Someone To Watch Over You

CR talks to four of the top commercial photography agents about what they do, how they do it and why their multifaceted role is now more vital than ever

Taking a seat around the CR round table are agency directors Katy Niker of Burnham Niker; Carolyn Trayler of Trayler & Trayler; James Gerrard-Jones of Wyatt-Clarke + Jones and Kim Pappas of Process to discuss everything from how they get their photographers’ work in front of ad agencies, to what graduates need to do to get ahead…

CR: Let’s start with how you get your photographers’ work in front of people. Are face-to-face meetings still important? What digital tools do you use as well?

Katy Niker: It is harder to get in to see people these days, especially if you’re unknown. An established agent certainly has a better chance than a photographer on their own. Everyone is so busy that trying to do individual appointments with art directors, something I was doing 20 years ago, is almost impossible to do now. So we do ‘portfolio presentations’, where art buyers/print producers book us a room and we bring in drinks, nibbles and all our photographers’ portfolios. We’re in there for a couple of hours and the art directors can come and go as they please. It’s an informal way of showing work, it doesn’t feel like a hard sell.

James Gerrard-Jones: Our blog, Twitter and emails all form an essential part of what we do, but it’s still important to see people face to face. It’s one of the reasons I still love real, physical portfolios; they get across the quality and personality of the photographer’s work, but also give us an excuse to come in and see people.

KN: We will also tweet about recent shoots, obviously being careful not to say anything that shouldn’t be out in public before the ads have run.

Kim Pappas: Yes, Non-Disclosure Agreements are much more prevalent these days. In the last five to seven years we’ve been signing NDAs at the start of the shoot, whereas before we wouldn’t necessarily have had that. Clients are more concerned about protecting their products, their campaigns.

CR: Has this wider range of digital tools helped how you look for new photography talent yourselves?

KN: If you’re an established agent, you’re lucky that on the whole you don’t have to look for talent. I’m sure everyone here gets approached on a daily basis, but most of our stables will be full, therefore we’re not necessarily looking to take on photographers. I aim to have quite long-term relationships with mine and hence don’t change photographers that often.

KP: Maybe ten to 20 submissions a week. It’s key that the approach is well presented and researched.

CR: How often will a submission coming in that way lead to taking someone on?

KN: It depends on the size of your company. I have eight photographers, but other agents have many more. You’ve really got to see something quite special and it has to work within your stable.

KP: But it can trigger a relationship. I had an email from a photographer two and a half years ago; I now represent him. You don’t take someone on from that first email though – you meet up, see their book, they have a show or a campaign. You’re gradually building a relationship with them, seeing whether you’d be happy to talk to this person on a daily basis, as that’s what we end up doing. You have to fall a little bit in love with your photographers.

KN: As well as being a photographer with great work, you also have to know about their personality. You are going to have testing, hectic times, you need to know they can cope with that pressure. Pre-production meetings, last minute changes on projects, the many personalities that they will come across. There isn’t room to have a really big ego, no-one can wear it anymore, no-one has the time!

Carolyn Trayler: Sometimes a photographer approaches you – and they woo you. If they’re half decent and keep sending you new work and you build a relationship – and if they’re very keen on you as an agent – that’s quite enticing: you look a bit deeper at them. Also, they might say, ‘I’ve got a job and I actually don’t know how to handle it’. That’s the perfect way for a photographer to approach you. ‘Could you look after this project on this one special occasion?’ We’ve got two photographers who have just done that with us.

CR: Is that something you’ve seen more of recently?

CT: Yes. They’re having trouble getting agents. So they have to use all their powers. Just as we do when approaching agencies and art directors.

KN: I think it’s because advertising agencies much prefer working through agents these days – it was 50-50 years ago when I first started. With timings being so tight, productions so complicated, adding in moving image, you now need someone who is always in that executive production role – which is the agent. With clients having so much more of a say at every stage, everything has to be signed off, hence we have to manage that process.

CR: What are the implications of having fewer art buyers in agencies?

CT: We hold hands more than we ever did, all the way through. We’re dealing with project managers now who aren’t as trained as art buyers were. Where there was one art buyer in an agency, there might be four or five project managers who may not know about things such as usages or the complexities of a shoot.

