This post originally appeared on Heather Elder’s blog, Notes From A Rep’s Journal.
We have heard it be told that talent agents have been around since the 1880’s so while we know a lot has changed since then, the core values still stay the same; successful artists’ agents do not happen by accident, it takes a lot of time, dedication and commitment to promote talent. Which to us means we can’t even begin share how much we appreciated that these agents spent some of their very valuable time and business insights with us.
As a reminder, each conversation starter was directed to one person with a general discussion ensuing. We decided this was the best way to bring you all to the table with us, share the experience as close as possible to how it actually happened.
We would also like to take this moment to dedicate this series to our fellow agent, Alison McCreery — our thanks for all you did for the photo community. We miss you.
Please note, there will be 3 posts shared over the next two weeks. Tune in every Tuesday and Thursday for the latest installments.
Agents in attendance (though we missed you Lauranne Lospalluto):
Jenifer Guskay and Kelly Montez, Apostrophe
Sarah Laird, Sarah Laird & Good Company
Tim Mitchell, Tim Mitchell Artist Representative
Janice Moses, Janice Moses Represents
Deb Schwartz, DS Reps
Kate Chase, Brite Productions
Matt Nycz, Brite Productions
Heather Elder, Heather Elder Represents
And with that, we welcome you back to the table.
What do you think is the key to your success as an agent?
Sarah Laird: For me it is picking the right talent which I know might be different than what someone else might say. I look for that special “zing” with someone. And, if it ends up not working out, which is rare, then I know I can look back for the reason it happened in the first place. I always end up learning something from the experience.
Has it always been about the talent?
Always. It is kind of like getting married. You always have these traits you want in your mate and I think it is the same thing with photography. I remember early on, maybe 25 years ago, that shooting editorial was essential, so that I would have a lot of ammo for me to sell them. And, most importantly, we need to like each other, well more than that, I love my photographers. Some of them I have been with for 15-20 years and I am a godmother to their children, I take vacations with them and they’re the people I want to go have dinner with and share time with like family.
I need the relationship to stay fiery and passionate. For me to stay excited about the photography business it needs to stay hot and emotional. Not dramatic, but exciting.
Kelly Montez: Photographers are ambassadors for our brand. They are a reflection of me and how I like to do business. And, I agree with Sarah, talent is definitely the key to being a successful agent but I need to give a lot of credit to my staff. They are a huge part of any success we experience. Everyone on my team has been with me for at least 5 years. We have a good synergy, complement each other’s strengths and support one another.
Is part of defining success mean being able to keep the lights on and pay the rent? Is it also about longevity?
Kelly Montez: Even more than that, it is about the connection we all feel; the artists and the staff. It is a good energy and makes for a great work environment. I care a lot about them and they care a lot about the business. I would not be able to do this alone.
What does your screening process look like when you hire someone new?
Kelly Montez: I will happily share with you my secret. My husband is an executive coach and part of what he does is identify high potential talent. After a series of bad hires, he gave me a book called the Who Method (How to Solve Your Number One Talent Problem) which asks you to lot look closely at your business, define your core values and recruit employees that match those values.
I used this method to write our last job description and it was epic. We knew exactly what we wanted. It took us three and half months to hire our new producers and they are incredible and perfect for our brand. The book teaches you how to interview candidates well. This process starts with a phone interview with just five questions. It is an easy way to weed out people who do not share our core values. Then there are two more rounds of intense interviewing and it ends with a four-hour biographical interview. At that point the decision is easy.
How about you Matt? How do you define success?
Matt Nycz: Building on what Sarah said, talent choice and personalities are very important. I started as a photo assistant then a producer before I became a rep. I remember when I first started in the industry, that I came across photographers that were amazingly talented but toxic on set. As the industry has become more competitive, my feeling is there is less tolerance for that type of behavior. As we started bringing on artists , I knew we needed to keep this in mind. A negative artist can ruin relationships with clients. The thing is that is not only limited to them and can hurt the whole group.
