Plenty has been said in industry forums about how production and post have weathered the challenges of the past year and a half under Covid, but what about sales reps? The industry's pool of independent representation firms are often the first line of contact for a company and an agency. As production shut down, agencies closed their doors and uncertainty ruled, how did they make it through the toughest times?
To get a look at what life under pandemic conditions was like for the repping corps, Simian reached out to a quartet of independent reps to find out how they made out. What kept them afloat? How did they keep on top of their contacts? What did they tell their production and post roster clients?
For insight, we turned to (from left in the photo) Monica Johnson of BLAH! blah? (Blah…), Corey Rogers of Schaffer/Rogers, Doug Sherin from Options and Shauna Seresin of Minerva. Collectively they represent a cross-section of the industry, from live action production companies to post houses, music and sound studios and animation and VFX shops, both in the US and abroad.
Their stories reveal a mix of perseverance, optimism, conviction and pluck. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
How did you make it through the pandemic? What was the biggest challenge you faced when production shut down last year? How did you deal with it?
Monica Johnson, BLAH! blah? (Blah…): Thank goodness for email, internet, phones and Zoom! We navigated the treacherous waters of the pandemic and adapted to the ever-changing landscape of our industry by making sure we stayed in touch with our clients. The biggest challenge was trying to figure things out on a day to day basis during one of the scariest moments in our lifetime. Our biggest concern was everyone’s health...not only for our immediate team and their families, but our clients as well. Animation brought a bit of joy by the stories being told and the styles portrayed. It certainly provided an uplift during such a difficult year.
Corey Rogers, Schaffer/Rogers: Thankfully we made it through okay, with everyone staying healthy. We had a pile of jobs cancel at the start of the pandemic, a couple with crews on the ground! That was disappointing and a little scary, but receiving PPP was helpful. Overall, there wasn’t one big challenge, it was ALL a challenge. It was difficult to balance how much to reach out to people, as we wanted to be sensitive to those who were furloughed or laid off, but we also needed to do our job. It was difficult dealing with the uncertainty of when the biz was going to return, and figuring out how best to navigate through the moment. Overall, we tried to spend the downtime productively, looking ahead to what the biz might look like afterwards and working with our clients on the talent roster, social media presence, awareness, etc., to be in position for the future.
One big positive to come from the pandemic was the formation of the Alliance of Independent Representatives (AIR). This is a 501c6 trade association that's similar to AICP and AMP but for the indie rep community. At the start of the pandemic, two reps – Veronica Lombardo and Ann Asprodites – started a weekly Zoom call for us talent connector types to get together for support, advice, ideas, information, collaboration, etc., and it grew into a proper trade org. It’s very exciting to finally have a unified voice to advocate for us as a group.
Doug Sherin, OPTIONS: We didn’t know the business was shutting down, let alone the world for that matter. And of course we’re still feeling the impact to this day. Initially we thought we could just pivot and concentrate on animated and VFX-focused solutions, as they would entail little or no in-person contact, but even those concepts were not comfortable for clients. It was difficult to just switch to animation from their already concepted and tested live action approaches. The biggest challenge was that there was NO work being produced for six months. That said, we continued to strategize, both for us at OPTIONS and with our clients, as we kept the camaraderie levels high. Truly, what else was there to do about it?
Those who embraced remote production technologies and solutions early on started to be invited into the sparse opportunities that came about. OPTIONS was back in action as of August 2020, when we landed a couple of remote productions, and hence the beginning of the new production model era began. Things are way better than they were early on but it’s not back to normal, and never will be the normal that it was.
Shauna Seresin, Minerva: Well, there was a lot of wine in the first couple of months! On a serious note, it’s been a massive challenge for reps. We made it through by just keeping ourselves busy and calling and emailing agency clients, reassuring them that Minerva was still working. I even took the opportunity to take an on-line Harvard course on the pyramids of Giza, ancient Egyptian art and archaeology! We were fortunate that a few of our production companies had projects in completion before everything shut down. The biggest challenge was keeping calm for our production companies, trying to adjust to what was going on and trying to help keep everyone in business. No one had faced these circumstances before, it was a new dawn for so many production houses. All the jobs we had in bid, all of a sudden just stopped. Everyone now had to be creative and think outside the box. We dealt with it by reaching out to our agency clients about next steps, and seeing if any of the projects could be saved.
