Expert Advice: Finding A Rep

- - Expert Advice

By Craig Oppenheimer, Wonderful Machine

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 making pictures and have someone else find them assignments. But what’s it really like to have a rep and how close does that dream match up with reality? Mark Winer from The Gren Group and former rep Melissa Hennessy were kind enough to help me separate fact from fiction.

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 they 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. Finding the right match, where your interests, goals and expectations align, 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. I asked Melissa and Mark:What should photographers be looking for in a relationship with a rep?

Melissa: “An industry partner who will help them define their branding, marketing, and growth potential, as well as someone who can help them edit their work, inspire, and motivate them to keep making great pictures. Photographers are able to create so much more when they don’t have to carry the weight of other aspects of the business on their shoulders”

Mark: “Well, I hope they are not looking for the holy grail. I sometimes think that photographers believe finding a rep is the key to their success, which it is not. That is when the real hard work starts.”

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. We have an extensive list of them on our Resources page. Rob Haggart of APhotoEditor has a great list, and you can find reps by looking through source books like at-edge.

Some rep’s websites don’t say exactly what aspects of your business they will offer support for, so you’ll need to contact appropriate reps directly to start the conversation. Narrow down your search by finding reps who work with photographers of your caliber, genre and geographic area. Send a thoughtful email to the person who handles photographer inquiries explaining a little bit about yourself and your business and what you like about them. Then follow up with a phone call. Don’t be discouraged if every rep isn’t clamoring to sign you right away. Even conversations that end in a “no” will help inform your search so you can get closer to a “yes” the next time.

How should a photographer approach you, and how do you decide if a photographer is right for you?

Melissa: “They should review the agent’s roster on his/her site and be able to answer the question of why they’d be a good fit for the group. Personal phone calls and individual emails are best, along with a PDF of 5-10 images. I look at the work first. It has to be consistent, have a definitive point of view, and be commercially applicable. After the work, I look at the photographer’s personality. I like to work with people who are driven and always looking forward.”

Mark: “If you’re just beginning your career, for example, you may be better off focusing on a smaller or mid-sized agency. And if your focus is on fashion and beauty, you should pursue an agent who shares that vision. Also, be patient and do research – take your time to find the right agent. You are much better off searching when you have some momentum on your side – a good rep will probably want you to bring some clients to the partnership. Most importantly, the work needs to fit within our niche, which is location, lifestyle and portrait work. And we also ask that the photographer have a good track record of producing national advertising campaigns. Most of our photographers had already had success on their own before joining The Gren Group.”

What about commissions and contracts?

Each rep will have their own approach to their photographer agreements, but 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 a project. Your contract should clearly specify what percentage the rep gets and what percentage the photographer gets. It also has to specify what 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? We find that reps typically get between 20% and 30% of the fees they negotiate for their photographers. For Paula, that means on anything that is not reimbursed by the client as an expense. Mark says their commission (25%) is taken from “creative, usage, travel, prep, and tech scout fees.”

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. I’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 describes her philosophy on exclusivity:

I’ve been fortunate that every photographer I have worked with truly understands the value of the partnership and brings any project to my attention that he/she was contacted directly for. With social media and both photographer and agent consistently promoting the work in a variety of platforms, it’s rare that an artist brings in a project solely on his/her own, unless it truly was a new connection or referral. Most of my artists’ projects were larger productions, far greater than what any one person could have handled, so every project was a team effort, regardless of where it originated. That may sound odd to a photographer, but if you know your agent is out there working for you every day with your best interest at heart, you’ll have no issue with paying commissions.”

3. Responsibilities:

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?

Mark: “Our philosophy is to Keep It Simple! We pay for all our 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 – we offer to cover the mailing costs if they wish. We also do several large ‘group’ direct mail booklets each year, of which we do ask photographers to share some of the expense. We are involved in all the estimating and negotiating, and oversee most of the production. Since we specialize in location and travel work, there is usually a lot of production involved and we almost always hire a producer.”

Melissa: “My initial involvement begins with deciding on what goes in the book/portfolio, and who we will target or want to work with. From there we’ll decide on the marketing approach.  When we’re asked to bid a project, I prepare the estimates working closely with a producer (if budget allows) and review it with the artist before submitting to the client. I will also place crews on hold if the artist is on a job or out of the office. Once the job is awarded, I handle the advances, purchase orders, and other necessary paperwork, and the production aspects are handed over to the producer or photographer.  I still oversee the process as the liaison between the client and our team.”

For both Mark and Paula, the clients pay the photographers directly and then the photographers then pay the rep their share (and send along copies of receipts of 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.

4. Termination

Sometimes a relationship doesn’t work out 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 parted ways?

Melissa: “Most agents have a severance clause that stipulates that the photographer continues to pay a “severance fee” for six months plus one month for every year they are under contract. So if they’ve worked together for 5 years, the severance would be 11 months. Assuming the relationship has been in effect for at least a year, the severance is calculated by adding the total commissions paid in the prior year, divided by 12.  That amount is then considered the monthly “severance” payable to the agent every 30 days until the severance period expires.”

