As the hack said to her boss: `Don't call me, call my agent'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
You no longer have to be a celebrity or a high-flying executive to have an agent. As Diana Appleyard discovered, pent-up producers, humble hacks and wrung-out writers can obtain real benefits from their own Mr Ten Per Cent in the increasingly fluid and competitive media market.

Time was when the only people to say, "You'll have to call my agent, darling," were the luvvies and luminaries in the world of acting, writing and presenting. But now more and more of those working in the media lower down the ladder of fame are waking up to the benefits that having an agent can bring.

"Ordinary" journalists such producers and script editors and specialist reporters are hiring agents - who, as well as negotiating more money for their clients, can also guide them through the increasingly complicated network of different jobs available.

Anna Price, a freelance script editor, has been with Leah Schmidt at The Agency for more than a year. Anna says, "She's been brilliant - having an agent has made such a difference. I work part-time, which means that my agent is incredibly useful in telling me which projects are going on, and which she thinks would be suitable for me. Having an agent takes away all the difficulties of talking about a salary, and as I often work with small companies, it means I can earn a fair amount of money for the work I do without spoiling the creative relationship I have with my employers."

As Leah also represents writers, she can also put work Anna's way which she feels would be appropriate. Anna says, "At intervals I sit down and talk to her about where I am and where my career is going. She helps to crystallise my thoughts."

Leah says that while the number of script editors she represents is small at present, the figures are growing. "Producers and now script editors are looking more and more to have agents, because of the increasingly fragmented and complicated world in which they work. With so many different independent companies, and so many people working freelance, it is very hard to keep track of which projects are happening and when. Nowadays an agent is actually involved in putting whole projects together - working with the writer, finding the producers, recruiting script editors, putting together the team. It means we can be much more involved in dealing with political situations and talking to the multi-layers of management. We keep the politics of the situation afloat, wining and dining management so our clients are free to concentrate on the creative side of their work."

In the course of any one day, Leah will speak to up to sixty people in the media, collecting information and contacts she can then use to help her clients.

The television and film producer David Lascelles has had an agent, Sebastian Bourne, for three years. He says the main benefit he has found is as a sounding board for advice. Salary negotiation, he says, is now only part of the deal. David was the producer of Inspector Morse and Moll Flanders for television, and is now working on a film called The Wisdom of Crocodiles.

"There are so many different projects going on, that I need someone who has their ear to the ground and knows what's going on and with whom. My agent can give me the low-down on a particular company who may have offered me work, to find out if they're honourable. I can talk to friends and family about career choices, but with my agent I get objective advice. I can bounce ideas off on someone who doesn't have an axe to grind."

"Working as an independent producer I don't have the staff to support me - no PAs and accountants - so an agent is really invaluable in so many ways."

It has long been the tradition that television presenters have agents to negotiate their contracts and dictate terms and conditions, but now many more reporters and journalists are seeing the benefits.

Alison Jack, a reporter with Sky News, says: "I have found my agent most useful in finding out about corporate work, as well as negotiating contracts. I did find the Sky job myself, but she finds the jobs which are never advertised. She'll hear that a certain company is looking for someone to present a project, and she puts my name forward. It would be very hard to find the work yourself when you're working more or less full-time for someone else. Having an agent means you can find work very discreetly, and it's very helpful to have someone else negotiate a fee for you. It means you don't have to get directly involved, so there are no bad feelings."

There are now many more career opportunities for journalists, because of the increasingly diverse nature of the business. As well as highly lucrative corporate work, there are also the proliferation of new television channels, many of which are crying out for "experts" to provide comments and analysis. It has meant that a growing number of print journalists can now be heard analysing the papers on Breakfast With Frost, dissecting a subject on Sky News, forming part of a panel on radio. As well as the financial rewards - which at this level are not so great - it has the effect of raising their profile so they become more attractive for corporate work. To take advantage of these lucrative sidelines to their main jobs, many are realising that signing on with an agent is the way to the big bucks, as they are the people who know what work is around. Jon Roseman, who handles Jill Dando and Roger Cook, says this is the path more and more journalists are taking.

"If a journalist has a specialist area," he says, "an agent can approach various news organisations to make sure their name is on the list. Sky News, for example, has a list of experts in most fields, which they work down when they want someone to comment on a particular subject. This has a knock-on effect in terms of getting other work."

But there are some words of warning. A number of the commissioning editors said they would find it intrusive to deal with a freelance via their agent. Jon Roseman also says that ITN, for example, does not like dealing with agents for their reporters and presenters.

Of course, the most obvious benefit is financial. Without naming figures, Anna Price says that with her agent, she has negotiated much better deals than she ever could have done on her own. Jon Roseman says, "I remember taking over a contract for a presenter being offered work by a small independent company. An agent working for me had been haggling with this company for an extra six hundred pounds. I read through the contract and it stank - I knew what the real value of this client was. They were offering eighty thousand pounds for a six-month contract. I went back and asked for a hundred and eighty thousand pounds. We settled at a hundred and twenty thousand pounds - all in the space of a few days."

The current going rate for agents is between ten and fifteen per cent on each deal. In the increasingly open and competitive media market, it seems, you don't have to be megastar to say "Call my agent."