KN: As Carolyn said, it comes down to us. They’re on the phone saying, ‘Well, why can’t you shoot on that road in two days?’ We explain that there are certain licences we need to get in place; otherwise you’re shooting illegally. With art buyers, those questions never reach us, they’d always be batted back by the art buyer to the account team, because they would know. There are agencies that work very effectively with project managers: BBH is one, because not only do they have their head art buyer, but all the project managers are experienced and have been trained. There are other agencies who have just wiped out the art buying department over night, with nothing in place to effectively take over this critical creative role.

JGJ: It has altered who we have to show the work to and how we do that. It’s also added to the importance of having a good agent and producer working for you when agencies are in a state of flux. But I think this is just a transitory period – the value of experienced art production and art buying is undeniable.

KN: It’s a real shame, because the agencies lose out. At the agencies that don’t have art buyers, quite often the people doing that role now haven’t come from that ‘passion for photography’ background. They’re not aware of all the photographers out there, of the exhibitions, they’re not looking at magazines etc. So they get set working with a certain small pool of photographers, who are the ones they’ve probably had contact with when there was an art buying department. The agencies with art buyers, or well-defined art buying/production teams, are definitely the ones where you see a greater diversity of photographers working across their campaigns.

CT: These agencies are the ones who are more creative. The UK was famous for its creativity in agencies and it is in danger of losing that. Once, art directors could go along to an art buyer, who was in the job because they were passionate about it, they loved art, they went to exhibitions, looked at photographers’ portfolios – and she would give him some ideas, and suggest artists. That was her job. Now, there’s none of that going on and you get traffic people having to see it through for a budget, account people who don’t know anything about creative photography – who only worry about the client – and an art director who just eventually gives up battling for his idea because he’s lost the creative process and the enjoyment out of it. So the actual end product doesn’t end up as stunningly creative as it could be.

CR: Has how fees and rights are worked out remained stable, or have these processes changed since you’ve been working in the industry?

JGJ: We’ve been working on establishing accepted norms for usage based on media, territory and duration. This has been a great thing and the usage calculator is available online at the Association of Photographer’s (AOP) website. But as agents we use our experience and trusted relationships with agencies to work out unique agreements depending on the project. It’s one of the key benefits of having an agent; you can trust that we know when and where to draw the line for you. When to ask for more and when to settle for less.

KN: The scale is only a guide, you negotiate around it, but really we have no ‘body’ behind us. So it’s vital to keep doing good business practice, if people do silly things we all lose out. The AOP site keeps us aware of situations that might not be great, like bad payers – one agency not paying you can make an agent go down.

CR: What has the change in collaborative work, from working with a retoucher to now working with a CGI studio, for example, meant for the photographer?

CT: On the CGI side, I feel that it’s been very prevalent over the last five years, but I’m sensing a backlash against it. Cars were CGI-d all the time and they’d buy in the backgrounds. Now at last I’m representing car photographers again; it’s going back to photographing cars on real roads. Real reflections, emotion coming back in. I’m not going to say it’s going out of fashion, but it’s being looked at again.

JGJ: What we have seen is a real backlash against work that looks and feels like CGI. Of course, good CGI is fantastic and we’ve been lucky enough to work with the best in the business on this front, but we do hear creatives passionately pleading that their print adverts make the best use of CGI but ‘look and feel like beautiful photography’.

CR: What might be driving this attitude?

KP: There’s an authenticity and reality that clients are looking for. One of our photographers, Chris Turner, recently shot a campaign for Target – the campaign lent itself to being created in CGI; it’s fantastical. But the client was really brave and wanted to do it in photography. So Chris had a great opportunity to work with set builders, model makers and these extraordinary images have been born out of it. They could have gone down a CGI or even illustrative route. But the client thought we’ll put the time into this to create something authentic, that has a reality about it and an honesty to it that I don’t think you get from CGI.

KN: Every time a new process or new technology comes in, everyone always scaremongers, saying it will be the death of photography. We had it with retouching and more recently with CGI. There will be a role for all of those things, but they are just another tool in the process, not a replacement for photography.

CR: What do you use to present work nowadays?

KN: We still present work in portfolios, because people enjoy turning pages, flicking back and forth across images, which you can’t do easily onscreen. Also, you see different subtleties on a printed page, to a screen where everything is backlit.

KP: I think we all had our own little stint with an iPad; they were definitely easier on the arms! But we all prefer seeing a beautifully printed, well presented portfolio. They should be a joy to look at.

