Who’s in Your Corner?
An agent, a talent network, a guild — just work with people who have your interests in mind.
Welcome to the Spring Dispatch. In the last issue, we shared tips for independent knowledge workers navigating the new distributed work economy. This edition continues in that mode, with one tip so big that it warranted its own issue.
The tip is simple: Get someone in your corner.
What “someone in your corner” looks like in practice can vary, depending on the type of work you do, and your specific needs and goals. But no matter what you’re doing, being an independent knowledge worker is essentially two jobs:
Performing the defined tasks that your client pays you to perform
Job # 2:
Performing the unpaid “meta” tasks of finding projects, negotiating compensation, resolving contract disputes, etc. In other words, running the business of “You.”
Even if your billable work is performed in isolation, your ability to perform the meta job of running a business across all your projects can be enhanced by collaborating with people who have your interests in mind. So get a person, or a posse, in your corner.
When you hear the word “agent,” you most likely think about a talent agent — someone who finds jobs for entertainers and creatives, including actors, writers, illustrators, athletes, and more. In exchange for help in managing relationships, negotiating contracts, and other advisory duties, the agent is paid a commission. The agent performs business development so the creative professional can focus on doing what they do best.
So why does the agent model thrive in the entertainment industry and seemingly nowhere else?
Part of the reason is historical. In 1882, nine-year-old German-Jewish immigrant Zelman Moses arrived in New York City. He soon Anglicized his name to “William Morris,” and opened an office to represent the interests of vaudeville performers. By 1907, the control of vaudeville in the U.S. rested in the hands of a handful of magnates. B.F. Keith, one of the biggest, ran more than 34 theaters. Keith established a central booking office which held tremendous leverage over actors.
Actors tried to unionize, but were unable to win lasting concessions. Instead of trying to fight the system through politics, Morris built a formidable roster, including internationally-renowned talent like Harry Lauder, Will Rogers, and Charlie Chaplin. With this consolidation of talent under one umbrella, Morris held enough leverage to negotiate on behalf of his entertainers.
Hollywood experienced a similar consolidation across its early decades. In the late ‘20s, eight studios produced almost 80% of the films released each year. Studios grew to the point where they essentially owned their performers and iced out those who agitated for better terms.
Following the antitrust lawsuit that led to the breakup of the studio system in the late ‘40s,, performers were free to work for multiple studios. They needed help managing their gigs, and agents stepped up to take a more prominent role in the business. Within a few years, most actors working in Hollywood had relationships with one of the four biggest agencies.
The talent agent arose out of unique historical factors. But there are economic factors as well. It’s extremely hard, for example, to be a working actor. There are very few acting jobs to go around, and lots of folks want to be actors. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, there are currently far more active SAG-AFTRA members than there are acting jobs in the U.S. In an environment of fierce competition, it makes sense to pay someone to help you stand out and get work.
Perhaps the most salient factor is the frequency of business development required to maintain steady work. Entertainers are in many ways, the original gig workers. The actors William Morris repped at the turn of the 20th century would sign up with a theater for a theatrical run, and were then faced with the daunting challenge of drumming up new work. When you are working gig by gig, business development becomes a frequent stress. Contrast this with a mechanical engineer who spends his entire career working for the same automaker. This worker only ever has to perform business development once in his life.
But other industries are starting to look a little more like Hollywood. Workstreams are being broken down into discrete chunks, and workers can leverage a standardized suite of software tools (Zoom, Trello, Google Drive, Figma, etc.) to seamlessly plug into workflows, contribute their expertise, and move onto other projects as needed. Workers can now more easily sign onto short projects, and employers can keep costs down by employing workers for only as long as their services are required.
“Agents make sense when it’s hard to find a job or when the opportunity cost of looking for work is high enough to justify paying someone else. Recruiters make sense when it’s hard to find workers or the opportunity cost of looking for workers is high enough to pay someone else,” says Interviewing.io founder Aline Lerner. A talent agent is paid by people looking for work, a recruiter is paid by people looking to hire. What we’re seeing now is a rise in the opportunity cost of looking for work, because people are spending less time in long-term employment relationships and are instead engaging in more short-term gigs.
In short, we’re all actors now (Or a lot of us, anyway).
As the number of people who self identify as independent knowledge workers expands, we can expect to see agent representation flourish. It might not look the way it does in Hollywood, but the value of indie workers having “someone in their corner” to handle business development can’t be ignored for long. When your freelance workload is running hot, and you’re moving from gig to gig, sometimes working for multiple clients in parallel, you probably don’t want to add perpetual business development on top of that.
But even with the gigification of knowledge work, the agent representation model might not be the best solution. You’re being promoted as a singular worker, and while this may work in moviemaking, where an individual performer can make or break a production, knowledge work rarely happens in a silo. In knowledge work, clients need to build teams. All the better if those teams are made up of workers who are used to collaborating, whose skills already complement one another’s, who can recognize their limitations and bring in new faces to fill in gaps.
This is the advantage of the talent network model, where groups of workers with different but complementary skill sets come together to work for clients on a flexible, ad hoc basis. This is, incidentally, the model on which Gather has built its business. Gather members can generally vouch for one another, even if they haven’t personally met, because the network of trust extends to every member. After all, if you made it in, at least one of us has worked with you, and thinks you are smart and capable in what you do.
There are also bigger talent “marketplaces” like Upwork, which maintain a roster of thousands of workers across many disciplines. TopTal claims to exclusively skim from the top 3% of freelance talent. Such marketplaces claim to vet their members, but at this scale, it’s impossible for everyone in the network to vouch for everyone else. One must wonder if the “top 3%” designation has any meaningful value, if the network is open to anyone who applies.
