Should I sign with a model agency? It is by far the most common question I get from models considering agency representation. It is a serious question with immeasurable consequences that can be the best opportunity of a lifetime or potentially disastrous. While I may not have all the answers you’re looking for or even wanting, I can tell you about my experiences working with models that were both signed and those that were not as well as the knowledge I’ve gathered over the years with modeling agencies.
First I must say that I am not affiliated with an agency. I am not a lawyer and I strongly recommend you seek one before signing anything as sweeping and complicated as a model agency contract. If you want the inside scoop you'll want to speak to someone that is more familiar with the legalities; preferably someone outside of an agency that can speak with objectivity and authority. However, what I offer is an unbiased perspective from someone in this market area that has photographed models for years; models both new, established, signed and unsigned in all types of modeling genres. Therefore, my advice isn't the only advice but is simply my own perspective about the industry at large and my thoughts on whether or not you should sign with a modeling agency.
What Agencies Do
The ideal modeling agency will do what you would unlikely be able to do for yourself. That is; that get you consistent quality modeling work. They keep you busy. An ideal agency has all the right connections with designers, magazines, clothing companies, retailers, advertisers, fashion brands, maybe even television producers, large and small companies alike. Essentially anyone that can make promotional and advertising decisions related to needing a model your agency would know them. Your agency has established a relationship with these organizations and as such are able to get work where no other agency or individual can. It saves these organizations time and money to be able to go to an agency. I have first hand knowledge as an organization I worked for found it to be much more efficient to go directly to an agency, describe all the attributes they needed in a model and let the agency narrow down the field rather than going to the open market without knowing what they would get.
The agency provides all the grunt work; selecting the model(s) prospects for the organization, negotiating the terms and contractual arrangements while also providing the payment mechanism. They are to be the perfect go-between. They get you work and they provide a much needed service to an organization, company, designer, promoter or creative director needing a model.
That is a huge undertaking where agencies are instrumental in navigating the open market and making things easier for everyone. Furthermore, agencies can keep the model out of legal issues by restricting shady or questionable deals he or she may be likely to engage in. The agency typically reviews and controls all assignments and decides the best course of action they will take. They know the fashion and marketing landscape, they understand advertising and promotional needs of an organization and they know how to match models to their clients’ tastes and preferences. They provide an endless supply of talent tailored and streamlined perfectly for the client’s needs while being able to hand select and pre-qualify talent the organizations may not have otherwise ever noticed or had the time or resources to discover on their own. It is a perfect arrangement in a perfect world.
The larger the payout, the larger the rewards; but not always. Agencies can get paid a variety of different ways but the one most related to modeling is the collection of a percentage of all work a model books during her contract terms. The industry average is 20% but may vary greatly from agency to agency and differs depending on local and regional markets as well as the type of agency. Additionally, a model’s specific contract may differ from other models within the same agency. However, 20% may not be all the fees an agency may take. Some agencies have been known to also take out a model’s full expenses in getting to and from assignments and occasionally even some test photo shoots. This may include meals, plane tickets, boarding, fuel costs or any other associated fees. If a model isn’t careful, he or she could owe the agency on those first few assignments. Or the model may be lucky to break even on some work.
A staffing agency by any other name is still a staffing agency. Modeling agencies have more pomp, and the literal mirrors, lights and glam that any other staffing agency need not employ. Yet, they are still a staffing agency. They provide labor resources for organizations. Period.
What Are You to A Modeling Agency?
Labor is what a model is to a modeling agency. They negotiate payment terms, do the payouts, control legal matters and provide consistent quality work for the model and the organizations that contract thru them. Despite the glam, agencies are staffing management and employers for the model and headhunters for companies that need them. Just like a staff agency, they prequalify models (workers) and assess their strengths categorically so as to place them in the proper jobs.
Agencies recruit thru a variety of means, open calls, scouts, walk-ins and other. What most agencies are not is desperate for talent. The modeling field is vastly overcrowded and labor supply far exceeds demand for such talent. Therefore, an agency desperate and pleading for a new prospective model to sign with them suggests unsettling problems. Either they are very new and eager to sign talent or they are having trouble in their recruitment and/or business contacts. If they aren’t signing exclusive contracts with new models and booking models they are not making money. In any event, it’s often a bad sign. Considering how the next biggest thing might be the model around the corner, pleading for one single person to sign with them isn’t generally their practice if the model is new or largely unknown to a broader market. Flattering as it may be, an agency pleading for you to sign isn’t necessarily a good sign unless you have already made a name for yourself in the industry at large.
