Modeling 101: Solving the Agency Maze


Go to Agency InformationIf you’ve read this far, you already know that a modeling career won’t just happen by itself.  You know it’s going to take disciplined preparation, a sound marketing strategy, and intelligent management.  You also know that if you’re interested in Fashion or Commercial modeling, your management needs to come through a modeling agency.  You may have even looked into it, and discovered that it’s not only hard to find a good agency, but even harder to find good information on how to apply to one.  If you’re really industrious and keep digging, eventually you’re going to open Pandora’s Box and find so many confusing terms you may start to wonder if they’re muddying the waters on purpose (hint: sometimes they are).  Don’t give up; it is possible to find your way through the maze.  But first, we need to run down some of that confusion.

Let’s start with the most basic: “What is a modeling agency?”  There’s a simple answer and one you need to hang onto as we meander through the cornfield: a modeling agency is an organization that finds paid modeling work for models. Whatever else it may or may not do, if it doesn’t book modeling work for its members, it’s not an agency.  That implies two very important criteria: an agency has both clients that need models and models that it can supply to clients. Those clients might include photographers, advertising and marketing firms, large corporations, or anybody else that routinely uses models.  This may seem obvious, but it’s really not.  Think about it—it’s not easy to become a real agency.  You can’t get a workable group of reliable models if you don’t have a critical mass of clients to hire them, and you can’t get reliable clients if you don’t have a critical mass of models to supply them.  It’s a Catch 22 that explains why a lot of organizations presenting themselves as modeling agencies really aren’t, and why the first two questions you should ask when considering signing with an agency are 1) How many models do you have, and 2) Who are your clients?  And be specific—pick 5 names at random from their model list and ask for their contact information.  Then call the models and ask for their impressions of the agency’s ability to find them work.  Call a few of the bigger names on their client list and speak with the marketing department to ask how often they book models and how satisfied they are with the service they receive from the agency.  In a local market, talk with advertising agencies and commercial photographers and ask the same questions.  Sound like a lot of work?  Why, yes, it is.  You are serious about this, though, right?

Another important distinction: model agencies make their money from commissions on their models’ contracts; if the models don’t work and don’t get paid, neither does the agency.  Why does that matter?  Because a legitimate agency won’t sign models that it doesn’t feel confident it can regularly place in paid modeling work.  Commissions are how they make their money, and it should tell you that if the “agent” you’re talking to is asking for a hefty signing fee to take you on, s/he’s not for real.  Real agencies don’t charge up-front signing fees, which is how you know they’re going to work really hard to find you the paying jobs that do put money in their pockets.  It’s pretty simple: do you want to contract with someone who has no incentive to find you work after you hand over a few hundred (or thousand) dollars in a signing fee or with somebody who only makes money when you’re actually working?  (There are, by the way, legitimate start-up expenses that you should expect to incur when signing with an agency—see Agency Scams, below—but you’ll never be asked to pay a fee just to be accepted.)

There are a few other things to look for.  You’re in the image business now, and so is the agency.  They have to look the part to reassure both models and clients that they’re for real.  It’s a pretty safe bet that a real agency is going to have an actual, brick-and-mortar address with a business telephone and somebody to answer it.  They’ll be listed in the business section of the phonebook , and they’ll have a website with a dedicated domain name.  If your would-be agent is working out of his car and you can’t find him either in the phone book or on the Web, he’s not for real.  (It’s not a bad way to evaluate a photographer either, by the way; whether or not s/he maintains a studio, a pro is going to make the necessary investment in professional presentation.  While we’re on the subject, it’s one of the ways photographers evaluate how serious you are too.  We’ll talk about that more in And You Call Yourself a Professional.”)

By the way, just to confuse things a bit, you should know that not every legitimate modeling agency calls itself by that term.  In some markets, most notably New York, the companies that do the work of agencies call themselves “Management” companies, and don’t mention the words “model” or “agency” in their title anywhere.  This has nothing to do with the work they do, and everything to do with the legal definitions and regulatory hoops they’re required to jump through by the local jurisdiction.  To make matters worse, there are people who call themselves “Model Management” companies, but don’t book modeling work.  Whatever the title, you still evaluate their legitimacy by asking the same question: do you find paying work for the models you represent?

The Model Manager

The “management company” title that NYC agencies use as a legal convenience is regrettable, because it’s similar to another type of representation, the Model Manager.  The similarity is unfortunate because the model manager function is so often abused that its legitimate functions are virtually lost in what seems like a perpetual fog of bad intent.  So what is a model manager?

