How to Decide if you Need a Rep

Tuesday July 21, 2009 by Linda Whitehead, Zuz Marketing

Posted in: Building your Business

Whether you are an established veteran or just starting out in the business, how do you know if your career can benefit from hiring a professional representative? What are some of the benefits and potential drawbacks of having a representative? And if you do make the decision to go for it, what should you be looking for in a representative and what results should you realistically expect? What kind of artists do reps want to add to their roster? If representation isn't the right option for you at this time, what other options can you pursue to grow your career now?

With so many artists-and so few reps available-I know that artists are seeking answers to these questions. I've spoken with three successful artists' reps (and ADBASE clients): Robert Bacall of Robert Bacall Representatives, Scott Hull of Scott Hull Associates and Janice Moses of Janice Moses Represents to help gain an industry perspective on this whole topic. In this article, I will talk about:

  • The benefits and potential pitfalls of representation
  • The different services reps provide
  • The types of relationships that can exist between reps and artists
  • Realistic expectations for what a rep can do for your business
  • What you should look for in a rep
  • How you should approach them for representation
  • What reps look for when expanding their roster
  • Alternatives to representation

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

To get the conversation going, I wanted to get right to why an artist may, or may not, want representation. I began by asking each rep to describe the key benefits-and the drawbacks-of having a representative. To make it more interesting, I asked them to look at it from an artist's perspective, rather than their own.

Janice Moses, who represents photographers, says "The number one key benefit is that your position as an artist is protected. You are no longer put into the position of having to negotiate contracts, which does not enhance or generally complement the creative process." She adds that the benefit of having an agent who becomes your partner in marketing and promoting your business, and who opens new doors and schedules your shoots, is the 'lifeblood' of your operation. She also emphasizes the important role a rep can play in being "your conscience, your friend and your editor."

Scott Hull, an illustrators' representative, focuses on the experience and relationships the rep brings to the table. He feels strongly that this experience leads to an understanding of industry cycles and also being able to tell the difference between fads and trends. A good rep will generally be more in tune with corporation and agency needs than an individual artist will be, because of their years of experience working with these types of clients.

Robert Bacall, a photographers' representative, agrees completely and adds that the benefits of having a rep really depend on the quality of the rep. For artists who are looking for representation, he feels that you need to understand that "you are entering a professional world with a team player who should strengthen your position and get you into doors you may not be able to get into yourself". A good rep must have top-notch negotiating skills, know how to estimate properly and possess a solid knowledge of all chargeable items, as he has found that many artists are unaware of all items that can and should be charged for when producing an estimate. Most importantly, Robert is a firm believer in the power of marketing to build your business and identifies a strong knowledge of marketing planning and the right promotional vehicles as the key assets a rep should have.

All three of these reps agreed that the primary drawback of representation is having the wrong rep. First of all, you need to make sure they have connections in the markets you want to be working in. Robert recommends that you do your homework and find out whether buyers like dealing with the rep you are looking at hiring. Secondly, you want to ensure a good fit, personality-wise, between the two of you. Janice advises that you "select a rep who reflects your personality and character-if they don't speak with your voice that can be problematic." Scott suggests that you look at the size of the group that the agent is representing: if it is too big you may not get proper attention. You want to ensure that the rep is looking to help build your career, not just get orders.

The bottom line from this all-important question is that the right rep can take the sales, marketing and administrative aspects of your business off your plate, enabling you to focus your energies on your creative craft. But the big caution is: you really need to ensure a good fit or the relationship will not succeed in the long term.

Service, Please!

Another benefit of having a rep is the fairly extensive range of services they can offer. Beyond the value of their existing client base and relationships, reps can provide: strategic planning, marketing planning, promotional vehicles (like email promos and sourcebook ads), billing and collections, estimating, coaching and portfolio editing. This can vary from rep to rep, so investigate what services are being offered and make sure they meet your needs as an artist. Scott sees that a representative's key role is to act as an artist's manager, keeping artists creative and productive, "similar to a sports or Hollywood agent."

It's All About Relationships

Robert, Scott and Janice all feel very strongly that chemistry is the basis for any successful, long-term artist/representative relationship. Robert describes his relationship with his artists as "very personal but totally professional. I want to like you, we need to get along. It won't last if I don't feel that I can live and work with this person for a long time to come."

There are three different agency models for you to consider. A boutique agency will typically work with an artist in a more personalized way and the business side is completely taken care of by the rep. Alternatively, a rep can be more of a broker, simply soliciting work for the artist in appropriate markets. Agencies with very large rosters may fall into this category. Finally, a rep can also act more like a licensing agent collecting usage fees on existing published work.

You have to decide the type of relationship you are looking for before you begin your search, so first be clear on your needs. Brokers and licensing agents are not full service as with boutique agencies. Scott cautions that you can be treated like the "flavor of the month-in some agencies you may just be a number who gets attention as long as you are a big hit, but you can fall off the radar if interest levels drop a little."

What Your Should Expect

Artists often have the mindset that there should be a guarantee of revenues when looking to take on a rep. According to my interviewees, no rep can make a promise to you about the financial results you will achieve. Janice did indicate that "in the best of times I have built photographer's businesses tenfold, which usually takes 3-5 years, but in the worst of times we grow a little and spend a lot of time treading water." She also feels that once she has brought an artist and client together, it is the efforts and personality of the artist that keep clients coming back. In that respect, she feels that her efforts represent 25% of the results, but the rest is up to the individual artist. In other words, the rep can make the initial "sale" and connection for you, but future assignments with the same client will be dependent on you-the quality of your work, how easy you are to work with, your dependability and your personality.

