Recently a well-known photographer I follow socially who focuses on fashion & workshops reached out to me about an experience they had using an agency model. It seems the experience wasn’t good which surprised me because this photographer is an “influencer”. There were issues raised about TFP image use and the terms of the model contract. The photographer asked for my comments knowing I worked with agency models and I was Business Director of an agency.
If you are new to using a model agency, working with a signed model or don’t have similar reputation you may experience something similar. I wanted to share my experience and provide a bit of insight from the other side. Why me, a portrait and fashion photographer, you might ask? Because I am also a Business Director of a boutique model agency. I now can say I see the business from both sides. As a photographer and as an agency.
First, a massive caveat. This is one photographer’s / model agency Director opinion only. However, this opinion is based on experience interacting and working with agencies & represented models for over 10 years. Talk to 10 different agencies or 10 different photographers and you may get completely different information. OK here goes.
There are 5 important points to know about model agency business:
Model agencies are businesses and therefore must earn a profit to be successful. They do this primarily through commissions earned booking their models at a paid rate.
“For exposure” is an overused & misused term that does not always result in new or paid bookings for the agency.
Model agencies make an investment (both money & time) in their represented models and try to effectively manage this investment. Models also make an investment in themselves and their brand.
Many agencies want to protect their investment in signed models so they will take a keen interest in the model’s image & reputation. They may scrutinize the client, the project, the budget and photographer booking a model.
For the right assignment, photographer or brand a well-run model agency will book out their models for unpaid assignments (“TFP” or Time for Photos).
There are ALWAYS EXCEPTIONS to these points, but this is the norm.
If you reach out to a model agency requesting a model for a project they may ask; 1) your budget, 2) your mood board, 3) your casting requirements unless requesting a specific model / models, 4) date /time / venue, 5) image use, etc. Your response will determine their follow-up. An established client, known brand or photographer, having the appropriate budget, appropriate concept will improve the chances of follow-up and a successful booking. All parties are happy.
OK, now let’s say you want to book a model for a TFP assignment. This was the situation that prompted the initial questions. The model agency is going to ask what the model and the agency will receive in return. Here are some things a model agency might want to accomplish:
Practice for a new / developing model.
Photographic content for a model’s portfolio or social media.
Developing a relationship with a photographer, brand or business.
Exposure for the model or the agency that leads to paid bookings.
I’ll focus on the last point since this tends to drive many of the TFP booking decisions my agency thinks about.
One important point…the model and agency work to develop and improve a model’s “brand”. In most cases this is brand is visibly represented by the images in their portfolio and in their social media. This is what people see first. This is part of the investment I mentioned earlier.
This is very model agency specific but if the agency doesn’t feel your photography quality is good enough for the portfolio or the TFP is unlikely to lead to paid bookings then you may be asked to pay. If you don’t have a reputation that the agency can verify or a poor reputation then the agency may not even book out models even if paid. If you overstate your reputation or come across too strong it won’t help getting TFP. If they have had poor experience previously then it will be difficult to do business again. Etc., etc. Remember, the agency MUST feel what you offer in return for booking a model TFP is something they or the model needs. This is highly subjective. Also, if an agency agrees to a TFP assignment it’s best not to ask for a specific model, but allow the agency to let you know who’s available. Some models don’t do TFP.
OK, now let me address the other key point raised which is regarding the agency contract. The photographer that reached out to me felt agency contracts were too restrictive and recommended that models be careful in signing. I agree with the last part, but generally not the first.
Models represented by a model agency sign a contract as an independent contractor. The contract contains the terms and conditions of the relationship. These contracts are for a period of years, i.e. 1-4 years in length. The contract will detail if the model can work independently outside of the contract, is exclusive to the agency, how the model is to conduct themselves professionally, etc. etc. Some are very simple, some are detailed. Bottomline, the contract defines the relationship between parties.
A model (or his or her parents based upon laws of the country / region) SHOULD NEVER SIGN A CONTRACT without reading it and fully understanding it. Let me repeat, NEVER SIGN A CONTRACT unless you understand it. DON’T GET PRESSURED into signing a contract that you don’t understand. If the agency won’t let you read the contract or give you time to read the contract, or pressures you to sign then I have 3 words … DO NOT SIGN! This is so important to me, that within our agency we will not sign a model until we meet with them and review the details of the contract. We walk them through it (including parents). No matter how excited they are (or we are) we do not sign the contract during that meeting. Signing is done on a different day.
So, what should you do if you are a model, have been lucky enough to be scouted and have been offered a contract? First, congratulations, next:
Read the contract. I know it’s boring and uses legal terms, but you need to read it.
If you don’t understand anything then ask questions. If you get an answer and you still don’t understand it, ask again.
I recommend you have the contract reviewed by a lawyer. They may recommend changes the agency may or may not agree to, but they can provide counsel.
Understand the section about “exclusivity”. Does the model agency represent you just for the local market, your entire State or region, your entire country? This is critical especially if you want to work in other markets / cities. Most contracts have some form of exclusivity.
Understand any section regarding expenses. It’s not unusual for major market agencies to cover some expenses for you, or to charge you for selected services (i.e. comp cards, website fee, etc.) and bill you or deduct these expenses from your bookings.
What is the length of the contract and does the contract auto-renew. I recommend you keep the contract as short as possible, i.e. 2 years. Remember, if you are good the agency will work hard to keep you under contract.
Can you do bookings, photo assignments, have pictures taken outside of the contract or does everything need to go through the agency? Most agencies require bookings and assignments go through them.
Understand what access do you have to images taken.
Must you maintain specific physical attributes. As an example, maintaining a specific hair color or length. Some contracts limit material changes without agency approval.
Find out if the model agency requires specific paid training or classes. Most agencies don’t require any formalized development or training classes; however, some do. These often require payment. This is unusual for major market agencies.
You may be put on the New Faces or Development “board”. Find out what conditions must be met to be promoted to the main board.
Are there any social / professional responsibility clauses (i.e. what happens if you show up late for a photoshoot, what happens if you get caught doing something illegal, etc.)
Who owns your social media activity? You should maintain control of all your social media activities, although you may get some guidance on what / when to post
What are the terms of cancellation. How can the agency do to cancel the contract and what can you do if you want to get out? Don’t be surprised if the model agency can terminate the contract without notice or cause.
Find out how quickly you will be paid after a paid assignment
While you’re at it ask the agent how often models get booked out, what are the conditions in the market, how will you get your website portfolio developed, who are some of the clients, etc.
The key is to be fully informed and enter into the relationship with your eyes open. Should around if necessary. Pick the agency that’s right for you.
The world of modeling & working with a model agency can be a fun experience for both the model and the photographer. Go out there and book a model!!