In theory, a model manager could be someone who knows the modeling business well and helps a new model prepare him/herself to apply to an agency.  That may include initial consultation about the industry in general and the model’s particular opportunities, portfolio development with quality photographers, comp card design and printing, and some measure of training in how to present and conduct him/herself as a working professional.  If the model’s goals require changes—weight loss (or gain), skin care, better physical fitness, make-up awareness, posing techniques, communications skills, etc.—a good manager will be able to recommend viable resources to address perceived problems in the model’s presentation.  Certainly, a model should be able to expect a legitimate model manager to be able to recommend at least a few modeling agencies that s/he can apply to and some reasonable advice about how to make the application.

What the model manager doesn’t do, however, is book work for the model.  As you already know, that’s what an agency does.

Unfortunately, all too often the “model manager” title is taken as an unregulated invitation to abuse and exploit impressionable young women who have a dream of working in the modeling profession.  They almost always charge extravagant advance fees for their “services,” have little or no incentive to help the model pursue modeling work from other sources, and in fact often obstruct models from branching out and growing in the profession.  Since most of their income is derived from “signing up” new models, it goes without saying that they’ve never met a prospect who wasn’t the next big success story, but after they collect their fee, they have little interest in furthering the model’s career (of course, if she does manage, almost certainly without his help, to secure a paying job, the manager will be happy to collect a hefty commission).

Who are they? Occasionally he’s the model’s control-freak boyfriend, who has little interest in helping her become an autonomous professional capable of functioning independently without his “guidance.”  More frequently, he’s a self-proclaimed “glamour photographer” who uses a young woman’s insecurities and desire to please to talk her into posing naked in his studio.  Since his interest is exclusively in nude photography, he steers the 18 and 19 year-old women he prefers to photograph toward glamour nude work and gives them the impression that any natural reluctance they may be feeling about posing naked in front of a stranger is an aberration in the modeling business.  What he doesn’t tell them is that the all-nude portfolio he’s about to produce will effectively eliminate their ability to sign with a mainstream agency, since nudes are precisely what the agency doesn’t want to see on a model’s resumé.  It won’t help with professional commercial photographers, either, as many will simply refuse to work with models who are represented by model managers.

The bottom line: the typical model manager’s influence probably won’t hurt your career  if what you want to specialize in is Internet nude modeling (and we’re not saying there’s anything wrong with that) since mainstream agencies weren’t going to handle you anyway.  On the other hand, if your model  manager is presenting himself as an agent who can book commercial work for you, he’s misleading you.  That nude portfolio and his bad reputation are going to kill any chance you might have had at a mainstream modeling career before it began.

The Mother Agency

Here’s another term you’ll eventually run into if you spend enough time in the maze, and like the model manager, it can be applied both to someone who performs a valuable function and to unethical people who use the label to take advantage of would-be models and their families.  Briefly, a mother agency is a local agency that has strong ties to a larger agency in one of the major markets, perhaps even including international locations, and can ease the way for a local model to gain representation there through the larger agency.  The mother agency finds talented local models with big-market potential, grooms them with training and local work while s/he prepares for the transition, and then provides introductions for the jump to the big time when the model is ready.  Like a good model manager’s function, the mother agent’s job is finished when the model signs with the bigger agency.

So what’s wrong with that?  Nothing, if the agency actually does what it claims.  In fact, it can be extremely valuable if you’re determined to make the kind of full-time career out of modeling that a small market just can’t sustain.  Without knowledgeable preparation and insider introductions, you’ll be just another pretty face in a huge crowd of pretty faces trying to crash the big-city party without a calling card.  If you’re already in New York and you really are talented enough to interest a big agency, you can get enough information from sites like this and the other links we’ll provide to make the rounds on your own; if you’re an inexperienced newby from Boise, Idaho, the Big Apple can be a scary—and expensive—place to wander around in looking for work, and the support of a good mother agency would be helpful and welcome.

A bad mother agency, however, is anything but helpful.  Bad mother agencies start off by being bad agencies.  They don’t pass the basic test of finding local work for their local models, so they don’t make money on commissions.  Instead, they make money by selling you everything else—sign-up fees, expensive training, overpriced photography by their in-house photographer, boring generic comp-cards at custom-design prices, and anything else they can talk you into believing you can’t be a model without.  A bad mother agency is probably a scam, and we’ll deal with that in the Agency Scams section below.

So, how do you find a good mother agency?  Assuming you need one, start with a process you’ve already been through.

