Hey J! Ask the Agent: Quid pro quo

Hey J, It’s been a tough year, financially, with the pandemic and everything and to be honest, I’m wondering whether my agent is worth their commission? What do you think? Cheers, Dave

Hey Dave,

It’s been a tough year all round, hasn’t it? I think, if someone had told me last March that the UK industry would be shut down for this long, I might have lost the plot a bit. Every creative saw their income vanish overnight from actors to casting directors and, yep, agents too. We saw a lot of agencies reduce the number of agents they employed, let clients go, and some even shut up shop altogether but those that ploughed on never stopped working for their clients, even with no money coming in.

But actually, as agents, that’s pretty much what we’re used to really – not having money coming in I mean, not a global pandemic! Agents invest a lot of time and effort and energy into their clients hoping that one day they’ll make some return on that investment. I often say actors don’t pay their agent commission on the job they’re in, they pay them back for all the work the agent puts in when the actor isn’t earning money at all.

The difficulty for an actor is that most of the time you don’t see all of that work. You’re not in the office listening to the phone calls they make on your behalf, the sending out of CV’s, the submitting you for jobs, the talking you up, the thinking about you and pushing you that takes place all the time. So much of that work doesn’t result in an audition for you (yet). At the beginning of your career, your agent is constantly making introductions on your behalf; that work will pay off in time but it can often take quite a few pushes on the part of your agent before a casting director agrees to audition you.

Then there’s all the stuff you do see and enjoy the benefit of – the chats about your career, the advice, the shoulder to cry on; all that experience and knowledge and guidance. That’s all part of the job. It is an investment in your career, it’s a lot of work, it’s costing time and money while you’re not bringing money in. The unspoken agreement between actor and agent is we will invest in you, through good times and bad, and you repay that investment when you’re in work. Thankfully, while you’re out of work our salary is being covered by the actors who are in work. It’s a great big supportive ecosystem. While you’re not earning the actors who are earning are paying your agent’s salary so your agent can continue to work for you, just as one day, you’ll be paying to support someone else while they’re out of work.

As I said in my column ‘Do I Need An Agent’, I think where an agent really comes into their own is that they do the upsell. That isn’t only negotiating your fee up (although of course we’re always trying to do that) the upsell, the added value, that an agent brings is also about taking the pressure off you. We’re there to work on the business side of your career, reading the contract, making sure you’re valued, protected, and taken care of. We’ll look after your interests before you sign anything, for the duration of the contract and, very often, for quite a while after. We’re making sure you’re getting paid the money you’re owed and that you’re getting it on time. We’re having the difficult conversations that you shouldn’t have to have.

I think creatives should be able to concentrate on doing what they love and do best – being creative. It can be hard to do that if you’re also the person complaining to production that you haven’t had your break, or your trailer wasn’t cleaned, or you’re being marginalised in rehearsal. I know from my own experience as an actor that I wasn’t always the greatest at speaking up for myself in situations. Sometimes that was because I was just grateful to be working when others weren’t and so I had that mindset I’m sure you’re familiar with – that I shouldn’t complain when thousands of others would jump at the opportunity. Sometimes it was because I perceived there was a hierarchical imbalance between me as ‘third bush from the left’ and the award-winning director trying to get their vision on stage in a short space of time. I feared being known as the prickly bush, or getting a reputation of being hard to work with, or being thought of as not a team player. In those situations I was always grateful to have an agent in my corner to fight the battles for me.

Let’s face it Dave, there wasn’t really any way I was going to answer this and say ‘no, we’re not worth it’, was there? A good agent works with you to help develop a productive and prosperous career, a great agent sees potential in you that you don’t even see in yourself, and the best agents help you to believe in it. I do, of course, think an agent’s experience, knowledge, and support is worth the commission! How much they’re worth, how much that commission should be, well, that’s a whole different question, isn’t it?

Stay connected. Stay creative.


Got a question? Email JBR at [email protected]


JBR is a UK Talent Agent based in London. He began his career as a child performer in the 1980’s and has spent more than three decades in the industry exploring creativity and working across a number of fields. He has been an actor, a director, a writer, a designer, a drag queen, a producer, a dramaturg, a teacher, a comedy booker, a publican, a marketing manager and an agent. He runs JBR Creative Management working with a small group of multi-platform creatives. JBR's first book, Getting, Keeping And Working With Your Acting Agent will be published by Nick Hern Books on May 27th 2021 and is now available to preorder.


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