The modeling industry has been operating as an antiquated way for a long time, and Mark Willingham and Alison Pelletier seek to change the modeling industry with the powerful app and platform Agent Inc.
Willingham, Agent’s Chief Executive Officer and Pelletier, a New York City model who partnered with Agent to help enact positive change in the industry, spoke to Christopher Cole of TheCelebrityCafe.com about creating a safe and transparent environment for models.
The powerful pair talked about their mission with the fierceness of Detective Olivia Benson from Law & Order: SVU. In a world where Harvey Weinstein’s alleged misconduct is coming to light, there couldn’t be a better time for Agent to emerge.
With over 5,000 users signed up to Agent, the app is set to change the culture of the modeling industry and possibly others.
CC: Give a brief background on Agent and how it works?
Mark Willingham: We actually started Agent with the concept of reimagining the modeling industry. It’s been so many years of the same. It’s kind of an old school paradigm of an agent in the middle and bringing two parties together and that provided some bubble of protections for both parties, as well as allows for negotiations to happen and for the jobs to actually occur. But what happened over seven years is we had a lot of changes in technology and we also have not seen anything evolve within the industry that’s allowed for it to become any more efficient, like a quality of safety for the models themselves. The whole platform for agent is based on those guidelines and reimagining the entire industry itself, so with the platform, models come on and apply unlike any other modeling agency. If you’re accepted, their profile is visible and they can set their own rates and get offered to book jobs form companies.
On the company’s side, they go in, they apply as well, which is very different. They have to apply to be on our platform and applying requires them to go through a vetting process. When they apply they provide a whole lot of information on themselves, and we do a criminal background check, a sex offender background check on everyone, and as well as the fact that we now have a lot of information about them. Anyone who has ill intent or would likely be predisposed or inclined to do something wrong, they’re certainly not going to do it on our platform. That’s like going into a bank with a security guard and lots of cameras. You’re going to go somewhere else before you go into that environment.
We’ve created an environment that protects the models and empowers them at the same time, so it allows them to set their rates. We also do other things. We actually provide for the models getting paid that exact same day and when the job’s complete, so this is unlike anywhere else. Sometimes that takes weeks or even months at traditional agencies, so when the job’s complete, the money goes directly into the bank accounts electronically. With the client side, once they get through the vetting process, they have the ability to quickly granularly filter and search for models who are the perfect fit for whatever they need. Whether it’s for a photo shoot, for a corporate event, for a promotional event, and they can find them and book them in seconds versus days that it might take through an agency.
CC: Is there any feedback you’ve gotten from Agent Inc’s users?
MW: Alison’s here with me, and Alison actually has many years of professional modeling with top agencies being a top model in the country, a fitness model and she actually joined us having seen that side of the business. We have feedback from the models who work on your platform and they love it because it does provide so many safeguards and empowers them more than anything else. People go to social media and they’re not using agencies, and they go to social media and list their profiles, and that, for us, is extremely dangerous. It’s proven itself out many times over; all you do is look on the Internet. Recently, there was a model from the UK who had booked a job and that was actually through an agency. She ended up in Italy, kidnapped and was ready to be sold on the dark market.
You’re often not with other models, you don’t have a chaperone, and someone says “Hey, the lighting’s great” or “We want to do a few shots with your shirt off” or “let’s pour some wine and continue the conversation” The models don’t know if that’s what’s expected. Especially if they’re new in the industry, and there are a lot of new people breaking in, and people know how to take advantage of that. And they don’t know where you draw that line. Do you say “No, I’m uncomfortable with this and you walk away” or do you stop and you think to yourself “Hey, is this what all the models had to do?” “What did the supermodels do to get ahead?” Is this expected? It’s a very difficult situation.
CC: They [models] want to be successful like the top models, so they might do what they have to do and they’re not sure.
MW: Exactly, just not sure. If you don’t have a playbook, if you don’t know what the answer is to that. One of the things we do at Agent is provide tools to educate the models. Alison’s in charge of our educational series that we’re putting together that’s going to be implemented out of our New York offices. We have an office on 52nd Street and we’re going to have live sessions where models can come in and eventually were going to stream them when models can learn different things about the industry: the truth, the real inside, the good, the bad and the ugly. We’re not trying to paint a picture of doom and gloom. I always like to point that out. We’re just dealing with reality. I think everyone’s aware of that now with all the things we see on the news, especially this week, that whether you want to have your head in the sand or not, the reality is not always beautiful.
CC: Can we talk about your nightmare shoot and other audition incidents?
