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How editorial and commercial agencies work

I recently exchanged emails with another professional photographer (he shoots commercial stock in New York) about the respective natures of commercial and editorial agencies. His point was that most, if not all, of the modeling work in Miami is commercial in nature, so how does one refer to himself as an editorial agent in a market like Miami’s?

It’s a good question, and frankly you could put all of the true editorial work shot in Miami in a thimble and still have room for a lifetime subscription to Ocean Drive magazine. With that said, this is still the second largest market for editorial fashion models, and it’s probably the best market during our abbreviated fashion season. Many of the top editorial fashion agencies are represented here: Ford, Elite, MC2, Wilhelmina and Next all have offices in South Beach. The best-known local modeling agency, Front Model Management, also has an active editorial board as well. So, how do you rectify these two seemingly incongruous statements? The answer is both straightforward and difficult.


Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Destinee Smith; Styling: Shirley Marceca; Hair and Makeup: Leilani Wallace

First, much of the work models do here is indeed commercial in nature. However, during fashion season in Miami (December through March), there’s a significant number of commercial clients who want—and will only use—editorial models for their advertising. A lot of this work is strictly catalog work (fashion related), as well as a significant amount of magazine advertising work. Much of this is for the European and South American markets, too. So, why do clients want editorial models instead of commercial models for their commercial work? Why are they willing to pay a premium price for these models when the work is catalog or magazine print advertising? The answers to those questions lead us to why some agencies present themselves as editorial fashion, or have an “editorial board” (more about that distinction later), and why some agencies are straight commercial agencies.

A quick note: What follows below is an explanation of the respective goals of editorial and commercial agencies. Nothing in the following paragraphs should be misconstrued to suggest that one agency is better than the other is; it’s just that they are different in important ways and that anyone who wants to work with these agencies (or be an agent) should have a clear understanding of what those differences are. I’m also working with a bit of an editorial bias, as that’s where my personal efforts are so often directed.

Commercial agencies

Basically, commercial models play particular roles: they represent working moms, construction workers, police officers, doctors, etc. For instance, Aaron Marcus (a very active commercial model) can play anyone; he is that good (well, maybe not the average working mom, but who knows? He is talented!) Most people could work as commercial models, but the closer you are to “mainstream” looks (attractive, young, healthy), the more opportunities you’ll have to work. The more flexible your look is—and the more available and reliable you are—the more you’ll find work.


Photographer: John Fisher

Commercial agents load up on comp cards, featuring as many looks as possible. The prospective client calls said commercial agent, and he makes sure to have models that fit the client’s particular needs. Now, some commercial agencies (the more successful ones) specialize in a particular look for their market as a way of differentiating themselves, e.g., one agency might have more models of different ethnicity than others in their market, or more beefcake males, or more Spanish-speaking models (yes, most commercial agencies do castings for TV commercials, this is part of the business!).

So, a good commercial agency will represent as many models as they can, and will accumulate as many quality comp cards as possible. Also, commercial agencies are always on the lookout for qualified male models, as males play a very important role in commercial advertising. Keeping track of the models, maintaining updated contacts, acquiring current comps, and updating the agency book all play an important role in the daily activities of a commercial agent. It’s a hard business; commercial agents do far more bookings in sheer numbers than their editorial counterparts do. Virtually every city of any size in the United States has a few good commercial agencies, and some larger cities support more than a few.

Editorial agencies

Editorial agencies are qualitatively very different from their commercial counterparts. The editorial market is much smaller, limited to fewer cities and is defined by the model: tall, young, thin (mother-wants-to-take-you-to-the-doctor thin), beautiful (but unique, not necessarily blonde and blue eyed) and in reality, female. The editorial model defines her personal identity, and doesn’t play a particular role. They’re promoted, exposed (sometimes literally) and they are managed. This differentiates the editorial agent from his commercial brethren, as his job is not so much to keep track of the models, but to find a few exquisite creatures and create a market for them. Create a market? Not possible, right? Well, the market is there; you just have to fill it. It is the job of the agent to prepare and promote their models in such a way that the market comes to them.

The agent is looking for high profile jobs, not necessarily high-paying jobs, particularly featuring a new face. Their task is to get their models known; they need to create a demand for “Mary”—not some no-name, 5’9” brunette with high cheek bones. They have to get those all-important editorial tears and covers. The pay’s lousy, but you attract attention. Furthermore, an editorial agent has to be able to tell who has the “look.” If you can’t do it, you’re gone (grizzly business that way). Then, the magazines get to pick the model they want (the editors pick the models for the fashion editorial spreads). Why? Because all the models want those jobs, so theoretically the magazine picks the best! Yeah, right.

