This magazine is about pictures and photographers, not photo reps and the agencies they work for. Still, every so often it’s good to check in with a rep and discuss the business side of the photo business. To that end, what follows is an interview with a world-class agency owner who, not coincidentally, is also a world-class photographer.
You may remember Martin Wonnacott from DPP’s December 2009 issue in which we showcased his phenomenal beverage photography. His approach to product shooting is to keep it simple with unparalleled attention to detail. That’s also Wonnacott’s recipe for an ideal artist’s representative, and a major reason why he decided to create his own agency in the first place.
Things were going quite well for Wonnacott early in the new millennium. His London rep was getting him work, though the relationship wasn’t as symbiotic as the photographer believed it could be.
“I had several meetings with my agent discussing my direction with drinks photography,” Wonnacott says. “He didn’t get it. He told me, ‘There’s no work in drinks,’ at which point, I thought, ‘Why am I with this agent?'”
The photographer met with a couple of other agents and was equally uninspired. So he asked a few photographer friends—all of whom already referred work to one another—if they would be interested in being represented by a new agency funded entirely by Wonnacott. They liked the idea, and he got the ball rolling. It was easy to present a unified front to art buyers, as the three photographers represented by this new agency, known as Cake-Factory, each offered a unique specialty. The photographer’s agency was up and running.
Not long after, Wonnacott found himself working more and more with New York ad clients. It was time for the Londoner to get himself an agent in the States, as his startup company surely didn’t have a global reach. He chose a New York rep who worked for a fairly small agency, representing 10 photographers, and courted him aggressively.
“He took quite a bit of convincing,” Wonnacott says. “I flew over twice purely to buy him coffee in Starbucks. I knew that when trying to establish oneself in another country, it should appear to be no problem at all to meet, even briefly and randomly. This gave the perception that it’s no big deal, therefore, why wouldn’t he want to take me on?”
Finally, this agent agreed to represent Wonnacott, though they kept it off the books for a while to see if anyone liked his work. Indeed, they did.
“I gave him the first shoot to handle for me,” Wonnacott says, “to show, hey, some people want to work with me here. It was a campaign for Coca-Cola through Ogilvy in New York to launch Sprite Zero—not a bad first shoot. He then put me on his website.”
Within three months, Wonnacott says, the agent had billed more than a half million dollars in assignments. The rep was happy. The photographer, alas, was not.
“He was an awkward character,” Wonnacott says of his now former rep, “and a bit too old-fashioned in his approach to the industry. He was also about to start a new agency with another rep that was to be much larger; eventually, it would represent over 20 photographers.”
This episode spurred Wonnacott to take Cake-Factory stateside, too. The photographer-rep relationship didn’t need to be this way, he knew, and so he worked full force to reshape it.
Wonnacott’s ideal agency would remain small—still representing only four photographers, including the owner. They wouldn’t compete with one another, and they would incorporate the most refined branding and marketing with an award-winning website and stunning portfolios. In short, he’d run an agency the way a photographer would run an agency—and it would work wonderfully.
“I always wanted to have a very disciplined approach to our marketing,” Wonnacott says, “as this was something I could never have any control over with my previous agent. It was also something that drove me crazy—seeing piles of photographers’ cards with different designs all lumped together and sent out with folios. I might add it bugged me that my agent would send not one book, but two or three, sometimes in hope of getting a job for someone if the art buyer didn’t like who they called in. This never ever happens at Cake-Factory.
“I wasn’t very impressed by the way people worked,” he continues of his previous experience with hired representatives, “and without being arrogant, it was a bit sloppy, and I didn’t really believe in what they were doing and the way they were presenting people. There was no coherent messaging that was coming out. It was kind of scattergun. I’m not going to say it’s not rocket science, but it was something like, ‘You know, if you cared a bit more, it could be presented better.’ And I’m not putting down other agents; I don’t want that to come across. It’s not, ‘Hey, we do it better than anyone,’ because obviously that’s absolute rubbish. Everyone’s got their own way of approaching things. But how I felt was if I’m going to be represented by someone… Your agent is an extension of yourself. And it was that simple: No, thanks.”
So now with Cake-Factory, Wonnacott has done things the way he feels they could have been done all along. He has had his lawyer draw up contracts for photographers that are generally fairer, more “gentlemanly,” than he had experienced before. He can sleep well at night.
“The relationship is much more close-knit,” he says, “a bit more intimate, smaller as well. It’s not massive stables of people. A lot of the ‘scattergun’ agencies, from the artist perspective, there’s certainly an element of getting lost in the big mix. There’s no question of that. And this is something we’re obviously quite focused on, staying small.”