Alison Pelletier: There were a few, but the one that I was most uncomfortable with was for a big magazine and it was a health/beauty/fitness shoot and two hours into the job, they said “we’re going to do a job with you naked, don’t worry, you’ll be sitting to the side, take your clothes off and get naked.” It was a shock because I had been modeling forever, and I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t want to make my agent mad. I told him “No” and it was this big ordeal. The client was calling the agent. The agent was telling me to do it or “you’re going to lose this client. They treated me terribly, my agency and the client. That’s why I want to teach these models that they can say no and make sure everything’s set up before hand. It’ll never be a surprise thing.
[Mark interjects: “Total transparency”)
MW: I think all the things to keep the mind to is not just the situation at that moment, but it’s the recourse afterwards that if you don’t go along, you won’t get booked. You’re deemed a difficult model. When you’re deemed difficult, you don’t get jobs because no one wants to work with a difficult model. Not everyone has the explanation of why you’re difficult
AP: In my career, I would do everything, work hard and have great relationships with all the clients and I was never difficult, I would make sure everything was done perfectly. That’s how I knew my agency didn’t care about me. It was uncomfortable.
CC: How did you overcome it?
AP: I just said “No.” I dealt with the consequences. My agent did not book me for a little bit. I knew that I did the right thing and it was something I had to do.
MW: This is a layered problem. It’s not just one specific thing, but there’s multiple things over the last 10 years have enhanced the problem and the reason for that is with the use of technology we use today also the models are bit more disposable. It’s very easy for agents to go online to scout potential models, so that those aren’t willing to play the game, whatever that game, whatever that game might be. There’s someone behind who will do it, which outs a heavier weight on the model and more difficult position. You say “Okay, I’m not longer 25, I’m 28, so now I have age against me. There’s 33,000 models in Instagram that are saying they’re models, they’re scouting them out. Even if you’re a really good model and you make a lot today, that can go away very quickly just because of you not being easy to work with, whatever that might mean given the situation.
CC: It’s so competitive that they [modeling agencies] will go to the next person.
MW: Exactly. That wasn’t the case before because in order to get those next models to fall in line took a lot of work from the agency. They invested a lot in their models because there was a cost of acquisition that was quite high. Today that cost is lower.
CC: Why has there not been something like Agent Inc before in the fashion industry?
MW: Quite frankly, because it’s really difficult to do. What we’re doing, it sounds easy. It sounds like “you just create this marketplace and platform where people come in, and they get listed and have other people in the background, the clients come in and then they book them. You’re talking about the human element. It’s not like selling a product. These are people’s lives and they’ve got things going on, and they may or not be available at 12:30 or 3 o’clock tomorrow for a casting call, but they can be available fifteen minutes later and their schedule changes and the booking changes. All these variables could fly back and forth, and those create a dynamic that if you don’t have the right technology and the right people being able to put it through the pipe, it just doesn’t work.
We believe in what we’re doing and we’ve accomplished a lot. We have a team that knows how to do this. We didn’t come out with this idea like “Hey, let’s try to make a better agency. That’s not what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to make a better industry, so our perspective is very different than anyone else. It’s not “Hey, how can we do this and have technology to make it more profitable and be an agency.” We’re saying, let’s look at all the deficiencies out there even amongst other agencies and so we eventually see ourselves licensing our software to other agencies, so that they can also provide this type of value. It’s not trying to displace agencies so much as we’re trying to prove everything, and it’s not easy.
If we didn’t have Dustin Diaz, who is one of the co-founders [Agent Inc] He was employee 30 at Twitter. He helped to develop the desktop widget at Twitter that helped go from good uses to a hockey stick curve approach and he left there and started the company with Garrett Camp who’s founder of Uber. Dustin is definitely a seasoned, extremely knowledgeable technology guru and having him as a basis for what we’re doing allows us to do things that no one has ever done. We’re implementing artificial intelligence into our solution that allows us to dynamically find better fits between the models and the brands based on their personality sets, I mean stuff that you just could not do in a traditional world. Overall we believe we’re going to be able to grow the actual modeling marketplace; that we can actually increase the size of the industry because we’re going to make it so efficient and so much easier to find great models. The models are going to be more confident because of our platform being safe and providing them real-time payment. At the end of the day, what is a $1.4 billion industry in the US could turn into a $2 billion industry in the US.
CC: They are going to be a lot more models who will want to be involved and won’t be discouraged and do something else.
MW: Exactly. It makes it a lot easier to get up and work 15-hour days when you really believe in what you’re doing and it’s for a greater cause that “Hey, we think we make money doing this,” and we started with that in mind, which is we can create something better for everyone and it’s going to be safer and it’s going to be a paradigm shift. When you look at it that way, if you’re successful at that, yeah, it should be possible at the end. That’s what’s driving us, not the other side.