Welcome to our 9th series of posts where we share the results from our conversations held directly with community leaders about top of mind photo-industry issues. Community Table was formed from the collective efforts of Kate Chase and Matt Nycz of Brite Productions and Heather Elder and Lauranne Lospalluto of Heather Elder Represents with the idea that there is nothing more powerful in our industry than education.
Since our first event with Art Producers, back in March 2012, we’ve criss-crossed the country from LA to NY to have roundtables with not only art buyers but also agents and photographers; co-hosting 2 of them with our friends from Agency Access and Workbook. As Community Table was originally inspired by LeBook and their networking event, Connections and since a Connections San Francisco was in the works, we felt the timing was right to once again invite some of the countries best artists’ agents to join us at the table while they were in town to attend.
Thus invitations were sent, RSVPs rolled in, questions were drafted, and over dinner came a tremendously thoughtful and robust conversation that covered topics that ranged from not only what keeps these agents motivated and inspired but also what they have learned during their years on the front-lines of selling and marketing creativity. We also asked them their thoughts on what is now necessary to survive in the current picture-making industry. And then as always, over dessert, a one-word summary from each of us to describe what we think is the current state of our industry.
We have heard it be told that talent agents have been around since the 1880’s so while we know a lot has changed since then, the core values still stay the same; successful artists’ agents do not happen by accident, it takes a lot of time, dedication and commitment to promote talent. Which to us means we can’t even begin share how much we appreciated that these agents spent some of their very valuable time and business insights with us.
As a reminder, each conversation starter was directed to one person with a general discussion ensuing. We decided this was the best way to bring you all to the table with us, share the experience as close as possible to how it actually happened.
We would also like to take this moment to dedicate this series to our fellow agent, Alison McCreery — our thanks for all you did for the photo community. We miss you.
Please note, there will be 3 posts shared over the next two weeks. Tune in this Thursday for the last installment.
Agents in attendance (though we missed you Lauranne Lospalluto):
Jenifer Guskay and Kelly Montez, Apostrophe
Sarah Laird, Sarah Laird & Good Company
Tim Mitchell, Tim Mitchell Artist Representative
Janice Moses, Janice Moses Represents
Deb Schwartz, DS Reps
Kate Chase, Brite Productions
Matt Nycz, Brite Productions
Heather Elder, Heather Elder Represents
And with that, we welcome you back to the table.
Before you sign with new talent do you discuss potential conflicts with those in your group.
We do not have a set policy. Ultimately it is our decision but if there is someone who we do bid against more than a few times, I would talk to the photographer currently on the roster before we sign the new one.
I have always been of the belief that there are very few “conflicts” within an agent’s stables. If two photographers or studios are known for bidding against one another, aren’t they better off under one roof versus estimating against the unknown? A good agent can keep the balance in place.
So you don’t ask the group?
No, we don’t.
When I first worked for Apostrophe it was primarily a still life agency and it wasn’t my role to choose talent. When I bought the business, I thought I had to continue with the still life model since that was what had worked. But you can only take on so many still life photographers before it is too much. More importantly, what I didn’t understand was that the agency needed to be a reflection of me. I thought that if everyone stayed on the roster I would have made as successful transition from employee to owner.
If everyone in the group is busy they don’t seem to care as much who we bring on. But once they get slow, things get more complicated.
And this was 2007 – 2008 and things were VERY slow. I had to stop asking because I realized I had to make the choices that were best for the business, inspired me creatively and that the artists had to trust me. I learned that if they didn’t trust me then we were not the right business partners and ultimately we parted ways. It took a couple of years to understand that.
The people I do ask are my stylists. I ask them if they know a photographer because they often have a lot of information as to how that photographer might treat their crew. And, that is important.
Heather Elder: I actually have this issue in my group. When I started my business it was a time when you could just have one photographer from every category. And, we have photographers on our roster that we have been fortunate enough to represent for a very long time and they have become used to that exclusivity.
But the world changed and photographers had to evolve their work and their style and what they offered. And, some of them had cross over when they did not before. Add to that the fact that many art buyers call us as a resource and often find multiple options on our site; especially if they do not yet have a clear creative vision. This we see as very much a positive but some in the group did not.
Sometimes we will get the call where an art producer will ask for some options, we send them along and then they ask to bid two or three photographers. They are so happy to be bringing me three chances, as are we, but the photographers sometimes find this not so favorable.
So, it has been a challenge over the years to figure out how to best handle these situations. I am absolutely of the mind set that this is my business and the group needs to trust me. But more importantly, I recognize we are a team and these photographers do trust me but need to feel heard and be able to tell me how my decisions affect them.
So, do you ask them?
Heather Elder: I do not ask for permission. Instead I go through the process completely with the new photographer and decide if I think they will be right for the group. I then reach out to each photographer and share with them my thoughts and listen to what they have to say. I don’t bring them anyone I think would be a direct conflict or that wouldn’t enhance the value of the group.
Sometimes they are not easy conversations and I wish I could just proceed without that step but I think by including my photographers along the way, they end up trusting me more as their partner. And, sometimes I have gone back to the photographer we would like to represent and decide it is not longer right. It has only happened a few times but it has happened.
That said, the process does need to evolve some, especially in the people category. The lifestyle and people spectrum is a very wide spectrum and no one photographer gets to own that spectrum. So, how can I easily add to my group the style that we need to stay relevant and keep interest in our group as a whole without the idea of exclusivity of some sort getting in the way?