CT: We use one for moving image, as we also have filmmakers. So we can show how the photographer can make the perfume bottle move, steam coming out of food.

CR: And the majority of your photographers also do moving image now? When did that become the norm?

KP: Clients are looking for content for websites, they might want something 10 seconds long that moves. Most photographers have embraced it – it is a new skill set though.

CT: We sometimes call it ‘breathing stills’ – the images breathe and they move.

JGJ: The increase in motion footage being commissioned alongside stills has been a big change. Josh Cole, for instance, recently won a Young Director Award in Cannes for his video for Rudimental’s Not Giving In. This isn’t a move away from photography for Josh, it’s just another string to his bow as a creator of visual content.

CR: What advice do you have for graduates who want to work in commercial photography?

KN: I think people should have had between three and five years out there on their own. It’s only when you’ve worked on estimates, pulled your production team together, done the shoot, chased payment from the agencies, that you understand what we do for the 25% of fees that is our commission.

KP: As a rule we encourage graduates to gain experience, to assit photographers, start shooting editorially, shoot personal projects, get out there, meet agencies, and start building relationships.

KN: I would also recommend a period assisting a full-time photographer and then have a period assisting freelancers. With a full-time position you get to see a project from the start, right the way through to retouching, which you don’t get when you freelance, because you’re only there for the shoot day. But the good thing about freelancing is that you can work with a variety of photographers on all sorts of different shoots. And if you want to work in the advertising industry, you have got to have ideas within your work. A strong individual style and good ideas – that combination is going to be unique to you. When art directors are looking at 20 fantastic portfolios, how do they choose? They look for a strong style that’s appropriate for that project, but they also want to know how that photographer’s head works, how they will photographically develop their concept.

JGJ: Katy’s right, assisting is a great way to start. Also I’d recommend they enter awards and get their work exhibited; things like D&AD New Blood and the AOP’s assistants awards, go to folio reviews like Format or Mother London’s Open Books. Magnum and Ideas Tap run a course called Professional Practice and that’s exactly what you need to do, professionalise yourself. These sorts of events and opportunities to meet industry commissioners will get you plugged into the art buyer and picture editor grapevine. Word of mouth and recommendations are the most important things you can have working for you.

CT: And you should invest in taking personal work. You should be out there, planning projects, thinking of ideas. We nag our photographers all the time to go and work on their own projects!

KN: Yes, and we can’t show an art buyer or art director a portfolio that hasn’t changed in six months. As soon as we get new work, we change the portfolio. It is a continuous process and there will never be a finite portfolio for a photographer, it should always change as their life experience does.

JGJ: Also, getting out and meeting people is key; people need to get a sense of who you are as well as your work, all being well they’ll put you in touch with the next person and the next person. You’re building your network all the time; that work never stops either, it’s going to be the core of your business as a photographer.

CR: Has your idea of what photography is and can do changed over the years you’ve been working?

KN: In essence, we’re still doing the same thing. Interpreting briefs. What’s changed is how we produce them and present them. The ‘global’ market has definitely had an impact though. As Carolyn said, the UK was always very strong creatively, but we were working to a specific UK market. With so many campaigns these days, you’re making global work, which can be tricky creatively when you have 20 different markets to please. They all want something that’s right and specific to them. That’s a key change.

JGJ: The last five years have changed the landscape of commercial photography totally. A huge area of the market has all but disappeared with the development of photo kit, in-house studios and CGI. For us, that’s not been an issue as the market for really distinctive talent backed up by strong production values is as strong as ever, stronger even. This is good news for photographers as the industry is on the look out for unique, individual work. There’s as much, if not more, to be excited about as ever before.

CR: Finally, what qualities do you think it takes to be a photographer’s agent?

KP: You have to be a life coach, an accountant, a mother, a good friend, a counsellor, a negotiator, a lawyer. You have to be creative yourself, an art critic and a problem solver. To be a really good agent you have to have all those skills. And lots of tenacity.

To see the work of the photographers represented by the agents who took part in the round table, visit processphotography.co.uk, burnham-niker.com, traylerandtrayler.com, and wyattclarkejones.com. All the agents are also on Twitter: @ProcessPhoto, @BurnhamNiker, @TraylerTrayler and @JamesGJones. For more information on the Association of Photographers, visit the-aop.org

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