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End of the Model Agency as We Know It?

New digital apps are providing some of the services offered by traditional agencies at much lower commissions.
Models wait backstage at Paris Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2019 | Source: Getty Images
  • Victoria Berezhna

LONDON, United Kingdom— Claudia Wagner is all too happy recounting a story from her modelling days, but not for the reason you think. "I ended up on a ski trip in Courchevel that was supposed to be a job," she says. What the statuesque blonde couldn't have known then was that she would soon be planning her own escape — and paying for the privilege.

“We were in a luxury hotel, getting ski lessons, drinking champagne, and I was like ‘when are we starting the shoot?’ The client kept saying, ‘Oh, [still] location scouting.’ After a couple of days, I thought something was fishy,” she says, recalling the feeling of being resigned to the fact that situations like this were just another day in the life of a model.

“[So I] booked flights [out] for me and another model and we left. Nobody was paid — the client left with all the material to China.” No one, including her agent, heard from them ever again.

Stories like Wagner’s, involving unvetted clients, unclear contracts and non-payment of service — which are rampant in the modelling industry but would not be tolerated in other industries — prompted her, along with fellow model Diana Gaertner, to launch Ubooker, an app that allows clients from Inditex to Yoox Net-a-Porter to book models directly, without the involvement of an agency.


Wagner and Gaertner aren’t the only ones seeking answers to the struggles that models face. Competing apps like Mariya Grinina’s Finda have emerged to take out the middleman, too.

“I thought it would be great to have something like Airbnb for modelling, where you can connect directly to the client without the pressure of an agency,” says Grinina, comparing her service to the marketplace model.

One-Sided Contracts

The driver for these entrepreneurs was to create a solution for some of the bad business practices found in the industry. Getting paid months, and sometimes years late or being remunerated a small percentage of the quoted job rate were stories that were not uncommon during Wagner’s time as a model.

For example, unscrupulous agents were known to use opaque accounting practices allowing them to over-charge models for deductions on legitimate expenses such as visas, accommodation, flights, photographs and production fees. But the broader issue seems to be that the relationship between beginner models and their agents is still imbalanced.

I was a freelancer, but still had to sign exclusive contracts and there was nothing guaranteed in exchange.

"There are issues with models signing one-sided contracts, and sometimes they don't understand the contracts they're signing. Or they're not even shown the contract [at all]," says Sara Ziff, founder and executive director of The Model Alliance.

However, when faced with such claims, well-established agencies are quick to point out the progress that has been made in recent years. In the UK for instance, 14 agencies, among them the big four UK-based agencies (Models 1, Select, Premier and Storm), as well as Linden Staub, Milk Management and others, are members of the British Fashion Model Agents Association (BFMA), which under the employment agencies act requires models to be paid 10 days after the job, and for no financial details to be hidden.

“We send models statements every month, so they won’t be building up a huge debt,” says John Horner, managing director of Models 1 and representative of the BFMA. “We won’t charge for websites, cards, or emailing models their packages. Costs like covering travel and visas can pile up, but the models know what costs are.” Many UK agencies will write off a lot of money, he claims, to invest in young talent.


In the US, says Ginny Maxwell, director of scouting and development at Nashville-based Amax Talent, “It’s hard to get a client to pay straight away, sometimes. I’m constantly poring over the numbers, and I do admit it’s complicated. I do think there’s more room for transparency and improvement in the attitude of helping models understand the charges.”

Yet, when models do misunderstand legal contracts, they are left high and dry. “My old agency took advantage of me,” says model Alessa Tatiana of a Milan-based modelling agency. “I didn’t realise I [still] had a contract with them [because] they [never told me that] it automatically renews.”

Less Exploitation, Greater Wellbeing

Understandably, the legal onus is on the model to understand her own contract, but more should be done to help educate vulnerable young women and men who are often not native speakers of the language of the contract, say campaigners.

While the #MeToo movement helped open the industry’s eyes to models’ experiences of abuse at the hands of photographers, stylists and casting directors, bringing about programmes like the Model Safety Charter — which both Kering and LVMH have signed in a bid to protect models and ensure their wellbeing — other unfortunate features of the industry are still widespread, especially among smaller unregulated agencies.

A Ubooker client dashboard | Source: Courtesy A Ubooker client dashboard | Source: Courtesy

A Ubooker client dashboard | Source: Courtesy

This is why Finda has organised six ‘safe space’ events where models can share their experiences and be taught on issues like confidence and behaviour during shoots. Ubooker has an online database with videos relating to each topic, while Wagner and Gertner are hands-on in helping models figure out every detail of their career.