You start by doing the basic work of verifying the legitimacy of the mother’s “agency” status using the same criteria as above, beginning with the base question: do you find paying work for models?  If it doesn’t pass the smell test as a local agency, then it’s not likely to be a legitimate mother agency either.  Additionally, even if you determine that the agency is doing real work locally for its models, you then have to find some way of verifying the claim that the agency has a mother relationship with the bigger agency.  That can be difficult too.

The mother agency concept is real.  Large, primary-market agencies do seek out partnerships with local and regional agencies to identify and groom local talent.  Consider the Wilhelmina International example.

Wilhelmina is a well-regarded New York-based agency with a global reach, including branch offices in Los Angeles, Miami, and Munich, Germany.  It also actively solicits relationships with regional agencies for the purpose of finding new talent.  From the Wilhelmina web site: “Wilhelmina Models also works with various licensees as well as hundreds of local model management firms across the country and globally to garner a variety of talent.”  There are, in fact, Wilhelmina “affiliates” all over the country, including Salt Lake City and Denver in our area sporting the Wilhelmina name.  Even Boise has an agency that appears to have been a local branch of the Salt Lake City affiliate at one time.  So does that make them all Wilhelmina Mini-Me’s?  Hardly.

Mostly they’re just local agencies that pay a considerable fee for the privilege of licensing the Wilhelmina name.  Wilhelmina International apparently does not prescribe or monitor their activities, nor are they subject to the parent corporation’s published Code of Ethics, which clearly states that it applies only to “the Company and all of its subsidiaries and other business entities controlled by it worldwide.”  To repeat, Wilhelmina International does not control its affiliates, much less those “hundreds of local model management firms across the country.”  In fact, a Portland, Oregon affiliate, Wilhelmina MTG, appears to have recently crashed and burned through mismanagement and accusations of fraud and financial improprieties, both from clients and former employees.  Wilhelmina UTG in Salt Lake City is on a Utah model cooperative’s blacklist, and generates the usual round of complaints about “bad mother agency” practices.  Their own website uses the usual sleight of hand to confuse visitors about the nature of their relationship with Wilhelmina International: “Wilhelmina Models is one of the largest modeling agencies in the world, founded by legendary supermodel Wilhelmina Cooper in 1967. Today, we lead the industry in diversity and depth and represent some of the biggest models and celebrity talent across the globe.”  Wilhelmina UTG even lists itself in the “About” section of the site as one of four U.S. offices, along with New York, LA, and Miami, even though, as indicated above, they are only listed as an affiliate by Wilhelmina International.  Uh, notice how that “we lead the industry” got slipped in there?  There’s no “we” here; Wilhelmina UTG is not Wilhelmina International, and that impressive client list didn’t get generated out of Salt Lake City either.

Even Wilhelmina is concerned enough about the abuses conducted using its name to issue the following disclaimer on its website:

“ is the only official website of Wilhelmina International, Inc., one of the preeminent model management firms in the world. Impostors have used websites and email addresses incorporating the Wilhelmina name. Such activities do not have the authorization of Wilhelmina International, Inc. and they are fraudulent.“

Not to pick on Wilhelmina—they’re a major player in the business and their reputation is solid—but if even Wilhelmina recognizes that its name is no guarantee of authenticity, how are you supposed to vet your local agency’s claim to have a functional mother relationship with a large agency?

My conclusion is that if the local agency’s primary value to you is its claimed mother relationship with a big-market partner, you should exercise caution.  Choose your local agency because they’re doing a good job of placing local models in local work.  If they seem to be more interested in titillating you with promises of the big city than they are in helping you make the most of your local modeling experience, keep an eye on your purse.  Personally, I wouldn’t believe any extravagant mother-agency claims until I’d had a chance to sit down for a believable, non-pressure chat with the person in charge and been given the names and contact information of several local models who have made the jump to a large market with the assistance of the person sitting in front of me.  Ask hard questions and expect real, verifiable answers.  If you don’t get ‘em, walk.

Modeling Schools

Do you need to go to a modeling school?  In a word, no.  Are they completely useless, maybe even a scam?  Not necessarily.

A good school—that is, one that’s managed by somebody who actually has real experience in the modeling business and some teaching ability—can certainly help you improve your posture and probably teach you how to walk less awkwardly in heels.  They could give you some instruction on skin care and personal make-up, although it probably won’t be the very specific information required to know how to prepare your skin for a photo shoot.  The best thing they could teach you is something about how the modeling business works, about how tough it is and how small your chances are of making a living at it, but do you think a “school” that depends on inflating your unsophisticated dream of becoming a supermodel is really going to include that in the curriculum?