We are fortunate because so many of our artists come from referrals from clients and producers and that makes a difference to us. It is important to us that someone else has been on set with them and can vouch for them; especially for how they treat clients and their crew. I might be biased because I started out as crew, but if a photographer doesn’t treat their crew well then that is a big red flag for us.
So, what defines success for you Tim Mitchell?
Tim Mitchell: Matt and I have very similar backgrounds, assisting, location scouting and producing – all those experiences help me communicate with the artists and clients. Our jobs are complex on many levels so having production insight is very helpful.
With regards to choosing talent, I look for artists with somewhat similar personality traits to myself. Being grounded, down to earth and very transparent are qualities that will always be important to me in selecting artists. The photographers who want to work with the agencies and adjust according to the agency’s needs are the most successful. I look for artists who are reasonable and understanding towards each and every project.
I think my biggest strength is the insight I’m able to provide to the production process because of my background. Both the artists and the clients appreciate what I contribute towards an already successful team.
Jen Guskay: Success at Apostrophe mostly comes down to the strong relationships we have fostered with our artists, and just being good partners with our clients. Our industry is constantly changing so we need to be fluid and flexible. Clients trust us to be transparent, open and honest with them and because we foster these good relationships it adds to our success. If we or our photographers make the process more difficult, the relationships can fall apart. We are just really nice people.
How does a client know that?
The way we communicate with people is key. If they come to us with a problem we help solve it. We never want to strain a relationship. If they come to me and say I have $5 to shoot this widget but we need $10, I will tell them and because of our relationship, they know I am trying my best to make it work. Honesty and transparency works for us. This works internally as well. I feel like I can go to Kelly at any time and tell her what is or isn’t working.
Does anyone here hear stories about people who are not good reps?
Everyone: Yes. Absolutely. Of course.
Matt Nycz: Over the years, I am sure we’ve all known of reps who have negative reputations for sure. Whether they are explosive, combative or difficult, this goes beyond just the one hard job or challenging client.
Heather Elder: I totally agree but would add that I think there is less room in our industry for that kind of drama.
Kelly Montez: I sometimes hear from new photographers that their rep wasn’t a strong communicator early on; they were surprised by unexpected invoices or the fact that they could never reach their rep. Photographers looking to change their agent(s) often have a long list of complaints.
Heather Elder: I am often surprised at how much some reps don’t do for their photographers. Or, even how they charge them for some services like portfolio management or editing and updating of websites. I want to help with every bit of marketing for the photographer, from image flow of a portfolio to images on the site to selection for ads. I am surprised by how many times I hear from a photographer that their previous rep didn’t want to do that.
When a client goes overboard to tell us how nice it was to work with us, I sometimes get the feeling that they feel compelled to tell us because they have had such bad experiences.
Kate, how do you define success?
Kate Chase: For a variety of reasons, I have evolved my agent role over the last few years. I now spend more time focused on the artists and their marketing plans as a way to ensure they’re more consistent when it comes to executing on their plans. This is new for Brite so ask me in 6 months if this is part of the success or not.
Kelly Montez: Marketing is so important. I have this conversation all of the time and I say, “I know you signed up to be a photographer, but at the end of the day you are a small business owner too.”
Matt Nycz: When we hosted the Community Table Photographers event it was interesting to watch the established photographers hear the younger photographers talk about how much time they put into their treatments and marketing and for them, it was a given, something they saw as expected of them and an opportunity. While the photographers with more experience had the luxury years ago of just letting their work speak for itself, that just isn’t the case anymore. It is a different industry that the newer photographers are accepting for what it is rather than longing for what it was.
They can no longer get by with creating a portfolio, giving it to a rep, take out an ad or two and expect to get a lot of work. Now, on top of everything we are doing to promote them, they have to market themselves constantly too.
Tim Mitchell: Can you repeat that? Louder?
