Do I Need An Agent?

(FYI, the founder of, who is now an agent, did not solicit this article. Matthew Nordin -a regular contributor to the website – submitted  this article all on his own.)

It’s the question young television reporters and anchors — and now even producers — often ask me. Having been in commercial TV for more than a decade, they wonder aloud, “Do I need an agent?”

“It depends” is an answer I personally hate to receive. But it’s apt here. I usually ask them about their current career situation, whether they have a long-term partner or spouse, and what their goals are.

I can’t do that with everyone who reads Survive TV News Jobs. So I thought I would give you my thoughts on what goes into my decision to hire an agent for myself and whether to recommend one to friends and colleagues.

Where are you in your career? I got lucky. The late Conrad Shadlen, who represented some real heavyweights in his day, took an interest in me for some reason after seeing stories I’d done while an intern for then-CNN correspondent Brooks Jackson and at Southern Illinois University’s WSIU-TV. Rad signed me right out of college. The credibility of being represented by his New York agency helped me months later get my first paid television reporting job at WSPA-TV in Greenville/Spartanburg, South Carolina. It was then the 35th largest market in the country. I was able to rent a nice apartment and buy food. Hey, that was an achievement. I had no idea at the time, but I have since learned that some of my colleagues have been forced to go on government assistance because their first TV station paid them so little.

If your college’s broadcast journalism program did not produce a live, professional-looking newscast every night that allowed you to build a respectable reel then it’s probably a waste of time and money to hire an agent right out of school. They aren’t going to be able to get you a job in a Top 50 market. Plus, they’re going to be taking 5-10% of your gross salary. That’s not what you bring home in your paycheck. We’re talking about 5-10% of your income before taxes. Can you afford that?

What are your goals? When I was in my 20’s, I put my career ahead of everything. I was single. I just wanted to “get to the network” as quickly as possible. Then two things happened: 9/11 and Mark Sanford’s election as governor of South Carolina. 9/11 changed everything. People my age or a little older who were making tons of money on Wall Street prior to that morning were suddenly calling their significant others, leaving the most beautiful, heart-wrenching voicemails I’ve ever heard. Something clicked for a lot of my friends and me. God, the Universe, whatever label you wish to use, didn’t send us to Earth to make money and spend our lives in newsroom cubicles and live trucks.

The next year, WSPA-TV assigned me to cover this recent congressman from Charleston named Mark Sanford. This was long before he went “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” He was taking South Carolina’s Republican Party by storm, making real connections with voters, beating some big GOP names for the gubernatorial nomination. From the primary campaign through Sanford’s general election victory party at a Sticky Fingers BBQ restaurant in November 2002, I was on the campaign trail. Just like network news journalists, my photographer and I traveled all over the state covering Sanford and his opponents, rendezvousing with our satellite truck late in the afternoon, staying in hotel rooms at night, joking that paying rent in Greenville was a waste because we were never in our apartments. Then it was over. The adrenaline vanished. I was back in my Greenville apartment. And I was all alone.

It has taken me years to take these lessons and create the life and career I want — a life and career I continue to tweak — but I realized the life of a network news correspondent was not what I wanted. When NBC News axed a slew of veteran correspondents in 2008, one of them said that for the first time he’d be able to drive his family to dinner. When he was on-staff at NBC, he’d always driven separately and with a bag packed in the back. He was inevitably getting called away to cover something happening somewhere in the world.

I realized I needed stability. I wanted a dog, a spouse, two children — the works.

In the meantime, Conrad Shadlen’s agency had vanished near the end of his life. I didn’t renew with the agency that bought him out because I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. If I went off and freelanced somewhere, that 10% hit to my limited income might have been unsustainable.

So ask yourself: Does an agent really fit into my life plan? Or do I just want the caché of being able to say I have an agent?

Is your significant other willing to move? Once you’re in a relationship, someone’s career has to come first. You both might decide at this point in your lives it makes more sense to put your TV career first. However, if you become involved with a doctor or lawyer who’s already planted the seeds of a nice little practice, it’s going to be hard for him or her to move. In their world, they may have to start from zero and build-up their practice all over again if you both move.

I highly recommend reading Mika Brzezinski’s book All Things at Once. Whether you’re just out of college and the previous paragraph is the furthest thing from your mind or if you’re mid-career and a sizzling pang of recognition just hit your belly, Mika’s negotiation of her career and her husband’s career (she’s married to WABC-TV investigative reporter Jim Hoffer) along with trying to raise two daughters will hit you at an emotional level that is nearly unparalleled in autobiographies of this type. Remember, Mika hasn’t always been this successful. Before reaching star status with MSNBC’s Morning Joe, she had been fired by CBS News. I will say no more. No spoilers here.

