When Photographers Should Get An Agent
So you think you're actually ready to find an agent, so what in the heck do I do? Where do I look, where do I go, where do I start? Well, let's evaluate a couple things first, right? Are you ready for that person who you're gonna sign a contract with for a couple years, that's gonna take 25% and this is going to be your sole representation? If you are, best place to look is just artist representation online, go out, talk to other photographers, research other photographers pages. Look at the Keith Ladzinski's, the Jimmy Chins, the Renan Ozturk's of the world or whoever you're inspiration is and look at who they're represented by, look at their agency and look at the other photographers they represent. I feel like by doing that, you'll be able to quickly get a lot of intel into kind of where resources are. If you're doing a job that is just a one time thing, you're like, you know what? I never get commercial work. I have this one assignment and I just need representation for this one ti...
me, there are companies out there, one of them being Wonderful Machine, www.wonderfulmachine.com. And what that is is that is a sort of a la carte service representation agency. Full service production house. You could literally go to them for everything you need from doing a massive shoot to bidding a job. They operate differently. They don't take a percentage. They take an hourly fee that basically you pay for. Now the disadvantage there is that because they're charging you an hourly fee you're paying them whether you get the job or not but if you make more then you had intended and they do negotiate well for you and you get the job, then they don't take 25%. So it's awesome. But this is one of those situations where that might be a good solution for a one time scenario. I know you can also pay them to, I think represent you and show your book. I've used them once or twice. This is not a company that I'm endorsing necessarily or anything like that. Or I work with, I just want to show you what your options are. And I know they've had great results with a lot of photographers. The last scenario again, is again the worst piece of advice that I've given this whole time which I actually don't think is that bad of advice. I think it's really good is to look into your friend group look into your immediate audience and see if there's somebody who could simply take over some of these conversations for you, negotiations for you really the purpose there is really just them to be your voice. You can still be directing what to say. You can still be directing how the conversation goes. It's mainly a focus of them being able to get you off that email chain so people can speak candidly and they can talk you up because nobody really wants to be the person talking themselves up unless they're you know, an egomaniac or something like that. So I personally don't and I think that that is a good solution here. Now, when do I not need an agent? What situations don't really apply? Well, the one that really doesn't apply is when you're bidding editorial. And that's a funny word because typically editorial isn't bid. Why? Because editorial is the magazine work you do. Usually those magazines have set rates the outside magazines the men's journals of the world, et cetera, et cetera. They have a rate sheet that they operate. Sometimes there are is negotiation when you're shooting a cover or you're shooting an assignment. But for the most part, with those magazines they pay a certain amount for a quarter page a full page, a spread, a cover, whatever. And oftentimes that there isn't need to negotiate. I find that the reason is because typically when you have an agent and they're communicating to somebody on the client side the person they're talking to on the client side it's just another person like them, right? It's the art buyer. It's the producer whomever they're negotiating with the negotiator, right? When I'm talking to them I'm usually talking to the creative. So it's funny because you're having conversations with somebody who's really trying to do the same thing you are. "Hey, I wanna, I don't wanna be a part of this money talk. I just wanna talk fun stuff. I just wanna be in that high energy space." but when you're dealing with a magazine typically your photo editor or whoever. There's not a huge staff there. So there's an editor, there's a copy editor. There's a photo. You know, again, the person that you're usually communicating with about creative is the same person. Who's just gonna say, yeah, well this is what we pay and this is what it is. And so I think sometimes an agent can complicate a relationship when it comes to editorial. Again, this is gray area. Sometimes there are magazines that do require negotiation and this is critical. But for most cases, I would say being able to just kind of have that relationship and keep it firm is really great. The other situation I would say is if you're at this point in your career, like I was where I had a handful of really just reliable clients. I worked a lot with Patagonia and Billabong and a couple other brands, Volcom, in the surf world that I was very much in tune with. And then I got this representation again, eight years ago. The last thing that I wanted to do is say "Hey guys, you know, we've had a great relationship. We've, we've been able to work together really well. You know what my rates are, this and that. I'm gonna now be really informal and turn over this conversation to John, my agent." 