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Agent Inc: can the Uber model prevent abuse in the modelling industry?

By Marjorie van Elven



The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have helped to shed a new light upon the prevalence of sexual misconduct and abuse in the modelling industry. Many models start their careers at a very early age: according to a survey conducted by non-profit organization Model Alliance, 55 percent of working models based in New York and Los Angeles started their careers when they were between 13 and 16 years old. These young girls often move alone to another city, sharing an apartment with other aspiring models. As a result, more than half of models under the age of 18 go to castings and jobs unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. Easy prey for abusers, therefore.

Similarly to the movie industry, the fashion industry is being hit by a wave of accusations of sexual misconduct. Famous photographers such as Bruce Weber, Mario Testino and Terry Richardson are among those accused of abuse models during shoots. “I saw him with his hands down people’s pants at least 10 times,” recalled the producer Thomas Hargreave, who worked with Testino from 2008-2016. Unfortunately, the behavior these powerful photographers are accused of seems to be far from an exception: 30 percent of the models surveyed by the Model Alliance reported having been touched inappropriately on the job, while 28 percent were pressured to have sex with someone at work. A staggering 85 percent have been asked to change nude at a job or casting without advance notice, and 60 percent complained about the lack of privacy when changing clothes.

But, as Model Alliance is quick to point out, sexual advances are just one of the forms of misconduct models are victims of. Models are often not considered by law to be employees of their agencies, and the lack of industry-wide policies to regulate their work renders many of them susceptible to precarious working conditions.

“The discussion of how models are treated often omits a very important point: the financial transparency and security of models. I work in the European market, and most of the agencies take high fees and make models pay for every bit of communication they are supposed to do in order to promote their models (comp cards for example). Let alone travel, accommodation, and other fees that a model usually has to cover. Could anyone think of a situation like that in other fields of work—imagine, you are working for some big company and your job requires traveling and staying in hotels in different cities. If your boss were to tell you several months later, ‘You know, you have to cover it all yourself’,” said Ekaterina Ozhiganova, a respondent in a research conducted by website models.com last year.

In addition, models’ weight and appearance are heavily scrutinized, which can lead to eating disorders. “The agency said that they loved me but wanted me to lose a little weight, and they gave me a month to do it and then resend digitals. So I lost a lot of weight in a short time and just got obsessed with it after that. I became anorexic and extremely underweight,” said another respondent in models.com’s research, who asked to remain anonymous.

Many models refrain from complaining about such misconducts because of how competitive the industry is. “We have a job that millions of girls would kill for, so we should be happy with what we’re doing, even if it has a dark and sadistic side to it. It has gotten to a point where it is hard to justify your own complaints. We would never dare to speak up about anything because of the risk of losing future job opportunities,” said another anonymous respondent.

So, what to do to tackle all these problems? On the one hand, organizations such as the Model Alliance in the US, the Equity Model Union in the UK and the Model Union in Denmark are pushing for legal protections in regards to models’ working rights. But Mark Willingham, former President of Operations at Carmen Steffens, has an additional proposition: removing the middle-man. Alongside software engineer and photographer Dustin Diaz, he founded Agent Inc., an app often summarized as “the Uber of modelling”.

While startups claiming to be “the Uber of something” have become a Silicon Valley cliché, the fashion industry is one of the few not yet disrupted by a “social, local, mobile” alternative. Launched this year in the US after two years of beta testing, Agent Inc. allows companies to search, book and pay models directly. Both employers and models go through a criminal background and sex offender check before being allowed in. The startup also offers 24-hour support, so that models have someone to turn to in case any issue arises during a photoshoot. After the job is done, models and companies can rate each other, just like on Uber.

FashionUnited spoke with Willingham via email to learn more about the app.

How did the idea for Agent Inc come about?

The idea is based on our own experience booking models. I have booked countless models in the 11 years I spent in the fashion industry, knowing the process would be extremely painful every single time. It’s just very antiquated. The industry had pretty much stayed the same for more than 70 years. Today, you go to an agency’s website, look at models and do screenshots or write down their names and then either email or call the agency to check their availability. Then, you go through this back and forth process, trying to figure out what other models you might want because some of the original ones you selected are not available at the dates and times you need them. This process often takes several days and is a big waste of time and resources.

Or, you could go the nontraditional online route and use Instagram or Model Mayhem. This path, however, is kind of like the wild west and you’re left with a whole other set of issues. When Dustin, who is an amazing tech guy but also a creative, semi-professional photographer, was named photographer of the year on Flickr a few years back, he got a book deal. He needed some models but had no idea where to go to hire them, so he did a Google search and ended up trying to book models on Instagram and Model Mayhem. He hired 20 models and only about half of them even showed up for the job. Of those who did, they couldn’t or wouldn’t take payment by credit card or checks so he had to pay them in cash. If that wasn’t inconvenient enough, none of them had changed.