If you’re not willing to move, you may not need an agent. In fact, you may be an agent’s worst nightmare because they want to send your tape all over the country to give you the best shot at a great new job.

If you and your significant other don’t want to move, surely you can get to know all of the news directors in town on your own. Then again, if you’re already working in a major market, you may need to keep your agent to negotiate your next deal at the station or to get a meeting at another station across town if you’re let go. (As you can see, we’re back to “it depends.”)

Ready to hire an agent? Do your due diligence. Just like you would vet a source on a news story, do some checking around on this person who wants to be your representative to the broadcast news world. Interview them. Skype with them. Fly out and meet them if you can afford it. Ask them what they like about you. Ask them how they plan to market you. Ask them how they’ll work with you to improve your skills and marketability for the next job search two or three years from now.

The goal is to find someone who wants to represent YOU, not just another anchor/reporter. And the goal is to only hire an agent if he or she truly fits in with your life plan.


Matthew Nordin is an investigative reporter at WXIX-TV in Cincinnati. Join him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @FOX19Matthew.



How to select an agent.

I have to admit, I have been surprised by the amount of questions gets about agents.  The most common being, who do you recommend?  By asking a few follow up questions, it is clear that finding out about and hiring agents seems intimidating.  It should because these reps take a significant amount of your salary (sometimes up to 10%) and can have a profound effect on your career.  Often journalists looking for an agent worry it the agent will be willing to take them.  But let’s turn the tables a little bit.  The question should actually be:  Can this agent really help me advance my career?  This isn’t an ego thing.  This relationship should benefit both parties.  When you hire an agent just because you are glad the person is willing to take you on, you are selling yourself short.  You need to clearly see how your career will benefit.  Otherwise you will be writing checks for years, to someone you don’t believe in.  That’s too costly a mistake!

So how do you select an agent?  It takes more than finding out what agent represents the main anchor at your station or another reporter in the ranks.  Those personal endorsements are great and important, but a small part of the picture.  There are several other things to consider.

When selecting an agent consider his/her:

  • Reputation
  • Ability to work with ND’s and GM’s
  • Understanding of industry trends and traditions
  • Ability to coach
  • Solid legal support

Getting those ringing endorsements from other reporters, producers and anchors is a great start toward figuring out an agent’s reputation.  I would suggest cold calling clients listed on the agent’s website and asking what this agent has done to help that person in the last year, 6months, 3 months etc.  There are different types of agents.  Some excel at placement.  Some shine as coaches.  Some offer more individualized attention.  Some agents are known as serious advocates for their clients if a problem arises.  You need to know the agent’s reputation so you have an idea of what type of representation you will get.

A key to reputation, is how the agent handles ND’s and GM’s.  The last thing you want is to hire an agent that MANY ND’s and GM’s have blacklisted.  This does happen.  Bridges can be burned and you don’t want to be caught in the flames too.  This is especially crucial if you have a dream market in mind.  You don’t want to get a call from your dream station, only to find out the ND will not work with your agent.  So how do you check this out?  Talk with your former NDs.  If you are first starting out, ask a professor if he/she knows of any ND’s or GM’s you could call.  If you have a dream market in mind, you might want to call the AND, and see if he/she has a minute to talk.  Tell him/her your goal is to get to that station one day and could that person recommend any good feeder stations and agents that the station works with.  You might be surprised how much information the AND will provide. (For more on why making connections with the AND is so crucial read “When the interview really counts”) Now this is going to sound strange at first, but you don’t necessarily want an agent the ND or AND just loves and gushes over. That agent may not be very aggressive at getting great deals for clients.  You want an agent the ND or GM says is fair, and decent to work with.  That means the agent probably has good insight into how much positions in the market and within that station group pay.  You want an agent who isn’t a hothead, but is persistent and will fight for the best deal with business savvy.  Also, remember agents and ND’s will not always get along.  If you hear from one ND that the agent is awful, check with at least two other ND’s before making a decision.  Personality conflicts happen to all of us.  The only exception being if you are absolutely 100 percent sold on a particular station.  If that ND says he/she refuses to work with an agent you have some thinking to do.  Not just about the agent, also the ND.

