Ask Anything – Dropping Your Agent

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Former Art Buyers and current photography consultants Amanda Sosa Stone and Suzanne Sease have agreed to take anonymous questions from photographers and not only give their expert advice but put it out to a wide range of photographers, reps and art buyers to gather a variety of opinions. The goal with this column is to solicit honest questions and answers through anonymity.

QUESTION:
What’s the standard protocol for dropping a rep? I feel like I’m about to tell my spouse that I’m filing for divorce. I’m almost terrified to do it in person, and I’m not shy. I have been getting an increasingly unpleasant vibe from my agent and I’m just not comfortable with the way he represents me. I want the face of my “brand” to photo editors and art buyers to be someone I am proud of, not someone I’m embarrassed about. I am mostly paranoid that this agent will talk shit on me to his network for dropping him. I know I’m supposedly “their boss” but I also don’t want to burn any bridges either. I’d love to hear from other people on how they went about the rep switch, and about having to pay commissions to the old rep for a certain number of months (is this normal?) after they parted ways. Hearing it from the agents’ perspective would be great too…

Amanda and Suzanne:
We have consulted with photographers and reps around the world and helped them with this very dilemma. Many photographers are looking for agents, here is some insight in the world of having an agent.

ANSWERS:

PHOTOGRAPHER’s AGENT:
I do not think the photographer is a reps “boss.” They should be working together as a team. I do not think you should get rid of a rep or a rep should not get rid of a photographer without first trying to address and work out the problem.

PHOTOGRAPHER’s AGENT:
In my opinion, the more honest and straightforward you are in any relationship, the better. I’ve always maintained that if a relationship is not working for one of the parties, then the relationship is not working! I would question the statement of this photographer, “I’m supposedly their boss.” In 22 years, I’ve never had a relationship where the photographers considered themselves my “boss.” We are partners, and the most successful photographer / rep relationships are the ones in which there is collaboration and mutual respect.

PHOTOGRAPHER’s AGENT:
Ahhhh…the old “to have” or “have not” an exit strategy established before ending a rep/photog relationship.

Sounds like there isn’t one in place here (that has been discussed or possibly in writing). Point that should be
noted for “next time.”

In my experience with three agencies the standard protocol has varied, but typically the artist/rep first has a
“come to Jesus” conversation to discuss “unpleasant vibe” or like topics that either will clear the air with
some ways for improvement i.e see how it goes over the next few months etc. or it’s decided that the relationship
has run it’s course.

If it’s the latter, then an exit strategy should be discussed, put in writing & signed by each of the respective parties.
This can/should vary depending on how contentious or cordial the potential split is.

This allows for clear communication with neither party getting a strong (bullying) upper hand. It’s business.

Points to be included in the exit agreement could include:

o what date the relationship will formally end.
o when & how portfolios/promo-materials etc. are retrieved by the agent & returned to the artist.
o how long the artist will remain on the website.
o outstanding monies owed i.e. artist to rep for expenses are discussed for payment.
o outstanding jobs or existing negotiations are discussed, completed & billed.
o period that after the relationship formally ends that the agent can collect commission on jobs.
(Typically this is included in all boiler plate contracts) but I have seen it range from 3 months – 1 year.
o List (or not) of clients that these monies can be collected from – including reuse scenarios (which is key).

A separate piece of the exiting strategy should involve a written & signed cease & desist about speaking
professionally i.e. not badly about either party (with ramifications) – again, depending upon the tone of the split.
With the growing use & trends of social media, this should also include emails, FB, LinkedIn, twitter, tumblr etc.

While there is always some fall out, I still believe that cream rises to the top but it pays to keep quiet and professional.
Very common practice in corporate America.

Another thought:
Writing an email (artist/rep) that gets circulated by the rep to the artist group, key clients, trade sources etc. briefly explaining
that x&y will no longer be working together. Wish each other well etc. It’s a good PR/political measure that again keeps both parties
accountable & professional.

ESTABLISHED PHOTOGRAPHER:
Dropping an agent should be done respectfully and honestly. The photographer owes the agent time to develop a relationship with potential clients and the body of work. If the agent cannot sell the vision of the photographer it may be a mismatch worth exploring new agents who do have a shared vision of how to market and how to sell that vision. A review of progress or lack of should be discussed and openly analyzed. If it is beneficial to split, I think this should be done gracefully and respectfully. There is no reason to berate or condemn a person when ending the relationship; simply on a personal level it is not helpful or necessary. I would review the contract, agree on terms for termination and gracefully move on. If you can say it don’t write it.