The thinking goes that joining the gig economy and becoming responsible for their own careers can only come with first-hand knowledge of reading a contract, dealing with finances and accounting, and managing time.


“The idea is to build a new culture, which I call ‘modelpreneurship,’” says Grinina, while Wagner and Nicola Scagnolari, chief executive of Ubooker, call it the gig economy, in the same way that millennials want greater control over their jobs and belong to a generation that frequently jumps between workplaces.

Indeed, in an industry where several gatekeepers stand between model and client at most bookings, it is difficult for the former to know whether their portfolio ever reached the eyeballs of the latter. This has left a gap for entrepreneurs like Wagner, Gaertner and Grinina to fill by offering solutions around transparency and payment terms and alternatives to agents who use illegal or immoral practices.

Instagram has already disrupted the scouting sector of the industry. Now, with this latest wave of apps, some are suggesting that a fully-fledged gig economy could rise up to compete with the establishment from within. But how did the modelling industry become so ripe for disruption in the first place?

Talent to Management to Bookings

Established in the 1950s, many of today’s well-established agencies were run as talent agencies, taking care of their models in the same hands-on approach as actors were treated in Hollywood. But in the late 1980s they changed their corporate structure to become management companies, says Ziff, “which does not require them to act in the best interests of their talent.”

Booking and managing models became increasingly political — and commoditised. While a newcomer should be fully involved in the management of her own career and watched closely by her agent, some agents exchange models at their will and only focus on the high-earners or buzzy names.

That's where I see the advantage in an app — for mid-level work.

“It happens, people get excited when a girl is brand new, and then when they don’t walk the coolest shows, they’re shelved,” says Maxwell. But she adds it’s a mother agent’s job to manage a model and look out for her best interest.

This is why London-based agency Linden Staub decided to launch in 2017 by only representing their models as a “mother agency,” retaining strategic control over a model’s long-term career instead of signing contracts with partner agencies around the world — which is normal practice. As of November 2018, it began taking models on placement.

“Smaller agencies like us are much more agile and ethical than larger agencies that have been operating in the same way for decades,” claims co-founder Esther Kinnear Derungs, adding that Linden Staub is the only agency to pay their models the day after the job. “To enable models to be empowered, we need to pay them straight after [the job],” rather than making them wait for months on end.

Despite rare entrepreneurial success stories like Tyra Banks or Naomi Campbell, entrepreneurship and independent thinking are generally frowned upon in the industry. "What bothered me was I was a freelancer, but still had to sign exclusive contracts and there was nothing guaranteed in exchange," says Wagner, who throughout her career has worked with Elite Group, Marilyn Models and Ford Models.

In most markets, except France where they are considered full-time employees, models are self-employed, or freelancers, by law. Horner says that in the UK, by law, “they cannot be exclusive.”

But to Maxwell exclusive contracts make sense because “it would be impossible to build a career for a model with more than one agent in more than one market, they’d all be bidding for the same jobs,” she says. Rather than an app, however, she suggests that a better solution is to insist on a get-out clause in the contract where they can leave if they’re not getting work.

Upending Old-Fashioned Practices

Modelling jobs themselves have gone through a 'fast-fashionisation.' At one point in the aughts, "the volume of images went up but so did the amount of hours worked to achieve the same result," says Scagnolari. Magazines and luxury fashion houses would have a week to shoot a seven-page spread. Today, a model shoots dozens of outfits for brands like Zara in a single day.

“Suddenly, the day rates were going from thousands of dollars shooting 10 outfits per day to $800 shooting 60, 80 or 100 outfits per day,” says Wagner. Yet, agencies still sometimes took the same commission.

For the moment, we manage model careers, which is a fundamental difference.

Today there are entire divisions of agencies, says casting director James Scully, where models aren't paid enough. "That's where I see the advantage in an app — for mid-level work." Rather than replacing agency work altogether, he adds, an app could work as a supplementary form of income for a model, especially seasoned professionals who are no longer buzzy "It" girls but simply need a sustainable source of income.

“The reason these apps exist is that girls aren’t happy,” says Kinnear Derungs. “They think, ‘why do I need to pay someone 25 percent of everything if they’re not doing anything?’”

Convenience is another motivating factor. Right before founding Ubooker, Wagner was contacted on her availability for a Clarins beauty campaign. Instead of back-and-forth talks through her agent and lugging around a heavy printed portfolio, all she had to do was send a selfie. A couple of weeks later, her flight to St Barth’s for the shoot was booked. That’s when it clicked. “Today, the technology is there,” she says.