Modeling school can be fun, and if you or your family can afford it as a recreational lark, by all means, go for it.  Just don’t expect that your Barbizon diploma will improve your chances of getting a job as a model, because it won’t, period.  It’s highly unlikely they’ll teach you the most important thing you could learn—how to apply to an agency—and in fact, most legitimate agencies would really rather you didn’t go to a modeling school; moreover, sad to say, if you’ve already attended, it’s not going to be a real asset for your resumé.  If I were you, I wouldn’t mention it.

Are they a scam then?  Let’s try this definition: a scam promises you a service under false pretences, takes your money for that service, and then does what it knew it was going to do from the beginning, which is either fail to deliver the service completely or bait-and-switch it with a cheap substitute.  The better modeling schools will deliver what they promise; it’s just that what they promise isn’t really what you need, and in fact what you do need can be acquired from other sources, usually for free.

Sharon Johnson, my wife and Sourcelight partner, is a former runway model who actually used to teach informal classes for her modeling agency.  She could teach you everything you need to know about walking a runway in about ten minutes.  Buy her a decaf latte, and she’ll be happy.  Buy her lunch and she’ll teach your whole family.  Any good model photographer can teach you most of what you need to know about posing techniques in a couple of hours.  Work a session with him, and he’ll offer a lot of it for free just to help move the session along.  The rest you can learn by standing in front of a mirror with a posing chart.

You become a model by modeling in real modeling settings, and a good agency will help you achieve that by arranging for test shoots with actual photographers working in the field and/or by sending you out on low-pressure jobs.  If you really do need training, most good agencies have at least some informal training available to specifically address shortcomings in your technique or appearance and there’s usually little or no charge for it.

But up to a year of formal classes that mostly flatter your dream without actually teaching you what you need to know to achieve it?  How much discretionary income do you have available to blow on extravagant whims?

By the way, I’m not trying to promote Sourcelight Photography as some kind of pseudo modeling agency, and we certainly have no desire to function as a school for models.  I’m just saying that most of the technical information you need to work in the modeling field can be and often is provided by a good agency, model manager, or, yes, even a photographer with specific experience in model photography.  Most do it as a secondary part of their primary function, and generally for little or no cost.   This is the electronic age; good information is out there and it’s easily accessed.  Read this series, including the links to other information sources provided in the last section, and start working.

The Agency Scam

It’s a strange business with very few rules and a lot of very slippery assumptions.  As Geoffrey Rush tells Keira Knightly when she demands to be treated according to the “Pirate Code” in Pirates of the Caribbean, “Well, Missy, it’s not really a code… more like a guide.”  For me, personally I wouldn’t sign with any agency, mother- or otherwise, that told me I was perfect for modeling after a 1-minute interview and then handed me a list of start-up expenses. Whether it’s perpetrated by an agency, a mother agency, a model manager, or one of the infamous modeling schools, the scam works like this:

You’re approached on the street or in a mall by a self-proclaimed agent or you respond to an ad in the local paper or on Craig’s List.  The pitch is the same: we have modeling/acting/talent jobs just waiting to be filled and you would be perfect for them.  When you go for your interview, you’re almost immediately told that you’ve just been accepted as their next model/actor and then, after a bit more flattery about your perfect looks, height, weight, face, voice, etc., you’re handed a list of expenses you’re going to incur.  Those expenses include acting/modeling/voice lessons with the “agency’s” training department, an expensive set of portfolio photos shot with their designated photographer (who is invariably presented as a “professional from New York with decades of experience in fashion photography,” but who often turns out to be their own in-house flunky), and “your share” of various advertising and marketing expenses, including the cost of posting your photos to their on-line galleries.  Depending on how arrogant the scammer is and how gullible you are, the fees can vary from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.  Those modeling jobs they lured you in with?  They’re real alright, but they’re almost always national—never local—and they’re pulled from exactly the same on-line job-listing sources you could access yourself with a minimal amount of research, including that “Career Builder” ad where you found the scammer’s original solicitation.  Don’t believe me?  Go to Career Builder on-line and do a search for jobs in the genre you’re interested in.  Be even more specific: try sites like Casting Call, Star Search, or All Casting Calls or even, shudder, Craig’s List.  There are many more.  See what pops up.  See how hard it was to become your own agent?  Starting to wonder how anyone could have the nerve to charge you to find random, unfiltered casting calls like this for you?  Now you’re getting the idea.  It’s not hard.  It’s a racket.

