Live Ask an Agent/Do you need clients to get an Agent?

Here's another question from Lisa's recent Live Ask an Agent at Somerset House, London as part of World Photo London.

Inspired by Ask an Agent, a monthly feature on the LPA blog and photography’s first agony aunt, the live Q&A session answered 6 preselected questions about the photography business. The penultimate question comes from Brian Rolfe, a beauty, fashion and portrait photographer.

'My question is about agents and getting represented... I hear with many agents that without a good client base then your chances of being represented are not good, I'm sure this is not the case with all agents but that seems the general consensus, so is this generally true and how does a photographer best approach an agent with a view to representation?'

© Brian Rolfe

Well I think the answer to that is ... not always but it certainly helps!

Like many people in business, most agents are looking to see what’s in it for them. Just as a photographer is looking for an agent who will be able to get them work, an agent wants a photographer who will earn them an income too, after all we have office expenses and often staff salaries to pay.

There was an agent in the U.S recently who, when looking to take on new photographers, asked applicants to include their client list and their annual income. She wanted to calculate their potential worth before making any commitments. An unusually direct approach, but I can certainly see where she was coming from!

I think it's true that most of us agents do expect that a photographer has made a fair amount of effort in establishing themselves in the industry, getting their business up and running before looking for representation. It also makes our jobs easier and more enjoyable if a photographer has a good understanding of how the industry works and realistic expectations - and this usually comes from working with clients. For those that are struggling to establish a good client base ( and I’m not for one minute suggesting this is you Brian) getting an agent isn’t necessarily going to be the answer to all your problems. If you are finding it hard to get work as a photographer, there’s no reason why an agent can do any better, we can usually open a few doors but we’re not miracle workers.

When I take photographers on, yes I’ll admit it, I'm  looking for photographers with an established client base, and not just any client base but one that overlaps my own. I see this as proof that they are viable for the market that I represent my photographers to. At the end of the day, like any other business I’m selling a product to a target audience so some proof that you can supply me with something I can sell is a definite bonus. In fact I set up one of my companies , LPA Futures, representing emerging artists for a limited amount of time only, so I can test the water with unproved but potential talent without a long term commitment.

Don’t feel hard done by if you are a photographer reading this who has yet to make your mark or is having a quiet patch- it works both ways. An established and busy photographer is unlikely to choose an inexperienced unknown agent over one that is a known entity with a good track record and a stable of successful photographers.

Now let’s move on to how to find representation. There are only really a handful of agents compared to the amount of photographers in the UK and, pardon the expression, we are looking for quality over quantity. All agents are different and it’s really about finding the right match. If you are confident that now is the right time for you to look for an agent then here are some pointers:

• Draw up a shortlist of agents you’d like to be represented by.

Aside from level of experience, different agents have different client areas. So Brian, I notice you shoot mostly beauty and fashion. Some general commercial agents take on photographers shooting in this genre but there are several agents who specialise in fashion and beauty so they should probably be your first port of call. You also need to compliment the existing roster. You can find fashion agents listed in directories such as Le Book and Production Paradise. And PAL (Photo Agents London) and the AOP lists general commercial agents.

• Make contact.

Before you try and make contact though, make sure you’re website is looking as good a possible as this is the automatic default. Then send an email, call, maybe post something, and highlight why you might be a good catch. Be persistent and patient, it might take a while to find yourself in the right place at the right time. A couple of my guys took this approach, they gently reminded me of their existence over a couple of years, sending new, interesting and relevant work every now and then. They genuinely thought LPA would be the best fit ( due to client base and feel of the agency) and they were right. When ‘spaces’ became available, they were at the forefront of my mind, I took them on and the rest is history

Agents get approached by a lot of photographers all the time, but if someone stands out and is what they are looking for they'll certainly follow it up. Being recommended by an art buyer, art director or designer or winning a prestigious award are other ways to get on the agent radar.

• Is it really the right match?

When you agree to be taken on by an agent ( and vice versa) ideally you want to be looking at a long term commitment - I have represented several of my photographers for over a decade. Bear this in mind when you meet up for an initial chat. Do you like them? Does it feel right? Do they seem to like you and are they interested in your work? If you don’t quite gel when you meet them, chances are it’s not going to work out. Ask questions about anything that’s important to you. Don’t forget this is like going into business with someone. Who takes the portfolios out? What other promotion do they do? What do they expect from you? Do they do production? Who are their clients? Do they have a contract? Discuss all the expectations from both sides.

Well, I hope this helps, but before I go, a word of caution… a wrong decision might do more harm than good. On more than one occasion I have heard clients say they might want to use a certain photographer but can’t face dealing with their agent so they look elsewhere. I’ve also had many clients say that they often just go to their favourite agents for a job that perhaps several photographers can do as they know it will be a pleasant and efficient process.

Good luck with that then!