ESTABLISHED PHOTOGRAPHER:
I got some advice from a lawyer friend at the time I started working with my ex agent, “It’s easier to get into a business relationship than it is to get out of one.” Certainly true in my case….

From the description, I have to say though it appears some of the anxiety this person is facing is self-inflicted.

Mistake 1: Working with someone who you’re embarrassed about and feel you can’t trust.

Mistake 2: Working with someone on an extended basis without a contract and / or clear compensation and severance terms.

Mistake 3: Thinking you’re “the boss” of your agent. I think most good reps would view it as they work with you, not for you…. more of a partner in your business than an employee…

ESTABLISHED PHOTOGRAPHER:
There is no standard protocol. It’s a very difficult situation and yes it’s like a break up.
From my experience, be honest, say it’s time for you to move on, and keep repeating that it’s nothing personal. It’s business. Keep in mind that any rep who talks shit about any photographer will reflect more on the rep than you. Those days are over when you can get away with stuff like that. As far as commissions are concerned, it depends on how well or badly the break up goes. If he takes it like a professional then work something out. If he acts like a child, then break it off cleanly and move on.

Remember, it’s your career and an agent represents you. You are in charge not them.

ESTABLISHED PHOTOGRAPHER:
Ending a relationship with a rep is a lot like breaking up. First let’s deal with the money. It is always advised that you get in writing how the commissions will be handled in the event of a split when you first sign your agreement to work together. Splits do happen and getting it in writing makes the split cleaner.

I once had a rep who used to burst into the studio at the last minute grabbing misc samples and tearsheets on the way to an appointment she had set up for another of her photographers, saying she thought it was a good opportunity to show my work. She also tended to wear very loud color clothing and too much perfume. This was really not my style, as I am very organized, prepare my work beautifully, and tend to be understated.

This person, did not “represent” me or my work well, and I ended it after a short time of working together.

In your case, if everything has been handled professionally from the beginning, and you have legitimate reasons for moving on, and have had decent communication along the way, I don’t think an agent would talk bad about anyone who has split with them. It’s also a bad reflection on them to do so, unless everyone knows you’ve been a jerk.

I wouldn’t worry about it, just move on and set things up better next time.

ESTABLISHED PHOTOGRAPHER:
Its happened to me a few times.
Best way to go about is to not get personal- it is like a divorce, but there is no need for either type of breakup to ever get ugly.
Just say you think you have different goals and it’s not working out. Don’t point fingers, or dig up anything from the past (or worse, drag other people into it) just that you think it’s time to make a change.
As far as compensation, if you don’t have a contract commission on any account you’ve worked with while with the rep seems fair. In my case I had an account that shot once a year, and the next shoot fell well outside our parting but I felt the rep was owed that, in the spirit of the agreement, and paid the commission.
Remember that it’s a small community and word gets around, so chose yours carefully and take the high road whenever possible.
If they “talk shit” that is often taking as coming from someone that is bitter, and will only make them look bad. Don’t worry about it.
It is possible the rep will take on someone that does the same thing you do, so don’t sit back and think those clients will have any loyalty. It’s a good time to send out a promo or make some calls and let people know you are rep-less, this will combat anything the old rep might say about you being out of business, and you might pick up some clients that like your work but hated your rep.
I’m still friends with all of my old reps (and ex wives and girlfriends too) and while the relationship will change they call still be a valuable part of your business. Take the high road, do the right thing, and part as friends.

To Summarize:
Having a rep is like being married. It’s a relationship based on trust and respect, but you both have to be attracted to one another (to the same work we mean). Since one of us was a former rep – we know what’s it’s like to have those break ups. Have a GOOD contract in hand and discuss those WHAT IF’s before getting into your relationship with one another (and make sure everything discussed is in writing). Like a marriage or any relationship – they all end eventually – some on good terms (like retirement) and some not so good (death, divorce, infidelity – and yes there is many times infidelity happens in rep/photographer relationships – again “Project Infidelity” we mean). Our favorite line from this is: “If you can say it don’t write it.” If you can openly communicate – you should have a good relationship.