And that is just our perspective, the client side of things. For decades, models have continuously been exposed to a lot of potentially bad situations. But now, we have the know-how, technology and tools to affect positive change and vastly improve the way things are done. Our goal, from the outset, has been to make sure models get paid on time, provide better infrastructure, guidance and a safer environment. We set out to put protections in place for both the clients and the models.

Let’s talk about these protections. How does Agent Inc.’s screening process work?

It works in two ways, and that’s one of the things that make us different. Most agencies have a screening process for the models, and although our company screens models, we also screen the clients. The process goes like this: the client fills out an application and we conduct a criminal background check, sex offender check and ID verification so we can really get an idea of who the person is.

The next thing we do is ask for a verification of need: why do you need to hire a model? We do that to ensure it is legitimate, since we only support the booking of models for generally accepted types of modelling jobs. In addition, Agent Inc does not support the booking of atmosphere models. We even go the extra mile and look directly at a company’s website or social media pages which can really help clear things up in the event there is an ambiguity. We are very thorough with our process and a large percentage of clients have to go through secondary levels of screening to get through the application process.

What about the 24-hour support system? How does that work?

Our support system has several features. First, if there is ever a case where the model is having a hard time finding the job location, we have a messaging solution on the platform called Agent Assist. Models can tap a button and communicate directly with a live support representative 24/7 who will help get them there. Also, if something goes awry or they feel uncomfortable, they can also tap that button and they will get a person there to help as we always know the locations of these shoots and their details beforehand.

We are also currently developing technology that will allow models to automatically notify predetermined people about a situation and even contact 911. This feature will not be limited to just calls, but even via text, so they can discreetly type out how they are feeling and know action is being taken to help get them out of the situation. We are still working on that technology, but in two years we’ve never had a situation in which that’s been required because of all the other safety and security features we already have in place. Any potential bad person would be more likely to stay away from the Agent platform and book models from a source where they can operate in the shadows instead.

As an additional note, the 24/7 customer support is not only for models, but for the clients as well. No matter who it is, we want them to know that we are here.

The app charges a 5 percent commission from the client and a 10 percent commision from the model. Why is the percentage higher for the model?

The clients are the ones that drive the business, and the models are there trying to get the business. By lowering the rates for the client, this raises the probability that they will come back to book more models. On top of that, models set their own rates with us. Unlike a traditional agency which sets rates, models using Agent are fully empowered to set their own rates. Traditional agencies usually ask for 20 percent from both the models and the clients, so I would say we’re not charging more of the models, but rather that we’re giving clients a heavier discount.

Does the app aim to have other sources of revenue in the future?

Absolutely, but we also intend to increasingly provide more value to the users. While the core platform will always be free, we will certainly have many added features that will be accessible at a reasonable cost.

How is the company going since its launch?

We currently have 20,000 models on our platform, and between 30 and 100 new applicants a day. Our growth has been amazing, we couldn’t be happier. At launch (March this year), we were focused on four main cities: Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Las Vegas. Now, we just expanded to include Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, San Diego and Seattle.

Agent Inc is currently only available for iOS. Any plans to launch an Android version?

We started with the iOS app but we also have web app so that everyone can have access to the platform. We will have an Android app in the future, but for now Android users are encouraged to use the web app.

Any plans to expand internationally?

Yes, we plan to expand our model internationally and then look at other vertical markets where we believe our solution can have a positive impact.

Your company is trying to make a difference. However, in order to truly create a safer industry for everyone, others need to take action as well. In your opinion, what steps do governments, agencies, hiring companies and models need to take?

I love this question because it is fundamental to the decisions we’ve been making since day one. We’ve always said we’re not in this business to try to negatively affect traditional agencies, I do not wish to push others out of business. Our goal is to raise the bar and standards. I hope this inspires others to step up their game. Models traditionally get paid 30, 60, 90, sometimes 180 days after a job, and we don’t think this is correct or acceptable.

Additionally, when it comes to safety, we can’t fix the issues of sexual harassment and eliminate all the sexual predators out there by performing background checks alone. If, years ago, someone had done a background check on Harvey Weinstein it probably wouldn’t have come back negative. There are multiple components that come into play when it comes to creating a safer environment for models, including awareness of the problem: the conversations that are now openly occurring act as a catalyst for change. Also, education: one of our ideas for the future is to develop an education program so that models will be empowered with knowledge of how they can and should act if a bad situation occurs.

I don’t necessarily believe that the first step is to change laws as this can take too long when it comes to safety, time is not a luxury we have on our side.

Photos: courtesy of Agent Inc, Agent Inc Facebook

Agent Inc
Model Alliance
Sexual harassment