Does Exclusive Representation Still Make Sense?

Posted on 4/29/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

Being represented exclusively by a single agency, or distributor, used to be important if you wanted a chance to license your images for high dollars for advertising or product identity uses. These customers wanted assurance that no one else would be using the same image while their campaign was in progress and they were willing to pay a lot of money for such rights.

There was never a significant number of these sales, but they could represent an important percent of total revenue for the agency, and they were a very nice boost for the lucky photographer whose image happened to be used for such a purpose. A very high percentage of photographers with exclusive contracts have never seen any sales of this type.

Now, the landscape seems to have changed. There are even fewer of this type of sale than their were previously, and they are usually for lower money. There are so many images available, and promotions change so rapidly, that the chances of a competitor accidently using the same image in a directly competitive way is very slim. Therefore, fewer buyers are worried about the problem. However, once an image has been purchased it may be used in a myriad of different ways, by different people in the organization, so most customers do want unlimited non-exclusive use forever of the images they purchase or basically what RF offers.

When a customer really feels the need to own and control the images they plan to use in a project, they hire a photographer to do a custom shoot, not buy stock.

Competing For The Sale?

Another argument for being exclusive is that if the same image is available on two or more different sites customers might force the sites to compete against one another for the sale. In such a case both agency and the photographer lose. This has happened, and very occasionally still does happen, but the possible loss of revenue for the photographer on a single sale is offset by the fact that the same image is not available to those customers who use the second, third or fourth site when they do their searching for images and otherwise would never see the image.

In addition, given the huge number of images in collections today, the chances of finding the same image on two different sites is very slim. Every site has a different search algorithm. If a customer finds an image she wants to use on site A and wants to see if site B has the same image at a lower price, she will have to spend a significant amount of time searching site B and still may not find the image, even if it is actually there. All this to save a few dollars? It’s not worth the effort. Time is money.

Additional Support

In the olden days, agencies gave additional support, guidance and direction to at least some of their exclusive contributors. For the most part that has disappeared, certainly among the major distributors. The sparse information available to exclusive contributors is also available to those who are non-exclusive and often to the general public.

Higher Royalties

In some cases, particularly in the microstock arena, exclusive contributors receive a higher royalty share. That can certainly be a reason to be exclusive. But, in most cases, I believe the contributor would be likely to earn more if the same images were available on a number of sites on a non-exclusive basis. Some of the top selling contributors whose work is represented non-exclusively on multiple sites seem to bear this out.

Are The Agencies Winning?

In many cases the photographer is given no choice. If they want their images represented by a particular agency they must agree to an exclusive contract. But I challenge those agencies to look at what they are paying each contributor on an annual basis and determine how many of them are earning enough from their “exclusive” agency to support themselves and sustain their business.

If photographers can’t sell through other outlets then they should be able to support themselves from the revenue earned from a single, exclusive outlet. There are a few photographers who can, but my bet is that less than 1% of exclusive contributors are earning enough to support themselves. And that number is declining.

Consequently, most photographers must go out and find some other activity that will supply them with some, if not the majority, of the income they need to support themselves. These people are among the top producers for the agency. But, they are forced by circumstances to cut back on their production.

Some agencies may argue that they shouldn’t be expected to provide a living wage for any of their contributors. Everyone should view stock income as a supplement to something else. If this is their thinking I suggest they take look at the revenue generated by the top 5% (maybe 3% or 4%) of their contributors. How many are earning a living wage? What percentage of the company’s revenue comes from people in this group? How much time are the most active contributors likely spending to product the images they are sending in? In the last few years have these people been increasing production or cutting back? If they continue to cut back, or stop producing how is that likely to affect the company’s overall revenue? Can the agency survive by working exclusively with photographers who view stock photography as a part-time, sideline activity?

Instead of locking photographers up in this manner the agencies should be encouraging many to place their work with other distributors in order to possibly earn additional revenue and thus enable them to become more productive.

Instead of encouraging photographers to place their images directly with other distributors some of these agencies are getting their work more widely represented by placing the exclusive images they represent with other agencies through distribution contracts. The additional revenue the prime agency receives through such distribution arrangements benefits the agency, but given the additional percentage cut, and the low royalty rates to start with, it is less likely to benefit a productive photographer.

There is no single distributor that is reaching every customer. Not Getty Images, not Shutterstock, not Alamy. And even if they were, the size of their collections and their search algorithms make it difficult for customers to find and see many of the images that are there.

To maximize revenue image creators must do everything they can to insure that the maximum number of people searching for the kind of subject matter they produce can see their images. That’s not easy, but from a revenue point of view it may be more important to focus more effort on distribution than running out to produce more images.

Certainly putting the images with one agency exclusively and then forgetting about those images is not the answer in today’s market.

Many agencies and photographers will disregard this advice. But the agencies that do can expect to see continued declines as more and more of the best producers move on to something else.

Copyright © 2016 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:  


  • Tibor Bognar Posted Apr 30, 2016
    I wholeheartedly agree with everything in this article. While I already work with several agencies, recently I tried to add more and talked to several new ones. They were all enthusiastic to start with but then turned me down flat when I mentioned that it could only be a non-exclusive relationship. I gave them all the arguments in the article, but they rigidly stuck to their point of view, even though some of them were fairly small and obviously could generate only a very modest yearly income. So, agencies should perhaps rethink their position. They gain very little and the contributors lose a lot with exclusivity, so why do they insist on it? An amateur photographer might agree for exclusive representation, but a full time photographer would and should not, so which ones are more desirable to work with?

  • David W Stuckel Posted Apr 30, 2016
    My experience is that exclusive listings are reducing my income. I have a set of images on one site that sell fairly regularly but another set of images of the same subject at another agency does not sell at all. Both are exclusive arrangements so I cannot post the pics at both locations, but clearly I am losing since I now have a good selection of images tied up for 5 years at a site that does not seem to generate any interest in them. Clearly, the sites are different but after a year with no sales at the second site I made a mistake.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted May 1, 2016
    A real short answer this time from me, Jim. Do NOT go exclusive with any agency. Forget their discussions.... they are doing it to benefit their agency, nit the photographer!

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