Start Your Own Agency

Posted on 12/18/2000 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



December 18, 2000

Many stock photographer have been dismayed and disheartened by recent changes in their

relationships with their large stock photo agency. Much of this has been the result of

acquisition and consolidation -- and the fallout continues. As a result many are so soured on

agencies in general that they have come to the conclusion that the only way to sell stock in

the future is through direct relationships with the clients.

While this may work for some, a better route for many photographers may be to join together in

small groups and start their own agency. These groups must agree on marketing and pricing

strategies as there are a variety of strategies to choose from. In a small agency

participants get the personal service they are seeking. Also, they are in a better position

to influence pricing policies and the percentage payout to the photographers.

Starting an agency that licenses images through the Internet is about to get a lot easier

because it will be possible to outsource two of the four main functions of an agency. Broadly

these four necessary functions are:

    1 - Providing sales services that include: research, pricing, negotiating and


    2 - Providing information and support to the photographers they represent;

    3 - Providing technological services; and

    4 - Providing marketing services.

A number of Technology Service Providers (TSP) are coming on the scene and plan to offer a

menu of services for either a fixed monthly cost, or a reasonable percentage of sales. These

organization will enable the small agent to fully outsource all their technology needs. The

TSP's also supply a certain level of marketing that varies from organization to organization

depending on how they are structured.

Basically, such organizations allow small specialized agencies to band together in joint

marketing efforts and reach a broader group of buyers at a more cost effective rate than would

be possible if they were marketing independently.

In many ways this is exactly the same strategy that a Getty Images or a Corbis is offering

individual photographers. They bring the work of many, many photographers into one pool, and

all photographers share, in one way or another, in the cost of reaching out to the world's

pool of buyers. Within this general structure there are many ways this "sharing" can be

divided up. The strategies used by Getty and Corbis are not the only possible options for

selling on-line. The various available options need to be weighed carefully, depending on the

goals and needs of the seller. The important points I want to make here are:

    1 - images will not sell without marketing;

    2 - new marketing options are coming on stream;

    3 - by acting in small groups, individuals with like interests may be able to more cost

    effectively market their production, than would be possible if they were marketing


    4 - individuals will be able to exercise more control over their work and how it is handled

    in the environment of a small, personal agency; and

    5 - new TSP's offer the image producers the potential of testing a variety of marketing

    strategies. In some cases they will even offer the opportunity to participate in print


Why is an agent needed rather than selling direct?

In the stock photo industry there will continue to be a need for personal service to the

customer and negotiated sales. In the technology world this is referred to as "High Touch"

vs. "High Tech." Most professional users don't want or expect fully automatic pricing,

particularly for the high end uses, because there are so many custom variations of use.

Sellers who insist on making everything fully automatic tend to leave huge amounts of money on

the table that customers would have been happy to pay, if asked. (See "Why Photographers

Need Stock Agents" 178 )

In order to effect such negotiations, the customers will want to be able to discuss the

project during normal business hours, whenever their need arises. Having someone available to

provide this service is one of the key reasons why an agent is needed. Agents will also have

more experience in pricing and negotiating because that is a key part of their job and they do

it more frequently than any individual.

Many photographers need to give a lot more thought to the way they would like usages of their

images priced. Some want to hold to high prices which more accurately reflect the effort and

costs that went into producing each image. Others are willing to accept some discounting in

order to increase the volume of sales believing that increased volume will result in a higher

overall return. Still others are focused on volume and are willing to do whatever it takes to

reach more buyers.

All of these strategies are legitimate and it is possible that any one of them might produce

more gross revenue than the others.

When the photographer has a specific preference he or she should make it known to the agent.

Most agents adhere to one of the above philosophies. The photographer needs to understand the

agents philosophy and whether it fits with the photographer's preference.

It is possible -- but rare -- for an agent to handle sales for different photographers using

different strategies. The agent might be more willing to negotiate the price for an image

produced by one photographer than for another, based on general instructions supplied by the

photographer. This is more likely to happen when the agent represents only a few

photographers and has a close personal understanding or each photographer's desires. The

longer the chain of command within the agency, the less likely that a particular

photographer's preferences will be observed.

Another important factor to consider is the control over sensitive issue uses. The

photographer needs to have confidence that the agent is protecting his and the model's

interests in negotiations. (See "Protecting Model's Rights"

355 )

Some photographers with certain types of specialist material -- agriculture, food or aviation

for example -- may do much better if they have someone who is an expert in the field

controlling the pricing for them. They may also want to tailor some of their marketing to

known buyers of their particular type of work rather than relying on the more general

marketing of the overall site.

Technology and Marketing

It will now be possible for an agent to concentrate on the above factors and outsource the

technology and much of the marketing aspects of the selling process. The cost of these

services per item sold should be much lower than if the agent had to set up a totally

independent technology and marketing operation. Thus, the agent has lower overhead and should

be able to successfully operate with a lower volume of sales.

The agent can concentrate on the customer service aspects of the job as well as helping their

photographers make educated decisions about the various distribution options. This includes

decisions as to which images it will be cost effective to post on-line, what TSP's to use and

what marketing strategies to embrace. It may also include assistance in captioning and

keywording images to make them easier for customers to locate.

In some cases a TSP may provide the negotiating services of an agent. This is not necessarily

bad, but the photographer needs to consider whether the TSP's strategy for pricing uses is in

total sync with their own, as well as the experience or track record the sales people have in

pricing photo uses. Would the photographer be happier having their own personal agent control

the pricing?

Also, the TSP is focused on their marketing and selling strategy. If the photographer is not

absolutely convinced that one selling strategy is best then he or she should test several

different TSP's with differing strategies. Doing this through an agent who can see that

scanning and keywording only needs to be done once may provide more flexibility.

The advantages of dealing with multiple TSP's needs to be weighed carefully against the

additional costs, in terms of percentage of sales, that the agent will be receiving for the

services they provide.

One place where an agent, or sub-agent, becomes absolutely necessary -- if we accept the

premise that there will be negotiation -- is in sales outside your home territory. The

marketing, pricing structures, industry practices and problems with collection are different

enough in every country that a local agent becomes an absolute necessity. It will be possible

to make some fully automatic sales without an agent, but the chances of reaching anywhere near

one's full potential in sales without an agent is slim. (See "Selling Worldwide On The

Internet" 330 )

TSP's To Consider

To illustrate some of our points we will look at various aspects of five different TSP's.

All of the above organizations except (and they seem to be considering it) have a

system for each agency to have their own custom site that shows the images the agency has on

the main system. If you bring a customer to your custom site they only see the images you

represent, and no others. is the only one of these companies that has a serious track record of

selling on-line. But, as of March they are re-designing their offering and marketing strategy

and it is difficult to say how that will affect total performance. Everyone hopes that it

will result in dramatically increased sales. One clear advantages for is

that they have several years of experience with the technology. Their basic on-line search

system has been tested while the other players are either building or working through the

initial stages of putting together a system.

The ideal TSP is one that just provides technological services. All other selling and

marketing services are left to the supplier to organize.

Finding A Representative

Many have looked at this idea in the past couple years and rejected it as too difficult and

complicated to set up. But, it may be time to take another look.

Finding someone with experience to represent a small group may not be that hard in today's

environment. Many very experienced sales people have either resigned or been fired from Getty

and Corbis in the last year as these companies attempt to consolidate their acquisitions.

Many of these people would be perfect to represent the interests of a small group of

photographers. With the advent of the TSP's the costs of getting into the business of

representing is no longer the capital intensive endeavor that it might have been a year or so


Copyright © 2000 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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