Expert Advice: Finding a Rep

Jun 7, 2016
Expert Advice

One of the most common conversations we have with photographers (apart from the iPad vs. print portfolio debate) is about finding and working with reps. Many photographers dream of a day when they can just be responsible for taking pictures and have someone else find them assignments. But what is it really like to have a rep, and how close does that dream match up with reality? With some insider info from Mark Winer of The Gren Group and former rep Melissa Hennessy combined with our own experiences, we wanted to give you the know-how to understand and find your own rep.

What does a rep do?

A rep (or photographer’s representative or photographer’s agent) is someone who serves as a liaison between photographers and clients. In simple terms, they help their photographers get assignments. But a great rep will have a deep understanding of the business opportunities out there. They’ll be able to exploit connections you might not have; they’ll be savvy about negotiating assignment fees; and they’ll be able to give you perspective and guidance to propel your career.

Some reps lean more towards branding and marketing and farm out the production. Others lean more towards production and expect their photographers to take the lead on promotion. Nearly all reps handle cost estimates for their photographers. Some reps specialize in a particular genre of photography (especially fashion, reportage and architecture). Some focus on a particular type of client (advertising, corporate, editorial). Some reps 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 going after.

What reps don’t do is manage your entire business. You (or your studio manager) are still going to have to handle bookkeeping, insurance, payroll. And chances are, you’ll have to maintain all of your marketing materials (like a website, blog, print portfolio, print mailers, emailers, stationery) and execute your portion of an overall marketing plan.

Are you a good candidate for a rep? (Do you need them and do they need you?)

Many of our photographers have great relationships with their reps and their careers have flourished as a result. But as with any partnership, it’s better to be alone than wish you were alone. Finding 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 more cook 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 realistically assess whether 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 instead. 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 group that they might be missing. They’ll want to see that you already have solid marketing materials. And it won’t hurt if they like you on a personal level too.

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.

How do you find a rep?

Once you understand what you’re looking for in a rep, you’ll need to contact appropriate reps just as you would reach out to potential clients. There are plenty of ways to find lists of reps. Rob Haggart of APhotoEditor has a great list; you can find reps by looking through source books like At-Edge; and of course Wonderful Machine’s marketing consultants can create a targeted list of reps who might be appropriate for you.

Most times a rep’s website won’t say exactly what they’re looking for in a photographer or if they’re adding to their roster at this time. You'll have to evaluate each one individually and reach out directly to find that out. Look at the photographers they already have listed. Are they similar to you? Would you be complementary with them? For example, if they're all fashion photographers and you shoot food, you probably won't be a good match. Or if all the photographers are different and you overlap with one of them, you might not be a good match. But when in doubt, there's no harm in reaching out, even if it's just planting seeds for a possible future relationship. Whenever possible, reach out to a specific person rather than to a general email address. If it's not clear from the agent's website, you can often find it on one of their photographer's websites. And if that doesn’t work, brush up on your LinkedIn skills and find them there.

How should you approach a rep?

It's a good idea to build 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. Otherwise, you could risk missing out on the best opportunity and you could end up wasting a lot of time (for both parties).

Once you have your list of reps that you want to contact, send a brief but thoughtful email to each one individually 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. If possible, request an in-person meeting with them, or if that's not practical, a Skype or phone call. Taking a personal approach to this process is going to be an essential part of your success.

Once you send that 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. Think of it as constructive criticism. Each “no” is a step closer to a “yes” if you are aware of and open to the suggestions they give you.

Be patient. Like any important relationship, it's not going to bloom overnight. Don't act desperate—it's not a good look.

Melissa Hennessy says that a photographer coming to a rep should always have reviewed that agent’s roster and be able to answer why they’d be a good fit for the group. When assessing someone, she likes to see a PDF of 5-10 images—by looking at that, she can see if the work is consistent, has a distinct point of view, and is commercially applicable. During the whole process, personal phone calls and individual emails are best. In addition to the work, she takes a good look at the photographer’s personality, preferring people who are driven and looking towards the future.

What about commissions and contracts?