Call To Action:
If you are looking at getting an agent – write a list of qualities you are looking for in an agent. Then when you find that agent, discuss your needs and wants from them – listen to theirs. Then review contract and make sure those items are itemized and documented. Have both of your exit plans clearly stated. GOOD LUCK!

If you want more insight from Amanda and Suzanne you can contact them directly (here and here) or tune in once a week or so for more of “Ask Anything.”

There Are 13 Comments On This Article.

  1. There is a lot than can be read between the lines of the base question. It’s hard to offer meaningful advice without some knowledge of the actual circumstances here.

    If the desired result is a amicable separation, the photographer needs to have a detailed discussion with the agent to outline the issues and agree on a course of action. A “bad vibe” isn’t a good justification for ending a business relationship. The photographer needs to document specific issues, preferably with examples, for why he is no longer happy with his agent and then assess the agents’ response. If this has been a long term relationship, and the agent is willing to make changes to his handling of this photographer, I think the photographer needs to give the agent a chance to improve. For example, agree to a six-month “get well” period then reassess the relationship. The best outcome is for both sides to agree a change is necessary. Just calling the rep and saying “you’re fired” is probably going to guarantee bad blood.

    It’s certainly possible there is a mirror-image question floating around the Internet from a rep wondering how to dump a photographer who is becoming increasingly difficult to place. Since we don’t have the rep’s side of this story it’s impossible to determine who is right, or whether the photographers’ dissatisfaction is justified. I really think there needs to be a frank discussion between the rep and photographer to air the issues. And the photographer might test the waters with other agents to see if there is interest and a “better vibe.”

    Unless there is some specific contract verbiage that states otherwise, I would suspect the photographer would only owe commissions for any work negotiated by the old agent (sure that could involve several months worth of payments depending on the circumstances). Commissions for new engagements would be paid to the new agent. That doesn’t seem like a big issue.

  2. I recently parted ways with my rep & had similar feelings in the pit of my stomach for months leading up to the breakup. I’m a pretty loyal guy, so it was tough to look at them and admit out loud that the relationship wasn’t working.

    I have a great amount of respect for them (obviously, I signed with them for a reason) – but staying with them wasn’t good for them or me.

    I did sit down with them a couple of months prior and let them know my thoughts & expectations and they shared theirs. It was a good, healthy conversation. But, in my circumstance, it didn’t correct the problems. However, it enabled me to point back to what I’d shared and say, “as I told you, my expectations were this & this and it seems that we aren’t on the same page.”

    And with any kind of collaborative relationship – both business & personal relationships – you have to be on the same page.

  3. Just to play the devil’s advocate here, since all the advice above exists in a world where everyone communicates well and gets along and wants to be friends. Yes that place does exist but there is obviously no money involved.

    Trust and respect are things that exist in a healthy relationship, but if you’re definitely going to leave, and there is money on the table, all bets are off. Hopefully you have a good contract that outlines the terms of separation, in which case everything is nice and easy and can remain ‘business.’

    If you don’t have a contract, and there is money involved, things can get ugly. DO NOT try to negotiate terms of separation with your agent when leaving them. That would be like asking your lawyer-spouse to negotiate the terms of the divorce. Not only will things get personal, you will get buried, because an agent is a professional negotiator, that’s why you have them in the first place, because photographers are generally terrible at those things.

    Step 1 – Don’t say anything – the reasons for leaving could be completely irrational or unfounded. Doesn’t matter. You’ve made up your mind for better or for worse. Now you need to get a lawyer to protect yourself. Someone who knows or at least understands the business. Entertainment lawyers are good at this because they do similar things for other types of artists. Discuss with them a course of action, in most cases this involves deciding what kind of severance you would prefer to work out.

    Step 2- Tally up a detailed list of all outstanding invoices, all future jobs on the books, how much money that represents. You need to know just what is at stake.

    Step 3 – Have the lawyer draft a letter that explains in simple terms that you are moving on and would like to work out a mutually agreeable separation. Have the lawyer vet all the correspondence. This can be a difficult time because lots of mean things can be thrown back and forth. Never address those directly, just keep a calm head and remember that it is the money talking, and this is all part of the negotiating process.