Robert reiterates the importance of marketing to building the business of an artist and stresses that the more you invest in marketing, the better and faster the results. He agrees wholeheartedly with the advice ADBASE always provides-market continuously and with the right frequency. Realistically, a rep's time is not shared equally between all artists because the phone will ring more for artists who are investing appropriately in marketing. (Just to clarify, reps will organize your marketing efforts but the investment is yours.) Robert's commitment to his artists is that he will work as hard for an artist as they work for themselves and he expects them to deliver what they promise-on time-so he has the tools to do his job properly.

Scott summarized the expectations an artist should have from a rep as follows:

  • A rep should act as your eyes and ears in the market
  • A rep should help you build a more saleable portfolio
  • A rep should develop a strategic plan for your career
  • A rep should identify awards you should go after
  • A rep should present you to the right clients for your work

The advice here: do not enter the relationship with specific revenue expectations, but make sure you reach an agreement on what responsibilities both you and the rep will undertake to make your business a success.

What to Look for in a Rep

The number one piece of advice? Do your homework. Search sources such as FOUND, LeBook, Workbook and PDN for possible reps that you feel would be a good fit, as well as talking to other repped artists for recommendations. Reputation, character and connections are critical to success. Make sure you have an understanding of the services the agent provides and the types of clients he deals with. Janice emphasizes fit: "Look for people you trust, enjoy and believe...they can be a great influence on your career...Remember your entire career rests on the success of the relationship."

Robert feels that the experience a rep has and the length of time they have been in business is a critical element to be considered. If the agent doesn't have an established track record, he recommends that you make sure that they have sales talent, a great personality and the ability to develop relationships.

How to Approach a Rep

All three reps I spoke to are happy to receive an email or package with work samples you feel are most representative of your work and unique vision. An email should contain a link to your online portfolio/website. Phone calls are generally not encouraged as reps like to spend their telephone time with clients, although Janice suggested calling for an appointment. Don't be discouraged if you do not receive a response after your first contact, as you may not be a fit with the representative's roster at that time. It is possible that your work may never be a fit, but Scott suggests that you keep in touch with the rep by email from time to time and keep them abreast of developments in your career and evolution in your art.

What a Rep Looks for in You

I asked what reps are looking for when expanding their roster and the responses definitely indicate that each situation is unique. Robert looks for artists who are already established to some degree and, generally, he is not interested in those just starting out unless they have a rare talent. He handpicks photographers based on what he is lacking in his talent pool and seeks unique skills, vision and very creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Most importantly, he believes an artist must invest at least 10% of their earnings into marketing and he primarily chooses to work with artists who understand the importance of this commitment. Although he knows a little ego is an essential element of an artist's success, he wants to ensure that the artist understands the needs of clients and know that their ego won't interfere with their commercial success. Finally, Robert believes it is critical that the artist is digitally advanced, technically savvy and has a proper file archive system.

Scott looks at an artist's portfolio, character and passion. He is looking for those who are prolific, energetic and producing a lot of work. At minimum, he expects an artist to have a website and is more interested in those who are blogging and promoting their art and passion through other social networking tools. He asks a lot of questions, studies their work to assess true creativity and flexibility and assesses responsiveness to his requirements.

Janice emphasizes that while great creative talent is essential, she is also looking for artists who understand the fundamentals of business. Highly disciplined artists who are constantly shooting and creating, unafraid to try new ideas and constantly learning and growing are a good match for Janice's agency.

What if you Don't Have a Rep?

The truth is: representation isn't for everyone. You may not need a rep at the beginning of your career or when you are firmly entrenched with a strong reputation. It appears that most reps want to bring on artists who are somewhat seasoned and can start making money out of the gate. Robert feels that when you are first starting out, you should begin by running your business yourself in order to truly understand what is involved. His advice? Get a rep once you are too busy shooting and don't have the time to take care of the business side on your own.

And the bottom line really is that there just aren't enough reps to go around! Without representation, you need to put time and energy into marketing yourself to build your career. ADBASE has written many articles on marketing and you can browse Insight for ideas and advice. Start with a marketing plan if you don't already have one and check out the template (Your Marketing Plan) ADBASE has created. There is also a Promotional Plan template that allows you to easily plan your campaigns. Make sure that you use a mix of media in your promotions: email, print, website, portfolio and a comprehensive online marketing strategy. Do all you can to stand out from the crowd.

Our rep panel also suggested hiring a consultant to help with your portfolio. For other ideas on how consultants can help see When to Consult with a Consultant. Consultants can help with marketing and to create the look and feel of your online portfolio and promotion. Get involved in social networking to promote your business. Check out my article Smart Marketing in a Recession for other creative ideas. Most importantly, build your network and your mailing list and as Janice says "my great friends at ADBASE ... are the invaluable partners in today's world. I could not function without ADBASE... no- one told me to say this...but it's true and I tell them so all the time."

In Conclusion

There has been a lot of information covered in this article, so let me summarize the key pieces of advice.

  1. Decide if you need representation to grow your business
  2. Decide the type of rep relationship you want and the services you need
  3. Do your homework and thoroughly research the market in order to identify the right rep for you. Make sure there's a good fit with your personality and working style.
  4. Understand what the rep needs to round out their roster and ensure they have the client base and connections to meet your needs.
  5. Approach potential reps using an email or package with samples that best represent your work and vision.
  6. Recognize that you can't grow your business without an investment in marketing, and that you need to make this investment with or without a rep.
  7. Look at representation as a long-term commitment to a partnership to grow your business and build your career.

Good luck with your search for the right representation!