Why Do They Want You?
Should you sign with a model agency? First you're assuming that they are making an offer. Just because you want to sign with one does't mean you will automatically be accepted. I have seen inarguably some of the most beautiful women in all the world actually get refused by several modeling agencies they tried to sign on with. Some were told they were too commercial looking and not high fashion enough. Others were told they are more suited for Playboy rather than catalog work. A few others were told they were too short, too thin or too heavy. Agencies are like any other staffing company. They tailor to their customers which are organizations that may need their resources; namely, access to models. Some agencies may lean more toward catalog models and trend to recruit models that suit that look and physical profile. Other agencies may be prominent in high fashion runway and will tend to follow the physical guidelines stereotypical for those type of models in their recruitment selection. Just like some staffing agencies tend more toward clerical work, agencies are the same if they lean toward more glamour, commercial, runway, catalog, print or even television ad work. Each agency will have strengths and weaknesses and you best research each and every one and consult with a lawyer before signing anything.
Knowing your prospective agency’s booking history will go a long way in determining if and who you should sign with. As with most agencies, most models will not get booked for anything. Just because you’re signed guarantees you nothing. However, you will be limited or totally restricted in what jobs you can take as well as shoots you get to take upon yourself depending on your contract. Should you get booked you might be limited to what jobs the agency wants you to take. If you’re uncomfortable with lingerie and you’re not comfortable with that then you need to make it clear in your contract before signing and apart of your contract agreement. Yet, the more restrictions you have the less likely you are ever to be booked or signed providing they show interests in you at all which is already rare for more prominent agencies.
I have known few models that have been signed that have been completely happy with their contracts; at least not in totality. They are thought to be highly restrictive. In exclusive contracts, the model is inhibited from doing almost anything on his or her own. Everything he or she does must go thru their booking agent. That means even non-paid assignments like photo shoots and such the model wishes to explore on their own. The model is often restricted from signing any model release of any sort without the oversight and approval from their agency or representative from that agency. The model will not engage in any commerce activity related to model of any sort without agency approval and oversight whatsoever throughout the full terms of their contract. Any money to be paid the model will require all applicable fees and payments be made to the agency as it pertains to the terms of the model contract. Unfortunately, exclusive model contracts are the most popular and most sought after contract most agencies want. They want all potential sources of revenue that a model can and will make on their books to insure their percentage and fee payments.
Booking photoshoots can be difficult as well. Agencies can insure that photographers are authentic, safe and provide quality work for their models. But while having quality oversight can be a great asset to a new model, the agency will control everyone that model works with on paid and non-paid assignments - should the letter of most exclusive contracts be followed precisely.
Also, booking a model under an exclusive contract can be a tedious and frustrating experience for most photographers not already affiliated with the agency. Many photographers tend to brag about how many agency models they shoot with as if somehow this makes them better photographers. By the same token agencies tend to boast about how they vet and prequalify all the photographers a model works with, again assuming that all these people produce high quality consistent work the model actually wants to do. All the time the model is blocked out of any work he or she wishes to partake upon for themselves (even as simple creative exploration) outside of agency control. More than once, modeling agencies have asked and even required me to pay a retainer to have access to their models; a requirement I refused to do. Considering the vast array of untapped talent available in the open market, paying to have access to models I’d never worked with before, for an agency I had no prior experience with, didn’t seem reasonable. In that respect, they actually hurt the opportunity of the model to get more experience and more notoriety since I am also a publisher, a graphic design and marketing professional with vast business contacts of my own.
Yet, having some familiar relationship with an agency from a photographer’s perspective can be at times, a good thing if and only if the agency can provide high quality models consistently and not inhibit that model’s growth and exposure; a horrible trend I see far too often. Unfortunately, I don’t have a BFF booking agent hidden away at an agency on my speed dial and this business is built on backroom deals and back scratch mentality rather than just high quality results.
My Booking Experience With Agencies
My personal booking experience with agency models have always been a strained one. Paid and unpaid, the process has always been very tiring and I’ve often wondered why a model would sign with these particular agencies at all. You see, agencies assign a model his or her own representative that essentially takes care of all that model’s assignment affairs. Too often have I sent request to agencies (I will not publicly name) to receive no reply at all. I have you know the work has been a mixture of paid and unpaid with a complete staff working on the shoot, an explanation of how the images would be used, a mood board of the project included, a call sheet with full staff credentials and past work portfolio links of all involved only to be met with complete total silence.
