Round Table of Truth: Photo Reps

By Charlie Fish
Published by Resource Magazine

Three reps talk at length with Resource Magazine's Charlie Fish about the process of working with photographers and clients, who calls the shots, and how the photo industry is changing.

This article has been contributed from the Winter 2008 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.

Illustration by Dylan Kahler.

Photographers, art buyers, art directors take heed: Photo reps recently gathered for brunch and dished out the bits and pieces of the industry's bad habits. Over a selection of fruit and granola, coffee and OJ, and the pleasant din of the early morning, Ralph, Colleen, and Ed laid it all out on the table at the Maritime Hotel. Name-calling and bad-mouthing were all off limits: after all, these are reps we're talking about. Instead, armed with their polite manners and years of experience, they engaged in a sophisticated tongue-lashing. From clients with no money to photographers asking for more of it, to the subtle art of nepotism, the inner workings and dirty secrets of the trade didn't stay buried for long. 

Corbis and Getty weren't spared either. Talk of unions resounded. A photographer's career lifespan was revealed. These seasoned reps talked at length about what they love about their job and what they could do without. Heads up: a good personality and more legwork are in. Temper tantrums are out. Dig in . . .

Please give us a little background on yourselves.

Ralph Mennemeyer: I own an agency, M Represents, which has 39 photographers, with a partner in London. We cover as many categories as we comfortably can. Some agencies are all about cars; some are all about beauty or fashion: we’re much more generalized than that, we cover the whole gamut.

Ed Varites: My agency is JK &. I partner with John Kenny. We’re more of a boutique agency: we only have 13 photographers. Some of them are more on the artsy side. We have some younger guys who come from the art world but their work is applicable to commercial assignments. We cover just about everything except for heavy automotive.

Colleen Vreeland (formerly Hedleston): I work for Elizabeth Pojé + Company. We rep 20 photographers on the East and West coasts. We are automotive heavy and we’re transitioning to be a little bit more well rounded, taking on five new photographers this year. We cover the gamut between lifestyle, still life, and food.

How has the industry changed these last years?

RM: This is an ever-evolving business. There used to be a lot more assignment and illustration work. A lot fewer photographers, a lot fewer agents. You could put all the reps in a small hotel room back then. It was harder to be a photographer, physically harder. Photographers were still shooting under dark cloths and dealing with chemicals. Technically you had to know your shit, but today you don’t even need to know how to light. Just shoot it and fix it with Photoshop later.

CV: Budgets were bigger because you were shooting fewer campaigns. Now with usage being out of control, if the client has unlimited use, they can run that campaign three or four years, which didn’t happen before.

RM: Usage fee really came about in the mid 70s. Prior to that clients ran the ad forever any way they wanted and paid you a day rate. That was it. It’s almost like they are trying to get back to that business model, but there’s no way that’s ever going to work.

Who has more power in deciding who will shoot a campaign: art buyers or art directors?

RM: An art buyer told me recently that they are so overworked, it’s more important to reach art directors than art buyers, especially with the young generation of art directors coming in. She said, "We’re immune to schmooze, we’re immune to the gifts, the lunches, none of that matters.”

CV: Art buyers are today very involved with production. You find them more often on locations than in the agency, which makes our jobs as reps more challenging. How do we get their attention when they are out busy producing?

EV: I know there are art departments that blacklist certain reps. You have to be careful with that. But if the art director wants to use your photographer, there’s a really good chance that he will get the job. That’s why we ask our guys to make their own appointments, because art directors are always a little wary about reps.

Are photographers responsive to your suggestions to take the initiative?

EV: Some are, some aren’t.

CV: Some turn around and say, "You’re the agent."

EV: "That’s what I have you for." But I can only shake so many hands in a week.

CV: Or make so many phone calls. There are some photographers who are really good at it, and there are some who not in a million years would I want to ever put in front of somebody for a long time outside a shooting situation.

RM: Photographers need to understand we’re partners with them. Because they have an agent now doesn’t mean they should be sitting around waiting for us to call them with a layout. It’s about more people rowing the boat.

EV: We always tell our guys, "Go shoot some new stuff for the book. Take someone out to dinner, go show your book." It’s not a one-sided thing: everyone rows the boat. Photographers can’t just call and say, "Where’s the work? What’s going on?" I’m like, "You kidding me? I wish there was something going on. We don’t make money unless you made money."

Do you have any particular pet peeve?

RM: I know of one agency where the art buyer is using her husband for quite a bit of the photography. It used to be you could lose your job over a thing like that. Nepotism didn’t fly. In my mind, it’s vaguely illegal and a little odd.

CV: I’ve had clients coming back on their word. The job is awarded, the PO is in the works, the crew is getting ready, then the creative director, who’s been on location for the last three weeks, sticks his head out of the sand, walks over and says, "Oh, we’re not using him, I’ll get my friend."

EV: And you can only say, "Thank you. Thank you so much for the opportunity."