But clients are so used to the old system, says Grinina of Finda, that it did take time to convince them there’s a different way.

‘The Natural Target Is E-Commerce’

While fashion magazines and luxury brands are unlikely to jump on the modelling app train soon, e-commerce sites and smaller commercial jobs are in prime position for disruption. “The natural target is e-commerce players, which need efficiency because they shoot every day,” says Scagnolari of clients that include Yoox Net-a-Porter and Inditex.

The Ubooker software allows for two interfaces, one for models and one for clients, and payments are automated — a client has up to 30 days to pay a model. As for commission, Ubooker takes 10 percent from the model and 10 percent from the client, remaining transparent and consistent across markets. Finda operates under a similar method, with an automated system that moves money directly from the client to the model.

UK-based designer Henry Holland was one of the first to use Ubooker for his Spring/Summer 2019 show. “The benefit is the direct communication between you and the model, especially because agents often work with a model and five or six designers,” he says. “We’re only speaking to girls who actually want to do the show. At times agents will prioritise others over us.”

Finda's app, showing an example of a job offer | Source: Courtesy Finda's app, showing an example of a job offer | Source: Courtesy

Finda's app, showing an example of a job offer | Source: Courtesy

Ultimately, getting a client to do the first booking and open up to the digitalisation of the casting process is the hardest part, says Wagner. “[But] once they’re in, they see how much easier it is.” For models, word of mouth works best, with a referral programme already in place.

Modelling app businesses, however, need to “identify what segments and geographies are most suitable to them, or they risk spreading themselves too thin,” says Arun Sundararajan, a professor of business at New York University and author of “The Sharing Economy.” “Once you’ve experimented and identified what works, there’s a bigger value in narrowing down on that.”

The Modelling Grey Zone

Ubooker has already ruffled some feathers in the modelling industry, not so much from the established agencies as from the middle-America players that book girls for catalogues and local e-commerce. “A very big percentage of jobs are done by tiny agencies you’ve not even heard of,” says Wagner. “Smaller agencies were threatened by us, not the big players.”

“I would never ignore them” says Models 1’s Horner. “But for the moment, we manage model careers, which is a fundamental difference. There is a market for [apps], but they don’t manage a model’s career.”

Ziff agrees that modelling apps are by no means a silver bullet to the industry’s problems. “These apps do have the potential to create greater transparency and enhance the agency of the model herself,” she says, “but an app does not replace the management of a model’s career.”

There’s also the question of accountability, says Kinnear Derung. “It’s a grey zone for many issues — what if a model’s flight gets cancelled and the client doesn’t want to pay?”

Finda remains hands-off, relying on technology, “Every time the client and models make a booking, they sign an agreement — we just provide the tools to manage that,” says Grinina. While they vet their clients and retain IDs in case of legal issues, it remains up to the model to then file a claim should something happen.

A disruptor is never somebody coming in and making everybody else disappear.

But Ubooker claims it is involved in every step of the process. “We have people dedicated to vetting clients and models, but we are hands-on for the foreseeable future. We’re automating certain processes, but there [are] responsibilities we have to take, otherwise we don’t have a good purpose,” Scagnolari says.

When Alessa Tatiana had legal issues with her Italian agency, Scagnolari himself — who trained as a lawyer — helped her figure out the contract, which was in Italian.

Ultimately, the business model is still evolving but the one that will probably work, predicts Sundararajan, will look less like Uber and more like a managed marketplace. “On Uber, every transaction is worth a few dollars. On Ubooker, it’s thousands. There’s going to be a much more hands-on relationship because the economics will work out: the ticket size of the transaction is much higher.”

Ultimately, says Scagnolari, it’s inevitable that a new player in the market pushes others to improve their practices — but he doesn’t claim or aim to replace agencies. “A disruptor is never somebody coming in and making everybody else disappear,” he says. “A disruptor is somebody that puts a question mark on the market. They say: there are other, better ways of doing the same thing?”

Ziff remains positive too. “They can coexist,” she says, of modelling agencies and apps. “Perhaps agencies will move towards what they should be doing, which is managing models’ careers and not simply booking models’ jobs.”

Editor's Note: This article was revised on April 5th. A previous version of this article misstated that Linden Staub is a mother agency only. This is incorrect. Linden Staub also takes models on placement. 

Related Articles:

Secrets of the Supermodel TradeOpens in new window ]

Fashion’s Year of Reckoning: Have We Learned Anything?Opens in new window ]

A New Charter Aims to End Model Abuse: Will it Work?Opens in new window ]

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