My Agency’s Smaller than Your Agency
July 2003

by Peter Howe

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a terminal optimist, or maybe just because it’s finally stopped raining, but things seem a little better in photojournalism land. The posts on EP are slightly more cheerful, and I’ve even had several calls from photographers telling me that Corbis is making money for them. They communicate this news in a combination of excitement, relief and resentment and confusion. Excitement and relief because they need the money, and resentment and confusion because in a way the idea of Corbis being successful for them takes away one of the core beliefs upon which they have come to rely. It’s a bit like finding out that Hilary Clinton is a really nice person.

The other cause for this feeling (which to put it in perspective is more an absence of despair than actual euphoria) is the sudden appearance of several new agencies at a time when many established ones are struggling for survival. There still seem to be a number of foolhardy souls whose irrepressibly entrepreneurial instincts tell them that this might be a good time to invest time, talent and money in new photoventures, despite the common wisdom (an oxymoron if ever there was one) that this is the worst of times. Furthermore these are not newbies to the biz, but people who’ve been around a while, and therefore should know better. Add up the years of experience that Graham Cross and David Leverton of Eyevine, J.P. Pappis of Polaris, the VII photographers, Jody Potter of J Group Photo, Mimi Brown of Creative Alliance and Marcel Saba of Redux have between them and you start to realize that there must be some good reason for this all happening now. For two of these endeavors there is a shared genealogy: Jody Potter worked for Saba for five years, and Marcel Saba started that agency and subsequently sold it to Corbis. However, both are taking a markedly different approach to their new businesses.

Jody started J Group Photo last September with the idea of representing a small group of diverse photographers in both the editorial and commercial markets. The ideal number of photographers for her is nine, and she already has some heavy names on the roster, such as Joyce Tennyson, Nathaniel Welch and Maggie Steber. Her decision to only represent and not offer resale was based on the fact that she could start with very little capital and very low overheads. She only has two people working with her, one of whom cold-calls advertising agencies, which is my idea of the second worst job in the world, right behind being Demi Moore’s personal assistant. Representation also means not having to have a deep web presence, and hauling around those portfolios probably saves on health club memberships as well. In the digital age being a rep is still an old-fashioned shoe leather activity, with the emphasis on personal service, and Jody doesn’t see that changing any time soon. Her only nod to the digital revolution is that she will refer requests to the photographers’ own web sites, and considers it foolish for any photographer to be without one. Where she falls in line with all the other new undertakings is that she sees holes in the services offered by the larger agencies, and these are where the opportunities lie. “The buyouts have settled, and there’s all these photographers who have nowhere to go that are not happy with Corbis and Getty and are looking for solutions.” She also feels that on the client side there are people who don’t like working with the bigger agencies. It’s also interesting to her that all of the new agencies are doing something a little different to each other.

Certainly Marcel’s new company is different to Jody’s, but on the surface very similar to his previous one. It is in the differences from Saba where the interest lies. He will represent and resell the work of a smaller group of photographers, down to twenty from seventy five, but will take work from others whom he does not represent on a full time basis. He admits to having been very hard-ass against this with Saba, and thinks that the times now call for a more open and flexible approach. This way of working is made easier by the absence of any formal contractual arrangements between him and any of the photographers whose work he licenses. “I really don’t believe in [contracts]” he says, “I’m only 42 but I have a lot of old fashioned in me still. It’s a handshake. It’ll either work or it doesn’t work.” Like Jody he sees the need to keep overheads low, and so Redux will be one hundred percent digital, which doesn’t mean that the photographers will have to shoot digitally, but that’s the only way that their work will be sold. In this Marcel is right in line with most of the other start-ups, and the reason he says is the significant reduction in the cost of technology over the last couple of years. What used to be an investment of four to five hundred thousand dollars can now be purchased for around twenty to thirty thousand. Redux will be on the French system Orphea, the same one used by Gamma and Sipa. Because he is in partnership with Mimi Brown’s Creative Alliance the costs will be further reduced through the sharing of scanning and other technology costs.

Marcel echoes Jody in the opportunities that he sees in both sides of the market. From the photographers’ point of view he felt that “there was room for somebody to be an alternative, to be another place, to be another option for photographers to go to. There is a shrinking of options for photographers.” He also believes that the clients are looking for a more personal service. “It was fun two years ago to do your own research. Now they want someone to go and do it for them.” The agency is off to a good start with the photographers that they represent. Mark Peterson, Nina Berman, Liz Gilbert, Jeffrey Salter, David Butow and London based Seamus Murphy will provide a significant archive base as well as being in demand for the assignment work that Marcel insists is still out there. His desire to only take on twenty full time photographers reflects the amount of attention that he feels each one needs. “Repping is very time consuming. You really need to spend time working with the photographers and target their work to certain magazines. It takes a lot of time and energy. I don’t want to have five reps right now.” Another thing that he doesn’t want to have is any involvement with the daily news business. What he will be offering his clients is high quality editorial features and portraiture; what he will offer the photographers is a seventy/thirty split on assignments and fifty/fifty on resale. The agency will also be involved in co-production.

Marcel sums up his belief that this model will work in the following terms:
“I think that three or four years ago there was an idea that the independent agency wasn’t going to stay alive because the digital age had come upon us. We couldn’t invest in technology; we didn’t understand it. Corbis and Getty understood it, and more power to them back then. I think that now we do understand what digital technology is and we can provide it for the photographers and for clients, and that we can still provide the intimate service that the photographers need and that some clients need. We can do it now; we understand technology, we embrace it and we’re going to deal with it. Corbis and Getty cannot be the only answer for every client out there.”

Whatever else C&G did, I think that they will prove to have been beneficial to photography in the long run. They showed us that digital technology is an ideal system for marketing photography; they forced us to look at the business practices of our craft, and however much you may hate the terminology that they used, and however little you feel like a content provider, if their MBAs have instilled in Marcel, Jody, Mimi, et al a discipline to run their businesses tightly and efficiently, not only will it be good for the photographers that they represent, it will also provide a powerful alternative to C&G themselves. Because Marcel is right when he says that this business needs other answers. If the dominance of the corporations is not effectively challenged, and if the photographers feel that they have no other options, it will inevitably lead to an homogenization of photography, especially in the editorial market. Those quirky unconventional photographers that we all applaud will be pushed further towards the margins, both stylistically and financially. The health of the business depends on such diversity, and Jonathon, Mark, Steve and Tony should be rooting for the success of Marcel and Jody along with the rest of us.

By the way, for those of you who didn’t have either the benefit of a classical education or a good dictionary, Redux means brought back or returned, and comes from the Latin for lead again. It is also the trademark for a drug called dexfenfluramine hydrochloride that is used in the management of obesity. I wonder if Marcel knew that when he named the agency.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor


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