Over the summer, photographer Erik Almas shared a blog post about the relevancy of having an agent. I am all for starting important industry conversations and anyone who has read my blog or has listened to my Dear Art Producer podcast know that I do so thoughtfully and with the intent of educating. Which is why, even though I agree with many of the themes in Erik’s post, I think he missed an opportunity to move the photographer/rep relationship forward.
When Photo District News recently shared the post with a broader audience, I decided that I wanted to keep the conversation going and reply to the invitation to discuss “to Rep or Not to Rep.”
The industry is changing
Yes, the industry is changing. Drastically. And it isn’t just social media and motion, as those are just a few of the outcomes. It is at a much deeper level. Fundamentally, the entire marketing industry is undergoing a massive transformation, as it shifts from being media-driven to being technology-driven. Clients are struggling with customer loyalties, and marketers are under more pressure than ever. Brands are responding in many ways: beginning to take their creative in house and looking for solutions other than ad agencies for their creative projects. The ad agency model – where we have gotten most of our work over the years- is struggling to adapt as well. There are agency mergers and acquisitions from consulting companies which in turn scare the holding companies. Add to that the shift from analog to digital marketing and the movement from creative-driven solutions to metric-based solutions and our industry is in the throes of a major disruption. And we are along for the very bumpy ride.
Agents are not all the same
I agree it is ultimately the responsibility of the photographer to manage his or own business and not to rely on the agent only for work. The agent is not the leader or the savior but a partner and one part of an overall marketing plan that the photographer leads. How that partnership is defined will vary with each relationship. The keys are managing expectations and clear communication.
What that means is that everyone’s expectations and goals for the relationship will and can be different. So, by sharing a sweeping generalization that all agents are the same at the same time as questioning their relevance, does the entire industry a disservice. It is the equivalent of saying that because some people think “print is dead” then all photographers are irrelevant.
Like it or not, you’re a brand
I strongly believe that a photographer’s images can no longer speak for themselves. Instead, photographers need to act like brands to compete. On this point, I also agree with Erik. What branding means and how that is done is for another blog post.
Photographers interested in branding do not need to hire a branding company, a PR agency, or a talent manager that does not know them. We are in uncharted territory here. Just like with the social media and motion transitions, a photographer’s own agent is the one with the most relevant experiences, relationships and resources to advise the photographers they represent in ways photographers themselves or outside companies could not. The agent role indeed needs to evolve – and many of us have already. To suggest it is irrelevant or that a photographer shouldn’t consider their own agent for this new role is inaccurate, unfair, and dismissive to all the agents who are evolving.
Intentionally or not, Erik made the case for a Rep
Erik is an incredibly talented photographer and a savvy marketer, essential qualities in a successful, relevant commercial photographer. It surprised me when he wrote – without irony, “the jobs I am getting now are the result of 15 years I spent marketing my work and building my reputation.” He admitted that he hasn’t been marketing his brand for the past year. A startling admission and really unfortunate. I agree that it isn’t sustainable. He makes the point better than I ever could that his current business success is a result of 15 years of marketing. It’s certainly understandable because the photographer has to prioritize his craft and ideally let his trusted business partners focus on what they’re good at.
That speaks to the importance of relationship building, which any agent out there will tell you is the most critical tool in their toolbox. It is important to point out that when you are your own agent it would be impossible, given all the hats a photographer would have to wear, to have the same level, depth, and quality of relationships that reps have. And, that ultimately is what every negotiation, sales call, favor, and approved job is about for the agent.
This is not the case for the photographer. For him or her, it is about the work first. It makes me then curious about the dynamic between the self repped photographer and an art producer. Does the producer see the situation as favorable? Do they like talking with the photographer about money or other challenging conversations about the job? How would it affect long term prospects? These are essential unanswerable questions for someone considering representing themselves. Time and experiences will only tell.
The conversation isn’t about relevancy; it’s about evolution.
Every photographer and agent I know is rightfully concerned with how to stay relevant. So it isn’t a surprise that Erik wants to try something different. Being able to evolve is the key to success. I applaud the idea of making choices that work for him and happy that it is financially favorable. Not every photographer should have an agent, and frankly, not every photographer needs one.
What I do want to challenge is his opinion of an agent’s capabilities and the sharing of that opinion publicly, without talking about what the future photographer/agent relationship could look like. Erik is an influencer with 38k followers. He is also an educator. There is a responsibility that comes with posing a question to that large of an audience. What he shared will be read by all different levels of people in our industry; many of whom are struggling with the changes. Also, he is in a financial position to make decisions other photographers do not have the luxury to do. Many people will not be able to relate to his situation.
I think the conversation he started about relationship relevance should have been about relationship evolution. He could have gotten his followers and the PDN readers thinking about what the future photographer/agent relationship could look like. How could the future photographer/agent relationship move our industry forward? Instead, he dismissed the agents who are already working to evolve themselves and their photographers. He rejected those agents who rode alongside him from the beginning to advise, guide, consult with, listen to, and push him to be even just a little bit better.
What is the opportunity cost?
After reading and re-reading the post, I was left wondering if Erik truly grasped the nuances of the work that was happening around him during those 15 years that helped his talent to shine even more? Did he see that there was someone there who pushed him when he was a little uncomfortable? Or assured him when he was unsure? Did he realize that someone filtered what he wanted to say and translated it into agency language? Or made sure he felt heard? Did he miss that someone had a hard conversation on his behalf so that he could concentrate on the creative? Or most importantly that there was someone with him every step of the way, good and bad so that he could become his own next best self?
It’s Erik’s prerogative to do what he wants. I’m glad he’s been happy with sustaining his revenue and not paying a commission. There are plenty of people who don’t want to pay an accountant, a lawyer or a real estate agent for their expertise and do the work themselves and are perfectly fine with the outcomes. The question I’d ask is, what is the opportunity cost? How much growth – and not just financial – would Erik have seen with the right partner? One of my photographers always says that I carry his karma, so I am wondering if Erik realized someone was carrying his?