Interview by Barry Schwartz
Christina Force spent years working in an agency before becoming a photographer’s agent and running a production company – both at the same time. She now helps photographers navigate the world of advertising.
By the time she was 19 Force was working at the Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency in London doing layouts and typography, working on major campaigns. The intense, always-on agency life took a toll, and after three years she needed a break. Force and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Pete, an art director she met at Saatchi’s, left their jobs and London behind. They worked on a boat and at a French ski resort and backpacked around America, ending up in Australia, both working at Saatchi again. She discovered she loved working with photographers more than any other aspect of agency life. Gradually, her desire to work with photographers became so great she left the business, this time, for good.
I tried styling and I was not bad at it. One day, I was on a shoot with a photographer. He was an amazing man, Graham McCarter. I was on this shoot chatting to his clients, having a great old time. Because, you know, I came from an advertising background. When the shoot was over and the client had left, he turned to me and said, Christina, I think you need to be my agent. And he changed my life. He’d been the official photographer on the 1973 Rolling Stones World Tour. He’d seen stuff. All the photographers in Sydney really looked up to him. If he had a talk or a workshop, they’d all go. So as soon as I became his agent, every photographer in town wanted me to be theirs because I had him on my books.
Force was 23. A few years later her husband Pete got a job offer in Saatchi’s New Zealand office, where they have now lived for 25 years and where she started her agency, The Collective Force. By then, they had two small children.
And I thought, look, I’ll just work part‑time and I’ll just work in the mornings. It’ll be a nice part-time job. Within six months, I had a full-time PA, a full-time nanny, and had to find office premises. It was insane.
In those years, photographers and agencies in New Zealand had not quite caught up to how businesses operated in the big international cities.
The art directors were muddling through trying to find photographers for shoots. They’d turn up to the shoot and have to help carry the gear. And they’d sort of figure out where lunch was coming from partway through. I love food. The first thing I did was make sure there was food on set. And suddenly we had happy photographers and happy creatives who were fed, and happy models who weren’t falling over on the job.
Originally I was just going to rep and let the photographers do their own production. But I realized that most of them couldn’t produce their way out of a paper bag. I ended up creating this production company [OPTNZ] to deal with this stuff. And I had to choose. Do I want to go out and sell and market these photographers? Or do I want to produce? I preferred actually building relationships. So I chose to be the relationship builder and getting the work in the door. I employed producers to manage the work for me. It just grew unbelievably. I learned on the job and I made a lot of mistakes. But every time I made a mistake, we fixed it and we moved forward. And those aren’t really mistakes. I didn’t step on anyone’s shoes. I stepped on my income. Or I didn’t put a clause on a quote and ended up getting called out, things like that.
I’d go around and I’d bump into creatives I’d worked with at Saatchi’s London. They met me and, “Oh, my God, you’re here. How fantastic. You’re an agent? Oh, how fantastic. I need a photographer for this job. Deal with it.” And that was how I began my agency actually. That was really crucial. I’ve talked to a lot of start-up reps about this. They come to me and they say “I’ve picked these great photographers. Now tell me what I should do.” And I say “Why did you start with the photographers when you don’t know what your clients want?”
This led to Force becoming a kind of art buyer herself because of the unfulfilled needs of the photo buyers at agencies.
I always say to people starting out as agents, go and talk to the clients. Ask the questions. And they’re going to love you. Because you’re actually helping them. And that’s the key to anything.
It’s the key to photographers when they take a brief. Instead of trying to tell the creative what they are going to do, let them talk to you. Ask them questions. Find out how they found out about you. Was it your website? You might assume that, but it might be from word of mouth. It might be from some random crazy shot you did years ago that bears no resemblance to anything on your website. Photographers tend to assume when they take a job that that person has seen their website, but they may not have. And then they start these conversations that are all based on assumption. And that is the scariest thing. That can just lose you a job.
When young photographers talk to me and they say, well, how do I get an agent? I say, well, here’s the first thing you have to understand. If you’re not making enough money for the agent to make a living off of you, you’re not going to get an agent. So you have to have a certain amount of work coming in at a certain income level for them to take you on because they make their money as a percentage of your money. So you really have to be unbelievably busy or well‑paid before anybody will take you on.
