Modeling Agency The Buzz


The multibillion-dollar advertising and fashion industries need models with the right look -- the kind that grab your attention. They get those models from modeling agencies.

You'll have lots of competition if you start your own agency. There are tons out there. But it is possible to set yourself apart and make your business a model of success.

Modeling agencies book talent. They act as brokers. A client such as an ad agency or fashion catalog will call and ask for "composites" of a certain type of model. A composite is a card that has various images of a specific model on it.

The client might ask for a particular age range, height range and hair color. The agency will pull composites of people fitting that description. Then the client might book the model, ask to see a portfolio on the model or ask to meet with the model.

Ben Barry started his modeling agency when he was just 14. The fact he was still living at home helped get his business going.

"I didn't have to worry about paying rent or any bill," he says. "I literally started by getting a set of business cards and using my family phone."

Currently, Barry is studying business management and women's studies at university. But he still has time to run his agency, which has offices in two cities.

Barry's agency currently represents 150 models. They work around the world and are of various ages, sizes and ethnicities. A major goal of the agency is opening the industry up to more models that look like the general public.

"I see that there's a big problem with the industry," Barry says. "It doesn't represent people, because models are primarily focused on being skinny and tall and young."

Barry credits his ability to start an agency at such a young age to several things. For one, he has always focused on building relationships with both models and clients. This makes him stand out in an industry that can make people feel like products.

Barry says that connections are important when you're starting out. However, he says it's not an obstacle if you start with few or none.

"Connections are important, but you get them by making them," he says. "And that's about being persistent and having the personality where you will go out and make things happen."

As far as education and training, Barry says business training is valuable. "That's why I'm taking management [at university]," he says. "But you know, I did this when I was in Grade 8....I learned a lot of it by doing it.

"You have to understand business," he adds. "You have to understand financial statements. You have to understand invoicing. [And] computer skills are essential."

Conny Barry is Ben Barry's mother. She's director of one of the agency's offices. She says integrity is an essential quality in this industry.

"You have to be so careful, when kids come in with their dreams and parents are pursuing their dreams, not to sell them goods," she says.

"Honesty and ethics: I don't think you can teach it, but if you don't have it, you're scamming, and there are more scamming places around than anything."

"There's a lot of agencies, but some of them aren't as reputable as others," agrees Laura Dodds. She's with the Canadian Model and Talent Convention (CMTC).

The CMTC is held every spring in Toronto. It draws hundreds of models, actors, agents and booking directors from around the world. Dodds says the CMTC works with 246 reputable agencies.

There are hundreds of agencies in Canada and thousands in the U.S. No one knows exactly how many, however, because there is no professional association. Some places require licenses, but many don't. Virtually anyone can call themselves an agent, adding to the potential for scams.

"They've tried numerous times to get an association going," says Mary Boncher, referring to agencies in New York. She's co-owner of a large agency in Chicago.

"It just never seemed able to be productive and effective. The fortunate thing is, those of us who are in the industry, we know who the legitimate agencies are, and we work together."

Boncher has been in the business since 1976. Today, her agency represents between 1,200 and 1,500 people. This number includes fashion print models as well as artists and stylists, actors and others.

Boncher, like many agency owners, is a former model. She says it helps for an agency to be in a major city. She says the number one market is New York. Number two is Miami and number three is Chicago. Los Angeles, which is more focused on film, is number four.

To build an agency the size of Boncher's in a major city is a major undertaking. To get an office in a prestigious location, you'll be paying a lot of rent.

Then there's "the computers, the phone system -- we've got 21 lines running in here, so you can imagine our phone bill is astronomical, because the phones ring all day long. Obviously, you start out small, but you still have investments."

One of those investments is custom software that handles client data, scheduling and invoicing. There's also a lot of wining and dining of clients, which isn't cheap. And a large agency will employ several agents who find and handle the models and clients.

"If you're going to have good agents, you have to pay them some decent money," Boncher says. "Payroll is a big expense -- there are 15 of us here."

Boncher says that getting as big as her agency requires a good reputation in a large market. If you're going to start an agency, you're going to face a lot of competition. There are a lot of agents out there.

"There's no shortage, trust me," Boncher says. "Through the years, I've seen so many agencies go out of business, especially in the last year or two. The strong survive and the weak succumb. It's like anything else."

The lack of an association also means it's not clear how much agencies earn. They receive a percentage of the business they book for clients. The more clients they have, the more they will generally earn.

Ben Barry agrees that there are plenty of agencies out there. But he says there's always room for someone new.

The key, he says, is "what makes you different -- why people want you to represent their interests. It's about the individual, what makes them special. People will switch if they think you can represent them better -- if they like you more."

Barry says it helps to be in a big city. However, in a smaller market, you can make money by placement -- sending models across the country and internationally.

In smaller markets, it's common for agencies to also run modeling schools. These schools teach young people such things as how to apply make-up, how to carry themselves and how to appear professional.

They also teach how the business of modeling works. These schools aren't essential for models, but can be of value.

Barry says a challenging part of the business is keeping everyone happy. Models can have unrealistic expectations. "It's about relationships, and all relationships have up times and down times," he says.

"I think you have to be outgoing. I think you have to be innovative. I think you have to be ambitious and driven. And I think you have to have a love of people."

Links

Canadian Model and Talent Convention
Learn more about this annual industry event

Crimes of Persuasion
Some stories about the dark side of the modeling business

Model Network
Offers industry news, profiles and an agency directory