As the Industry is Changing, Agents are Evolving

Over the summer, photographer Erik Almas shared a blog post about the relevancy of having an agent. When I heard about it, it brought up some interesting conversations in my circles. I didn’t give it much more thought because everyone is entitled to their opinion. I am all for starting important industry conversations. Anyone who has read my blog or has listened to my Dear Art Producer podcast knows that I do so thoughtfully and with the intent of educating. Which is why, even though I agree with many of the themes in Erik’s post, I think he only just started the conversation. More needs to be explored about what the future photographer/agent relationship could look like.

When Photo District News recently shared the post with a broader audience, I decided that I wanted to keep the conversation going and reply to the invitation to discuss “to Rep or Not to Rep.”

The industry is changing 

Yes, the industry is changing. Drastically. And it isn’t just social media and motion, as those are a few of the outcomes. It is at a much deeper level. Fundamentally, the entire marketing industry is undergoing a massive transformation, as it shifts from being media-driven to being technology-driven. Clients are struggling with customer loyalties, and marketers are under more pressure than ever. Brands are responding in many ways: beginning to take their creative in house and looking for solutions other than ad agencies for their creative projects. The ad agency model – where we have gotten most of our work over the years- is struggling to adapt as well. There are agency mergers and acquisitions from consulting companies, which in turn scare the holding companies. Add to that the shift from analog to digital marketing and the movement from creative-driven solutions to metric-based solutions and our industry is in the throes of a major disruption. And we are along for the very bumpy ride.

Agents are not all the same 

I agree it is ultimately the responsibility of the photographer to manage his or her own business and not to rely on the agent only for work. The agent is not the leader or the savior but a partner and one part of an overall marketing plan that the photographer leads. How that partnership is defined will vary with each relationship. The keys are managing expectations and clear communication.

What that means is that everyone’s expectations and goals for the relationship will and can be different. By sharing a sweeping generalization that all reps are the same at the same time as questioning their relevance, does the entire industry a disservice. It is the equivalent of saying that because some people think “print is dead,” then all photographers are irrelevant.

Like it or not, you’re a brand 

I strongly believe that a photographer’s images can no longer speak for themselves. Instead, photographers need to act like brands to compete. On this point, I also agree with Erik. What branding means and how that is done is for another blog post. 

Photographers interested in branding do not need to hire a branding company, a PR agency, or a talent manager that does not know them. We are in uncharted territory here. Just like with the social media and motion transitions, a photographer’s agent is the one with the most relevant experiences, relationships and resources to advise the photographers they represent in ways photographers themselves or outside companies could not. The agent role indeed needs to evolve –and many of us have already. To suggest it is irrelevant or that a photographer shouldn’t consider their own agent for this new role is inaccurate, unfair, and dismissive to all the agents who are evolving.

Intentionally or not, Erik made the case for a Rep 

Erik is an incredibly talented photographer and a savvy marketer, essential qualities in a successful, relevant commercial photographer. It surprised me when he wrote without irony, “the jobs I am getting now are the result of 15 years I spent marketing my work and building my reputation.“ He continues by asking, ”If I continue the consistent marketing I have been doing, will I be able to maintain the momentum, and more importantly, stay relevant?” An understandable question because the photographer has to prioritize his craft above all else.

That speaks to the importance of relationship building, which any agent out there will tell you is the single most important tool in their toolbox. It is part of their inventory and important to point out that when you are your own agent it would be impossible given all the hats a photographer would have to wear to have the same level, depth, and quality of relationships that agents have. And, that ultimately is what every negotiation, sales call, favor, and approved job is about for the agent.

This is not the case for the photographer. For him or her, it is about the work first. It makes me then curious about the dynamic between the self repped photographer and an art producer. Does the producer see the situation as favorable? Do they like talking with the photographer about money or other challenging conversations about the job? How would it affect long term prospects? These are important unanswerable questions for someone considering representing themselves. Time and experiences will only tell.

The conversation isn’t about relevancy; it’s about evolution. 

Every photographer and agent I know is rightfully concerned with how to stay relevant. So it isn’t a surprise that Erik wants to try something different. Being able to evolve is the key to success. I applaud the idea of making choices that work for him and happy that it is financially favorable. Not every photographer should have a rep, and frankly, not every photographer needs one.

