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Interview: Agent Inc

Flipping the Status Quo

Booking modeling jobs can be tricky for new and veteran models, Mark Willingham and Alison Pelletier are embarking on the new era of fashion with their app Agent.

After everything we have heard about in the entertainment industry lately, it is clear there need to be more safeguards who work within it. Luckily for those who work within the modeling, acting, and music world, CEO Mark Willingham and former model Alison Pelletier started two years ago on their journey to restructure the fashion and entertainment booking process. Their app, Agent, is the innovative platform that is ready to turn a few different industries on their heads.

SALUTE: How did you two come together to work on this project?

MW: About two years ago, we came together to start Agent. I spent about 11 years running a fashion brand and used different companies to hire models for various projects and runway shows. I had always been pretty aware of some of the fragmentation in the industry and the lack of transparency.

There are models out there trying to build their careers, and they are working with agents who are trying to make money for the agency. They aren’t always aligned with what they are trying to achieve.

When we took a real hard look at the business, it hasn’t changed in sixty or seventy years. If you make a quick google and search what is going on in the industry with models who have an agent or not, it’s like the wild west when you go on some of these shoots. You don’t have a support system with you or someone there when something goes awry.

We thought that we could use our experience and history within the industry to reimagine what is going on. Fast-Forward two years, we often get asked if this is a result of what is happening right now. We started this as a response to what we knew was always there. We already have a solution in place that we are ready to launch right now. Timing is on our side, but it is unfortunate that these things are still happening. It has always been there it’s just now being exposed at this moment.

SALUTE: You were talking about models going on shoots and not having a support system. A lot of models are very young. Allison, I know you were very young when you started how old were you when you started modeling?

AP: Well, I first started modeling when I was twelve. I started with an agency when I was twenty-three, which isn’t too young, but it’s young enough when you’re from a small island, and you’re thrust into the city, and the camera’s and clients and the fast life of modeling it can be overwhelming.

MW: She went from the Florida Keys to New York City, working for a big agency doing big shoots. As you said, people start young, and it is an industry when it’s hard to know better because you don’t know.

What happens when you’re on a shoot even if you are twenty-three or fifteen, and someone asks you to do something? It may not be so weird; they may not say “we want to film you having sex,” they might say “ the lighting is great, we’d like to get some topless looks it’ll be classy” implied nudity.

If you were presented this ahead of time, with your agent or your support system, you would have the opportunity to think that situation over. But it’s not like that, the time is right now, and there are lights on, and you think “Is this what Giselle or Adriana Lima had to do? Is this wrong or is this normal for modeling?”

You can look at Vogue and many other publications where photos have implied nudity that is beautiful and artistic. What is wrong is when you are put in the position of making that decision that is not done before the shoot happens, because you may be making those decisions for the wrong reasons or for reasons you don’t even understand. That is when it becomes wrong, you should not be coerced. Models need to know that they have the ability to say no and it’s okay to say no if they aren’t comfortable.

We are not trying to say what is right or wrong, that is up to the individual to decide. But, this should be done before the shoot. This should be done before the shoot, and all the term are laid out.

It’s not okay to walk into a shoot and be asked that. Then you find out that if you don’t do these things, it might affect your career. I think Allison can shed more light on this but, then the model is put in a position where she’s working with a big photographer and a big brand, and they think if they don’t do this are they being the difficult one?

We said that shouldn’t happen. We went back and white-boarded the industry two years ago, and we said, “Knowing what we know today, and knowing what the industry is really like, not just the glamorous part that people see but the reality of working in the business; How would we change it?  What could we do to empower models to make the right decisions?” But also, we wanted to throw up some obstacles to those who might do something bad, or want to, to think about that three or four times before the shoot because of the barriers we have created.

An example of this would be if someone wanted to break into a car.  Two cars are sitting next to one another, one locked and the other unlocked. The person stealing the car is going to choose the unlocked vehicle because it is easier. If people are out there and want to do these bad things they are going to stay on social media platforms, they aren’t going to come to Agent. We have so many safeguards to protect our clients it wouldn’t make sense.

