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Agent and agency responsibilities when working with models

This is an article I wrote in response to someone who was asking a general question about agents. It describes my experiences with agents, both commercial and fashion, and I don’t pretend that it reflects accurately how every agent works with the models they represent. For instance, there is nothing here about talent managers who work with TV or movie actors (I’ve had no contact with these people), but it should give you a general overview concerning agents who work with models.


Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Alexa Marie, MCsquared Model Management; Hair and Makeup: Jonathan Rebolledo

In the popular media, agents are portrayed as working in small teams alongside editorial fashion agencies, who in turn work with a very small number of uniquely qualified models. In reality, most models really wind up working for a much larger group of agents (agencies), which, for lack of a better term, are called commercial agencies.

Commercial agents and agencies

A commercial agent provides a number of important and exclusive functions for a model. The agent (or more accurately the agency system) normally sets the going rates for models in a reasonably large market (say like Chicago, Atlanta or Los Angeles). The agent (and again, I am referring to the agency system) provides the necessary contractual language—description of rates, releases, usage restrictions on resulting images, cancellation fees, etc.—for a model and the client to establish a successful working relationship. The agent handles billing to the client, and payment (after the money is paid) to the model. And finally, very few (if any) large clients (advertisers) deal directly with individual models, so a model’s work is made available in the market place almost exclusively through agents. Is an agent important to a commercial model? Yes, especially if they have any hope of working at the upper end of the commercial market.


Photographer: John Fisher

Notice, I didn’t even refer to model career development. Most commercial agents act as clearing houses for jobs that are available through large clients. Models are expected to provide basic tools to the agent so the agent can make the model available to clients. These tools include comp cards, headshots, résumés, etc. Sometimes, if the agent has the time, they will offer a model advice on putting together some pictures for a card, or recommend that the model see a particular photographer (or more commonly, provide a list of photographers who the agent has some confidence can provide usable pictures). The reality is that in most large markets someone who wishes to be a model must find their own way through the jungle to obtain the pictures and experience to put together the tools they need to work as a model. Time is not particularly critical to a commercial model; even if it takes six months or two years to collect the necessary tools, that’s fine as far as the agent is concerned. Most commercial jobs require the model to play a role, to look like a particular character or to meet some pre-designated set of physical qualifications for that “particular job.”

Why doesn’t a commercial agent need to be in the model management (or more accurately, model development) business? Well, that’s primarily because in most major markets, so many other people can do it for them. Actors work as commercial models, photographers develop models on smaller jobs with their direct (usually smaller) clients, and so-called fashion agencies have models who fail to catch on editorially and who then wind up listing with the commercial agencies.


Photographer: John Fisher; Jenny Arzola, Wilhelmina Model Management

 

This is the normal experience that most models will have when dealing with an older, established commercial agency. It is very rare for any single model to be particularly important to a commercial agent (unless, like anyone in the business, there is some personal reason). It is the advertising clients, and the agent’s relationship with those clients, which drives a commercial agency, not the models. The models are a commodity that agents make available to their clients. The more models they have, and the greater the variety, the happier the agent. Is it fair for the agency to collect its fees for placement? Yes, particularly since they have access to clients (and work hard to establish and maintain those relationships) that most models would not have access to. Their fees are a function of the access they provide to clients and the contractual arrangements they maintain. The fees and commissions collected from the model and client are not for model management. The rates a commercial model normally commands in the market place do not usually justify a significant commitment to model career development by an agent.

Editorial agencies need new faces

Editorial agents (agencies) succeed or fail based on their ability to discover, develop and promote new faces. After finding just two or three hot new models, an agency will start getting calls and bookings for those premium commercial fashion jobs. The agents (and now I am going to introduce a new word here: bookers, the real power in any agency) really do select, manage and develop the careers of these select few models. If a booker is successful in finding that new face, properly promoting the model and in training and managing the model, then a long string of highly paid commercial jobs can follow. A model has zero chance of entering this market without an exclusive relationship with a qualified booker, as there isn’t a beginner editorial market that a model can utilize to get started. It is possible that a model can get hooked up with an important editorial photographer on her own, get a few editorial jobs, maybe a high profile commercial booking, but this is pretty rare these days. Is an editorial agency worth their fees and commissions? Yes, again this career is not possible without them, and a successful booker is what every fashion agency depends on. They are paid too much after the model is successful and not nearly enough when they are developing the model.


Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Tami Donaldson

So, why go directly to those wonderful editorial agencies? After all, this story makes them sound like the real deal. They manage a model, they promote the model’s career, and the individual model is important to them. Well here’s the rub: You need to be young, very tall, willing to sacrifice everything about your personal life (where you live, what your schedule is, your education, etc.) and you must be ready to take on a slew of adult responsibilities. And there is no promise that this will work, even if you do everything asked of you. Editorial modeling is a crapshoot—win and you win big, but if you lose, you may walk away with some pretty bad experiences. This is not what most people want to hear.

What most people want is a commercial modeling career… with the attention and promotion of an editorial agency—it’s not going to happen, so get over it. Get your pictures, and put together a comp. Try to promote yourself through agencies, photographers and social contacts, and hope for the best. Take any good job you can get without regard to pay in the beginning. Don’t think you can make a living at it immediately.

After a few years, if you are going to work, you will have enough good pictures to have a pretty good comp card. You will have worked for enough people to have some idea about the level of work you will get on a regular basis, and enjoy the business!

There is one small section of the commercial modeling business which is time sensitive, and that is children’s modeling. Here, things do have to move a little faster (you will outgrow the business), and the agents do have to get involved more directly with the model and their parents. But this is such a strange area, and I really don’t want to get into it.

John Fisher

John Fisher

John Fisher is a fashion photographer who does magazine editorial, advertising, catalog and swimsuit photography. He's a member of Canon Professional Services and was recently named as a sponsored photographer for Paul C. Buff Companies. His website is www.johnfisher.com.

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