Agents for Change

The Mr Ten Per Cents of old have been replaced by subtler advisers who bring a strategic eye to career enhancement and personal brand management, says Dominic Midgley.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

There was a time when Woody Allen's character in the film Broadway Danny Rose epitomised the stereotypical Mr Ten Per Cent. A self-styled 'theatrical agent', he steals the show in the opening scenes with a hyperactive pitch running through the talent he represents, from a blind xylophone player to a roller-skating penguin dressed as a rabbi.

Today's agent, however, is expected to be a far more sophisticated animal.

Negotiating contracts for a fee tends to be only one element of a role that calls increasingly for the individual involved to be a combination of careers adviser, PR man, risk-assessment consultant and even marriage guidance counsellor. In sum, a sort of hyper-sophisticated brand manager.

This new breed of agent is also starting to make an appearance in the corporate arena, acting for some of the country's most highly paid executives.

Whether the client be David Beckham, Beyonce or John Grisham, in today's multimedia world - where celebrity equals commercial opportunity - agreeing a rate for the day job is just the beginning of a process. And the men and women who represent the star names are becoming the true powerbrokers, not only in the world of books and entertainment, but also in a parallel universe of marketing and sponsorship.

Nowhere is this ascendancy more marked than in the music business. Julian Henry, managing director of Henry's House, who worked closely with Simon Fuller on the Spice Girls, says: 'Once a star has reached a certain status in terms of volume of sales - after two or three singles have gone platinum and the first or second album is out - then we're looking at endorsements.

We look at soft drinks, snacks, confectionery and retail, whether fragrances, male and female grooming or fashion, such as Gap, Miss Selfridge and Top Shop. They all have brands looking for celebrity content.'

The Spice Girls embraced the offstage possibilities with a will. Henry's House set about making introductions, pitching to the trade (even getting them on the cover of Marketing Week), speaking at conferences and talking up the band and the brands with which it was associated. It wasn't long before Posh, Ginger and Co had signed up with a string of household names, including Pepsi, Walkers crisps, Cadbury, Polaroid, Asda and Impulse (which marketed a Spice Girls body spray).

At first, the contracts came in six-figure sums, but when the band cracked the US market, that 'put another zero on the equation', recalls Henry.

And it is by going global that acts make big money. As Henry observes: 'Robbie Williams is a great domestic talent, so the extra nought has never been there for him.'

But with the Spice Girls, Fuller and Henry were sowing the seeds of their own destruction. Initially enthusiastic about the idea of multiplying their earnings through photoshoots, commercials and personal appearances, the band members eventually rebelled against the arduous regime that came with it, and dismissed Fuller.

Given the stresses and strains that go with brand extensions, it's no surprise that some clients are less collaborative than others. While literary agent Ed Victor found that the late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, spoke to him daily and involved him in almost every stage of the creative process, Iris Murdoch, that grande dame of English literature, wanted Victor for only one thing. 'She would never discuss her books with me,' he says. 'Every 12 to 18 months, she would call me and say: "Ed, I've written a novel." And they were always written in longhand in lined notebooks. She would bring them to London to have them typed and no-one was allowed to change a comma, literally.

'I gave her a piece of career advice only once. She was working on a book about metaphysics as a guide to morals. I said: "How is your philosophy book going?" And she said she was only a third or halfway through. I said she could stop and make it volume one of two or three. She said yes, and never produced two or three.'

Even without the add-ons, however, book agents can make small fortunes.

While many smaller agents struggle to clear £50,000 a year, the big-hitters count their income in seven or eight figures. The success of JK Rowling's Harry Potter books turned her literary agent Christopher Little into a multi-millionaire. The late John Peel's memoirs - now being completed by his widow Sheila - fetched £1.6 million and were a nice little earner for his agency, Curtis Brown. And the multi-million book advances generated by television stars such as Nigella Lawson and Trinny and Susannah have made more for Ed Victor than many a literary phenomenon.

These sums are often earned by outfits with very few overheads. In London, for example, Victor operates from an admittedly distinguished terraced house near Russell Square and has just nine employees. His experience with Murdoch, though, illustrates how the exploitation of a very human type of brand can be constrained by the sensitivities of the individual concerned.

However, the agent can often extend his client's brand without involving the talent personally. The comedian Rowan Atkinson may be too serious-minded and reclusive a character to take the Spice Girls' approach to adding to his bank account, but that hasn't stopped his agent from successfully exploiting his brand. Atkinson - who is perhaps most famous for his Mr Bean character - is managed by his old college friend Peter Bennett-Jones, who founded television production company Tiger Aspect with him and now also runs PBJ Management.