SALUTE: With everything that is going on recently, this is such a good thing for the industry because there are a lot of vulnerable models working in the industry all over the world, especially young people and they feel that sort of pressure. It is good to know that you all that the forethought to start putting something like this in place before all of this started coming to the forefront over the last few months to make a stand and protect these people.

MW: I think when you wake up in the morning, and you have a purpose, and you know that you can effect change on a worldwide basis, you’re really driven. It changes the dynamic of how you approach every day, and that is how our team works. We are truly passionate about what we are doing. It is not just about models. The reality is we are doing what is best for the entire industry.

Models will be more comfortable and motivated, and the clients will benefit from that. The brands, when they hire from us, know they are going to be supporting the best of what the industry can and should be, and supporting the models who want to protect themselves and are going to be growing their dreams and careers. I think that makes things all the more magical. The overlay of the technology that we are introducing makes the process faster, more efficient, and cost-effective across the board and that is a win-win.

Every client that comes on board, we do a criminal and sex offender background check, that is the individual, not the company. Someone could be working for a large fashion brand or a small boutique, and if they have to hire a model, they have to apply just like the models have to apply.  By the time they get done with the application process, we know about their criminal background, social media background, so there is a real hands-on play here.

We make sure we understand them, and we make sure they understand that we know them, because that is a huge barrier. Why would they do anything wrong here? We know everything about them. Then we present them with the terms to work on our platform and how they are expected and required to work with the models.

The clients and models are both presented with this. The clients are told the agreed terms and the models are told in a more educational way that you are not expected to do this or that and that they can walk out of a shoot if they are uncomfortable or something not agreed happens.

These are the terms of the agreement that both parties walk into, and it levels out the power and all of those things. We strive for the best environment you could possibly have, and we plan on doing that on a worldwide basis.

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SALUTE: There are so many different instances where people don’t get paid, or they fly out to a shoot and things are different than what was proposed to them. So it is excellent that you are putting forth all of these parameters so people can work in a safe environment and weed out the “scammers.”

MW: It is funny that you say that because I don’t think there is an agency out there that can claim the number of people that we do not accept. I don’t even know what the percentage is, but it is super high. The ones that we don’t accept are the ones that don’t fit. What is your company? What is your background? What is your company email? What is your EIN? What is your LinkedIn associated with your business? We might get 100 applicants in a day of people saying they want to hire models and all they have is a Gmail account. If you’re a company you have an email associated with your company URL, there are probably twenty-five things like that we look for.

As far as payment, we are the only platform in the world that ensure the models get paid the same day for the shoot. So, the money at the end of the shoot electronically goes into their bank account. This is not a matter of the client not paying them because once the client has agreed to what the model will be paid, and they’ve completed the shoot, the money goes into their account. We take into account instances like the shoot going on for less time or more time than was scheduled we cover all of the anomalies and issues the come into account.

MW: Allison told me about an instance where she worked with a big brand for a campaign, and it took them almost six months to pay her.

SALUTE: That is crazy!

AP:  Usually they say you have 90 days to get paid, and your only other option is to get an attorney, which you would never do because you’ll get dropped. Then, agents all talk and you don’t get into another agency, so you get put into a position where you just have to sit and wait. They take your money and do whatever with it, and you’re just expected to wait.

SALUTE: What intrigued me the most about your platform is the fact your company is putting up a fence in these situations to protect your clients. I know several people in the industry, and this happens all the time. They have done jobs, and they don’t get paid for several months when they need to pay their rent. These things should not happen with brands that spend exorbitant amounts of money on a daily basis.

MW:  What is funny is that when people look at different industries, we tend to think of the top ten people in the industry and what they make but behind them are ten, twenty, or fifty thousand people in that industry that are trying to make a career that make a fraction of what the top ten make. They are working two or three jobs waiting tables and bartending doing whatever they need to do to make it.

In modeling, a majority of them make under 100K, and those are still highly paid models. The vast majority make far less than that, and all they do is run into barriers. We want everyone to be better off because we exist. We want to provide our software and solutions to help the agencies as well, and I think that is a different approach than has ever been taken.

SALUTE:  That is a very different approach, I feel like you are restructuring things in a way where everyone can get something out of this not just the models but the agencies as well. What do you feel your company is going to be doing better for the agencies?

MW: If there is no one there to set a new standard, there is nothing there for people to aspire to achieve. When something has been going on the same for sixty or seventy years, it just becomes status quo.

