Headhunters vs. agents

In advertising, when you need to find a new job, you get in touch with a headhunter.  In show business, you call your agent.

Is there much of a difference between the two?  Let’s see.

Any distinguising physical characteristics?

Headhunters tend to dress like their clients.  I take that back.  They dress even more casually than their clients.  And in Southern California, where the writer’s uniform is jeans, t-shirt and flip-flops, that’s saying something.  (There’s one headhunter in Venice who’s still pissed at me because my wife once mistook him for a homeless person.)

Agents, on the other hand, always look like they just stepped out of the dressing room at Barneys.  They wear suits.  And ties!  Prada, Gucci, Zegna, and other labels I can only dream of wearing (and having a reason to wear).  Not only do agents always look great, they know they look great.

Will they pick up the tab at lunch?

I can count on one hand the number of times a headhunter has bought me lunch.  Your agent, on the other hand, is good for a few pricey meals per year – provided you’re working.  If you’re not staffed on a show, or you haven’t sold a feature recently, then you can forget food – all you’re getting is coffee in your agent’s office.  But it’s good coffee.

Will they get me something nice for Christmas?

I’ve never heard of a headhunter giving a Christmas gift to a client.  If, however, you’re on the writing staff of a hit show or you just signed a multi-picture deal with a studio, ready yourself for lavish –sometimes surreally lavish – Christmas presents from your agent. Case in point: a friend of mine, who had just won an Emmy for a “Simpsons” episode, once received a Weber grill from his agent.  And then, a few hours later, he received a second Weber grill from another agent who was hoping to poach him.  Two grills!  In the middle of winter!  Surreal, right?

Are they good drinking buddies?

Headhunters can be a lot of fun.  For the most part, they don’t take themselves too seriously and like to have a good time. (One tall and vivacious headhunter was my regular wing-woman at industry parties for a few years.  We always had a blast.)  On the other hand, “fun” is not a word I’d use to describe the agents I’ve consorted with.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but agents are creepy.   It’s not that I don’t like them.  It’s just that I’m scared of them. A writer I know speculates that his agent can be found in the early morning hanging from the rafters of an old barn in her Prada suit.  He might be right.

What’s their bedside manner like?

Headhunters are not the most optimistic people you’ll meet, particularly in this economy, but there’s something about their “fine, I’ll send your work to Wieden but don’t quit your day job” mentality that I find refreshingly honest and endearing.

Agents by comparison, are geniuses at puffing you up (“This is going to be your year!  We are going to find you not just “a” job on “a” show, but the right job on the show that’s right for you!”) and then abruptly cutting you off when things don’t work out. (“What can I say?  They didn’t respond to your material.”)  This can be devastating the first three or four times it happens to you.  Or, in my case, five or six times.  Like Charlie Brown and the football, I fall for it every time.

Will they return your call?

Headhunters, in my experience, are pretty good about returning calls.  The longest I’ve ever had to wait is 24 hours.  Agents?  As is so often the case, it depends on the state of your career.  Are you on staff at “Girls?”  You’ll get a return call within a few hours.  Are you exec producing “Girls?”  You won’t have to wait for a return call because your agent will pick up the instant the red button on his phone blinks.  What about if you haven’t worked in a few years?  Well… maybe your agent will call you back the next day – during lunch or after 7:00. Though you’ll likely have to settle with an email from your agent’s assistant.

 What are their offices like?

Whenever I meet with a headhunter here on the west coast, it’s a restaurant or coffee shop (and once, strangely, in the parking lot of a Ralph’s).  The reason: headhunters don’t have offices.  They work out of their homes (or, in one the case of the one I met with at Ralph’s, presumably out of their cars.)

Agents?  They’ve got offices, all right.  In gleaming towers with reception areas so large and imposing, it’s hard not to feel a little, shall we say, puny and insignificant as you sit there with your bottled water, waiting for the gorgeous assistant to whisk you upstairs where your agent will give you his notes on your spec script about Sacagawea.  I don’t think this is an accident.  The new CAA offices are known as the “death star” for a reason.

But will they find you work?

If you’re waiting by your phone for your agent to call you with a job, I hope you’re in a comfortable chair.  ‘Cause it ain’t going to happen.  Agents don’t find their clients work.  This took me a long time to understand. (Are there any exceptions?  Yes, writers who are superstars.  Agents can find jobs for those writers.  Of course, these writers don’t need their agents’ help.)  What your agent can do – and do well – is this: sell.  Give them a spec script that’s commercial, and they’ll find a buyer.  The script might not get produced, but it’ll get bought.

Headhunters, on the other hand, do call with jobs.  Ad agencies that need freelance or fulltime creative often turn to headhunters to find them talent.

Conclusions

Can you find work as an advertising writer without the help of a headhunter?  Yes, but a headhunter can sure grease the wheels.   Can you sell a TV series or feature film script without an agent?  No. Production companies won’t consider material that doesn’t come from a talent agency.

We can joke about them, but headhunters and agents play a pretty important role: industry screeners.  When your script arrives in that red CAA cover, or when a headhunter forwards the link to your advertising portfolio, it’s like they’re saying, “we can vouch for this guy.  He’s worth checking out.”  And for that they receive a whopping ten percent of your fee.  Steep?  Maybe, but if they find you a gig, it’s totally worth it.

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