Artist and Agent Relationship
I am really excited today to have my rep, Maren Levinson, here with me, this is a really, really cool opportunity because, it's not very often that she's able to break away, and so, I would encourage you in the audience, and at home, if you're watching, to ask questions and take advantage of this opportunity. I'll give you a little back story of how Maren and I first connected and started working together, we actually just talked about this for the first time the other day, if I didn't mention, we've been working together for about five years, I think, around there, and we typically talk almost every day. Sometimes there's maybe a few days that go by, and I'm very sad if I don't get to talk to her every day, but, we have a very close working relationship, and, it's very much a partnership. But, how we originally met was I had a rep, it was my first rep, and, they were a great fit for me because, when I started out, my goal was to do editorial photography. And this rep focused primarily...
on editorial photography, and so I was with them for a number of years, and I started to realize that I wanted to get more into commercial photography, more advertising-specific, and it felt like there wasn't necessarily a lot of room for growth in the first relationship that I was in with a rep. And there were a few different phases, where some different things were tried, and some new agents were brought on, and tried to kind of move into the commercial division, but, I also needed, and I think I didn't realize this in hindsight, I needed someone who could also kind of help me grow a little bit as well. And that's the kinda thing where you're not always aware of that, you know, when you're in that situation, you think you're ready for everything, and there's no room for growth or whatnot, but, at some point, when I was with my first rep, I had this idea that at some point, I was wanting to kind of try something new, or bigger, however I envisioned that, and so, there was some moment where I came across a list, someone had built a list of all of the top reps and agents in the industry, and so, I added everyone to my contact list, which we talked about in the last section. And so, over several years, I was sending all these reps my newsletter, and I wasn't asking anyone to represent me or anything like that, but I just wanted people to see what I was up to, so that there was some idea, I was building my brand, essentially. And then, eventually there came a point where I left the rep that I was with, I needed to make a step in a different direction, and so, I started looking for someone else to work with, and, I had a list of certain reps that I thought I wanted to be with. And I think in hindsight, this was based off of a lack of information, or just, maybe it was emotional, it was more who I perceived to be big time or something, I thought that that's what--
I just found out I wasn't on that list.
I know, I'm so sorry! (Audience laughs)
And that's a good thing, and we'll get to that, it was a good thing. But, one thing that I started to do was I was asking clients and potential clients, who is it that you like to work with? Who is it someone that you trust and respect, and someone that follows through, and you think about when you're looking for someone that does the type of work that I do. And, slowly, the people that were on my list, not everyone, but some of them, started to come off. I started to realize, maybe they don't align based on some of this feedback. But, one thing that was consistent was that everyone continued to say, "Well, Maren at Redeye is someone that I love," and, I was like, "Interesting." And so, we ended up having a conversation, well, also the other thing, oh, go.
Well I was on your newsletter list, this story's a little bit like the dating game, we have different versions of it, but I was on his newsletter list for years, and, they always made me smile, and I responded to him, and said, "Thanks, you made my day," there was no ulterior motives on either of our parts, it was just, a connection that was in the background of our initial conversation.
Right. And I think, that was something that took me a minute to realize, too, was maybe when people were saying, "Wow, we love working with Maren," and I started to realize, as she said, she did I think almost every newsletter, respond, and again, it was never like, "Let's talk about representation," it was just, "Wow, I like this work," and, "Oh, this is funny," and then it hit me, my own rep never even responded to my newsletters, you know? And again, I don't wanna knock anybody, that's not necessarily anything malicious, but, that meant something to me, when I thought about that, I realized, someone that takes the time, and is clearly relational, and so we had a phone conversation, and again, to be brutal, I think going into it I was like, for various reasons, I think I perceived Redeye, and this was just lack of information, I thought it was more editorial, and I think we had that talk. And so that was really the main thing I thought, I don't think I'm gonna be interested, but we had a conversation, by the end, I remember getting off the phone, and I just looked at Michelle, I was like, "I need to work with Maren," it was an instant connection, and I felt like we just really aligned creatively, and in terms of pretty much everything, and so, that was my perspective, and I think we started, we did like a trial period kinda, we were like dating essentially for I don't know how many months, or how many jobs.
I think a lot of people think that you look for an agent and you just find one, but it's really a process, of sort of, fishing, and dating, and trying, and we do work freelance with most people before we sign them, because it's a big commitment. And you have to feel comfortable, you have to be happy when that person calls, and, on both sides.
