Small Ad Agencies Could Use Hollywood-Style Agents

Entertainment Biz Gets at Least One Thing Right; Maybe We Should Consider It

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Jaci Russo
Jaci Russo
After college, I moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles and landed my first "real" job, so named because paying my way through college bartending felt like "real" work but didn't provide "real" income. I started as an assistant to a talent agent at Creative Artists Agency (CAA). This was during their heyday when Michael Ovitz was at the helm (before he left to run Disney for about five minutes) and they had just taken on Coca-Cola as a client (remember the polar bears).

I had the opportunity to work with incredible actors, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Janine Turner, Blair Underwood, Beverly D'Angelo, Jessica Lange, Jennifer Grey, Bonnie Hunt and more. What always amazed me was whether they were brand new to the business, like Gwyneth at that time, or well established and successful, like Jessica, they were all in the same boat -- unemployed.

Don't get me wrong, it's not like they were on food stamps, but they were definitely unemployed -- spending their time always looking for their next job. Their projects would last anywhere from four to six months and at about the halfway point, they would start calling the office and pushing their agents for the next gig.

We worked hard for our clients. Looking for opportunities, building relationships, developing projects -- anything we could do to put them top of mind to get hired. Since we only worked on commission, we worked very hard. If our clients weren't working, then we weren't earning. CAA only represents A-list talent and it was an incredible experience for a 22-year-old born and raised in Louisiana. When I left the agency, to launch a production/product development company with a director client, I had learned a very valuable lesson about the world, and myself: I could never live like that.

I couldn't work one job while I spend my time always looking for my next job. I need to know where I will be tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. I'm all about the steady paycheck. Sure, it's not that exciting but it just feels solid and stable. So, what did I do? When it was time for me to move home, I became the new-business development director for an advertising agency. Yep, you guessed it. I spent all of my time looking for our next job.

Then, just because that felt too stable, I guess, I co-founded the agency where I now work. That was almost 10 years ago and it still amazes me to this day that I put myself and our employees in exactly the same position that my former clients are in -- looking for opportunities, building relationships and developing projects.

And we do it all without the benefit of being represented by an agent.

I think they have the right idea in Hollywood. At least at CAA there was a huge team of people who spent every waking minute, and most sleeping ones, securing the next project. And that industry-wide system of working completely on commission makes them very inspired.

It's really hard to see a system that works so well in one industry but doesn't get carried into another, especially when it is so needed. Why aren't there agents for agencies? Why don't we have our own 15%-ers getting clients for us? Movie stars have all the luck.

Oh sure, there are consultants that will help agencies look for new business. I've met a few of them and we even worked with one for a while, but the difference is that they are paid on retainer, not on commission. The other challenge is that these companies are still using "the old ways." Their plans seem to be centered on making cold calls, mailing brochures and asking for meetings. They get paid whether there is new business generated or not.

Then there are consultants who work for our clients. They are paid, by our clients, to provide an array of potential agency partners. And their focus is on protecting our clients, not us. Isn't it strange that our clients have better representation during reviews than we do?

When I think of the old Hollywood system with actors under contract to a particular studio and having to work on whatever script they were given, for very small pay, it's amazing how far they've come. The talent seems to have most of the power now, and the talent agents made that happen. Talent agents not only help secure the next project, they also negotiate the contracts to make sure the pay is fair and that their client will be well taken care of.

Wouldn't it be great if we had the same system as Hollywood? A team of people working day and night to get us new clients? That would be awesome. They would be working 24/7 on building relationships for us with our prospects. Instead of cold calling and collecting their retainers, they would use social media to develop a bond. Their commissions would give them the incentive to be really successful. Am I crazy? Is there a reason why this isn't the system now?

If there was a company out there that operated this way, would you hire it? Would you be willing to give up 15% to someone who was generating new business for you?

Jaci Russo is a senior partner and brand strategist at The Russo Group in Lafayette, La.
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