'Mr Bean is something I've always looked after, and I treat that as a brand,' says Bennett-Jones, 'but I don't treat Rowan Atkinson as a brand, and I wouldn't like him to think that I did. I think he's a person who's very talented, who creates something that one then markets and exploits internationally in different media in a very controlled and effective way - as you would if you had a film property or whatever.'

The original sequence of 14 live half-hour Mr Bean shows spawned not only a film but also a 26-part animation series, and - at its peak - Mr Bean was licensed to 150 countries. The merchandising side included a series of part-works as well as toy versions of his teddy and his Mini.

There was also a book linked to the film, and the Mr Bean Diary sold a million copies in the UK alone.

'There are many more outlets for product than there used to be,' says Bennett-Jones, 'and so obviously it needs managing, and sometimes you need to control things.' His approach to Mr Bean is a good example of this tack. It was taken off British television and video five years ago to prevent it becoming overexposed, but two episodes were shown over Christmas in an effort to assess whether it would find favour with a new generation of kids.

The growing power of agents raises the possibility that they could eventually become light industrialists in their own right. Given the sensitivities of the more fastidious artists, the exploitation of a resource might be better pursued if the flesh-and-blood client were to be eradicated altogether; for example, in the marketing of television programme concepts. In the case of a property such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, it can be copyrighted and sold around the world as not only a television show format but also as a board game, book or other form of merchandising.

For a particularly entrepreneurial agent, the idea of setting up a manufacturing and distribution arm would have a pleasing air of vertical integration.

And you don't have to be a promising television format or even a C-list celebrity to have an agent. Senior business executives have also taken to hiring representatives. For in the commercial sphere, among established names such as Heidrick & Struggles, Spencer Stuart, Whitehead Mann and Egon Zehnder, a new breed of headhunter is emerging.

'They are like career management advisers,' says one senior PR consultant.

'They track their clients' careers and make career decisions on their behalf, often appearing to act in the employees' interests rather than those of the company that pays their fees.' It is this aspect of the business - the idea that the paymaster may be being exploited - that perhaps makes headhunters unwilling to discuss this new trend.

Personal consultancy in business has traditionally been a high-end activity, with industry gurus such as Lady Thatcher's former communications chief Lord 'Tim' Bell advising high-net-worth individuals such as London-based Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky. But the service has recently become accessible to well-paid FTSE managers.

'One career management company that I know of is even trying to get executives to pay a flat fee per year of up to £20,000,' says the PR consultant.

'If you're on £250,000, you might be prepared to cream off 1% of your earnings to pay for someone who is constantly acting on your behalf and offering good advice.'

Winchester-based Accipitor is a pioneer in this area. Managing director Anthony McAlister had been working on 'optimising executive talent' for 18 months when he teamed up with business communications consultancy The Aziz Corporation last October.

He operates a two-stage approach, charging £6,000-£10,000 for 'intensive analysis, preparation and market research' and then a further £15,000-£20,000 if he goes on to market the client to targeted organisations.

'It's a huge investment,' he agrees, 'and so on average the clients we're working with are people who are earning in excess of £400,000.'

McAlister says his clients are prepared to pay for his services because the nature of their jobs means that they don't have the time to assess the market and promote themselves. And not least because they don't want their employers to find out that they are looking for a move.

He adds: 'People come to us with very particular objectives. One, for example, has just been approached by a headhunter for an alternative role. He was unprepared for it and he wants to be brought up to speed in his interview technique and wants to know what he's worth on the market before he progresses with this headhunter.

'On another assignment, we're working with a finance director in a FTSE-100 company. He has been passed over for the CEO role where he is and he wants to know whether it's realistic for him to look for that outside his current organisation.'

Most of McAlister's clients are the result of referrals from the Aziz Corporation, but placing high-ranking managers can bring dividends too. Referring to a client who went from COO to managing director, McAlister says: 'He got a 60% uplift in his salary and we also negotiated a £50k golden hello because there were some bonuses that he was foregoing. He's now MD of an organisation. He's not a client officially, but he asked for one or two additional services, mentoring services, and he came back and said he now needs a very good FD.'

So the contemporary world of the agent is a many and varied one that owes little to Woody Allen's character Danny Rose. And just as the agents have grown up, so have their charges.

One thing that appears common to all sectors is a more informed class of client. David Beckham may be dismissed as thick, but he (or Posh acting as Lady Macbeth) knows when to say no. As a professional footballer, Beckham is obliged to have his club contract negotiated by a Fifa-accredited agent - in his case, Tony Stephens' SFX - but uses 19 Entertainment, of which Henry is a director, for most of his promotional work.