We have a number of artists that have come through our survival guide workshops, and, after a few months, we'll get a call or an email, and they've signed up with an agent, they just, I think they were excited emotionally, and then they signed up, and this has actually happened a couple of times, have been like, "I've had a couple jobs come through, "and I haven't got a call back from my agent. "I can't even talk to them." And it's like, how does that happen? But that's not a situation you wanna just enter into lightly, you wanna know who you're working with, and, anyways. So that's kind of our backstory in how we got there. I guess, let's start off before we start talking about how we work and what some of our work flow looks like, I thought we could start by breaking down some of the roles, that maybe both of us work with, but more specifically, people that you find yourself working with in the industry.
Yeah, I mean the general thing that happens when a job comes through the door, is that there are a lot of people involved that need to be aligned, so, on the agency or the client side, there's the creative director and the art director, who usually comes up with the concept, and then they have a creative producer, or an art producer, who represents them. And makes sure that their needs are being communicated to the artist and the agent. There's a lot of information that needs to go back and forth before we produce a proper bid. And so, my job is to represent John, and make sure that his process is communicated to them. So, there's kind of two sides, with a representative on each side communicating, so I will, or somebody at the agency will be speaking often with the agency producer, or the art producer. Every agency and client is different in terms of, some places that person is really a producer who makes the job happen, some places that person is a very creative person, who is suggesting the artist to the art directors, and the creative directors. "Oh, you wanna do a journalistic job? "These are the people I'd recommend." So, it's my job to know these people, I make a point of traveling to many different cities, we're based in LA, but we go to New York, and Austin, we go all around the country so that I make sure that those people know me, and that it's easy for them to pick up the phone and call me, and that I'm top of mind. On the initial phone call, John will have a chance, or the artist will have a chance to speak to the creative director and the art director, and ultimately, when the job signs off, they will have a creative back and forth, direct. But they're protected in the beginning, because they're busy, and they have a lot to do. And John's protected in the beginning, 'cause he might be on another shoot. So, I'm gathering all this information, and they're communicating all this information, probably for a couple of weeks, before there's even a sign off on a job. Should we talk about the initial calls and things like that now, are is that later?
We'll get to that maybe in a second, yeah. I mean, one thing that I've noticed is there was often times you would say, "I've been talking to so-and-so for a couple days, "or a week or something, about this job," and I love it, because it's like, I don't even know sometimes what those conversations look like, but I know that when I'm needed I'll come in, and it's also nice to not have that prolonged emotional excitement or attachment to something, it's gonna happen a little more quickly that way. Can you maybe talk a little bit about what's going on in that period of time?
Yeah, so, generally somebody might call me, and there are questions that they feel more comfortable asking me, that they might not feel comfortable asking the artist, or might not think that they'll get a straight answer from the artist, so, sometimes, they'll say, "I've noticed a lot of funny people in John's work, "does he know how to photograph serious people?" And, I'll be able to say, "Of course, and actually, "let me guide you to this area on his website," where there's a series of academics, or, we might in our office internally, without even telling John, pull together a little PDF of images, that are more applicable to what they're looking for for. And people are much more literal than you can possibly imagine. And if he has pictures of people on a green background, they might ask, "Can he photograph people on a black background?" And if they don't see it, they need to. So, I generally can communicate that stuff. I cannot replace him as an artist, I have no idea about lighting, I'm not technical, so when people start asking me that stuff, and they do, because I've gotten pretty far in the conversation, that's when I back off and say, "You know what, "we should really get on a creative call, "and John can talk about how he'll approach it." And I'm always so impressed, I'm like, "I love hearing him talk about this," because, it will help me out later to be able to communicate how he approaches a shoot, but it's also really fun! I mean, in terms of the creative process, to hear, he always surprises me, I always think I know, and we have worked together for five years, and he'll always say something new on a call, where I'm like, "Oh, that's how he does that." (Audience laughs)
I think going back to what you said about, being able to ask questions about an artist to you, versus me, was something that I think about is, it doesn't happen as much anymore, but when we first started working together, I would still get a call or an email occasionally from a client, and so, especially if it was a call, I would answer, and then they'd say, "Hey, we wanna know about if you're available, "or interested," and so we'd have a brief conversation before I'm able to kick it over to you, and sometimes back then I would ask, "What's the budget?" Or, "Where's it gonna be?" Or anything like that, just trying to get some information. And then, they'd say, "Oh, I really don't know, "we don't have any of that information," and so, I would call or email you, and say, "Hey, just wanna let you know, I talked to so-and-so, "they wanna connect, there's this potential job, "they don't know any information or budget," anyway. And I'll get a call 20, 30 minutes later from Maren and she'll say, "Alright, so it's gonna be in Seattle, "and it looks like this is the budget," and this is this, and this, and this, and I'm like, "They didn't know that like 20 minutes ago, "how did you get that information?" But I think, again, like you were saying, there's a buffer or safety--