So everyone seems busy now. What’s happening with your roster? How much interest is there on the agency side to ‘getting back to normal’?
Doug Sherin: Busy? Well, let’s just say there are boards flowing, and there are way more opportunities than last year. That said, we just had four conference calls in ONE day. I wish that could be every day, but we all know it’s not realistic. We have been seeing opportunities across the board, including providing freelance directorial talent to in-house agency production arms. That’s been a busy sector in the new model of today’s world of production for us.
But things are not back to normal; they’re fragmented, with bits and pieces of work scattered in a wide array of approaches and situations, and with budgets that do not support the creative execution needed. It’s a challenge! Our roster and clients certainly have been striving to sign relevant talent to appeal for the diversity requests coming from the agencies and brands, and justifiably so.
Corey Rogers: It’s busier, but still not busy; it’s very inconsistent. Our roster has held pretty steady throughout the last 16 months, and we’ve even added some resources. We have good talent, but agencies are all over the place. Everybody wants to get back to normal, but who knows what that will be? Nobody seems all that eager to return to the office. And the industry is getting more flexible as agencies and brands have been hiring all over the country, especially freelancers and doing more things remote. It’s been tricky at times with people moving around, but at the same it’s created opportunities to forge new relationships.
Shauna Seresin: It’s great to have a bit of normalization back. Our roster has kept very healthy, and they’re always adapting to agencies and clients’ needs, which is a blessing. We have a very strong and diverse roster of women and POC talents who are great at finding ideas and solutions, especially with the budgets that are coming out of the agencies recently. As for getting back to normal, there's a lot of interest on the agency side, but also a deep desire to have the option to work remotely, too. I recently had the rare opportunity (since Covid) to have a lunch with an agency client, and they stated how much they missed office life and being able to socialize with work colleagues during and after office hours, but they also said that working remotely has changed how they work in a very positive way.
Monica Johnson: It’s great everyone is getting back into some sense of normalcy. I don’t think we will ever get back to ‘normal,’ but we will have to learn how to switch gears and move through the waves. We’re transitioning into a new era of advertising, and primarily from our side, our studios have been busy creating animation/VFX projects remotely. The office culture is definitely missed!
How did you keep up your contacts with agency people once they started working remotely? Were you still able to share new work and new talent with them in an effective manner?
Corey Rogers: We kept in contact the usual ways, like email, text, etc., but obviously Zoom became ubiquitous. We were using it the last year or so, so really it was just a lot more of it. Also, producers were already working remotely the last couple of years anyway, spending much less time in the office, so we were used to finding different ways to connect. There were fewer opportunities to share new work or talent with offices closed and so many people idled. Plus agency folks weren’t so interested, as we found most worked primarily with vendors they already knew and trusted. But new circumstances created new opportunities, and we found occasions to introduce our clients in the context of finding solutions for the work that did happen.
Monica Johnson: We started transitioning our in-person meetings to more FaceTime/Zoom coffee chat meetings. Because people were all quarantined/isolated, it was crucial that we stayed in contact with them and built on those relationships. We shared work continuously from our studios, along with the recent signings that occurred while in lockdown. I’m also a professional makeup artist, so hosting virtual makeup sessions on occasion helped to get some people out of their element and start feeling glamorous again!
Shauna Seresin: We’ve managed to keep up with our agency contacts and connections before, during and after the pandemic. Zoom and video conferencing has been a great tool for us, as we were still able to keep the conversations going, and of course our newsletters with updates were sent out more often than we’d usually send. I was relieved that we were able to still share and connect with the agencies and clients for virtual screenings and just to see faces and catch up. Obviously it’s not the same as in -person screening (and attendees are fewer), but we managed well.
Doug Sherin: Last year was really a wash when it came to staying in contact with people. It was such a personally weird time for everyone. There was no outreach until the 4th quarter, and that was difficult to do even then, just from a sense of respect and feeling awkward about talking about work during a strange, life-changing time. But moving forward, it’s back to sharing relevant news and updates, personal reach outs…all done via email and some select phone calls. It’s hard to break through showcasing talent or new spot work, but people are in fact hungry to see and learn about what and who is out there for answers.
Has the pandemic influenced the way you send out reels? Have you had to adopt any new sales strategies or techniques to keep your roster’s work front and center?