'Cause that would just kind of kill the relationship. So typically in any agent scenario you're able to negotiate a list of legacy clients. What does that mean? That means that means people that you're basically gonna keep negotiating on your own behalf, right? And you're not going to bring them into but be aware that any real representation is going to require any new job assignment, anything that uses your name and likeness to be negotiated by them. And so it's important to understand what you're fully getting yourselves into. You're kind of giving up the right to negotiate for yourself because this is also their livelihood and this is how they make a living. Now I hope that this section has not been as confusing as I feel it may have been, but I really do want you to just to walk away with a couple key components here. And again, this is just reiterating for the umpteenth time the importance of these things. Yes, can agent can get you new work, but theoretically the most important thing they can do for you is negotiate on your behalf. Meaning getting you the right amount of money, asking for the money that you might not be willing to ask for. And also insulating you from the client to keep yourself creative. An agent is different than a producer because the agent bids out the job in the beginning, they ask for your fees. The producer asks for the fees that the job requires to get done. They're asking for all of the hard line items and the expenses that are gonna come with that job both of them are there to hopefully help insulate you and educate the client to get what you need. Now, I really want to share a bit of a personal anecdote for me that opened my eyes to just absolutely how green I was and how I had no clue what I was doing in the beginning of my career. And this was the experience that was really the catalyst for me realizing that I needed someone to negotiate for me and I needed an agent. And if there was a time in my life that I felt like the answer was very clear. This was it. So Yeah. Anyway, I have this story that I wanted to share. That's kind of funny. It's more of like a, an epic fail, I guess you could say which to be honest, most of my stories are the reality is I try to be as transparent as I can with the fact that I've made a lot of mistakes in my career. I've failed, I've sucked, I've sucked really, really poorly. And then I've had some triumphs over the years and really one of the I think the greatest eye-opening lessons was this idea of of really learning the hard way kind of why you need to understand the landscape that you're trying to negotiate in understand the landscape that you're trying to work in because Chris Burkard coming from this you know, surf photography world, and really having these set rates that were industry standard at the time for these insular industries. And that's pretty average, right. I all of a sudden through my first book the California surf project, I started to get more work. Right? And I started to get more opportunities. One of the first ones was actually a wine label reached out to make a handbag and they wanted to license a photograph on the handbag and I'm like, "Yeah, sure. That sounds great. Yeah, it'll be this much money." And I'm like looking up the word license. What does that even mean? Had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I literally was making all my money shooting for magazines and scraping by with like, you know selling ads here and ads there to these surf brands. So anyway, my book comes out 2009, I think, right around 2010, 11. I started to get inquiries for commercial assignments and what that meant was like an agency reached out to me and I can't say the names of the who, the people, the this and that, but you know, if you've ever been in one of my workshops or we've talked in person I've probably shared this story, but this agency reached out to me and basically they were representing a new upcoming wine label that was kind of endorsed by a popular musician at the time and still today. And ultimately what happened was I was, you know required to bid on this job. "Hey Chris," you know, this is their email. "We love your work. I'm a surfer myself." This is the creative talking, you know, great person too. "We love your work. You know, you seem to document California's surf culture really well. And we're bringing out this new wine label and we want you to help us shoot just some of the ancillary stills, the lifestyle, sort of the vineyards, kind of bring this warm tonal, California feel to this project." And I was like, "Oh, awesome, cool. Well, that sounds great." You know, and I'm like, "You know, what is the budget?" And they're like, "Oh, well, we're hoping you can bid on it 'cause we're triple bidding it." And I'm like, "Yeah, okay, perfect." I look up like triple bid. What does that mean? Means there's multiple photographers putting in this, you know, scenario and I'm, you know, being the rookie and being the person who, again, you know we're gonna talk about in this workshop basically why it's important to have sort of that production estimate and those fees separated. I'm just like, okay, cool. I crunched some numbers and I'm like, so I'm gonna be shooting for two days by myself editing the photos. I mean, it's like, it's like shooting a wedding, you know? And in the beginning of my career, I kind of shot everything you could imagine. I shot some weddings and whatnot. It'll be like four grand. And so I go and I put my number forward and I don't hear from them and all of a sudden they're like "Yeah, okay, great, Chris, we'd love to hire you. We're gonna bring you on" And I'm like, "Awesome." And so I roll up there. I think I'm in, I don't even remember where we were shooting Sonoma county, something like that. It's like two and a half days of shooting and I'm cruising around, you know, these these beautiful wineries, you know, shooting photographs of the musician and, and wine label and the grapes and everything and all these detail shots and whatnot. And I come home and I am just so smoked. I'm like, this is so gnarly. Like I've shot all day, all night, all by myself. I was editing thousands and thousands of images. It took me way longer than I thought. And at the end I was like, "Oh