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Do Australian photographers need an agent?

Most Australian commercial photographers, at one stage in their career, will ask themselves whether or not they need a photo agent.

Sally Brownbill Brownbill Effect
Sally Brownbill, a former photo agent, believes an agent can provide one avenue for finding work, but there are many others.

An agent can offer photographers a number of benefits, from scoring a larger volume of well-paid work, through to handling quotes and negotiating with clients.

But, like professional photographers, agents come with a variety of skills and specialise in different areas.

Inside Imaging recently published an article by successful US-based commercial photographer, Erik Almas, who compared his experience working with and without a photo agent. He’s currently agent-less, going on three years, and enjoying the ride.

The American photo industry is a different beast to what’s happening in Australia, so for a local perspective Inside Imaging spoke with Melbourne-based creative consultant and networking guru, Sally Brownbill, founder of The Brownbill Effect.

At Sydney’s 2018 Head On Photo Festival, Sally spoke at an event alongside esteemed industry professionals about brand building, marketing avenues, and the question at hand: do photographers need an agent?

But first, an introduction
After graduating from RMIT University, Sally started her career as a commercial photography assistant in the mid-to-late 80s and also began shooting. She then went to Europe for several years to work in a variety of roles, primarily in TV and theatre.

In 1994 she began teaching at RMIT, where she taught a program that had advertising students work alongside photographers. Sally procured job briefs from actual ad agencies, then had the students work as a team to respond to the brief. The unit focused on teaching the importance of building relationships and the role each professional plays in the field.

The following year a commercial photographer and friend asked Sally to do a job he hated with a passion: go out with his portfolio to land him work. Other photographers eventually jumped aboard, starting Sally’s first business, The Flash Place.

‘Photographers really didn’t want to, or didn’t know how to, go out and get work. I became an agent, at the time there were one or two others in Melbourne. I basically just knocked on doors, rang everyone from advertising agencies through to design studios, private schools and government departments. Everyone and anybody who would use photography, really.’

Sally refined her skills at selling and marketing photography, and her business was eventually acquired by a larger agency representing professionals across several creative industries.

‘Ultimately after listening and observing, what I realised is that it didn’t matter if they (the clients) liked me or not. It was actually about who the photographer was, and I began feeling strongly that the photographers needed to get out there and show the work themselves.’

In the early 2000s after starting a family, Sally worked in a couple design studios. Here she saw many photography portfolios which were poorly designed and didn’t do the talent justice.

From her previous work as a photographer, teacher and as an agent, Sally was aware of how difficult it was to build connections and network. Some brilliantly creative people at various stages of their career needed help to take their business to the next level.

Over the years she had also built a large network of professional creatives across the entire commercial advertising and design industries – professionals who sought each other, but didn’t know where to look. Many were calling Sally asking for recommendations.

This led to her founding The Brownbill Effect, where she operates an online directory for networking and marketing creative professionals, and offers photographers one-on-one  consultations.

Sally handpicks individuals in the Creative Directory to offer a variety of talent specialising in different areas, from photographers, designers, printers, producers, design and creative agencies, art directors, stylists, and so on.

The Brownbill Effect also has a jobs board, TBE jobs, and a photography assistant directory to help students or graduates build industry connections.

On the consultancy side of The Brownbill Effect, Sally provides professional advice covering topics like branding and marketing strategies, folio editing, website editing, re-energising careers and more.

While what she does slightly resembles the role of an agent, Sally prefers to label herself a creative consultant  and connector.

Do you need an agent?
It’s a difficult question to answer, Sally says, because what works for one photographer may not work for the next.

‘I don’t think an agent today is the sort of agent I and others were in the ’90s. I get asked this maybe half a dozen times a month by photographers around the country – “do I need an agent?”. I think some people need help with quoting and pulling things together. They may need an agent. But there is now a lot of producers teaming up with photographers, and many photographers doing it all themselves.’

Because each photographer does business differently, Sally says the question must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. But given her current line of work, and decades of experience, she believes fewer photographers need an agent.

‘If I thought being an agent, in the traditional sense, was still a great idea then I’d still be doing it – which I’m not,’ Sally said.

‘I am there as part of developing a marketing strategy or plan for a photographer. Whether it’s to come in and have a consultation, or have a portfolio on the Creative Directory to network them. One of the biggest challenges for photographers these days is the business of photography. There is a lot of talented photographers out there who come unstuck, and perhaps that is where an agent can come in.’

However Sally believes many agents are now called bookers – the role they perform these days is booking jobs. She is unaware if agents are out there knocking on doors and looking for new avenues of work as much as they once were. Her recommendation for photographers starting out is to focus on building a network and establishing themselves.

For her it’s imperative for photographers get out there and explore different avenues to find work. An agent serves as just one avenue, or a great agent may offer a few – but other opportunities can be missed by relying entirely on them. ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’, Sally says.

‘Business is all about communication, and you have to be a little bit everywhere, all the time. There are thousands of people who use photography, it’s just a matter of thinking outside the box.’

This means making phone calls, having an active social media presence and a functional website, and using various directories – like The Brownbill Effect. But most importantly, she encourages photographers to meet clients and collaborators face-to-face with a printed portfolio. It makes a lasting impression by cutting through the world of digital communication.

‘I have always advocated for a printed portfolio, from the days of floppy discs to USBs. It’s a lateral interpretation of who you are. It’s not trying to sell anything, but gives a vibe of how you see things, the work you do, and who you are. You are meeting someone to take them on a journey with your book. And to see how you get along with them personally.’

The Brownbill Effect Creative Directory costs $250 per year for a listing, which offers numerous marketing and networking benefits.

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