Shauna Seresin: There’s less fluff in the process now; it’s getting straight to the point and attaching a link. Agencies and clients are constantly getting sales calls or emails, and most are still working from home, which means they’re with their families and probably juggling a hell of a lot, more so than when they were back in the office. I don’t want to intrude in their personal lives, but I do want them to think of me when they are on a search! So we keep it short and sweet. As a rep, you always have to have new sales strategies regarding who and what you are selling, and there is a technique to it. You always have to evolve and find new ways to promote your roster and stay relevant.
Doug Sherin: This is and always will be the cornerstone of showcasing work and garnering new opportunities. I guess the bottom line is that good work will always break through. We have always been successful doing so, sending it an email and a link. Ninety-nine percent of the jobs we’ve booked come from doing this, and not from who we know or what screening we did or what party we went to. It’s about having the right reel for the right job at the right time, pure and simple. This has not changed one ounce in my opinion, new pandemic approach or not.
Corey Rogers: It hasn’t really changed the submission process per se – it’s still harder than ever, as the average spot project attracts 100 to 150 reels. Getting a bid is akin to winning the lottery, never mind actually getting the job ! The submission process is very direct now; you send reel links with the best and most appropriate work, and not a lot of bells and whistles included. Also, everything seems to move much quicker now, while also being more volatile. Quicker searches, but with more projects killed or postponed.
The industry’s in the midst of a major transition, and the role of the rep has evolved. Back in the day, we were directors’ reps, but now we’re talent managers and resource connectors, helping to find creative content solutions. It’s less about any director or vendor, and more about solving an agency/brand creative problem with the right creative and logistical fit. Which is a long way of saying that most of us had already adjusted our approach to this new reality prior to the pandemic and the last year just further focused how we were doing things.
Monica Johnson: I think there’s more of an urgency, if anything. Sometimes things can get lost in the shuffle, so certainly staying on top of all of it and making sure things get out in a timely manner, while consistently checking in without being annoying is key.
Many of the folks we talk to in production and post feel things will never be completely the way they were before Covid. How do you see the business of representation changing or being altered? What’s your forecast for the future of selling creative talents?
Doug Sherin: You want me to give up our secret sauce perspective? Well, my partner Kim Griswold and I saw things changing long before the pandemic. The need to diversify and adapt is something that’s always in play, but it’s been on warp speed the last couple of years, and the pandemic certainly pushed the envelope as well. First of all, we don’t sell; we provide and share work that’s relevant to the project, so that it sells itself. Good work that makes sense will always rise to the top. Yes, getting it seen is the trick. All I can say is that you just have to be persistent and respectful while communicating with producers, whether you know them already or not at all. Again, this simple process will not change. It works and always will. Marketing before there’s a job at hand can help plant the seeds, but it’s really about timing.
Monica Johnson: I agree, nothing will ever be the same. Based on how the pandemic has been going, and how so much is still up in the air, I’ve been hearing that several companies will probably adapt to a hybrid workplace situation. The way reps used to network (i.e. industry parties, in person lunches, outings, etc.) may now have to be done more locally and/or virtually. Staying abreast of what’s going on in the industry and getting involved is essential. There are a lot of groups that have been manifested as a result of the pandemic, so that's been the silver lining to make new connects.
Shauna Seresin: While things will never be the same, the only thing I see being altered is the need to be smarter and more creative in terms of the talents you have on your roster. Agencies and clients are looking to partner with reps and production companies that can bring solutions and elevate their ideas. Reps are at the forefront of that. It’s so important for us to keep agencies and clients updated and in the know of what is out there. As for forecasts, I’m not sure what the future will bring, but we believe diversity is the key. Having a strong, diverse roster is the future. It’s great to see some agencies and clients stepping up and demanding diversity when they reach out, and that’s what Minerva has plenty of.
Corey Rogers: As with every major disruption to our industry, there will be changes, while many things will return to the way they’ve always been. And as I’ve said, the changes that will stick are only partly due to the pandemic. The biz was already in transition, the pandemic just accelerated it. Representation will continue to change, because the industry is changing. It’s a content-based industry now rather than a spot-focused one, and those who adapt will thrive. That’ll be true for agencies, brands, creators and reps alike. I’m greatly appreciative that we’re working with so many people who are both talented and also well-positioned for the new normal. It’s an exciting and interesting time, and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. And the industry will continue to improve for the “connector class,” as AIR continues to grow!
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