    Step 4 – Reach an agreement that dictates the terms of severance, much as a contract would, and have both parties sign it. Basically you’re signing a contract at the end of the relationship, which is why you need to be cautious, prudent, and have solid legal advice. Make sure it includes everything such as who will handle production on jobs that are already on the books, how calls will be directed, every little detail down to the box of promos you’d like returned to you. The contentious issue is how long the agent should receive commission on accounts – should it be only on jobs that they booked? should it be on clients they found, for a limited time? All accounts? 6 months is fairly normal, but not required.

    Step 5 – Inform your clients that you either have new representation, or no longer have representation. Do not address the past at all. And that’s it!

    I’ve been through a couple of messy severances, one with no contract, and another with a contract that was vague enough to cause issues. In both cases, there were moments where things got ugly, but in the end everything worked out well, and I still count the other parties as friends and business colleagues, and would hope they feel the same way. That’s just it – if you navigate a separation with grace and professionalism, you’ll walk away with respect intact. Nothing is personal, nothing. Even if it appears to get dangerously personal, remember that it is a ruse, a negotiating tactic, and it will pass as soon as all the money is divvied up. The agent will get someone to replace you and pitch them to your clients. You’ll get a new agent and do the same. Hopefully your clients like you for your photos, and not for your agent.

    • @Cletus
      That’s an interesting, and well documented, perspective. I’m sure there are cases (i.e., when there is a lot of money on the table that might be disputed) where this approach is the correct course.

      I think the downside is there could be a significant hit to your image if you go nuclear. This market segment isn’t really that big and word gets around. I think you need to be very confident you are in the right before taking this course of action. Otherwise you might win the legal battle but gain a reputation for being a total dick — especially if your agent has a great reputation in the industry.

      There are so many details missing from the original question it’s really impossible to reach a conclusion on the best approach. Clearly there is more to this case than a photographer wakes up one morning and feels a bad vibe emanating from the general direction of his agent.

      • @Tom,

        This is a common mistake – retaining legal counsel is not even close to the nuclear option. In fact having a good lawyer means you’re in a better position to avoid any kind of suit. Not only that, the lawyer is a shield for your reputation. After all is said and done you can take your old agent out for a drink and say ‘it was mostly my lawyer’s fault.’ Wouldn’t you rather them get dragged through the mud than yourself?

        Also, just because the original question was vague and uninformed doesn’t mean that the question isn’t valid. All photographers may be unhappy in their own separate way, but it is a real issue even for people who have good cause to leave an agent. Lest things devolve into fisticuffs (true story).

  4. This photographer actually thinks he is the boss of his rep?? With that kind of attitude I don’t think he deserves a rep at all.

  5. I do not understand why a photographer would ever sign with an agent he is “embarrassed about”. What does that say about the photographer? And I might point out that there is not a photographer out there who is the “boss” of their agent.
    As pointed out above, this should be all about teamwork, otherwise it is bound to fail from day one.

    Also, we do work with a detailed contract which spells out severance so there are no
    questions about it. Because sooner or later, everyone moves on and a professional contract enables people to do so in a civilized manner.

  6. From my experience I believe that no matter what the particulars of a photographer/rep divorce, the level of stress and financial strain of the break-up is directly related to the emotional maturity and integrity of the people involved.

    Most of my professional artist “marriages” lasted multiple decades but I did endure a few break-ups. In thirty years of repping artists I got to experience every possible variation of professional beginnings and endings. Over time, I discovered there was no single answer as to how to best forge a long-lasting business agreement and insure a stress-free ending.

    Creative people tend to have a healthy amount of gut wisdom. I believe that when they rely on it, are flexible, and have good intentions, they can create anything.

    The “Beginnings” of my talent/rep relationships ranged from a handshake agreement that lasted 26 years, to a multi-page contract that clearly outlined every aspect of our relationship including termination.

    The few “Endings” ranged from mostly amiable mutual partings (“It was fun. Thanks for everything. Good luck”) to a contentious lawsuit that had a contract and which took a few years to settle.

    Bottom line: The agreement is only as good as the integrity and emotional maturity of the people involved–including the lawyers!

  7. This is a hard topic. I represent photographers and most of my relationships have been very tight, though professional. But that said, if you feel things are “strange” or “strained” in the relationship it is likely the rep does too. I say honesty is the best policy and make sure your legal contract is in place. When I take on a new artist I always say, “It’s like a marriage,” and I don’t say that lightly. Money, emotion, highs and lows are all tied into the relationship which makes things complicated. Dismantling all of that is like a divorce. Good luck. http://www.sallyreps.com.