You hear that all the top models have great agencies, and you think, "If I can only sign with a modeling agency I will be set." But what exactly is a modeling agency and what does it do? This is not an easy question to answer. Modeling agencies operate as small independent business with no two agencies working the same. A lot depends on the market in which an agency operates and the owner(s) and agency's personnel. The other problem with describing a modeling agency is that there are a lot of rip-off and scam agencies out there. Because most wannabe models know little about how the modeling business works, they are easy prey for these vultures. We can look at what an agency might be at its best and worst and what they can do for your career as a model.
A modeling agency's number one purpose is to find the model work. They work as the model's representative or agent. As an agent they seek and negotiate contracts of employment for the model or talent who is an independent business. For finding the model work, they take a percent of what the model makes (10% to 33%). In some states they are considered private employment agencies and must be licensed by the state. That sounds fairly simple and straightforward, but it is amazing how it can vary.
New York City is the number one city for models. It is the heart of the fashion and advertising industries in the United States, which leads to a high demand for all types of models. The modeling agencies in New York compete to fill that demand with the finest talent in the nation. When an agency sees someone who has potential or someone who satisfies the demand, they will invest in that individual to get him/her ready for the market. They don't do this to be nice people - they do it because they feel they can make money from that person. They know the market and they will invest in you (a loan against future earnings) to prepare you for that market. If they guess wrong and you do not become marketable and profitable, they will cut their losses and drop you. The top agencies are working with big-budget ad agencies and fashion designers so there is money available to develop new talent. These top agencies will help train you (more like on the job training), get you test shoots, layout your portfolio, and put together comp cards and other printed materials you need. They take care of finding you work, booking the jobs, bill for the jobs and eventually cut a check for the work you do. Once you are in an agency like this all you have to worry about is following instructions and modeling.
Within a secondary market, the modeling agencies are not working with big budget clients like New York. In some cities there may be enough work that an agency can be a full time operation - perhaps even supporting a few people on staff but there is not enough work to pay for the development of new talent. For this type of agency you must provide the marketing tools and training. The agency may help you with where to go to get photos, composites and training, but they can't afford to pay for it or loan you money. There just isn't enough budget for them to guess wrong even once. So it is up to you to foot the bill. This is fine if the agency is really out there looking for work for its models and there is enough of a market to make a living. The problem I have found with some of these agencies is that they have no idea what they are doing. They are having a great time playing at being a modeling agency, but you could do better marketing yourself.
What if you do find a good agency, what will they do for you? A good agency will help manage your career and find you work. In big cities this can be split into two parts, managers and bookers. The manager will help you develop your "look", your modeling skills, and develop your natural talents. They will help in preparing your marketing materials for the market in which they think you will be most successful. They should have knowledge of the market place and will honestly evaluate your potential for that market. They should have contacts so they can send you to photographers, graphic designers and printers to prepare your marketing materials. They should have the means to prepare you to be a model. The booking side is where the agency tracks down who uses models. The agency has a phone that is manned and an office that a client can visit. They make the rounds to keep in touch with those who use models and provide them with composites and head sheets of their talent. They advertise, do lunches, do cold calls and turn over stones to find who is hiring models. They book time for models to work, give direction to get there and make sure models show up. They handle billing, collections, and complaints. A good agency finds you work and earns every cent of their commission (usually 15% to 33%). But, in smaller markets, they are a rarity.
Further on down the ladder you find agencies in markets that are too small to support a full time modeling agency. In these markets the modeling school is usually the full time moneymaker and the agency is just a hook. If you finish the school you get to be in the agency. This can be fine if you like to play at modeling and have the money to do so. In most cases if your city has a population of less then a million it will not be able to support a full time agency. Even in a city of a million you may be better off marketing yourself than working with a so-so agency. When you get to a city with a population of a couple million or more there may be just too much ground to cover and an agency can be very helpful.
I have links to sites that have lists of modeling agencies on my Modeling Agencies Links page. Since Modeling Agencies want to be easy-to-find, you should also be able to locate them in your local yellow pages. If you find one in your area, you will want to contact them to see what their new model screening process is. Some may have you send a couple of snap shots to them. Others might have an open call where they have all new wannabes show up at once to be evaluated. Others might schedule an interview time for you. All work differently, so call to find out first. Also, be sure to check out the agencies you find with the Better Business Bureau to see if they have any complaints against them. And don't be pressured into signing anything right away. If they offer a contract or want you to sign up for a class, ask if you can take the contract with you and you will get back to them in a few days. Be sure to read over the Modeling Scams information and watch for any of the warning signs.
This same process of finding a modeling agency also applies if you are looking for one in a major market like New York. Check the link page for links to sites with directories of modeling agencies. Many of the top New York modeling agencies have web sites and some are listed on the link page. Some even allow you to email photos and your vital stats to them.
A certain mystery surrounds the modeling industry. How does one become a top model? There is no clear cut answer to that question. Because of this mystery and uncertainty, a great deal of room exists in which a scam artist can work. Since a modeling agency is often the key to becoming a successful model, this is where many scams take place. How do you find a legitimate modeling agency? There is no easy answer.