When a photographer runs an agency, he makes damn sure that the details—particularly those pertaining to the visual identity of the company—are attended to. Wonnacott’s own website won a Webby Award, and he puts more attention (and funding) into the Cake-Factory site than he can imagine any agency has ever put into their own site. It’s because most agencies aren’t run by photographers.
“Our website costs a bit to do,” he says. “For a small agency, normally you wouldn’t go to these lengths. In a way, we have more choice and freedom to do things than a larger agency because we’re probably better funded than most of them. Obviously, a big agency has generally a larger income, but they employ more staff and the whole thing just scales up.”
I always wanted to have a very disciplined approach to our marketing, Wonnacott says, as this was something I could never have any control over with my previous agent.
Though Wonnacott runs the show (he’s quick to point out this isn’t a co-op, it’s not Magnum), he never did get mixed up with actually being an agent himself. He’s a photographer, and he owns an agency, but he has no interest in being an agent. He’s always hired talented reps who were keen on working within his system.
“There have been a couple of people over the years,” he says, “that you say, ‘This may not be quite the right fit.’ You’ve got to appreciate that some people who want to do this job have got their vision. Actually, it’s our vision. So it’s picking the right person who works within those parameters.”
Cake-Factory currently represents four artists. In addition to Wonnacott, the still-life and beverage master, are Chris Bailey, who makes amazing images of cars, Bob Martin, sports and action photographer, and Darran Rees, creator of lifestyle and landscape photographs. As agency owner, Wonnacott lobbies on behalf of each of them. He doesn’t run the ship with a heavy hand, preferring instead to stay mostly behind the scenes, consulting on design and creative aspects, and pitching in to attend meetings when help is needed.
“In New York,” he says, “Tammy and her assistant, Nicole, they do the meetings. In London, Hazel goes out and does the meetings. I still look at it as a small, cuddly, cozy, little operation, but quite sharp. And I’m quite proud of its reputation.”
Cake-Factory’s reputation for quality isn’t all he’s talking about. Wonnacott is also referring to his agency’s photographers not being divas, not being difficult, not being all-around pains in the arse. It’s not just a preference. It’s policy.
“We have a very, very strict policy on our photographers,” Wonnacott says. “They have to be very nice people. And that sounds so ridiculous, but we’ve had many people approach us, some pretty known people, who when you meet them, their personality, you think, this isn’t going to work, I’m not going to deal with this. If your personality isn’t right, you ain’t coming in because we don’t want the stress of dealing with that stuff. And it sounds a bit silly, but it’s one of those things that, because we can control it, we do control it. There are some drama queens out there, and we don’t really want to be associated with them. It’s all about your name. We don’t want to tarnish our name.”
This is a lesson for anyone building any business, but especially photographers: Take care, and show it.
“I think we go the extra mile in the way that we’re presenting ourselves,” Wonnacott says. “I keep coming back to that, but I think that’s so important. It comes back to this is the creative industry, the visual industry. It’s about appealing to whom you’re marketing. We’re marketing to creatives who love design and love things that are nice-looking. Presentation is everything. It really is. There are 1,000 photographers who can shoot this, that and the other. If your presentation gets you through the door one step farther than someone else, that’s good. If it’s got a nice experience, then that’s not a bad start.”
While Wonnacott likely has more than doubled his workload, perhaps the biggest benefit of running his own agency is that he gets to sleep well at night. It’s not only because he knows he’s treating the photographers in his stable fairly, and because they’re doing very good work and putting forth a refined brand, but because the photographer in him, the person who relies on getting new assignments to keep food on the table, knows firsthand that the agency is doing everything it can to bring in new work.
“At a big agency,” Wonnacott asks, “are you being specifically targeted and shown to the right people? You’ve got no idea. I know what we’re doing. From an outside perspective as a photographer looking in, you never know if the agent is really trying very hard to get you work.”
Adds Wonnacott, “It comes back to trust. I know we can trust ourselves. I know how we talk to people and how we present ourselves, how we respond to people, how quick we are. My old agent used to leave to get the 5:20 train. And it was like, but what happens if something comes in after 5:20? I know we get back to people straight away. The way we talk to people is actually polite, stupid things like that. It doesn’t have to be a fight. We can be nice. There’s no excuse for not being nice.”
See more work from photographers represented by Martin Wonnacott’s Cake-Factory at www.cake-factory.com.