That happens in our group too and we establish very clear boundaries on what we share and what we don’t in a bidding process. More often then not, a creative team comes out of the bidding process with a clear idea of which photographer they want. We only have so much influence on that process and then ultimately, it falls to the creative to make the choice of who they want to work with.
Deb Schwartz: I had this problem in the beginning because I represented only lifestyle photographers. I realized though that the simple answer was I know what I am doing, I am building the business, and I need to have the freedom to do that. I care about all of these people and work hard for them.
We, as reps, are more valuable to an agency when we have options to share with them. We can review their layouts, understand their needs and their work style and match them with a photographer. If we had limited photographers we would not be as desirable as a resource. And, the goal is not to try and get them to bid against each other but to get work for them to bid on, all of them, even if that means there is some cross over.
I don’t like it when people compete. I work hard to make sure no one goes head to head. This comes into play more with my CGI studios but while they do the same thing, they have very different styles.
We have such a bird’s eye view on the business and I represent a lot of lifestyle photographers, but they are all truly different. I don’t get as many calls as I used to about who would be right for a specific job; instead people call me with one specific photographer in mind. We do bid against each other sometimes though.
When we think about who to add to the group, we go through the exercise of laying out their books one next to each other, and they are ALWAYS completely different. The photographers can’t always see it as clearly but we absolutely can and so can the clients; so, I don’t ask anyone in the group their thoughts on who we plan to represent.
One time, I did have a situation where there was a photographer I wanted to take on that bid against one of my other photographer’s all of the time. I knew taking on this new person would be great for our group but wanted to make sure I talked about it with the current photographer. He told me that it wouldn’t be great for him but that he trusted me and that I should do what I thought was best. Ultimately it didn’t matter because the photographer went elsewhere so we never knew what would have happened. Things happen for a reason.
When we bid multiple lifestyle photographers it is easier to manage the budgets to be along the same lines. That allows the client to concentrate on the creative decision. Admittedly, it is more challenging with the still life photographers – they all shoot at different speeds and have different approaches, which may greatly vary the estimates.
Ultimately it comes down to that creative call. Clients know who they want to use and no matter how we structure the estimate if they want to use someone they will.
That creative call is really important. People used to walk in with their first choice but now more than ever that call really sways them. It is a buyers market.
Art buyers often don’t want to share who the creatives’ first choice is anymore because it changes so often. We’ve seen it shift due to the call, a treatment, etc. That said, I think the thing that catches everyone involved off guard the most is when the client opts to not work with the agency’s recommended artist.
What would you want an art producer to know about the bidding process that is most challenging for you and your photographers.
Heather Elder: There are two things that are on my list.
• Mindset around treatments. We absolutely understand the value and importance of the treatment and happily create them when they are relevant to the project. However, they are not always relevant and many times are asked for when the creative call could suffice. And, on top of that, the deadlines to create them are sometimes unrealistic given that photographers are on set or traveling. And, we often wonder if they are being read because many times after hours of work, we do not hear any feedback. There are of course people who do reply but more often than not we do not hear anything back. This would be fine if we spent a short amount of time creating it but hours go into each one.
• Follow up after a job. There has been a trend lately when we do not get a job to not hear back from the art buyer. And if we do, it is with a simple, thank you we went in another direction. Don’t get me wrong, we appreciate this for sure, but the studio, the producers and our office are putting so many more hours into the bids then ever before. Given that, it knowing why we didn’t get a job or who it went to or as I say, “just one more sentence” goes along way to everyone feeling appreciated. True feedback is critical.
It is important to us to know who got the job. I don’t think that it’s right to not tell us that. And to not get a call at all is just not ok.
The two things that I would want to let an art producer know are:
• Asking me for unlimited usage up front and then after we quote it asking me for one year usage as an option is problematic.
• It really helps to know if a cost consultant is involved up front, not once we have negotiated the job.
Drafting off of that, it is more helpful to get the terms of the PO ahead of time, not after the job has been approved. This is a problem if terms such as payment terms or limiting self promotion is added.
The most challenging part is when there is a known budget but it is not shared. And then you spend so much time working on the estimate to find out they have much less than when you were working within.
And, often times when we are given a budget, it isn’t enough. It makes me wonder why the agencies are creating projects that are not within their budget?
One thing I would like to tell art buyers is that we really do need legitimate shot lists and creative.
I have always said that I would like to create a Spec Sheet Form like agencies have a Bid Form. I just know they would never fill it out. It is not uncommon for us to get a project without very much usable information. I need more than, “2 days, 4 talent on location.”
Why do you think that is?
Many are too busy, some are not trained well, often times account people are junior and afraid of angering their clients so the questions don’t get asked.
I have a client I have been bidding with for 5 months. They want to lock me into that estimate but they won’t share an updated spec sheet so I can’t make my ballpark estimate a final estimate.
One thing I find challenging that I would like to share with art buyers has to do with scheduling creative calls. It is really hard when a photographer is on set to do a call at 3:00 in the afternoon. Time is limited as I am sure it is for the creative team. But, it has to be ok for a photographer to not be available on short notice. I know the creative team would not want the photographer to step away for a call on their shoot, so it is hard to expect them to do so on another client’s shoot.
As well, if your creative is not available for a call and the photographer really would like to have one, we might have to decline to bid. Many times we are third bids in those situations anyway. And if that is the case, I can easily create the bid and not need to engage anyone else’s time.
Do you remember the day when we took the call? We got the information and the photographer wasn’t involved in all of these calls?
Tune in next for more our final post in this series — talking about what inspires us as well we’ll wrap it up with our one word to describe the industry finale.