In his role as senior director of the photography division for Jed Root, Inc., Kelly Penford is responsible for acquiring and managing talent and keeping clients happy. Jed Root, where he’s been for seven years, is the largest independent agency for fashion photographers, stylists, hair and makeup artists, manicurists, illustrators, prop stylists, and set designers in the world with offices in New York, Paris, London, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Manila.
Penford’s team of nine agents manages the careers of a roster of 25 photographers. Penford says his agency is always looking for new talent, and, yes, they actually do go through all of the submissions that come their way and regret not being able to respond to them all.
How do you find new photographers?
We get 50 to 100 submissions per week. We got through them and connect with someone if we are interested in taking the conversation on to the next step. A word of advice would be to include images in the body of the email so that when we open it we look straight away.
The more traditional routes are still open in terms of photographers that have assisted other photographers and people that we’ve worked with here or people that we know within the industry. We know if someone has gone down the assisting route that they’re going to have a great technical knowledge. They understand the business in terms of what’s needed on set and how to handle professional relationships.
How much experience do you look for when considering new photographers?
We look at the apprenticeship phase of the photographer in the range of five to 10 years. That amount of time investment in learning and understanding the industry puts you in good stead to be able to have a career that spans a lifetime. Even if we go and pluck someone from the outside, it can be a long process in terms of getting them developed to be ready to go out and work. If you can get contacts with the industry, even if it means assisting or interning or just getting a knowledge base within the industry, that would definitely help the development process.
What are some other qualities you’re looking for?
People who are good team players and have the confidence to be able to direct. Taking images is 25 percent of the job. Handling the relationships with people, dialogue with other creatives, working with production in terms of being able to problem-solve—those elements cannot be underestimated. That’s all part of the development work that we do with artists that we take on.
What is your vetting and interviewing process like?
The analogy we use is, this is a marriage. You wouldn’t necessarily get married after the first date. You’ll want to develop a relationship that’s built on trust and honesty and transparency. Getting to know each other means that we’ll have multiple meetings, then start to get a handle on people’s ability to deliver professionally and maintain relationships with people we’re going to introduce them to.
Often we’ll set up do meetings for the prospective talent with industry leaders that we really trust and respect. Then we would ask the clients for their feedback and thoughts. You’re looking at three to six months before you would make the leap and say let’s do this.
Any other tips for getting an agent’s attention once the conversation has started?
The most important thing I would say is to take pictures every day. We might sit down and have meeting with someone and say, “Your work is coming along great; let’s get together again in a few months.” If that photographer comes and shows us the same work again, it’s doubtful our opinion will have changed that much since the last time we spoke. Seeing the way people are thinking about imagery is really instructive to us.
Once you do ask someone to come on board, what happens next?
The process means getting the work ready to be able to take it to market. What can be confusing for photographers, especially ones that have a background in fine art, is the idea that we are a business so we’re going to be looking at ways to grow a photographer’s business by monetizing what they do.
You want them to be hired by people so they can actually make revenue and are able to reinvest in what they are doing. Maybe they need to buy new technical equipment or maybe they need to do additional testing or editorials that need to be self-financed.
We educate our talent so they understand that part of the process—that what you make should be reinvested in your future. Even if you’re able to start working quickly, you really have to think about how you’re going to reinvest into your work so you can keep attracting new clients.
What types of goals do you set with your photographers?
The key to this industry is getting repeat business so that as you build a relationship with clients you have the ability to work with them for months or years. That’s what we’re trying to instill. So much of that has to do with the relationship you have with the client and the creatives and being able to be a team player. It’s as simple as being courteous. If you’re not able to work in a professional way then your career won’t last two minutes.
That’s something that can be very difficult for creative photographers to grasp because the integrity of their work is obviously very important. We definitely welcome people who have very strong creative opinions, and part of our job is to give the photographer the freedom to operate but also for the client to feel as though they’ve been accommodated as well. I ultimately want the images to do their job, which is to grow the client’s business.
What are some of the learning curves for your new photographers?
The hardest thing to deal with is actually success. They may get a great editorial opportunity or a fantastic advertising campaign, and it might come very early in their career. If they haven’t gone through and made some mistakes, things can be a problem. That’s when it becomes difficult to control your ego or get a realistic grasp of what this industry is about, which it’s about a lot of hard work.
And, of course, the very hardest thing is if your work isn’t being accepted. If an agent finds you and they really believe in you, and then for people not to hire you, that can be a very difficult point.
In all of those areas, it’s important to know that there are ways to work through everything. There are many different peaks and troughs in any photographer’s career.
If you’ve not had the success at the beginning, it’s not time then to throw back the camera and say this isn’t going to work. There’s a way of examining what the issues are and really listening to people and to yourself in terms of what your convictions are and what kind of work you want to do.
What’s difficult is if an agency has a certain idea of where a talent should be headed, and then the talent has their own idea of the kind of work they want to do, but they’re not producing the kind of work that is going to get them to their goal. There’s always this constant tug between the art and the commerce of the industry and trying to strike that balance is one of the major things in terms of career management.
What do you do in terms of marketing your photographers?
All of that kind of promotion would be coming from us. If you’re represented by an agency, that’s one of the things your agency should do for you is really working on the marketing and promotion of your work.
Own agency website has become the main way clients will look at work from us. We work a lot with our own internal promotions and have a graphic design team that is set up to showcase imagery and to make things look more crafted toward a particular client or a particular need that they have.
Also with photographers now having their own Instagrams or websites, we really work together in terms of how we’re communicating about their work. Somebody’s Instagram may be very personal, and that allows clients to get a real grasp of who this person is. Others use their Instagram as a showcase for their work. That can be a great way for clients to get an overall picture. We talk to our talent about their Instagram feed and what they’re putting out there. There is a certain curation process that goes on with everything that goes out into the world.
What do your contracts typically stipulate?
Contracts used to be extremely heavy in terms of restrictions. I’ve worked at a number of agencies, and there’s always a fear for an agency thinking they need to tie down a talent with them. Our philosophy is definitely a lot more free in the sense that we really want to have a great relationship with people. There aren’t any handcuffs attached to our contract. If we’re happy working together, let’s work together. If there’s an issue or problem and we’re not going to work together any more, so be it.
For more tips to lock down a rep and seal the deal, check out Tips to Getting a Photo Rep.