I say, okay, show me the work you’ve shot for ad agencies. And they say I haven’t got any, I’m going to an agent for that. They get it all around the wrong way. What I do is I take them back to the beginning and say, okay, first of all, let’s make sure that your profile is good and that you’re ready for an agent…meaning how do you look to the outside world? How does your website look? How does your social media status look? Is everything out there saying what you need it to say about you? Is it reflecting who you are? And are you representing yourself authentically? And with regards to your outward looking profile – are you speaking the right language to attract the types of clients that are going to fall in love with your authentic work?
Basically what you have to do is prove yourself. You have to prove that you can answer a brief. You might have this amazing photographic style that’s beautiful, but can you actually translate that into a brief that’s full of all sorts of parameters and restrictions and compromise? Can you still produce the results in the way that you represent in your outward profile?
You have to prove that you can take a brief, that you can work with clients, that you can communicate, that you can work professionally, that you’re not just an artist. And it varies from industry to industry. In the ad industry, yes, you get paid more. But that’s because you have so much you have to do before and after that shot is made. Editorial’s a little easier. You know, there’s various different types of photography and industries.
It’s all about who you’re targeting and what you need to do and what you’re capable of doing.
Force spent a lot of time on the road in Asia, Australia, and the U.S., showing the portfolios of her local photographers for projects to be shot in New Zealand, including coming to Los Angeles four times a year. As is true for any rep, the challenge was getting her photographers to the point of having a creative call – a conference call between her and the photographer, the agency, and the actual client. The critical element was always the photographer’s participation, even if the project was theirs to lose.
I repped this amazing photographer. The art buyers loved the work so much. The photographer was their favorite pick for a massive automotive campaign. They actually kept this photographer’s portfolio; it was so inspiring that they had decided to use it as a style guide for the entire campaign, which involved something around the lines of three different TV campaigns and several advertising print campaigns.
We had the creative call. And the photographer had the job, you know. It would have worked. But in spite of me coaching this photographer on what to say…it was just devastating because we were on this call and the art director is saying things like, “So, what I’m thinking is that we’re going to need to have this kind of landscape like this one in your portfolio. And we’re going to put the vehicle here. So does that make sense?” And the photographer just kept saying, “Oh, but I don’t shoot cars.” It was so lacking in confidence. The photographer just wasn’t — wasn’t a good communicator. She was an artist.
The photographer would have done an amazing job because we would have surrounded her with the best people. But the fact is these guys — let’s look at it from their perspective, right? You’ve got a client who’s actually going to take a risk and shoot a massive campaign in another country, with an unknown shooter, outside of the United States of America. If the photographer is displaying a complete lack of confidence, that’s too much risk. That pushes the creatives and art producers over the line. They are responsible for the outcome. So they ended up bringing a photographer over and shooting – well, three photographers over actually, and several directors. They booked out every crew in the country that wasn’t already taken up on Lord of the Rings.
When Force began to do folio shows at agencies in the U.S., her love of food paid off, but not in the way she thought it would.
I think they thought I was probably some sheep farmer from this country that knew nothing about photography. Back then, websites were not common. Art buyers in L.A. were still collecting printed promo pieces and stacking them in a basket. It was the nineties.
I pulled some strings with companies in New Zealand that were marketing themselves in America. I said do you want to get your products in front of a very discerning audience? So I had all these crazy beautiful organic New Zealand cheeses and wines turn up where I was staying. I made it all about New Zealand. I just tried to brand it. No one had done that. It really helped position us. I thought I was selling New Zealand. But…what was different was the fact that photographers from New Zealand had a different look. It was quite different to Northern European photographers. It was quite different to American photographers. The final realization was that they weren’t necessarily going to hire my photographers because we were in New Zealand. They were hiring my photographers for their look and then bringing them over to the United States because that lessened that risk factor.
Over 17 years the Force Collective grew to a staff of nine people, routinely producing projects with budgets as high as $500,000. Then the world economy crashed; it was time to downsize and reimagine a professional life.
So I was left with my core, highest paid staff. Every quote that went out the door had everything at full rates. If it felt like it was going to be a low-budget job, we would pass it onto the photographer and say, listen, you can take this or leave it. But we’re not going to produce it for you. We can’t afford to compromise the quality. And you can handle the job yourself. So we started saying ‘no’. The first day we said no, a $300,000 job came in from Canada and we won it. And then we had agencies in New Zealand that were using us simply because they just knew that we were going to look after the job from the beginning to end. And they knew that in the long run, we were going to save them money. And that year was my best year ever.
From the minute I made that decision and we turned down the first job, the jobs just came flooding in. And they were all massive jobs. At the end of the year, we’d done so well, and I just said, well, that’s it. I’m closing the doors. My producers who worked for me bought the production company. I left on top.