So let’s say you find a rep who you love, and they love you and want to sign you. Then what? In most cases, that rep will have a contract that they'll want you to sign. There's no such thing as a standard rep agreement. Every agent will have a different philosophy about how they do business and each will have a different contract and some will have none at all. The most important thing is to not sign anything blindly, but to do your best to understand the spirit of what the agreement is trying to achieve and to of course understand the actual contract as it's written. As with any contract, you are free to negotiate any or all of it. If you have experience with these types of contracts, you might be able to review it yourself. Otherwise, it's probably a good idea to have a second set of eyes take a look at it. Lawyers can be valuable for this, but perhaps more valuable is someone with significant industry experience (like a Wonderful Machine producer).

Here are a few major elements of a rep agreement that you should look for and understand:

1. Commissions:

Perhaps the most important element of a rep agreement is the commission that your rep will take on any given project. Your contract should clearly specify what percentage the rep gets and what percentage the photographer gets. It also has to specify which items are subject to that commission. Will your rep get a percentage of just your creative/licensing fees or will they collect a percentage of some of your expense items too (like retouching or post-processing fees)? Will they get a percentage of your residual fees from subsequent licensing fees on those images (to the original client or to a new client)? We find that reps typically get between 20% and 30% of the fees they negotiate for their photographers. Mark says their commission (25%) is taken from “creative, usage, travel, prep, and tech scout fees.” The more leverage an agent has relative to the photographer, the higher that percentage will be.

2. House Accounts and Exclusivity:

House accounts are clients that you currently work for (or have worked for) prior to entering into an agreement with a rep. Each rep will handle these differently. Some reps will take less than their regular commission on your house accounts, while others may not take any commission at all. Sometimes, reps might take less than their regular commission for the first year of your contract on house accounts, then take full commission after that year (or given time period) has ended. We've found that for the most part, reps will want to have an exclusive agreement where they take a commission on any project that you work on, regardless of your previous history with a client or whether they get you the job or not.

Melissa explains that this is because, once with a rep, the social media and constant publicity the photographer is getting makes it unlikely that any large project is brought in solely by the photographer. That may seem hard to get behind, but if you understand that your agent is working with your best interests every day, you’ll have no problems with the commissions.

3. Responsibilities, Marketing, Payments:

It’s important to be clear about what you can expect from your rep, and what they will expect from you. What promotions are you responsible for paying for/doing, and what do you expect your photographers to do/pay for? Also, what is your level of involvement in estimating and/or production?

At Gren Group, their philosophy is to keep it simple. The company pays for all their own travel, website updates, portfolio shipping, trade shows, database subscriptions, and email campaigns. The photographer pays for their own trade advertising, promotional trips, and direct mail pieces. When they hire a producer, which they almost always do, the producer handles all aspects of production for the project.

Sometimes, the client pays the photographer directly and then the photographer pays the rep their share (and sends along copies of receipts for all the expenses). Our experience is that it’s more typical that an agent will bill the client and then pay the photographer when they get paid.

What if you want to leave your rep?

Sometimes a relationship doesn’t work out. It can happen for a variety of reasons, and it’s important to know upfront what happens if you decide to part ways. Who keeps the clients? Do you need to pay your rep if you work for clients they got for you after you’ve split up?

Most agents have a severance clause that has the photographer paying the regular commission for six months after termination, plus one month for every year they were under contract. So if they worked together for 5 years, the severance would last for 11 months.

A lot of what happens to the client after the photographer and agent have split depends on the client. If the photographer has the better relationship with the client, they would probably keep them. If the agent has a close relationship with the client, they will probably continue to cultivate that. Mark says that the contract is meant to lay the foundation for what is to be expected on both sides, but from there, there is often some room for negotiation. Some companies even permit the photographer to go without any severance period or additional commission (especially if the agent was collecting commissions on existing clients from day one).

Finding a rep can be a long and complex process. So be sure you're ready to make that commitment before heading down that road. If that's a step you feel that you're ready to take and you think you might need a hand, please reach out to one of our marketing consultants to hear more about how we can help. 

Original article written by executive producer Craig Oppenheimer with updates by marketing consultant Rachel Walburn.