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
I am wondering if we might hear from some reps, consultants and photographers about what they think the rough breakdown is for rep commissions and what a photographer should be expecting in return for these fees. I currently pay 25% of my fees on jobs my agent negotiates. My rep is not participating in social media AT ALL and is often unavailable to do quotes leaving me to either do them myself or revise them myself if I want the deal closed. I am not entirely sure how many meetings they go on every month, but would love opinions on what I could reasonable expect here. I am also not sure there is much beyond e-promos being done on my agent’s part, I do a LOT of my own promotion and do not rely on my agent for much in that department. Since I am very active in promotion myself we are often bidding with clients I have been pursuing through my own efforts for years before I started working with my agent. Perhaps this is just one of the many struggles of the photog/rep relationship but I am wondering at what point I ask about a percentage reduction if I can’t get certain things from my agent, and what might some others in the industry feel those standards are?
Amanda and Suzanne:
Having a rep requires open communication. Does a rep relationship change over time, of course it does. But you have to both have an understanding of what each of you will do. Many of our clients assume that marketing can cease once a rep comes into play. In our opinion, a rep’s goal #1 is to be there to negotiate, projects and land the job. A rep’s 2nd goal is to help you keep up your exposure, but it’s a role that is not one sided, both parties need to commit to a plan that works for everyone.
While every agent/artist relationship is different, the one thing that is constant is that you are partners working toward a mutually beneficial goal. You are a team and there are times each one needs to help the other. It is reasonable to expect your agent to go on appointments and be available for estimates. There is no set number of meetings every month and getting appointments is much harder than it used to be (many creative shops are limiting portfolio reviews to once or twice a year).
As for social media & other forms of promotion, it sounds like you both need to have a conversation and discuss/define each others expectations and who’s handling what. If after that, there is no clear cut definition, then a percentage reduction is probably not the answer. It might be time to sever the relationship.
As I am sure you know, every rep/photographer relationship is different. It is important to discuss expectations at the onset of the partnership. These questions should have been answered prior to the agreement. That being said, I think it is critical that the agent be involved in the estimating and negotiating process. If your agent is good, this is where they earn their commission. I find it strange that the agent in question is not involved during those critical times. As an agent, I love this part of the job and know that I create a lot of value for my artists in this area. Rather than a percentage reduction, I would suggest a serious discussion regarding responsibilities and expectations. Even if the agent in question agreed to a percentage reduction, I would imagine that their level of commitment and actual work for you as an artist would subsequently be “reduced.” If a discussion doesn’t work or is not desirable, it may be time to look for a new rep. Good luck!
Regarding our respective obligations, we first and foremost view our relationship with all of our talent as a collaborative one and feel that to be successful, we must have great communication, mutual trust, a shared vision and a firm belief in the value of both parties’ contributions towards realizing that vision. We are fortunate to have had longer lasting relationships with our talent than normal in this business and are quite proud of that fact. While there have been and will be challenges, we’ve worked through them due to our shared interests, respect and trust.
We strive for excellent communication and complete transparency with regards to what we are doing on our talent’s behalf. To that end, we provide quarterly call report summaries to each party detailing all of the calls that we received pertinent to them, the source of the calls (if that can be ascertained) and the results. In addition, we also provide follow up summaries after all of our portfolio shows, specifying where we went and who saw the work. We also encourage anyone in the group who is free and interested, to join us for the shows (locally or out-of-town).
Our financial arrangement is consistent with all of our photographers, as we feel that a common agreement is most fair. Our commission is 25% of all negotiated fees (travel/prep/shoot/post) and any retouching fees not being expensed to either an outside or studio staff person. We are the exclusive representatives for all of our photographers in North America, and worldwide for those who don’t have international representation. We would assume the same would apply to you, specific to your print/still photography business. We are also interested in bringing you motion projects, and given your relationship with outside production companies, need to work out the specifics on how that might work to the satisfaction of all.
Our photographers cover 100% of any individual marketing efforts they do or have us do on their behalf, plus the cost of creating and updating their portfolios/sites and any general mailing/shipping specific to them.
Historically, out of pocket expenses for each talent have been in the $8k -11K range per year, but have been reduced significantly lately as everyone is more concerned about expenses. Whatever the budget ends up being, payments are spread out over time, so there aren’t any major surprises. Of course, I get everyone’s approval prior to making any group marketing commitment, and they all have input along the way.
We see the AGENCY’s primary responsibilities are as follows:
- To build awareness for our photographers’ work through consistent and well-coordinated direct sales, promotion and PR efforts.