What I do want to challenge is his opinion of an agent’s relevance and the sharing of that opinion publicly, without talking about what the future photographer/rep relationship could look like. I think the conversation he started about relationship relevance should have been about relationship evolution. He could have gotten both veteran and emerging photographers thinking about what the future photographer/agent relationship could look like and how it could move our industry forward. Instead, I believe he dismissed those agents who are already working to evolve themselves and their photographers, as well as those agents who rode alongside him from the beginning to advise, guide, consult with, listen, and push him to be even just a little bit better.

What is the opportunity cost? 

After reading and re-reading the post, I was left wondering if Erik truly grasped the nuances of the work that was happening around him during those 15 years that helped his talent to shine even more? Did he see that there was someone there who pushed him when he was a little uncomfortable? Or assured him when he was unsure? Did he realize that someone filtered what he really wanted to say and translated it into agency language? Or made sure he felt heard? Did he miss that someone had the hard conversation on his behalf so that he could concentrate on the creative? Or most importantly that there was someone with him every step of the way good and bad, so that he could become his own next best self?

It’s Erik’s prerogative to do what he wants and I’m glad he’s been happy with sustaining his revenue and not paying a commission. There are plenty of people who don’t want to pay an accountant, a lawyer or a real estate agent for their expertise and do the work themselves and are perfectly fine with the outcomes. The question I’d ask is what is the opportunity cost? How much growth (and not just financial) could be seen with the right partner? One of my photographers always says that I carry his karma, so I am wondering if Erik realized someone was carrying his?

Thank you Hunter Freeman for use of your image.

12 thoughts on “As the Industry is Changing, Agents are Evolving

  1. Heather thank you as always for your amazingly thoughtful response to this topic. It’s something on the top of all minds these days and as a fellow rep, I appreciate your insight and your support in really rounding out this conversation and showing all sides.

    • You are very welcome! I thought long and hard about replying and ultimately decided that “rounding out the conversation and showing all sides” was the perfect reason to do so. Thanks for commenting and please do consider sharing it so we more people can benefit.

  2. Heather!! Great conversation indeed!👏👏👏Wonderful writing. I agree with all you wrote and wold love to discuss further. Anytime. This is what I also share with my photographer/director clients who are in the agent hunt or in transition with their agents.
    Radical changes. Big shifts. We all must evolve!! Adapt. Agents are important partners for professionals but not everyone is an appropriate fit for teaming up with an agent. Being an agent for many years and now a creative consultant, I am always thinking like an agent with a sharp focus on how my clients can best succeed on all levels -and an agent can be an integral, powerful part of their overall business and marketing strategy. Thank you for being a great photo agent all these years, an educator and industry leader Heather!🙏🏼!

    • You are always so supportive Stephanie. Thank you for reading the post and taking the time to comment. Radical changes is right! Happy to be surrounded by such amazing and talented people to help navigate this crazy time! And, thank YOU for all that you do to move this industry forward!!

  3. Awesome points and I appreciate the challenges especially against someone as respected as Erik. I’ve been fortunate to have a good friend who is very savvy with branding and producing act as my pseudo-agent while pitching shoots to companies in ways that I wouldn’t have thought of. It has created some relationships that we’re now able to maintain together, but the initial contact couldn’t have come from my brainstorming alone.
    Very insightful as always. Thank you! 🙂

    • Thank you! Erik is a talented photographer and fantastic marketer. I agreed with a lot of what he was saying, I just felt compelled to reframe the conversation a bit to include the agent in the future. We are all trying to evolve and can help each other so much. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Thank you, Heather. This is conversation that needs to continue. We’ve been working hard for nearly 5 years to evolve our position in the industry, as the attitudes of “irrelevance” increase. You stress the very (age old) point of partnership and what it means to be mutually accountable for the relationship and its evolution. As a rep, I truly appreciate your perspective!

    • You are very welcome. I appreciate you reading this and commenting it. Our role is absolutely evolving and it has been so important to keep talking about what that could look like because the partnership can be whatever we all want to make it!

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  7. I haven’t read Erik’s post yet, but one thing you said did resonate with me. I see more opportunities lately working with clients in-house.

    One of my best clients is one that I shoot in-house for. I shoot 75% of their photo needs; they are very loyal and we have a stellar relationship. When I asked about their main ad agency they said the agency uses a different photographer every time, always thinking the next one will be better than the last.

    The world is changing, but slow enough that adaptation is not too hard to figure out and keep up with.

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