In photography, generally speaking, you may have representing you, possibly 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 for you assignments (or atleast they're supposed to), but also represent and license your stock photography. Their stated objective is to represent you in the many facets of photography. 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 5.
For this post, we'll be discussing the latter, and not the former.
Also, generally speaking, there are two groups of photographers that want a rep. Those that need them because they need help managing their assignment load that they have better, growing their market, and increasing their presence from local to regional, or regional, to national. Then there are those that think that all of the problems of running their business could be solved if they just had a rep. Rarely is there the "hot" photographer, that made PDN's 30 under 30, got an award from Communications Arts, or got picked up for a huge national campaign that became controversial or "blew up". We're not going to touch on those folks either.
First - to the photographers who expect that the rep will solve all the ills of their photographic life.
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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 take it to it's most basic level, to pitch you - your style and approach to photography, and so forth, to the clientele and projects that you are best suited for. Then, when there's a good stylistic fit, they will negotiate all the angles of the deal, and they will take somewhere around 20% 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 that's available. So, the likelihood that you can get a rep to take you on is less than 1%. 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.
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 down this even further to discuss an individual rep. First, it should be their full time job, not something that this person does part-time (unless they were a full time rep for a long time, and decided to dial their workload back), and it's fair that they'll be earning somewhere around $100k, as their salary. In order to cover that, let's make the assumption that they have $20k in overhead. Remember, this is a generalization. So, with them at $120k a year that they have to generate, they're getting that income from, let's say, 4 photographers. Overall, these four photographers need to generate $10k per month, or, $2,500 each - for the rep. 20% of $12,500 is $2,500. So, you need to generate $12,500 each 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 that they are 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 considering that they are in the hole $7,500. Ask a prospective rep what they would 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 both evaluate each other. 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.
Now would be a really great time for you to click over to Caitlin Ravin's blog, and check our her two part series (which was the inspiration for this post):
Some reps will participate in the cost of a marketing campaign that you both are working on. Perhaps they'll be the ones to fine-tune a mailing list and will split that 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 what helps your bottom line, helps theirs.
Again, 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 is stated on Caitlin's blog - it's like marriage. Begin the courtship, engage in a dialog, 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 they will engage in with and for you, and you'll far better understand what they're doing (and how much they'll do!) for you.
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