Talent Agents: What I Know and What You Need To Know
First, it's only fair to say that most of the calls I get from people complaining about their agent is rarely only the agent's fault. There is usually some disconnect in expectations. Next, I've never been only an agent nor do I aspire to be an agent. I run a full service talent management practice that also represents talent. This is not a 'tell-all' from an agent's perspective. Finally, this article isn't intended to minimize the hard work that agents do. It's a role that has some extreme highs and the lows of the Valley of Hell, all in the same week.
What do I know about agents? Well, in the course of leading a talent management business, I have branded and packaged talent, pitched clients, helped structure contracts, and when things go bad I've worked with performance management issues. I represent and work for the people who pay me but if both parties don't win, it's going to be trouble and I look for successful outcomes as a rule, not big contracts or commissions. Agents try to do the same work to the best of their ability and I come in contact with agents, agencies, clients and contracts everyday.
So I think there are a number of topics that need to be explored here. We'll start with do you even need an agent and end with some tips on choosing the right agent if you go that route.
Do I Need An Agent?
The short answer is 'it depends'. It depends on your individual needs. You need to understand that an agent isn't going develop your skills but will help you with creating a professional package, specifically a reel and resume. They will help you with insights on the hiring managers and station culture. If you need the basics and you're starting from ground zero, signing an agreement with an agency is an option.
Technology has significantly supplemented relationships but it hasn't replaced trust. The trust between a VP/GM or News Director and an agent can run deep. That trust will play a significant role in landing a job, contracting, and future opportunities for improvement.
Think from the agency's perspective. They are looking for an easy placement. That means your skills are above average, you've got a strong reel, and your image is striking with large mass market appeal. So here lies an important question you must ask yourself ……
"If I'm marketable to an agent and a potential news director, why can't I do this myself?"
I believe you can BUT you are going to have to package yourself, pitch yourself, and know your market value to be as successful as you could be with an agent. As a result of previous bad experiences you'll find some ND's and VP/GM's that do not like to work through agents. Although I'm not an agent, I find this unfortunate because I find my ability to bridge the conversation between talent and employer can be extremely helpful as I'm sure many agents do as well.
Your 'Do I Need An Agent?' checklist:
Do you have a professional reel and resume?
Do you have industry contacts and a career oriented network?
Are you comfortable pitching yourself to a News Director?
Have you developed above average or best-in-class interview skills?
Are you capable of researching your market value?
Can you manage your budget to pay $300-$1,000/month for the life of a contract?
Can An Agent Get Me More Money?
The answer is "maybe" but if so, it's unlikely that they will get you enough incremental salary to pay their fees. Why is that? The reason is that all salaries are 'banded' and compensation ranges are established depending on the band. Every major media outlet has a robust HR/People Strategies/Talent Acquisition team that comps roles from Engineer to Producer to Photog to MMJ to Anchor to VP/GM. They take market and role into consideration and look at 30 million weekly payroll records across the US to determine salary ranges.
So, back to the question. The answer is probably but only to the median or top 1/4 of the salary range. In a tight band, like a Photog, Producer or MMJ roles, it's unlikely the agent will pay for themselves.
What Does It Cost To Be Represented By An Agent?
I always get a significant chuckle out of the 26 year old rock star that feels like a bigger name agent and agency gives them status. In the end, you are going to pay for it and there is likely zero economic benefit. If you want to pay for status with your peers, the more power to you but I'd rather apply that $400/month to my monthly Prius or Rover payment.
Agent fees are all over the place and can be structured in many different ways. There are flat fees, one time commissions, and the more traditional % of your contracted salary. Among the lowest I've seen is 1.5% of salary and the highest is 10% of the talent's salary paid either monthly or per pay period.
The two things that are important to understand with traditional agencies are:
They are likely to be done via an automatic payroll deduction. You'll never see the money once you turn over your ACH info.
These fees are AFTER taxes. Meaning that if you've signed an 8% agreement, about 10% of your salary will go to the agent. So, here's what the numbers would look like:
You signed a 3 year agreement with Sinclair Broadcasting Group and your Napoli agency agreement calls for 8% over the life of the agreement. Your salary is $50,000/year.