Force began to let go of her agency, as well, referring jobs and photographers to other agents and the production company, until, a year later, an art buyer who had been a client bought the Collective Force.
After that year, I got an email from a lawyer saying “I have someone who’s interested in buying the Collective Force. Are you interested in selling?” I discovered that the person who was buying my business was an old client of mine who had been an art buyer in an ad agency and said if I was to ever buy a photographers’ agency, it has to be the Collective Force. Because I had built a business around systems and processes, it didn’t matter if the photographers weren’t onboard. He was buying the name, all those relationships I’d built over fifteen years, and my database. And he just carried on. So both my businesses are still flourishing.
I got rid of the office and the overheads and moved to working from home. It was the most incredible, liberating experience. It was fantastic. Moving into helping photographers develop their businesses and their profiles and their marketing, and getting more work and being happier about what they did was such a perfect fit for me. It was something I should have done years earlier. But without the experience I had, I could never have done what I do now.
Systems and processes are what most successful businesses need to stay profitable, including – and beyond – photography, production, and repping.
I discovered where my systems processes bent came from just last year when I was on holiday with my mom and dad for their 50th anniversary. If you look on the back of a camera, there’s an ISO number. Most manufactured goods have an ISO number on the back. And that’s the quality assurance standards system that has been developed by companies worldwide from a British standard system which was originally BS 758. Now, if you’ll just bear with me.
My dad wrote British Standard 758. I had no idea until last year when I was on holiday with them. And I did some research on it and I found out that it’s on every camera that’s made, every shower cap you find in a hotel room. It’s not the quality of the production. It’s the quality of the process.
My dad was there at the beginning of computers being mass produced. In 1979, he was working for General Electric. And he was the Quality Assurance Manager. And he realized there needs to be a system to monitor and assure quality. He needed to sort it out because, you know, it was a rapidly growing technology and being implemented in so many places and there were still people working in factories dropping cigarette ash on circuit boards!
To be quite honest, I think it comes from the fact that he, maybe, and I, definitely, am a little disorganized. We get easily overwhelmed. So we need a way of sorting things out more clearly, and it’s what helped me explain things easily to clients.
There are a few analogies I think are lovely. The first one is that when I do a particular talk on closing a deal and helping photographers understand how to get a job across the line, I actually start with systems and processes. I believe if there’s anything in your business that you do more than once, then you need to write it down. That way, when an assistant comes in to replace your current assistant, you don’t have to waste time explaining it every time. You’ve saved yourself time. So if there’s anything that you do more than once, you write it down.
A good consultant finds ways to explain to each photographer how their particular problems are uniquely their own, yet just like everyone else’s.
What I do more than anything is getting them back to who they are. That’s my main point of difference. I’m not just building folios. Photographers come to me saying “What do you think of my folio?” And I say “Who are you talking to?” And they’d say, “Oh, I just want to get advertising work.” “What do you want to shoot?” “Well, stuff that they want me to shoot.”
That’s not a target market.
When I was an agent, I could never take on a photographer that I didn’t really 100 percent believe in. I couldn’t do it. It didn’t matter how famous they were, I couldn’t do it. I had to really be inspired by their work. Then I could sell them. Because I could never sell something that I didn’t believe in.
So I ended up in this place where I delve into helping photographers find out who they actually really are as an artist, and then taking it from there. Who’s going to pay for that style of work? And then who are those brands and who are their ad agencies? Right. Now we’re in a good place to build a website because you won’t get in the door with a folio if you don’t have a decent website. And then we can move forward.
Ex-photo rep and production company founder, Christina Force is a New Zealand based photo-consultant who works with photographers and agents worldwide. Her online mentoring programmes help photographers anywhere rediscover their passion and promote their best work to targeted clients.
Christina has been a guest speaker at many AIPA conferences and seminars, in addition to The New Zealand Contemporary Photography Association, NZIPP, Axis Ad School, Unitec, Whitecliffe College of Art, CACT Sydney and The New York Academy of Film. She has been an International Photo Award judge since 2011, and has been interviewed for various publications including Capture Magazine, D Foto, The Photographer’s Mail, Pro Photographer, Better Photography, Campaign Brief Australia, and Agency Access. Christina’s mission is to help serious photographers get paid to shoot what they love, and she specialises in sharing her 30 years of experience working with ad industry creatives around the globe. http://christinaforce.net/