Matt Nycz: PHOTOGRAPHERS HAVE TO MARKET ON THEIR OWN.
Look, this isn’t new information and photographers with more experience know they need to do this. It is just that the emerging talent is more eager to take it on.
Heather Elder: They don’t need to be taught to do it, or even convinced. They just know they have to do it. Marketing and promoting is part of their lives anyway. They are a social generation and none of this is new to them.
Matt Nycz: It has been great to see some of our more resistant photographers see the rewards from embracing the process. Once they get a taste of the success of their efforts it is exciting. When they get feedback from their efforts, it is the juice that keeps them going.
Over to you Heather, what is the secret to your success?
Heather Elder: I started in this business as an account executive at an ad agency. I think a lot of my success has to do with the insights I gained at an ad agency. And, agencies back then were operated differently than they do now but the dynamics and the work flow were similar.
And, I always said I was a translator then and I am a translator now. And, I think being successful is being able to translate photographer language into client language into art director language into art buyer language. I work hard to make sure everyone understands clearly what is happening and doing it by speaking their language.
The best job I ever had to prepare for this was being a waitress. By having to keep five tables going at the same time, all at a different point in their meal taught me a lot. I had to keep them happy at the same time as working well with the front of the house, the back of the house, the cooks, the bartenders; everyone needing something different to be successful. My compensation was based on how well I did that.
I look back on that time and am very appreciative for everything I learned. Couple that with my advertising experience and I feel like I have a strong recipe for success. And, I would go as far to say I think being a good translator is why we are all successful.
Sarah Laird: We are fixers.
Deb Schwartz, what is your key to success?
Deb Schwartz: If I look back to the beginning of my career, I had a clear vision of what I wanted my business to be. I stuck to my vision even during a difficult push back from photographers who were nervous that they all looked the same. And by sticking to my guns, I knew I could make it work.
Honesty and integrity are also very important, as well as hiring really great people. And, luckily I have found that. The continuity of always doing what we say we are going to do, being honest, and representing talent that we really believe in has always made the difference.
Janice, how about you?
Janice Moses: It is interesting to be last at this table because each and every one of you said something that really echoed with my experiences and yet not what I was going to say but exactly what I do.
Kate Chase: How many years have you been in the business?
Janice Moses: Today is my anniversary! And I am not telling how many years. Just know it is a lot. Decades.
To answer the question, I resonated with each and every one of you and your experiences. The things you all do are the things I do on a regular basis and are intuitive to me.
Before I became a rep, I did every behind the scenes job. I started out working for three photographers in the studio at Playboy Magazine. I was styling, casting, doing hair and makeup and building sets and getting wardrobe. Every single job behind the scenes that I have to hire for now, I have done. I became photo editor and creative director. I was producing centerfolds, working directly with Hugh Hefner and working 365 days a year. I was able to learn from a master the importance of details and perfection in print. I also worked for photographers who graduated from Art Center College of Art and Design who had tremendous concern for their craft, so I always made being detail-oriented a measure for me.
But when I started to rep and needed to get people to call me back in order to share with them what I was selling, it was quite a learning experience! My first three years in business I would give back in a minute. That was hard! But then, I started with a wonderful photographer and every job we did was magic and led to another job. I learned a great deal! In ’09 when things changed dramatically, I reinvented and expanded, moving with fewer photographers and into CGI, taking on two studios specializing in digital media. And after 7 years they have blossomed into two world-class studios.
And, like Sarah, I want to have very compelling relationships with my artists. I want to spend the holidays with them, I want to be in their lives. And, I have that. I just started with a new photographer and it is an exciting time because he is young and eager and excited himself. And, I have to say that some of what is guiding me with this new person is everything that is guiding all of you, I am not doing anything differently.
Do you have to be nurturing?