You will be responsible to pay Napoli $4,000 a year or $333/monthly for 36 months. You are likely in a 20% tax bracket (Federal, State, and Local). The net effect is that the first two days of every month you will be working for free because the first $420 a month (gross) will go to your agent.
Remember the question above "Can an agent get me more money?" In this case the agent would have to get you $5,000 more a year to break even. That's a tough task in this day of sophisticated payroll reporting and job bands.
What Does An Agent Contract Look Like?
The contract is probably going to be assignable. If your agent quits, retires, or leaves the business, you are still obligated to that agency for the life of the agreement. If you are hiring a particular person, get comfortable with the agency as well. I was just speaking to a young reporter who is working with their second agent at an agency and they haven't reached the end of their first three year contract.
It auto-renews unless you are able to legally break it within the terms on the agreement. There will be windows in which the agreement can be dissolved. The first comes after you've signed but the agent can't find you work within 90 days. You can break agreement. Next, you'll likely have a 90 day window to give notice before the expiration of the original agreement. Miss the window, you are renewed for another 3 years with the agent even though you renewed your current agreement with your employer without the agents assistance.
Finally, you will pay the agency regardless of how you come across the job. The agent may not assist you at all in the process and you are likely to pay the agent fees as outlined in the contract.
It's VERY important to look at dates of agreements. Your agent agreement and your contract with the station may not align, meaning one could expire before the other. Always look to employment contract and agent agreement expiration dates independently.
What Do I Tell My Agent? What's Off Limits?
Never tell any agent, whether it be talent agent or real estate agent, your walk away price. You want them working hard on your behalf not settling for less.
Do tell them your longer term career goals. They have visibility and understand industry progression. They may not find you the dream job in your next role but they might be setting you up on a pathway to it.
Tell them about your work style and some success stories with previous roles and managers. They will know a good fit and they are looking for successful outcomes. Their reputation means everything to them and they want you to succeed.
Let them know about your communication lines. If you live via text but only look at email once a day, let them know. Sometimes it comes at us quickly and we need to have instant turnaround.
Choosing The Right Agent:
You just don't need a job, you need a partner. Make sure your conversations are comfortable, easy flowing, and conversational. You are going to get in the trenches together at some point and you better have open lines and have each other's back.
You need to understand that only YOU can manage your best interests. As sincere as your agent seems, he/she has bills too and you need to remember that the only one looking out for you is you. If your spidey sense tells you something is wrong, don't brush it aside, explore it further.
Finally, it always needs to be said; "hustle beats an agent everyday when an agent doesn't hustle". You better make sure that your agent is going to out hustle, out work, and out wit other agents that have that same ND's ear. A hustling you will beat a lazy agent every single time.
In summary, although this is the most comprehensive article I've written on agents and agencies, there are still many questions you'll have as you explore representation in your career. I'd love to hear about your experiences and the door is always open. Reach out and let me know if this information was helpful or tell me what was missed that needs more attention.
Be Bold. Be Great. Be Timeless #TalentBlvd
About Mike McNamara:
Mike has held C-Suite, Executive and Senior Sales, Marketing, Business Development, and General Management roles with Equifax, Cox Enterprises, WW Grainger, and Federal-Mogul Corporation. Mike has led sales, service and operations organizations of over 1,500 associates and accountable for P&L responsibility in excess of $250M.
Dedicated to giving back, Mike formed The MBAR Group in 2009 with the sole intent of providing pro bono career and business consulting services to the underprivileged and underserved. Today as founder and CEO of TalentBlvd, he coaches a number of high profile business and media personalities as well as holding advisory board positions guiding a number of multimedia and small business startups.
Mike earned his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State University. He is a past chapter President of the American Marketing Association. Mike and family split time between their adopted state of Missouri and family home in NW Michigan where their philanthropic causes include The Kingdom House – St Louis, BACN in Benzonia, MI., and Samaritan’s Purse, Boone NC.