Other instances I have sent requests to work with a particular model to the model directly. The model expresses a strong desire to work with me. However, under the rules of her contract she could do nothing but refer me to her agent. After contacting her agent via phone call and email I was referred to another agent and then the entire matter was dropped after months of trying. The model contacted me to find out what happened but after several attempts and several messages I told her I couldn’t work with her because I haven’t heard from her agent. Her hands were tied because she couldn’t book with me because of the rules of her contract.
On a seperate occasion I worked with a model who was unsigned. It was a perfect collaboration. She was beautiful, professional, punctual and extremely talented. She later signed with an agency. I tried contacting her again and she referred me to her agent. The process repeated as it always had. I never heard from the agent and the model was never featured on our magazine cover as I had intended.
I have gone on to actually work with agency models with mixed results. But all in all my conclusion about agencies is that they are only as good as the people that work for them. More specifically, they are only as good as the booking agents and their management.
The Good. The Bad and The Legal
Any and everything you do pertaining to signing a model contract from the agency should be reviewed by a lawyer; preferably one that specializes in the industry. If you think it’s not serious then you had better think again. Exclusive or non-exclusive, a contract that equates to ownership - ownership of you to a degree, your time and the products and services that you create paid and unpaid. All contracts are not created equal. If you feel you’re in a position to negotiate your contract definitely do so. But generally, the smaller, less known agencies will likely negotiate more while the larger more popular agencies are less likely to even let you in the door. Therefore, choose your battles wisely. You might trade less work, no work or less high profile work for a non-exlusive contract or sign an exclusive contract with a national premium agency for higher paying designer gigs. But nothing is guaranteed. You might be just another signed model not getting any work or the work you originally intended.
One of the main hinderances (as if you need another) to even want to work with an agency model or a model wanting to sign a contract is that many agencies contractually obligate the model to agree that any and everything he or she produces with or without agency knowledge or approval during the terms of the model’s contract is the property of the agency. Should that be read the way it is written, that puts the model’s contract in contradiction with Copyright Law Title 17, which grants uncontested ownership of photographs under the ownership of the Photographer all things being equal. Essentially this presents legal ambiguity being that the model cannot assign ownership to anything that he or she cannot legally own. Furthermore, most agency contract wording try to side step any liabilities by trying to absolve themselves of any potential litigation by laying the fault at the feet of the models themselves. Essentially the model is forced to make the claim that they do this willfully and knowingly without holding the agency responsible for anything all the while the photographer has had their image use signed away without legal justification for doing so and without any liability to the agency. Therefore, the model is left in the middle of a potential legal battle of ownership and image use. The agency will blame the photographer, the photographer will blame the model and the model will say talk to his or her agency. It’s a game none wants to play.
Should You Sign?
It is a huge question and the answer carries it’s own risks and rewards. But I can say that each person has to make that decision for themselves. Should an intelligent, highly organized, well connected individual choose to pursue modeling, I’d quickly recommend going at it alone. However, if you’re just starting out, shy, not well connected and not familiar with the industry at large I’d recommend researching a very very specific agency that is consistent with what you want to do with your career and that is in line with your modeling aspirations. As I've said, the benefits of a well respected agency still guarantees you nothing. Statistically, you may never do anything but small ads, local designers and a few local television ads and clothing companies or nothing at all. But you have to decide what is important to you.
You also have to be realistic about your chances of making it big. You have to be mindful of the competitive forces and more to the point, be mindful of your body type and potential placement in the market. The absolute most beautiful women I’ve ever seen don’t get signed. If I mentioned them you’d be shocked to know who they are or that they have even been turned down to begin with. But getting signed doesn’t mean anything if you’re not getting your big break. I know many models that see it as a kind of badge of bragging rights to say, “I’m a signed model.” You know what I hear when they say that? I hear, I’m hard to book and my booking agent will ignore most of your calls. I hear you’ll be transferred five times before you reach the right person. I hear, we can’t decide if you’re a free assignment or a paid one from the booking agent so we chose to ignore the phone call or email until we decide.
But today, I’ve seen more unsigned models in television commercials, in print ads and on billboards than I can say about signed models that I know. They’re happy, they’ve done or doing what they want to do. They have control over their lives and can balance their family and work because they only take the assignments they want to take and go where they want to go. But they’re connected. They’re out in the community, they’re networking, they know people that know people. They are only taking assignments that bolsters their portfolios and careers. They’re choosey and they have a right to be. Such is the life of the unsigned.
You have to decide for yourself.