Yeah, and I think sometimes, I mean it's funny, they're really afraid of what the artist will think, you know, they don't wanna turn John off on a job before he gets it, and, so, they might pitch a job to John, and say, "It's gonna be great!" And then, I might have a conversation with them, and they'll be like, "We have a flat budget, of this much, "there's nothing we can do," I mean, they don't have a problem telling me that. It's funny because they really, I find that clients and creatives really revere the artist, and I work with them every day (laughs), and I'm like, "Oh, that guy?" (Maren laughs)
You could say whatever. Going back to the roles, how have you seen some of the roles change in the last five or 10 years, in terms of--
I think the biggest thing, there are a couple of things, but I think the biggest thing is the idea of multimedia, of different medias being requested, so, it used to be that there were print producers, and broadcast producers, now you see a lot of integrated producers. There used to be social digital producers, again, now there's integrated producers, so, people are being asked to produce deliverables on many different platforms, and, I've found that it's an advantage when artists can do multiple things. Even your last biggest campaigns were both film and print. It's an advantage on both sides, sometimes the broadcast production side is calling, and so happy that somebody is well versed in stills. And sometimes the print side is calling, and is so happy that they might be able to get motion assets. So, that really is an advantage to a lot of people. I hazard to offer that until you really kind of know what you're doing, because, I would get one thing down really well, and then start adopting the other, and not try and experiment with all different medias at once, because then there's nothing that you're excelling at. People have to kind of find a way to bite into an artist, and they might know them for one reason, and then find out more about them, which is great, but, it's my job to make sure that they know them for that one reason, that John is the guy that does personality portraits, and now you are becoming more and more well-known as a director, but, I wanna make sure that people still know that you make beautiful portraits.
Do you think, speaking to someone who's maybe even just starting out, or has been doing commercial photography for a little bit, do you think that it's a requirement or you have to be able to direct or do both? What are your thoughts on that, for someone who may--
No, but I think it's, I was just talking to a PA yesterday, he does stills, and he said, "Well, I actually have been doing film for 10 years," or something like that, and I said, "Well, are you telling the clients "that approach you that you have?" And he said, "Oh no, because that's not "what they're asking me for." And I said, "Well you have to tell them, "'cause that's your edge," so, people would still come to him if he just did stills, but he might actually secure a job that was a triple-bid, that three people were bidding on, because of this added element.
And this happened to us, too, recently, couple times?
Where it seemed like, at least from a stills perspective, we were clearly in the favor, but, they very well could have, or would have in this one case, gone somewhere else until they realized. And that's on us to kind of communicate, like you said, that we do also.
Yeah, and if I remember, we sent them work that hadn't even been put on your website yet, to prove to them that you could do it, so, I mean, it was great that you had done the work, but it was that new, we were promoting stuff that we hadn't even put out yet.
And it was kind of personal work, too, which is back to what we talked about in the last section, if you just wait for a job to come, and think that's gonna get you another job, you've gotta do something to get that first job. I was gonna ask, back to video, what would you say to an artist who, again, we talked about if you have to do it, but what if an artist just feels like, I don't wanna do that. And maybe they are capable, they just don't have any desire or inclination to--
I think it's really good to know what your strengths are, we'll probably talk about this more when we look at portfolios, but, people can sniff it when you're faking it, you know? Any time that you try to be something you're not, it's like an after school special message, but, (Audience laughs) if you try to be something you're not, people can just smell it from a mile away, and, I mean, life is short, it's not worth it to put a lot of time and energy into something that you don't believe in, and don't wanna be doing. There's plenty of stuff out there that you are passionate about, that you just shouldn't do it, so, if you're not into motion, or film, then maybe what you're into instead is trying a different type of work in your own still photography, that might expand your market, or, maybe you might say, "I wanna start doing more meetings," there just might be different aspects of your career that you can focus on and expand on, but, motion and broadcast is expensive, and time-consuming, you shouldn't put a lot of energy and resources in a direction that you're not passionate about, I would think.
Yeah, I would agree. How, back to roles again, how has your job changed in the last several years, or since you even started Redeye? Was it 10 years ago, or?