my, was this even worth it? This was so much work." And I remember getting on set that first day. And it was a set because they were filming as well. And I'm walking into this big kind of production room. And it's like, there's just 30, 40 people there cameras everywhere, big Pelican cases, everything you could imagine, there's like a food table. And I'm just like eating all this food. Like I have no idea that it's free or not, or what. And I realize that this production is way larger than I envisioned. Anyway, I get home. And I'm like, that was work. I'm like, oh, who knows? I delivered the images. I'm like, I don't know if I'll ever hear from them again. I get another request a couple months later. And it was the same company. They're like, "Hey Chris we loved your work client, loved your work. Awesome." And I'm like client, who is the client? I never even bothered to ask. I never even bothered to find out because I was really just shooting for this agency I thought. And all of a sudden there's another shoot. And they want me to go up to Oregon and they want me to do some stuff in Santa Cruz and yada yada yada. And so it's a, multi-day shoot, little bit of traveling. And I'm like, "Guys like that shoot really worked me. Like I would love to be able to bring an assistant along. And I think that with an assistant plus travel plus editing it's gonna be like 6,000 bucks, right." And I mean, this was like a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of deliverables. And I remember going and doing that shoot. And again, just feeling worked. There's a huge video crew there this time. It's like 50 people on the video crew and it's just me and my little assistant right there. And luckily I was smart enough to even invite somebody that I had worked with in the past shooting weddings to come and help me out on this job. And anyway, point of the story, long story short I get back and worked again. It was a big process of trying to figure out and get them all the images. And then about four years later, right, sorry two years later all of a sudden a lot has changed in two years. Right? I'm now represented by somebody. I had done a few more commercial shoots kind of gotten my, sort of caughten up to speed and figured things out a little bit. And in my contract with that company I had written like two year agreement for the images. You know, you can use them in, you know however you want all rights marketing use. I was just charging them a day rate. My day rate back then was like, you know I think I billed it out as like, it's 2000 bucks a day, but that includes everything. Right? I didn't separate anything out. And all of a sudden I get this email and it's this sort of large kind of parent company. And they're like, "Hey, we're so and so wines one of our subsidiaries is this wine label and you shot some work for them and you did some great work and we loved it. And we would love to relicense this work." And I'm like, "Oh, okay, cool. Like that would be, that would be great. I know the license is up on all that, all those images." License, basically, which means usage. Right? Same thing. And I'm like, "Okay, great. Well now I have representation. I'm gonna send this email over to my agent who can negotiate those fees for you guys for a relicense." And I'm like, great. So I get this call and it's my agent. And he's like, "Hey, do you care about those images at all?" And I'm like, "No. I mean, it's like, so and so, you know, drinking wine in the vineyard and people like, you know, shooting oysters. I'm like, that stuff is dated. Like, I don't care. It's not work I'm passionate about nor do I care about nor does it represent me. Cause I don't drink." And he's like, "Okay, cause would you mind giving the rights away? Would you mind selling them all to them in perpetuity? Like they can use them forever." And I'm like, "Yeah, for sure." And they're like, "Okay, "cause you can, we can do that. And they'll pay you a $100,000." And I'm like, "What are you talking about? A $100,000?" And they're like, "Yeah, for 20 images. And I'm like, wait, wait, wait, you realize that I charged them like a total of, I think 10 grand to do the shoot." And he's like, "Yeah, we'll get to that later. When you did those shoots like this was the director, this was the industry, the company that was hiring you wasn't this new startup wine label. Wasn't this agency, it was this billion dollar conglomerate wine brand that owns all these things. And you could have probably charged between $75,000 and $80,000 per shoot." And that was the point that I basically like vomited inside my mouth and kind of realized like how much money I had left on the table. And it was such an eye opener because yeah it has a good ending 'cause I did make some great money from it, but I just had no clue. And the reality is nobody out there is gonna take the time to say, "Hey Chris, by the way, you know we're the ones hiring you. You're leaving a lot of money on the table." There was one kind of funny thought too is I remember after the second shoot, I think I invoiced them and I got my check back and they added on a couple, like a thousand dollars extra. And I was like, is that like a tip? Or is that like a bonus? And I think maybe it was just because they felt kind of bad in the end, but yeah I mean you live and you learn, this is what happens. And I guess the takeaway for me was like these different industries have these opportunities to pay a lot differently. Right? What I was used to was the surf industry was insulated and it had kind of a cap as to what people could make. 'Cause there was only about 15- 20 photographers doing it as opposed to a, you know, multi billion dollar industry that affects the whole world globally. And you're dealing with these huge marketing budgets and just, if I would've taken that time to research I probably could've made a lot more money.