Janice Moses: (Smiles) Yes. Of course. That is why we are what we are. But I do know some other reps who think I am too nice and shouldn’t do that. Who knows, maybe it is a female thing. You would have to ask them. (looks in direction of Tim and Matt.)
Kate Chase: If you are not mindful, nurturing can sometimes tip into a time suck.
Matt Nycz: It is about making those conversations useful. Sometimes it is nurturing and sometimes it needs to be tough love.
Deb Schwartz: And, it is also knowing how many times you have had to have that conversation. When does it become enough is enough?
Matt Nycz: Exactly. Some of the most challenging conversations are about personal work. We like to get involved from the ground up on personal projects, particularly if they are designed to appeal to commercial clients. The challenging times are when a photographer works on their own for weeks and months on project and we know nothing of it. They are naturally excited to share it but sometimes those projects just are not marketable. Those are tough conversations as we know they put time and energy into the project but we are looking at it from different point of view. We encourage our artists to get them to come to us before they concept their projects rather than when the photo is done hoping we can market it. It comes down to defining goals and expectations of the project. If an artists wants to work on a fine art project or something that is a huge departure from their current work, I support the artistic drive to do so but we want them to understand that that work may not be something we will send to clients in a sales & marketing role.
Jen: I feel like I am there to help provide the photographer with perspective. I come from a very corporate background so that is what I offer for perspective. This is an over-generalization, but if a photographer is looking warm love or care they go to Kelly, but if they need to understand why an art producer hasn’t gotten back to us then I can explain to them the realities of corporate America, where there are many people who have their hands on a project. We need to remind the photographers that what they are shooting usually went through 6 months creative development. While a company is hiring you for your aesthetic, it still has to be commercially viable and I am here to help them walk that line. The people we represent are artists but they are working in a world that is asking them to make a square a square and sometimes the artist within them struggles with that.
Kelly Montez: It is then coaching them on how to have that conversation. My most successful artists have learned to ask the questions to get the results that they want. They have learned who the decision makers are, who wants to feel like the decision maker and how to navigate those politics. They are artists, but they are business owners too.
Heather Elder: Exactly, they are professional, commercial photographers. There is a business side to what they are doing. When they leave the mouse at your door and that mouse is not marketable, I explain to them that I can’t tell them if it is an awesome photo or not. I can tell them if I like it and I can tell them I if I can sell it and if it is commercially relevant. And if it isn’t relevant I am not going to say we can’t show it, because I am sure they love it. But I am going to tell them it won’t likely produce the results they need and hopefully help them adjust their expectations. Or, maybe it is time to rethink the bigger picture and determine if the photographer is going in a different direction.
Matt Nycz: We are hearing and talking a lot about staying on message now. We need to understand what the brand is for each photographer. We will absolutely foster creativity but at the same time if they expect to us to help them get work then we should be involved in the creation of the imagery.
Deb Schwartz: After doing this for so many years, what gives me the most joy is working with our photographers to help them to figure out what they need to do to be to stay relevant. I love that moment where after all of the conversations and planning, you see the work and you are blown away. And then that new work really takes off. In the end it is the work that defines success for me.
Janice Moses: And on top of all of that they have to be good on set.
Deb Schwartz: I have to say though that all of the conversations and planning and shooting that goes into getting a photographer to the point of getting the jobs where they have to perform on set is the best training for being good on set.
Sarah Laird: We spend a lot of time up front asking them about their expectations. We have long conversations before committing to a photographer, sharing what we think needs to be done and what tools we need. Once they sign on, we make sure they know that the clock cannot start ticking until they follow through with everything they’ve agreed upon. We cannot create change in a vacuum, without the tools. We document all of this to the point of scaring them. Sometimes I even say that it can take up to two years.
Tune in next for more information about what’s important in signing new talent as well what is top of mind of what we thought was important for an art producer to know about the bidding process that is most challenging for agents and photographers.
To see previous Community Tables posts, click here.
And, thank you Mark Laita for use of your imagery.