It was a little bit over 10 years ago. My job is so affected by the industry, and the economy, so I would say that I am seeing that people are asking for a lot more media that's unexpected, can you throw in cinemagraphs, and gifs, and, I find myself Googling on phone calls, what the next latest thing is, I remember Googling on a conference call what a Vine was (laughs), several years ago. So, I have to keep up with what the kids are doing, and then, I would say that traditional ad agency work is less and less prevalent, and that, things are coming from all different areas that you would never expect, you have to be careful these days about scams, because, you know, these things come in from overseas, and you just have no idea whether they're real or not, "Somebody says they wanna send me to Jamaica for 10 days, "should I do it," you know? So it's part of our job to kinda sniff it out, it comes from production companies now, it comes from clients direct, it comes from small businesses, it comes from consultants, it comes from PR companies, it's really all over the board, it used to be that it was editorial, or ad agencies. But there's just so many different channels for business to come in, and, you know, we could be giving you a lot of advice on things, and you might create a whole business from a revenue stream that we've never even heard of, because, it's changing that fast. The other way things have changed is that, sadly, we just dropped editorial, which is ironic, 'cause you thought of us as an editorial agency (laughs), but it was my background! I started as a photo editor. And we had to drop editorial, which is all magazine work, because I just, we couldn't sustain it. It was really time-consuming, and the day rates were--
$300 (laughs), and, you know, we make our living off of a percentage of their day rates, so 25% of $300, and taking an hour and a half to look at a contract, and fight about it, because people are asking for more and more now, just wasn't worth it. So we just changed our perspective on editorial completely, and we look at it now as really creative, free, promotion. You get access, you've shot a lot of amazing celebrities, you get access to people you might not normally have access to, it certainly leads to commercial work, some of our biggest clients have come from jobs that people shot them editorially, and they really liked them, and then asked them to their commercial work. But, for us to be involved in that, just stopped making sense. And it was a sad day for me, because I actually love editorial, I love the people involved, they're very smart, and interesting, the content's always great, and it's my background, but, most agents I know do not handle editorial anymore.
Is that something that's happened fairly recently for everybody?
Well, I was kinda the last one to that party--
I mean, the other agents I knew dropped it about five years ago, but, I hung on for a while, purely, it was not financial, but it was purely sentimental, I think. And actually my agents who worked for me kinda had an intervention (laughs), with me, and said, "This is just not worth our time anymore. "We're spending all day on this, "and it's not bringing in any money," and they were right.
Kinda going back to something you said about having jobs and clients come in from all different areas, I think it would be interesting to speak to, especially someone that is just thinking about marketing, or getting into commercial industry, how does that work in terms of bringing those in, are they coming in because of something the artist did, or something that the agency did, or both, or how do you see that?
How are people finding the artists?
I mean, I would be remiss if I didn't say social media. Of course, that's where a huge percentage of work comes in, and as much as I like to fancy myself a good agent, the fact of the matter is that, most of our artists would do well without us, which is why it's just--
That's not true. (Both laugh)
Which is why it's important to find people that you just simply jive with, but, social media's enormous, and huge, and then there's kinda this idea of specialty and interest, there are some photographers who love music, and, they have been shooting music for years, and they're known in that world, so I would say, niches are another way, you become a destination, you are known as portrait guy, personality portrait guy, and there aren't that many people who do it on your level. So, it's I would say the more sort of specific you are, and true to your interests that you are, the more easily you will be identified for what you love to do. So I have one artist who is a fisherman, literally fishes every summer, he owns a fishing boat, and when I first met him, I thought, well, you know, that's a little narrow, maybe we can expand it a little bit, and he was like, "No, this is my thing," and he was 100% right. And he is the guy that people go to for all things Alaska, and fishing, and he is great at it, and he doesn't need to expand his base because there's enough work in that department.
He's super busy.
And he's busy all the time.
We have a question from online, Maren, does the agent work directly with the creative director, or is that on the artist to make that connection? And what point does it happen?
I do not work directly with the creative director. I will work with the creative producer, who works with that creative director. Now, we have friends in the industry, and all of those rules are changed, but sort of the hierarchy of the jobs are such that I work with the producer, until the job signs off, then John or the artist would work with the creative director, so that the two creatives basically on both sides would be working directly together.
And where should the artist send the work, the creative director, or the art director? And what is that difference?
It's a very good question, both.