'People think we are much more Machiavellian than we are and give us credit for things that we don't deserve credit for,' observes Henry. 'Will Young (the pop star) knows exactly what he wants and declined lots of ideas from enthusiastic people like us. It's such a cliche of our industry that everyone is like Max Clifford and they do exactly what we tell them to do. The days of Colonel Tom Parker and Brian Epstein telling Elvis and the Beatles what to wear are well and truly over.'

A PORTFOLIO OF AUTHORS

The eponymous founder of the Ed Victor literary agency works for highly visible clients such as Nigella Lawson, Andrew Marr and Frederick Forsyth

An American who has offices on both sides of the Atlantic, Ed Victor is famous for pioneering the movement that led many agents over here to raise their commission from 10% to 15%, bringing them into line with their counterparts in New York. His justification is along the lines of: 'Would you rather have 85% of a million or 90% of a hundred thousand?'

It certainly hasn't hurt his business. These days, he has one of the most high-profile stables of writers in London and decided views on how best to brand an author.

'It's obvious if you think about it,' he says. 'A brand-name author is an author whose books people buy as if they are buying a magazine. People buy a magazine not because they look in the table of contents but because they assume there are articles there they would be interested in.

'Take a book like Day of the Jackal. The next book that comes out is "the new Frederick Forsyth". After The Firm, the next book is "the new John Grisham". The received wisdom is that you don't want to depart too radically from what has gone before. You offer the same thing, only different.

Jack Higgins writes to a certain formula, but with different plots. He has now reached the stage where he has the same characters. Tom Clancy has Jack Ryan and Higgins has Sean Dillon. It gives a coherence to his work.

'We think a lot about timing,' adds Victor. 'The conventional rule is that you don't want fans to wait more than two years. You publish the hard cover version, one year later the paperback, and one year after that a new hardback.'

He is also a great believer in ensuring that if an author changes publisher, the backlist moves to the new imprint too to guarantee ongoing promotion and continuity of format. When a client moved to Michael Joseph, Victor went to great lengths to ensure that its stablemate Penguin acquired the rights to the old paperbacks.

'No matter how many assurances you are given about the backlist, if they don't have the frontlist, they will take their foot off the accelerator,' he says, adding that if the new publisher changes the format of the covers, it helps if the backlist follows suit.

Nigella Lawson presents a different problem. Victor represents only the 'book piece' of her career, but has regular joint meetings with her publisher and the people who handle her television work. 'She has a very complex career and it needs management,' he explains.

Yet the relationship between a literary agent and his or her client remains a highly personal one. 'An author is not like a brand of running shoes or a chocolate bar,' he says. 'An author is a living, breathing, usually neurotic, being.'

ENTERTAINERS ARE PEOPLE TOO

Julian Henry is MD of Henry's House, whose clients include corporations such as Coca Cola and showbiz stars

Henry got his big break when the girlfriend of a friend started working for Simon Fuller, the man who created the Spice Girls. The two men became friends and Henry was with Fuller the day Geri Halliwell jumped on to the top of a yellow cab in New York as a cop stopped the traffic outside the Four Seasons hotel. Realising the scale of the phenomenon that was the Spice Girls were about to become, Fuller turned to Henry and advised him to set up a company of his own and get involved.

The result is Henry's House, described as a PR consultancy for brands and celebrities. 'We set the scene and they (the client) tell us which product area interests them,' he explains. 'We identify groups of brands that might fit in.'

But while the Spice Girls were more than willing to make lots of money by being exploited, other artists demand a different approach. Annie Lennox won an Oscar for her Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and the resulting album went platinum, but the idea of being paid to endorse a brand is inimical to her.

'She would throw up her hands in horror,' says Henry. 'She is interested in her music. She's incredibly talented, an iconic figure. She is interested in helping charities and has done tours in aid of Greenpeace and Amnesty. The strategy with Annie is to do the bare minimum, but give her a voice when an album is out.'

He has discovered that a number of the lessons he has learned from his work on the corporate side can be applied to showbiz. 'The entertainment industry is very unstrategic, much more intuitive. There is much more risk on the brand side - you have risk assessment programmes. If you went through the same process with bands, they'd never get off the ground.'

When Schweppes was running a series of ads using celebrity look-alikes, there was much concern over one treatment showing a Tony Blair-alike getting his bottom pinched. 'We did a 10-day risk assessment,' says Henry. 'Will this alienate people who don't want to take the piss out politicians? We did a survey of tabloid journalists to measure and score the consequences of the ad from a PR perspective. The other question was: do we sell to the Government? It could be a big supplier. You can't do that sort of thing with bands: hold long meetings, analyse trends, how people spend their time.'

Henry's House applies some of these lessons to its entertainment side, and Henry reckons many of his team welcome the chance to adopt a more formal approach. 'Social skills are very important for many entertainment PRs,' he observes, 'so some find a more analytical approach refreshing.'

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