In Depth

Making the Match: Talent Agents

By Dinah Eng

Talent agents make their living by knowing where the jobs are, and how to place their clients. Whether you need an agent to land a job is, well, up to you.

News executives say good talent agents can be invaluable in the hiring process, serving as delicate matchmakers when clients fit what managers are looking for. At the same time, they note that job applicants who are comfortable marketing themselves and negotiating their own deals don’t need an agent to get hired.

With fewer jobs available, the advantage of having representation lies in having an advocate who is plugged into an ever-changing market.

“Eight of us are agents, and we have contacts on every level of the industry,” said Mendes Napoli, president and owner of Napoli Management Group in Los Angeles. “We each call eight to 10 people a day with potential opportunities. If you don’t have an agent, it’s almost impossible to know where all the jobs are, and what they’re looking for.”

Napoli said his company has maintained strong relationships with hiring managers for more than 17 years because they know he only suggests clients who might fit what the manager is looking for. The firm handles 450 clients for such jobs as anchors, meteorologists and general assignment reporters.

“We’re a television news agency, and have gotten away from hosting [jobs],” Napoli said. “We’ve narrowed back to our roots because TV news is not going away and it’s more competitive than ever. Our ability to get people jobs has increased, but no talent agency has the power to make anyone hire anybody.”

While the ability of agents to help pinpoint opportunities in the current market is important, changing times also mean less latitude for agents to negotiate deals.

“When people say contracts are negotiable, that’s not really the case anymore,” said Rob Jordan, president of Rob Jordan Talent Management in Charlotte, N.C. “More often than not, executives are saying, ‘This is what we have for this job. Are you interested, yes or no?’ The ability to sit down over the phone and hammer out a contract has gotten weaker because of the economy.”

Jordan said even when the overall economy improves, it doesn’t mean that the broadcast economy will get better because the Internet and new delivery platforms will continue to put pressure on stations to watch the bottom line with talent salaries.

Adam Leibner, an agent with N.S. Bienstock in New York, said it’s actually good experience for talent coming out of college to get that first job on their own, but once they’re ready to get into the top 100 markets, signing with an agent is important.

“We listen to management, their tastes, and what’s important to them,” Leibner said. “If you’re with the right agency, management will look at your stuff first.”

He said N.S. Bienstock has been known as a news agency since it was established in 1964, but began diversifying more than a decade ago.

“We have a great news department, and handle hosting and reality programs,” Leibner said. “We’re doing books, radio, and anything on TV that’s unscripted. We have a large company and are able to diversify. If you’re not thinking about growing with the times, you won’t succeed.”

On the hiring side, Deborah Collura, vice president of news for Post-Newsweek Stations in Detroit, said talent agents are extremely important in the process of identifying potential job candidates.

“If you’ve got a great relationship with an agent, you can say, ‘In a month, I’m going to be looking for a traffic reporter,’ ” Collura said. “ ‘This is what I can pay, and what I need.’ They’ll then track down the right person. Agents make the process easier because they know who’s in their stable.”

She said a good agent will evaluate clients honestly, and will warn managers if they’re interested in someone who might not be the best fit. Knowing that a person has no interest in moving to certain cities, for example, saves time in the search for job candidates.

“Diversity is extremely important in the big markets,” she notes. “You want people who are a reflection of the community behind the scenes and in front of the camera. A lot of agents will attend the diversity conferences with their clients and will say, ‘This person isn’t available now, but they really want to work in your market.’ ”

Maintaining credibility with hiring managers is critical to establishing trust in the hiring process, said Steve Herz, president of IF Management in New York, which handles 160 clients. IF Management began in 1996 by representing sportscasters, and has since diversified into news and entertainment as well.

“Some news directors look at talent agents like used car salesmen trying to get their clients a job,” Herz notes. “We want to be a partner with the people we send talent to. Most of our clients come through referral. We talk to people at the stations they’ve worked at previously, and ask if they’re people we would want to work with.”

Herz said agents provide an invaluable service for clients by finding out comparable salaries in the marketplace, analyzing deal points and looking at the legality of contracts.

When it comes to nailing a position, though, everything comes back to the job candidate, said Tim Geraghty, vice president and news director for News10 at KXTV, the Gannett-owned ABC affiliate in Sacramento, Calif.

“I hire who will be the best employee with the best skill sets for the job, whether they have an agent or not,” Geraghty said. “We work with prospective employees as they wish, in terms of working with their talent agents. I say, your agent works for you, and if it works out, you’ll work for me.”

Geraghty said the role and influence of the talent agent has remained the same over the years. Budgets have been cut, and newsroom roles have changed, he notes, but the relationship between management and agents has remained the same.

“Agents are doing what they can to make sure their clients get jobs, but it boils down to who we’re looking to hire,” Geraghty said.