Southgate Towers, South Beach (Miami Beach, Florida) For Revista Mensch Magazine, Brazil
Photographer: John Fisher; Models: Jason O’Brien & Sarah Bruski, Front Model Management

What really happens is that the agents spend a lot of time calling, schmoozing and verbally arm wrestling with editors to get their models a go-see for those jobs (makeup artists have their favorites too, so they push certain people). If a high-rolling client likes a particular model, you use that advantage. Think of the models the Marciano brothers have literally created with their Guess campaigns. Think about the leverage Sports Illustrated has in editorial fashion—whomever they pick, the model becomes an instant millionaire, and her agent gets to buy a new car. SI pays next to nothing for those girls, and why should they? Should you suck up to SI (or in my case, CBS Sports)? You bet!

It’s all about who’s picked… that’s editorial fashion. The clients know next to nothing, but if a good agency picked the girl, if a magazine used her in editorial spreads, and if another high profile client picked her, then the client thinks she must be great. “I want her!” They’ll exclaim. “I’ll pay for her!” Anyway, that’s how it is supposed to work. And, it does for the most part. Now, how does that fit Miami? Well, the commercial fashion clients come here, and they want (or think they want) those big deal editorial models, so they go to agencies who have them. If you can establish your editorial credentials as an agency by successfully finding, developing, promoting, and managing a few high profile models, they will call you. Interestingly, there are maybe seven such agencies, and thirty other relatively successful commercial agencies. But, those seven get the big calls for the top dollar catalog and advertising work. Do they really want those sixteen-year-old new faces? Yes, in Miami, they do. If the girl can deliver, they want those girls most of all. They are cheaper, and they are “fresh.” Everyone wants to get in on making one of those rare faces successful; everyone wants to share in the “glory.” “Oh, I made her, I gave so-and-so her first real break,” they’ll say. “She was nothing before us! Trust me.” Oh yeah, it’s just part of the business.

If an agency can get to a position where it’s thought of as an editorial agency, it raises all the boats. Again, here in Miami, the agencies like Wilhelmina and Mega have substantial commercial books. Most of their models are commercial models, because even commercial clients will call Mega and Wilhelmina first. Why? They are thought to have the best models. They get to pick. They must be better. And the commercial clients pay. Wilhemina’s bookings for commercial models are better bookings than those exclusively commercial agencies get. It all works downhill for Wilhelmina and Mega (or Front, Elite, etc.), because they have the reputation (deserved or not) as having an editorial board, so they get the cream of the commercial market, as well. Ah, there’s that word again, “board”—all it really means is a separate part of the agency, where the bookers work only with a select group of models (the so-called editorial board). The comps are kept separate, on their own rack, hence the name “board.” The bookers in that part of the agency do not cross models with the other parts of the agency… usually. Anyway, that is how it is supposed to work.

Editorial "Garden Party", Botanical Grardens, Miami Beach
Photographer: John Fisher; Models: Maya Breykina & Jessica Bleier; Makeup Artist: Phoenix of FACE FORWARD

So how do you do this in Miami? Well, to start off, you find models that actually look like editorial models: they’ll be tall, young and uniquely beautiful. Also, you don’t cheat (if you say the girl is 5’9”, she has to be 5’9”). Then, you have to show you know how to pick. After season in Miami, you have to be prepared to move the models to Milan or Paris to get their true editorial credentials, as there are more fashion magazines in Europe than the U.S. The pay stinks, but the pictures will be fabulous (every young boy with a camera in the U.S. wants to shoot for Playboy, while young boys in Italy want to shoot for Vogue—and their work shows it). When the models finally come back to Miami (or New York), the young new faces will have those editorial tears and covers, and their commercial rates will go up. Then you’ll finally be an editorial agency. Ultimately, the agencies and the models wind up in the same place. Commercial bookings pay the bills for all the agencies and the models, commercial and editorial. But how you get there, and what rates a client is willing to pay for those commercial bookings, differ significantly.

This is how I see it, and I’m just playing the game. If I’m wrong, I’m history… and that certainly makes the game more interesting!

John Fisher

John Fisher

John Fisher is a fashion photographer who does magazine editorial, advertising, catalog and swimsuit photography. He's a member of Canon Professional Services and was recently named as a sponsored photographer for Paul C. Buff Companies. His website is www.johnfisher.com.

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