To Be (Represented) or Not to Be

When I started as a photographer, I thought that I had to have a rep. But what’s a rep?

In photography, you may seek representation from a photo agency, such as Black Star, Aurora, or Zuma. (This is not the same as a stock house where you file your images for re-sale). These organizations not only secure you assignments, but also represent and license your stock photography. Their stated objective is to represent you in the many facets of photography.

Read Ben Chapnick’s post, Should You Seek Agency Representation? for more on agency relationships.

What we’re discussing here, though, is not that arrangement, but the arrangement between one individual (and perhaps an assistant or two if they’re successful) and a small group of photographers — often not more than five.

Who Needs a Rep?

Generally speaking, there are two groups of photographers who want a rep. There are those who want to better manage their assignment load, grow their market, and increase their presence from local to regional, or regional to national. Then there are those who think that all of the problems of running their business would be solved if they only had a rep.

First, to the photographers who expect that the rep will solve all the ills of their photographic life: Get a grip. They won’t. It’s not that they can’t; it’s that it’s not their job. Their job is to pitch you — your style and approach to photography, and so forth — to the clientele and projects for which you are best suited. When there’s a stylistic fit, they will negotiate all the angles of the deal — and will take somewhere around 20 percent for doing that.

There are probably no less than a hundred photographers who want a rep for every rep — and that’s every rep there is, not every rep who’s available. So the likelihood you can get a rep is less than one percent. I know that’s a generalization, but it’s enough of a sensible figure to dissuade you from the notion that getting a rep is easy, or likely.

The Economics of Reps

First, let’s discuss the economics of being a rep. There are some firms that have multiple reps, and each handles several photographers. That’s not the most common situation, so we’re narrowing this down to the individual rep.

Assuming it’s their full-time job, it’s fair to say they’ll earn somewhere around $100k in income. Let’s assume $20k in overhead, which means they’ll need to generate $120k in revenue from, say, four photographers. These four photographers will need to generate a total of $10k per month, or $2,500 each, for the rep. $2,500 is 20 percent of $12,500. That means you’d need to generate $12,500 per month in fees in order for this rep to keep you. You don’t line-item a rep’s fee; it usually is based upon your fees.

If you’re not generating that amount of business now, then the rep may be taking a loss for the first few months while ramping you up. Recognize that that time they put in is an investment in you and the relationship, and if they don’t get you an assignment for three months, they’re in the hole $7,500. Ask a prospective rep what they need to earn each month (on average) from the work they do for you, and how many photographers they handle. Knowing this will be helpful as you evaluate one another. Can you produce that amount of work? Can they wait around until you do? Can they get that amount of work for you?

How do reps go about selecting who they will represent? It would be a conflict if they handled photographers with overlapping styles or specialties, so they might have one photographer who does food, one who does annual reports, one who does architecture, and one who does children’s advertising. They might even throw into the mix an illustrator as well.

Some reps will participate in the cost of a marketing campaign that you both work on. Perhaps they’ll be the ones to fine-tune a mailing list and split the distribution cost with you. Reps have even been known to split the costs of ads in Black Book, Workbook, and so forth. Every relationship is different, but remember, their business is generating income from your business, so whatever helps your bottom line, helps theirs.

Reps, Office Managers and Consultants

If you want someone to run your business, hire an office or studio manager. If you want someone to give you advice on where to take your business next, grow your marketing campaign, hone your portfolio, and so forth, hire a consultant. Pay them well, follow their advice (no matter how painful it may be to hear from time to time) and begin an ongoing relationship with that consultant.

If you want a rep, as Caitlin points out, it’s like marriage. Begin the courtship, engage in a dialogue, and hopefully, it will be the right fit.

If not, remember, life must go on. Without a rep, you’ll want to learn marketing, best business practices, negotiating, pricing, and so forth, on your own — if for no other reason than for you to survive long enough to get a rep.

But once you get one, with all that knowledge, you’ll be able to be a far more active participant in the process, and you’ll have a much better understanding of what reps do (and how much they do!) for you.

[tags]photographic agencies, photography business[/tags]

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