The worst part is listening to the stories agents tell again and again. Everyone seems to have an “I got screwed by an agent” story; the hostility that agents face is not trivial. In reality, an agent has very little power to make or break any deal. An agent is a representative who advises his/her client in a certain area of expertise. Agents represent athletes, writers, models, actors, producers, performers, and other celebrities. They help make their clients’ successes happen. If the client doesn’t do well, the agent doesn’t survive. But there’s a significant paycheck for those whose clients strike it rich; Deion Sanders, for example, signed a $35 million contract to play football for the Dallas Cowboys. His agent (assuming a standard 15 percent commission) stands to make $5.2 million dollars from that one deal. These kinds of paydays can make that uncertainty of income palatable.
An agent spends most of the day on the telephone arranging meetings, discussing prospects, networking connections, and keeping in touch with the industry trends and deals. Nearly one-third of all phone time is spent with clients, explaining what the agent is doing on their behalf and strategizing. Face-to-face meetings are also important. Negotiating skills are the agent’s bread and butter. Some believe that “Get killed in a negotiation-you only get a little less than what you want.” An agent has to be willing to find creative compromises and live with them. Those who are successful must have tenacity, the willingness to fight for their clients, and the ability to sell ideas effectively and communicate clearly. Agents must also have access to those able to make deals to be effective for their clients, so cocktail conversational skills and power-lunch political savvy are important as well.
It’s important to know that other agents will not necessarily welcome prospective agents with open arms. Other agents will acknowledge you; they will even discuss their work with you, but they will not offer you their contacts and they will not tell you any of their secrets. Much of the difficulty of being a successful agent is developing your own contacts, your own strategies, and your own techniques. Despite this arms-length relationship, agents record high levels of respect for each other.
No specific academic requirements exist to become an agent, although most agencies say that a college degree is “preferred.” College major is unimportant (although marketing and statistical analysis are looked upon favorably), but candidates must show a knowledge of the field, an ability to work under pressure and difficult circumstances, and an ability to relate to their clients. Specialization happens early on, as representation in different areas (film, literature, sports) requires a different set of contacts and skills. Often beginning in smaller, more hands-on firms provides many agents with their first jobs and exposure to the duties associated with agents. Jobs are marked by low wages (often with incentives), long hours, and significant “face time,” when agents must entertain clients, reassure them of their advocacy, and keep in touch with their clients’ needs.
The connections agents make in their careers come in handy if they decide to leave. Many enter the field their clients are in, such as producing, editing, publishing, and in rare cases, writing and directing.