insurance, and payroll. And, chances are, you’ll have to maintain all of your marketing materials, like a website, blog, print portfolio, print mailers, and emailers as well as execute your portion of an overall marketing plan.
Understand that any rep who takes you on is going to have to spend significant time, energy, and money getting to know your interests and skills, incorporating you into their business, and introducing you to their clients. That represents a lot of risk for them. So, they tend to not jump into relationships as quickly as a photographer might.
As with any partnership, it’s better to be alone than wish you were alone — the right match is crucial to a successful relationship. If you enjoy and are good at marketing, estimating, and production, then a rep might just amount to one too many cooks in the kitchen. But if you think you could be more effective creatively by having a partner to handle some of those business details, then an agent might be an appropriate solution for you.
Even if you’re ready for a rep, you’ll need to assess if you’re an attractive candidate for them. If you’re not ready, you could waste a lot of time chasing reps when you could be chasing clients. The more established a rep is, the more demanding they will be of you. A successful rep will expect that you’re generating significant revenue already and that they’ll be able to share in that revenue right away. They’ll want to see that you can bring skills or other attributes to their roster that they might be missing. They’ll also want to see that you already have solid marketing materials.
Most of the time, finding a rep is not as easy as finding their website. The website won’t say exactly what they’re looking for in a photographer or if they’re adding to their roster at this time. To evaluate each one, look at the photographers they already have listed. Are they similar to you? Would you complement them? If all the photographers are different from one another and you overlap with one of them, you might not be a good match.
Keep a rep’s location in mind. Does this person only work with photographers local to them, or do they also represent photographers nationally or internationally? If you’re looking to expand your work schedule and take on assignments far afield, consider searching for a rep with a national or international client base.
That said, there’s no harm in reaching out to reps, even if it’s just planting seeds for a potential business relationship. Whenever possible, contact a specific person rather than a general email address. If that information is not clear from the agent’s website, you can often find it on one of their photographer’s websites or on the rep or agency’s LinkedIn page.
Once you’ve figured out if a rep is right for you and vice versa, you’ll need to contact them just as you would to clients. There are plenty of ways to find lists of reps — Rob Haggart of APhotoEditor, for example, has created a resource called The Agent List. Of course, Wonderful Machine’s marketing consultants, like Nadia Kiyatkina, can create a targeted list of reps who might be relevant to you!
The next step in finding a rep is building your list of appropriate reps before you do any outreach. That way, if your list turns out to be large, you can start by approaching your favorites first — perhaps in groups of ten — and then gradually work your way down the list.
Once you have your list of reps that you want to contact, send a brief but personal email to each one that speaks to your past experience, your future goals, and why you think they might be a good match for you. Include your website, contact information, and a partial client list. In more normal times, it would be smart to request an in-person meeting; that’s most likely a no-go these days, so try to arrange a Skype or phone call instead.
When you send that initial email, wait a day or two and follow up with a phone call. Most reps will get back to you with some helpful advice. Do not be discouraged if it isn’t exactly what you were expecting to hear. Each “no” is a step closer to a “yes,” if you’re open to the suggestions they give you. Be patient!
Melissa Hennessy has been on both sides of the coin, having worked as a photographer and an agent. The Chicago-based creative says that a photographer should be able to answer why they’d be a good fit for the rep’s roster. When assessing someone, she likes to see a PDF of 5-10 images. From that, she can see if the work is consistent, has a distinct point of view, and is commercially viable.
In addition to the work, she considers the photographer’s personality, preferring people who are driven and have a concrete set of goals they want to accomplish in their career.