You just never know, I mean, as I mentioned earlier, some producers are very creative, and have a lot of power and sway at their agencies, and, some have no interest in that, and are only interested in more line production and getting it done, it depends on the agency, and it depends on the people. And so that's why I wouldn't have a job if it were easy (laughs). That's why it's sort of my job, there's a lot of alchemy in this, it's sort of my job to be able to identify those people, so when I have big agency showings, and we do go around the country, and do that, I'll report back to my artists, and say, "This creative director I met "has great taste in blabbita-blah, "I think you guys would really connect. "You should meet the next time you're in New York." Or, "I just met this great person in Seattle, John, "I don't know if you know them, but, "you guys would have so much in common, "I'm gonna set up a meeting for you next week." So, not only is an agent sort of another body and set of eyes to be out there looking for these contacts for you, but, if you have the right rep, they know you well enough to know who you'll connect with, and, it's so funny, I mean, it is an internet age, but at the end of the day, it really is personal connections. It really is, does somebody feel comfortable calling you up, do they trust you with their creative, often, John, people will approach him with, kind of no idea what they want, but they just know that his stamp on it will make it good, so sometimes, I've heard him on calls say, "Well, do you know what you wanna shoot?" and there'll be a pause, and they'll say, "We were kind of hoping for your input on that," and he sort of realizes that he has to give it some shape, but you can't wait for the perfect job to land on your lap, often, you're creating it, or somebody will come to you with something that seems impossible, and it's our job to come up with a way to make it tangible, and doable. So they might say, "Uh, I don't know we have $10,000, "and we wanna shoot monkeys in the jungle, "how would you do this?" And John usually has some really efficient, smart way of doing it, and he might be all, "Wow, my kids actually have these toys, "and we can just set up a backdrop (laughs) and do," I'm completely making this up in my head, but it--
It's good, though, I'm like, I'm gonna do that.
It always surprises me when the artist has some logical solution to something that seems crazy and impossible, and, I feel relieved on the call, I'm like, "Oh, I'm so glad that's possible," and I know the client does. I mean, my experience with the artist is the same as the client's experience with the artist. So, our vetting process for taking on artists has a lot to do with, do I feel confident that he can make things happen? And, when I feel relieved on a call, I know the clients feel relieved on the call.
When is the creative producer brought in, at what point?
The creative producer and I are the beginning of the process.
The very start, okay.
In fact, they're the first one, because they make the call to me. So they'll say, "Hey, is John available in April?" And I'll say, "Yes, these two weeks." The conversation usually starts around availabilities. "We have this shoot, would he be interested?" the answer is pretty much always yes (laughs). And then, "Should we get on a call, sometime soon." "Does he have experience photographing "on black instead of white?" (All laugh)
You need to check in and make sure. It seems like, kinda what you were saying before, that clients really are looking for almost more of an art director, or a problem solver, than someone to just fit a specific.
That's true, and that has actually, I'm glad you mentioned that, because that is actually a way that things have changed. In the last five years. It used to be that we would get a very worked out deck, with a shot list, and it was very literal, and we had to fill it in, I think nowadays things are moving so fast, things can be shot, delivered, post-produced, and on the air in no time, that, art directors really have a hard time doing their job, I mean, they're in meetings all day, they're trying to get the jobs from clients, they often don't have time to actually concept and give a shoot shape, so I have found that the artists that do really well are ones that are actually kind of mini art directors.
Is that something that you think everyone should work towards, or as something that's, you know, required? Kind of in the same questions as motion, directing, is that something that's gonna be required more and more, moving forward?
I think that whatever your natural talents are, you have to play up, so if that's not your talent, then you shouldn't focus on it. You happen to have a great imagination, you'd probably be a great creative director, so, if you can offer that on a call, it helps people out. It used to be, when I worked more in editorial, that people that could edit their own work and deliver a very narrow selection of edits, it was really nice. I was a photo editor, they were doing my job for me, they were helping me. I mean, our job is really to make their job easy, and not hard, and I have to remind myself that all the time, when I ask a lot of questions, and say, "How will this look?" I have to remember that they kinda just want somebody who's gonna say, "Yeah, I'll get it done. "This is how I propose to do it, yes or no," kind of thing, because, people have sort of run out of time.
I think that's a huge thing that I've learned from you, is, when I started getting larger jobs, I kinda had the mentality of "Tell me what you want me to do," or thinking that they had it all figured out, and as you started kind of helping me realize, they've come to you for what you do. I started kinda pushing what I thought were boundaries, but realizing, "Oh wow, they want me to do casting," I'm not offending them by saying I'd kinda like to do casting, you know, they're like, "Great!" and I'd be like, "I think that the wardrobe "should look this way, because of this." And then I found, they're like, "Yeah, that's what we want." That's been a really cool thing to kind of lean in to, 'cause it gives you more creative freedom.
And people want to feel safe, and they want to feel like they're in good hands, and so, if you can help them feel confident, confidence is a huge thing, that is really gonna be a boon to your career.