First, there is no rating service for modeling agencies; there is no governmental authority; there is no licencing organization to tell you which agency is legitimate and which is not. Most agencies are small, independent businesses working in a very competitive market place. These seem to be in constant flux with new ones starting, old ones merging, and some closing up shop. This makes it a real challenge to find just a legitimate agency, let alone a good agency.
The following are some ideas on how to find and then check out a modeling agency in your area:
1) To find the modeling agencies in your area you can check the yellow pages of the phone book under Modeling Agencies. Remember, a modeling agency wants to be easy to find so a phone listing is a must. From the agencies' listings you may find they are often, also, modeling schools. If there are no agencies listed for your area, you may have to check with the closest large city. If some one approaches you and says they are a scout for some agency and you can't find them in the phone book, be very skeptical. Also, check out some of the model agency directories listed on the Modeling Agencies Links page to see what is in your area.
2) Check with the Better Business Bureau. They may have information on the modeling agencies you are interested in or complaints against them. Usually an agency has to be pretty bad for the BBB to have anything. Businesses that are bad businesses, or new scams, won't show up. When I checked on modeling businesses in the Portland area, I found that all of the modeling schools were members of BBB, the legitimate agencies were not, and the one known scam agency did not show any complaints. The BBB is not a perfect source for information, but it is a place to start. You will find many regional BBBs have web sites on which you can find information.
3) One thing I like to do to check out agencies is to call them after business hours. I can find out fast which agencies are trying to be legitimate businesses. The idea behind this is that modeling is a very competitive, fast moving business and things don't just happen 9 to 5. If, I, as a photographer, have an emergency come up after business hours (a cancellation, a client who has to shoot tomorrow and will pay anything to do it) I need to be able to contact someone now or I am down the road to another agency. A good agency knows this and you will find, when you call them after hours, they will have an answering machine or service that will give you an emergency number to call (a cell phone or pager). If you find the machine just tells you to call back during business hours or they have no after hour answering service at all, look for another agency.
4) The best way, which takes the most work, to find a good agency in your area is by studying and researching your market.
A) If you follow the local news media (newspaper, TV), there is a good chance information on local agencies will show up. This past year the Portland newspaper had articles on a local girl who was discovered and went off to Europe to model (the article gave the name of the local agency that signed her) and a new face modeling contest the paper put on ( the judges were from three local modeling agencies and the article gave the name of the agency and the contact at the agency). One of the local TV news stations did a story on a rip-off modeling agency and interviewed people from some of the legitimate agencies. In one year of just following the news (which you should be doing anyway to be an informed voter), I was able to find three legitimate agencies and one scam agency.
B) Another method of researching the local market takes even more work - follow the local fashion print advertising. When you start to see which stores use local models regularly, you can start making phone calls. Call the store and find out who handles the advertising. You can hope that the person at the store who does this can direct you to their advertising agency, their photographer, or may even direct you to the modeling agency they use. Basically, you are making phone calls to trace your way to a modeling agency suppling the models for the store ads. This will lead you to an agency with working models. I hate making cold calls like this myself, but this can be an effective way to find a modeling agency. Then again, if you can make cold calls like this, you may want to forget the modeling and become a photography rep!
There are three styles of contracts that you typically will run across. Some modeling agencies will work with exclusive contracts. This means that they are your exclusive representatives and they get a commission on any work you do. They get this commission whether they find the work or you find it on your own. If you sign this kind of contract, be sure the agency is really going to be working for you. If they are providing a lot of guidance getting your career started and are out there beating the bushes to find work for you, this type of contract is fine. If the agency signs you just to fill space in their roster and then leaves you hanging in limbo for the length of your contract (usually one to two years) it can be a bad way to try and start a career. Another type of contract is a non-exclusive modeling contract. In this case if the modeling agency finds you work, they get paid their commission. If you find work on your own you pay them nothing. You are free to sign non-exclusive contracts with other modeling agencies. This way you might have several agencies representing you at once. Now don't expect the same service and help from a non-exclusive agency as with an exclusive agency. In smaller markets, where you are expected to provide all of your training, portfolios, composites and other marketing materials before an agency will work with you, signing an exclusive contract is a kind of a rip-off.
The final contract is a Mother Agency Agreement. I have not seen one of these so I am not sure how they make it legally binding but you do hear about them. In this case the modeling agency knows there is not enough work locally to support any one over the long term. Their position then is to move you on to a major market and get you signed with a major modeling agency. They may get you work locally but it is more with the idea of getting you ready for the major market. For helping prepare you and helping to place you with a top modeling agency, they get a percent of your earnings for a long time to come. You, in essence, never leave the mother agency - you are just loaned out to the top agencies. This can be an attractive arrangement if the mother agency invests time and money in your career and gets you on with top money making agencies. The trouble comes when this gets attached to a modeling school. You not only have to pay for all of the classes, the photo shoots, the career guidance session, you then must keep paying these people again for doing nothing. You need to examine these agreements very carefully before you sign.