The engineering and design-focused Braintrust promotes itself as a blockchain-powered talent network where workers “own” the value of the network through the BTRST token. Braintrust charges a flat 10% success fee to the client, but does not collect a commission from the worker. In that sense they are more like a recruiter than an agent.
There are also talent networks that live inside large corporations. Deloitte and PwC maintain skills- and industry-based talent networks that aim to make work arrangements within these companies more flexible. All kinds of large organizations — not just consultancies — are attempting to embrace the talent network mindset, giving employees more freedom to move around inside the organization, joining new teams and working on new projects as their interests and passions change. In this way, organizations can give their workers flexibility to follow their shifting career aspirations while retaining them as full-time employees over the long term.
Regardless of the structure of the network, the critical thing is to be part of a professional collective, informal or formal, where people know you. Knowledge work is relationship-driven, and if you can maintain good standing within a group of trusted pros, the work will come. As Gather’s own head of culture, Rudy Blanco, likes to say, “You need to network to get work.”
We’ve all experienced a honeymoon phase that immediately follows a new job. We feel valued for a while, but then reality sets in, and we recognize that employers and clients see us not as a friend, but as a resource. The boss starts asking for more of your weekend time or winces as they decline your request for a vacation. The needy client wants to pick your brain on non-billable time. We’ve also all experienced moments where you’ve given every ounce of energy to impress a client or prove yourself to a boss, only for them to turn around and remorselessly lay you off the moment it becomes expedient to do so. The smiling HR rep who buys you cookies on your birthday is the same person who will ask you to box up your things if the company no longer needs you after a pivot. It can be jarring to be seen one day as a valued team member, and the next, a redundant liability.
We’ve all had great jobs and gigs, and worked with wonderful people, but capitalism, for the most part, isn’t built for kind, constructive, long-lasting relationships. There is always a power dynamic when working with a big company, one that’s only magnified in a temporary contract relationship, where it’s even easier to cut you loose.
A professional network serves as a great defense against the vagaries of capitalism and the gig economy, but even better is a community of people who genuinely care about your professional development and personal wellbeing. Such a community can help ensure a lasting, rewarding career as an independent.
If you were to get laid off or lose a major gig today, who are the first ten people in your field that you’d email — or even better, call, to find leads on new opportunities? Ideally these are folks who would themselves put out feelers and calls on social media on your behalf. They’re people who will be disappointed to hear about your troubles, and excited to have a chance to help you out.
If you can’t think of ten, or even five, people, you should think about how you can be a better friend — not colleague — friend, to the people you’ve worked with. The first step is to view your colleagues not in terms of how they can hook you up in a pinch, but as real people who can benefit from your friendship in all sorts of ways. Think about how you can help the people around you when they’re struggling. Congratulate them on their achievements, both personal and professional. This approach requires effort, more than periodic Linkedin check-ins. It’s not transactional; it’s a long-term investment in your circle. Consider the benefits of having folks in and around your field who want to see you excel, not just when you’re job searching, but all the time.
To build a professional network, be a pro. To build a community, be a pal.
Hello, I’m Cole, the author of this edition of the Gather Dispatch, and I’d like to share a story. Almost a decade ago, I was working as a contractor on a project for a large, household-name tech company. It was an amazing opportunity to run a large team, and a sizable pay bump. My manager and I became fast friends after I recognized his obscure band t-shirt.
A few weeks into the project, however, the honeymoon phase came to an abrupt end. I made an innocent but dumb mistake that led to a big PR scandal, throwing the whole multimillion dollar project into jeopardy. Everyone on the project was pissed off at me, personally. Everyone but this guy who hired me. I remember in uncomfortable detail, a tense call with a bunch of lawyers and high-level executives who’d been brought in to deal with the kerfuffle. The solution was obvious — throw me under the bus. It would’ve been the cleanest way to deal with a messy situation. But my manager refused to let it happen. He defended me on that call, to some very powerful people, to the point where he may have put himself at risk. I never forgot it.
Over the last decade, I kept in touch with that guy. We checked in every time that band put out a new release, sent each other links, congratulated one another when we had kids. He moved across the globe, and I never thought we’d have an opportunity to work together again. Still, we kept each other posted on our career developments and shared what we’d learned about how to survive and thrive as independent workers. We were colleagues, but far more importantly, we were friends.
A few months ago, I got a message from an HR rep, wondering if I would be interested in joining an advertising project. My friend had given me a strong recommendation, and now we’re working together again. It’s been awesome. I love working with the guy. He gives me tips on how to present better, he advocates for me when I feel like I need more resources, and he mentors me about the ins and outs of ad agency politics. Each day I go to work confident that my work is on the right track and I never have to worry that I’m bugging him when I need clarification about something. We’re able to be “real” with each other in a way that improves not only the day-to-day experience of being at work, but the quality of the work itself.
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I’ve gotten to a point in my career where I am lucky enough to be able to work with people I trust, and even like. That’s partially due to the fact that I’ve developed genuine friendships along the way. Every single job I’ve taken over the last decade has been the result of a friend looking out for me, so I try to pay that kindness forward.
Whatever kind of “someone in your corner” you need, whether that’s an agent, a talent network, a union, or a guild, try to make those relationships count. It can take years to cultivate them, but I promise they’ll be worth the investment.
Speaking of long-term investments, in the next issue of the Dispatch, we’re going to examine what a career of independent knowledge work should look like. We’ll hear from some freelancing veterans about how we should be thinking about navigating our careers across major life milestones, and talk about how in many ways, the way we work can be far less precarious than full time employment.
A roundtable of Gatherers explore topics from the most recent Dispatch newsletter outlining how building your “corner” is an essential part of independent work, as well as showing up to be in the corners of others. An agent, a talent network, a guild — just work with people who have your interests in mind.