- To identify and pursue market opportunities for individual photographers as feasible.
- To develop production budgets with input from photographers and producers and negotiate those budgets with the clients to which they apply.
- To review all contracts/purchase orders and handle all billing and administration duties related to our photographers’ productions.
- To provide timely feedback/input from our sales activities, in-coming calls and pertinent results.
- To provide input on portfolio imagery.
- To aid in the development and execution of any individual marketing efforts done in addition to the group campaigns we coordinate.
Our photographers’ primary responsibilities are:
- To maintain updated, professional portfolio materials (individual and group books).
- To provide a minimum number of portfolios needed to meet market demands.
- To provide timely updates to their individual web sites, and rep website.
- To provide the necessary files and and proofs for any promotional efforts we coordinate, in a timely manner.
- Oh yeah! – to handle the communication and creative challenges of high level advertising productions with great aplomb!
In addition to all of the above, the only other item we need to discuss is whether or not we will be involved with any of your existing/current clients or “house accounts”, and either way, detailing who they are and how we intend to work with them. Normally, I would a define a “current client or house account” as someone with whom you’ve worked with within the past six months, or on a regular basis over a longer period of time, but am open to your interpretation.
Obviously every relationship is different but it is important to communicate with each other regularly. Both photographers and agents wear so many more hats these days and must keep up with the new frontier, which includes social media. Both need to get on this bandwagon, but need to coordinate their efforts. Coordination with emails blasts, social sites, portfolio shows and estimating projects is so very important.
Both photographers and agents need to speak up if either feels something is missing. It sounds like this artist is pissed but may not be expressing his concerns to his rep. This is the first think you need to do. NOW! Frankly I can’t understand the quote thing. That’s what we live for. Maybe it’s time for a new relationship? A fee reduction, no matter who’s offering it, is always insulting.
PHOTOGRAPHER WITH AGENT:
I’m sure others will say, a rep relationship is like any other partnership, including marriage, and is based on trust and mutual respect. Without these things there isn’t much you can count on. I am working with my second rep, the first was not successful in my eyes based upon their lack of participation in promoting their own brand (and therefore my brand) outside of email blasts. They did not seem to have a plan for marketing and advertising but instead saw the possibility of success based upon adding more talent to their roster, cheating their current core talent of resources already in shortage.
With the second rep, it is the polar opposite. There is a strong communication, dollars invested in making our target audience aware of our talents, and respect for ideas expressed.
I have also seen the rep relationship up close when working as an assistant. What I have come to expect is that the talent and the rep should all be contributing to the marketing efforts, and it costs money for everyone. As far as I know 25% is still the norm though I have seen 30%. A photographer cannot expect a rep to handle all of these costs or efforts, and neither can a rep expect the photographer to do it alone (otherwise why would you need a rep?). Once you have a rep, you still have to be as diligent as ever in keeping contacts alive and well.
The contract that my ex agent had drawn up spelled out everything I had to pay for, but didn’t specify what they would do. We went on to have a successful run for quite awhile, but it was never spelled out specifically what they would do other than generalities like “best efforts” or “best judgment”…. that was a mistake. Seems like that could be the source of your problem in that it’s not mutually clear what their responsibilities are. I think what you’re describing is reaching the point where it’s time to move on. If your confidence in them is questioned, it’s tough to rebuild that through revising compensation. Once you start taking money away through less of a commission, you’re removing incentive. What makes you think they will be equally or more motivated by working for less money?
What I would expect from a rep is the same thing I expect in a relationship with a significant other. Honesty, Integrity, an ally, loyalty, protection. When I was with my old agent I felt I was easily sold out. More like someone to fill in a hole. It was more about him and the photo editor/art buyer then me and the work. I once had to call a client to tell them sorry the job had been under bid by my agent and could not be done for that fee. Then I had to rewrite the estimate. A huge chunk of change taken out, but I was not able to buy into their health insurance plan. I had to pay for photo insurance and all expenses up front, yet any type of mark up was frowned upon. I had to find my own support staff, i.e. assistants, stylists and do all of the billing which they retyped up. Managed rights were caved in on faster then a mine in Chile. In the end reps know 98 % of us are disposable and they get what they can out of us. I found more empathy/ support comes from art directors and other creatives.
I am capable of buying AD/ AB picture editors, lunch or a nice gift at the end of the year myself.
Let me start by saying that I am leaving my current Agency this week because I have realized that we are not a proper fit. I too am frustrated by an even more unfair split and even more lack of communication and involvement on my agency’s part with my marketing and promotion.