We are disruptive in the fact that we are changing the game and in any industry when that happens it makes everyone else look in the mirror and say “How do we compete against this? How do we become better?” One of the things they can do is fall into line with what we are doing, and we hope that they will. I think people are going to step up their game. We also plan on making our platform available to be licensed for other people to use it for their own agencies, so they can have access to the same thing that we are doing and provide the same level of efficiency to their clients. We want everyone to improve so that the industry overall can improve.

We have over 8,500 models registered to our platform, and it is constantly growing. We provide a 100% guarantee that clients are going to be happy so we are putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to that. We also provide 24/7 customer support so if there is an issue they can get ahold of a live person.

SALUTE: Speaking of your 24/7 customer service, what would happen if a model called the support line if they had a problem at a shoot?

MW: If they call the support line, we have all the information about the shoot. So we would ask the model some questions regarding what happened, and we could give them advice on how to handle it. We would ask them if they are uncomfortable, and want to leave the shoot and stay on the phone with them as they leave. If this happens, the client that booked them can contact us if they have and issue. We can provide the model that moral support they need in that situation.

If someone attacked them or something like that, we can notify the authorities. We know where they are because of the information provided and GPS that is within the app. There are other levels that we are building into the app right now that build upon that. We are integrating a safety net into the app where after a query of questions are answered either an emergency contact the model has set up, or the authorities can be sent to the location. Artificial intelligence, IBM technology, are all being integrated into our app. If I ever feel that we are even 80% of where we need to be, we aren’t doing good enough. There is always more we can do, and that is the way we are approaching this.

SALUTE: Alison, have you ever been in a situation where you personally felt like someone needed to step in and you felt uncomfortable?

AP: Yes. I was in a situation when I was towards the end of my career while I was working for Wilhelmina. I was doing a shoot for a big magazine with a well-known photographer, and I was asked to get nude for a shot. I contacted my agent; they told me just to do the shoot. The agent and the client had a good relationship. They didn’t want me not to do it because then it would cause something between the agent and the client. So, I was put in a position where I felt that I had to do it. After working with that particular agent for over ten years, that I thought was a friend, I realized they didn’t care about me, I realized they didn’t have my back. That was when I realized I didn’t want anyone else to be put in that kind of position especially the young girls in this industry. I don’t ever want them to feel the way I felt.

That is when I knew something had to be done in the industry.

MW: This brings up something there is a lack of in the industry; transparency. You can see it in basic ways, and you can see it in this way. There are conversations that happen between clients and agents where agents agree to things without the model’s permission, and they don’t know until it is brought up for a shoot. At what point does someone else have the right to agree to these things on someone else’s behalf? The lack of transparency goes beyond that.

I have seen this from prior experience in the industry where we would have models show up for events or shoots, and they would ask my marketing team how much they were paying the agency. My marketing team always found that to be a strange question. They really never understood why. The agents are supposed to be taking twenty percent from the model and twenty percent from the client. There have been instances where a model’s day rate is $500, and their agent is charging $1k for them. The agent would go an tell the model they have a day job and the model would think they were making $500 for the day. Then, they get to the job and find out the client is paying $1k and all hell breaks loose because the model is mad thinking the agent is trying to steal from them. On our platform, we get rid of that because all the negotiations are being done between the model and the client.

SALUTE: You have a rating system in place. How does that work?

MW: Both the models and the clients have the availability to rate one another, but we aggregate the ratings, so neither can see the specifics of what was said, so there are no repercussions. If someone receives multiple bad reviews, we reserve the right to deactivate anyone from the platform. But, we do provide the safeguard that someone cannot go back and retaliate against someone who gave them a bad review we protect that firmly.

It is rare to speak with two entrepreneurs who are so passionate about change, especially within an industry that is so powerful. The changes that the Agent App provides will usher the fashion industry into a completely new era where models and clients alike, will be able to take charge of their careers and their destinies.

Providing a service that is not only innovative, but sparks change within the others working in the industry, Mark Willingham and Alison Pelletier are on the forefront of fashion technology while safeguarding a new generation of entertainers.

For more information on the Agent App visit www.agent.com or download it for iOS here.

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