Mark: “We really have no specific rules on who owns the client relationship after the partnership. In general, I would say that it’s driven by the client. If the photographer has the better relationship with the creative director, then he or she can certainly take that client. If the agent and the art buyer have a great bond, then the rep can continue cultivating that relationship. I would say our contract is more of a good faith agreement. It is meant to lay the foundation for what is expected on both sides, with room for negotiation. Although there are spaces for signatures, we do not require them to be signed. Our photographers are free to leave whenever they like, with no penalty or grace period for commissions. We do not expect future commissions from clients we may have helped them obtain, just as we would not pay them a fee for a client they may have helped us obtain. In general, we believe that a strong rep/photographer partnership is based on trust, communication and shared ideals and no amount of paperwork or legal mumbo jumbo can replace that.”

All of the above elements are typically detailed in a contract. Many contracts are very detailed, long, and full of legal terms. However, to my surprise, Mark said his contract is more of a “handshake on paper” and is a simple document that outlines their general agreement. Mark was kind enough to supply a copy to me:

click to enlarge 

This one-page contract is pretty straightforward and easy to digest. But it may be the exception to the rule. Recently one of our photographers shared a contract for a different rep that as you’ll see, is quite different:

click to enlarge 

This 9-page document covers everything from their commission percentage to payment terms if a photographer dies. As you see, it’s quite elaborate and specific.

No matter what your agreement looks like, it’s important that you understand the relationship you’re entering into. Also, I recommend that you ultimately have your attorney review your agreement prior to signing it.

[Footnote: There used to be an organization called the Society Of Photographers And Artists Representatives. But their website spar.org seems to be disabled. Anyone know if they're still around?]

This post was created by the fine folks at Wonderful Machine.

There Are 15 Comments On This Article.

  1. Agents will imply that their contracts are standard and that everyone in their group has signed them. Don’t believe it. If an agent wants you they’ll be flexible with terms (of course, it depends on how much they want you).

    Before you sign a contract with a severance clause do some math. Map out a good year, AND a bad year, then see how much money you’d be paying your agent to leave. Do you really want to pay a penalty for leaving an agent that isn’t working out for you? It’s really a bizarre request.

    • A very good point Chris,

      It is a bit surprising how some agents will try to slip this in like it’s somehow completely normal. This actually is the first I’ve ever heard of it. Considering that many photographers are bringing clients with them to the equation, who’s to say that the severance should in fact be paid to the photographer?

  2. I don’t understand why photographers feel the need to seek out a Rep. Why would you willingly look for someone who is going to take 25-30 percent of your money. If an agent really wants you, they will seek you out and know how to make you more money.

    If a tricky negotiation situation comes up call a few photo friends and get some advice. When a Rep takes 25 percent of your money for spending 1 hour on a contract you will feel stupid and you will start to resent them. Especially when you KNOW you got the job through your own connection. They say it’s hard to know where the relationship came from, that’s bullshit. You will always know how the client found you.

    Signed- A happy independent photographer who once had a rep.

    • This. It’s like bringing a partner into the business – it IS bringing a partner into the business – it has to make sense financially and from a business perspective. If you’re overwhelmed with work, and/or the work is not of the caliber you are capable of creating, and the math works out, then a rep may make sense, as long as its the right one.

      Too many novice photographers think just having a rep is a golden ticket to riches. It is certainly not. Lately I’ve gotten some e-mails from questionable “reps” that seems to have a lot of novice photographers on their rosters and for low monthly web fees + a commission will “rep” you. They also rarely reply to questions about average billings and recent marketing campaigns.

  3. Amanda Villanova

    Hi Rob,

    Thank you for this very informative post. Just wondering…I tried to enlarge the second contract and I could not, or could I dowload it. Would you be so kind as to make it downloadable or be able to enlarge all 9 pages. This would be a godsend to me, and I would be so appreciative. THANK YOU!!!

  4. I have been a commercial photographer with a rep for over 10 years. I didn’t, and wouldn’t ever, sign a severance or “sunset” clause like that. This is not standard practice, though it is common. I hope this changes as photographers stop agreeing to it.

  5. 1) The severance clauses that ask for 6 month + 1 month per year are unconscionable and ultimately unenforceable. However, litigating is quite expensive. I know this because my partner went through it with one of the biggest agencies some years ago.

    We signed with another large agency and their severance clause asks for commissions from clients they bring to the table for a specific period of time depending on the length of service. No jobs from their clients after leaving no commissions. Fair and reasonable. (And a most reps will wave commissions on those accounts for a similar period at the inception)

    2) As an art producer I never bid a photographer that did not have a rep unless they are very well know to me. For example, years ago James Wojik did not have a rep for a while and we bid him. It is next to impossible to land advertising work that pay day rates of 5 figures without a rep. Not impossible, next to impossible. Generally photographers that do not have reps have had reps in the past to get them in the door. I cant think of anyone I have ever booked that never had a rep.

    3) They day a photographer does not have to worry about finding assignments and marketing because they got their dream rep is the day they are Bruce Weber or Annie Leibovitz or one of about a dozen other photographers in the world. It never stops!

    I could probably name 20 photographers who once booked high six to seven figures who cannot get a job but would like to, but that is another conversation.

  6. always_turning_away_rep_offers

    I’ll be damned if I’m giving up cash on my current business. I spent YEARS building these relationships. One greaseball wanted a piece of my stock action too!

    • I’ve had the exact same thing before – demands for a percentage of my stock photography income.