Currently my “Agency” is taking 35% from clients that they introduce me to and 20% for jobs I bring to them to negotiate. Then the billing is going through them if they negotiate which is also another issue. This split is not to my liking but at the time I joined the roster I did not feel I had too much to negotiate with as the economy was horrible and I felt the need for representation to expand from my editorial work into the commercial advertising market. I did not have to bring in any of my existing clients or current billing to them, which was a plus and has proven to my benefit over the past year. The arrangement was to grow, together, into new markets, both for myself and the agency. They did not have anyone that was doing the type of work I was doing or going after so I had no internal competition for assignments. (This might have been my first warning sign that we might not be a good fit.)
In the two years that we have been working together, the first testing the waters and the second as a full time member of their roster, I have only seen a few emails that were promoting my work. The meetings that they have arranged and taken me to (less then 10) have only resulted in two or three small editorial job and two decent commercial jobs with an art director that I had known prior to signing with them. They only accounted for a disappointing 5% of all of my billings last year. I have found that they were only making phone calls on my behalf when I would call to complain and ask them directly to set up a meeting or follow up with an email that I had already sent to a photo editor or art buyer.
I had a meeting during the summer with them to address my disagreement with the split and was quickly dismissed by being told that everyone has the same split and that is that. I again had a meeting with them before the holidays to address the split and other billing issues. I have yet to see them address any of the issues. I have also mentioned many times in face to face meetings and phone calls a desire to form a clear joint marketing strategy that we can all work on together. There was a clear lack in desire to help me promote myself, and not the agency as a whole. Currently none of these issues have been resolved and don’t see them being addressed anytime soon.
I do not think that these problems are mine alone but I do not think that they are the norm. One of my mentors has a very up and down relationship his current agent that he has been with for many years. I have heard them fight over many different issues including splits and portfolios but in the end his agent has stepped up and fought for higher fees (and got them), stood behind him on expenses and picked up the phone for him. I believe his current split is between 20-25%. He has told me that there is no way he would have been able to handle negotiating some of the jobs he has be awarded in recent years without his agent there to close the deal. He, like me and most of us are not the best negotiators. We have agents not just to make us look more respectable and established but to do the dirty work of standing firm and being the fighter. They are our “bad cop” before the shoot and we are the good cop on set.
Personally I find it completely unacceptable for an agent to be unavailable to negotiate on a photographer’s behalf. This is their most important task as an agent, they are they to fight for our fees (so they can get paid) and to back us up on our expenses. They are there to close the deal even if they are not the ones to start the deal in the first place. We cannot depend on our agencies or reps to be picking up the phone every day just for us. They have to work with many photographers on a roster to stay in business themselves. We have to be able to pick up the phone, write an email, send out a promo and speak for ourselves. In my current search for a new agent I am looking for someone that understands me, my work, and will be a partner in marketing. Ideally I would like a split of less or equal to 20% on all new clients and a 10-15% split on all current clients. I would not be too upset with 25% but more is totally unacceptable to me. I think as a general rule it has to be a symbiotic relationship between photographer and agent, it should take both parties efforts to make things happen. If it is a one sided relationship you need to step back and evaluate the situation and see if you really benefit from it or are you even being hurt by it.
Is one party guiltier than the other? No. The cliché saying “it takes 2 to tango” is really true. A rep is only as good as their communication, estimate deliveries, client support and marketing exposure delivered. The photographer is only as good their communication, the work they produce and their marketing efforts. When a photographer says my rep is taking 30% and they do nothing. Stop there and ask yourself what are they doing for that 30%. Who likes to talk money? 20, 25, 30% is an agreement to have representation that is there to truly represent you (it doesn’t mean a full-time assistant). On the other side, when a rep says a photographer isn’t doing their fair share, we hope they stop as well and look at what the photographer has time to do, what budget is realistic to their marketing plan. Sometimes just stopping and talking it out OVER THE PHONE or IN PERSON can really cover a lot of ground and educate everyone involved and open the eyes to both parties and then a common ground can be met.
Call To Action:
Put yourself in the shoes of that agent and see what their life is like and what it’s like to juggle the multiple positions and talents. I hope agents will do the same thing. Put yourself in the shoes of that one artist and see what their focus is and what truly worries and bothers them. Having had the role as a rep, it’s hard to juggle everything. Having had the role to consultant with both rep and photographers, both sides have it hard. It’s a tough industry and if everyone can see both sides of the coin – it can be a happier union. Basic call to action: Know what you want, express it, offer support where you can, and then put your goals into action, without depending on the other to get it done for you.
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.”