I feel so passionately about vetting an agent’s understanding of industry trends and coaching, I dedicated a whole article to these topics called “The one thing you need to require from your agent regularly.”  Read it please if you are considering hiring an agent.  This is the payoff for the up to 10 percent of your salary you are giving up.  If you want an agent to be an advocate for you, the person must grasp what industry leaders are looking for and be able to see what’s coming next.  This is particularly huge with the eruption of social media’s influence on television news.  There is even less focus on training in newsrooms.  Managers are more concerned with how to compliment newscasts on television with web based elements.  The economic downturn means less money to pay for training sessions and in some cases less money for more seasoned talent that can mentor in newsrooms.  You need someone in your corner that can give you constructive criticism so you can grow in your job.  Agents are becoming the go to people you need more and more.  Make sure your agent can actually provide advice about producing newscasts, writing packages and being a backpack journalist to name just a few things.

You also want an agent that has solid legal support.  Why?  Contracts are getting more and more complicated, especially when it comes to social media clauses.  That non-compete you signed could become an issue too.  What about sections demanding you stay a certain weight?  You want an agent that has a direct line to an attorney so you can get answers fast if a problem arises.  These are issues that an agent should be able to advise you on.  I have known of agents that say, “You will have to hire an attorney for that,” while negotiating contracts.  Seriously?  What is the 10 percent you are paying for if you cannot get any advice on legal elements of your contract?  When interviewing agents ask what legal support is provided.

One last thing to keep in mind, make sure you feel comfortable speaking with the agent.  You may need to have very frank discussions.  Agent contracts often last longer than station contracts.  You will be probably “stuck” with this person a long time for better or worse.  Make sure you can get along with them!  Remember agents have a lot to gain retaining you, so don’t sell yourself short.  Look for the kind of representation you really need to advance your career.



One thing you need to require of your agent regularly.

Whether to hire an agent is an age old debate in the TV News biz.  People have strong feelings about agents and their role in the business.  As the industry trends toward turning more content with less people, agents are becoming more essential in my eyes.  The reason may surprise you.  It is not because there are less jobs.  Bottom line if you have talent, you will find work.  So why are agents becoming more essential?  They are advocates for you, not only when looking for work but also while you work the job the agent helped you find.

Here’s what I mean.  Of course, agents keep tabs on where the jobs are and what type of skill sets managers want.  But they also keep tabs on trends in the industry.  So a good agent should be able to look at your skill sets and let you know what elements you need to focus on to grow and become even more marketable.  This is a mutually beneficial relationship.  The agent should want to help you not only get a good job, but grow in that job so you can eventually move to another, bigger, job.  Both of you win.  Both of you make more money.  Both of you make names for yourselves in the industry.

This is why when you vet an agent you need to make sure that this person will regularly critique your work, and that news managers think this person has a clue about identifying and training talent.  Yes, I said training.  Over the years, the pitfalls I found with agents were that many had connections to get you a job, but were not respected in the industry as able to help journalists grow.  If you want a headhunter to place you, hire a head hunting type service.  If you want someone to just look over a contract, hire an attorney.  If you want a good agent, hire someone who regularly provides insight into the news business and will regularly critique your work to help hone your skills.

That, my friends, is the one thing you should require of your agent.  You want regular critiques of your work.  Make your requirement clear before you hire your agent and hold them accountable.  There are agents that already do this as a general rule and truly feel they are an advocate for you throughout your career.  This is the kind of agent you want.  Ask for this upfront, and demand a clear explanation of how you will get these critiques.

So what does requiring regular critiques of your work really mean?  It means more than an occasional newsletter listing industry trends and an article or two about things like what to and not to wear on air.  It means the agent actually reviews some of your recent work, then sends back thoughts on what you did.  It means setting up regular conversations where you decide together what skill sets you want to improve on in the next six months, the next year, by the end of your contract, etc.  This person will then review your work and let you know how you are doing at improving those skills.  The agent and you should also have conversations about what job you want to have in two years and/or five years.  What will you do and what will the agent do to try and make those goals reality?  An agent cannot promise to get you to the network in five years.  But an agent can help you identify what makes your writing and presentation skills unique so you can build on your assets to increase your chances.

Remember, making sure an agent will provide regular critiques and work with you toward your goals is your responsibility to set up.  Agents offer different things.  You need to make sure you are getting what you want, when you want it.  You need to research and make sure the agent you are thinking of hiring can deliver on your expectations.  Then requiring critiques should be a simple matter of scheduling when you will talk next.