Let’s be honest here.  Every agency, legitimate or not, has complaints.  I have yet to research a single local agency anywhere that didn’t have multiple complaints filed against it in the various complaint-listing forums (see the Links section).  Some are legitimate, some are phony complaints posted by competitors posing as former clients in order to harm the competition, and some are sincere but misguided protests from people who don’t understand what the modeling business actually requires and are operating on faulty beliefs taken from some mythical Pirate Code they heard about somewhere.  Usually those last complaints are based on two concerns: the belief that “legitimate agencies never charge anything except their commission,” and indignation over the agency’s insistence on using designated service providers, like a particular photographer.  As it turns out, both assumptions are just wrong.  Agencies do often charge for extras, even as an upfront cost, and there may be very good reasons for recommending particular service providers that have nothing to do with under-the-table kickback arrangements.

A good agency will spend considerable resources grooming and promoting their models.  These days they’re all going to maintain online galleries featuring their models’ portfolios, and many will still send out printed agency headsheet books or promotional flyers featuring model portfolios to their clients.  Understand, good agencies aren’t sitting around waiting for the phone to ring; they’re out actively putting your resumé in front of potential clients trying to drum up work for you.  That costs money, and it’s standard practice in the industry for them to recover that cost from the models on whose behalf they incurred it.  You can like it or not, but that’s how it is.  If no one told you before, then let me say it loud and clear:

This is your career and you need to be prepared to invest in it.  You’re going to have numerous expenses, which we’ll outline in the My Card, Sir article.  Agencies vary in how much they get involved in your preparation, but whether you arrange to do your comp cards on your own or the agency does it for you, paying for it is still your responsibility. Whether any particular agency’s fees are worth it for you or not depends on how well they answered your very first question—does the agency find work for its models (see how this keeps coming up?) and how well does it pay? The more active and aggressive the agency is in finding work, the higher their fees are likely to be.  An agency that doesn’t do much marketing isn’t going to have a lot of expenses to pass on to you; they’re also probably not going to be passing much work your way either.  See, it’s not really a Code… more like a guide.

As for the concerns about requiring you to use designated providers like a house photographer, there can be good reasons for that as well.  You are the walking representation of the agency’s brand, and they need your promotional materials to present them at a consistently high level.  If the pictures your personal portrait photographer took don’t meet modeling industry standards, they’re of no use to the agency (or you).  Portfolio photography is a very specific discipline with a very particular look.  The commercial headshot that every model needs is not a formal portrait, nor a beauty or glamour headshot.  A model photographer will know the difference and will be able to get you shots in the style that clients expect.  I would be suspicious of any agency that required me to work with one photographer only, but it’s common practice for an agency to have several photographers whose work they’ve already approved and can recommend to models. And the kickback?  Call it whatever you like; it’s common practice for us here at Sourcelight to provide a “finder’s fee” to anyone who refers work to us, usually in the form of a credit toward the finder’s own photography with us.  We also routinely negotiate discounted fees for commercial clients, based on the volume of work they send us.  None of this is unusual in any service industry.  You need professional photos (or comp cards or hair styles) delivered in the correct style.  If you don’t know what that is or how to find a professional to provide them, of course the agency’s going to step in with recommendations.  Wouldn’t you want them to?

When is it too much; when do required services and extras fees begin to creep over the line into scamming behavior?  Frankly, that’s just not always clear.  You’ll have to develop your own set of guidelines based, as we’ve said repeatedly, on your assessment of how well the agency performs its primary function—getting you paid jobs.  If all they’re interested in is selling you services and their job-creation activity is spotty, you’re probably being scammed.  If you are getting work and the agency can adequately demonstrate how those extra fees are contributing to your employment opportunities, you might just be in the hands of a very good agency.

And how do you get into those hands?  That’s the subject of the next article.

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  1. Nur July 29, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Ford has so many different divisions–Runway/editorial, Celebrity, Men, Commercial Print, Plus Size, Classic (Models age 25 +), Teens, Kids, Fit Models, Parts. Ford tries to call qualified applicants within 2 weeks of receiving their photos. If it’s been more than 3 weeks and you don’t hear from them, it means they aren’t looking for someone with your look. That doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t model material, but that they might not have a demand for someone with your looks at the moment. If they don’t call, wait 6-12 months and submit new pics. Look at Agyness Deyn–it took her 3 years of sending in pics and going to open calls until she got an agent, but she refused to give up and is now one of the 20 highest paid models. With Ford, it’s always best to attend open calls vs. sending in your pictures. They have weekly open calls at all of their offices and you’ll be seen by an agent, who will tell you on the spot if you are model material or not. An average of 2-3000 people submit photos to Ford each week, but only about 100-200 attend weekly open calls, so you have a much better chance to be noticed.

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