CV: I love it also when the client picks the photographer. Now that’s an account person’s faux pas. What also happens sometimes is that approved budgets get suddenly questioned. The ad agency just wanted to get you in, and then tells you, "I know we agreed on this amount, but if you could do better . . ."

RM: People have completely forgotten the number one word on the top of every estimate: estimate.

EV: Yes, it’s not an invoice.

RM: It’s not a guarantee.

CV: There’s even supposed to be a plus or minus ten percent contingency. And what’s ten percent these days? It should be plus or minus twenty percent.

Do you feel clients are unrealistic in their demands?

EV: Clients want everything now: unlimited time, unlimited use. They don’t want to have to bother buying the usage in two or three years, they just want the whole show.

CV: They’ll say "buyout," and I’m like, "Think about your talent’s costs. Maybe you don’t need unlimited-unlimited when you are probably only going to run the ad in trade and consumer advertising, with no billboard or packaging." But it’s just become so competitive you don’t want to be turning away jobs. I also have a lot of West Coast talent whom I have to bill as local as the clients won’t pay for travel.

EV: We get calls, "So where’s he based?" Well, where do you want him to be based? He’s in Australia, he’s in Tokyo. We’ll get him there.

CV: We always try to make it work. But the buyout request makes our job harder.

RM: Photographers a lot of times cave on money. They always say, "Oh, get me the most, get me the most," but when it comes to either do the job for less money or not work, nine times out of ten they’ll cave when we wouldn’t.

Is there a difference in attitude between your male and female photographers?

EV: Our one girl, Jillian, is amazing! She is the hungriest one. She’s based out of London but she will fly over here to meet an art director if there’s a job.

CV: I wish there were more females. We have twenty photographers, and only two female photographers. I don’t understand why. Sometimes family can interrupt things temporarily. It has to be factored in.

RM: I’ve worked with some female photographers who started families and never wanted to get back into the business, which from an agent’s standpoint hurts a little bit. On a big picture scale, they made the right decision, no question. From my standpoint, I spent years building their career and they stepped away from it. It was financially damaging.

Are you more cautious when a female photographer comes to you?

RM: To tell you the truth, if it’s a great book, I don’t care if they’re martians.

Do you ever broker deals with other agents, where you both put it together and split the commission?

CV: I used to. People don’t want to split commissions anymore, that’s the thing.

EV: We tried that with a West Coast agent. Didn’t work out so well. I always say that if all the agents made one company, which agent would the client call? If this was to happen, you’d have to poll the photographers and see what they say, but I don’t think they would be too happy. Anything is possible, but there would be a lot of conversation, a lot of things to work out.

RM: You’ll find that a lot of partnerships have come together over the years, and it’s very interesting. I think as a business model for the future, if we’re going to have any power in this industry, coming together is the rule. Because we’re fighting Getty and Corbis. Who could be bigger than that?

CV: I agree. And they just don’t do stock sales anymore since they are now repping photographers too.

Under what circumstances do you turn away projects, or are there projects that photographers stay away from?

CV: We don’t rep people who don’t want to work.

EV: A couple of our guys don’t want to shoot tobacco. One doesn’t want to shoot liquor campaigns. We don’t turn things down, but there can be scheduling conflicts.

CV: Or if the clients slash the budget. We’ll have those long discussions: "Is it creatively appealing, is there a new production challenge or something I’m getting out of it?" We have a list of questions that we feel gives everything good value. And if we answer no to three of the five, it’s probably just not worth it.

RM: We’ll take a pass on clients who are bad with money or have a history.

EV: There’re some agencies, when they call you’re like, "Not again. No." You know it is going to be a nightmare; you can feel it.

What do you do if a photographer isn’t working out? How do you let them go if you have to?

CV: The best-case scenario is if they come to you saying, "I’m not feeling it." It’s a little bit easier.

EV: And normally you kind of know that. You feel the same way before they come to you.

RM: Some repping agencies have a business model where they’re constantly changing photographers so that there’s a new reason for art buyers to go there.

EV: We’re always really careful about who we take on too, very careful, because even if you see someone whose work is great, you really have to think, "Is the work applicable? Can I market it?" It might be the coolest book in the world, but if you can’t turn it into advertising dollars then that person is just going to sit out there on the roster.

RM: I think there’s a certain lifespan for photographers. It is a youth-oriented business. A photographer will probably have five years of struggling with editorial and the like, and then hit a stage of maybe another five to ten with solid, consistent work, and then after that it can absolutely drop off like a cliff, or it can wind its way down. Any photographer who thinks the gravy train goes on forever is smoking crack.

What’s the one quality that makes you want to take a photographer on?

CV: Passion.

EV: Motivation.

RM: Personality. I’ve seen some great books, but the personality has to match.

What do you think people are looking for from you?

RM: Honesty and hard work. It’s not a 9 to 5 job.

EV: Personality: as an agent you have to have personality. Along with perseverance and poker skills when it comes to negotiation.

CV: A tough skin and a soft touch. Photographers hire us to take the rejection they can’t handle.


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