Modeling agencies help represent and "sell" models to potential clients. You are a essentially a "product" that the agency has the responsibility to sell by connecting you with paying jobs.
Signing with an agency can be beneficial to your career. Not only does signing with an agency help you appear more legitimate as a model, it will also provide opportunities that might not otherwise become available to you. Many agencies are provided with access to national casting calls, etc. that do not exist anywhere else.
When an agency finds you work, it is generally at a cost of a 10 and 25% commission of whatever the client is willing to pay you for a job. While this encourages agencies to find you more and higher paying jobs, it also poses a bit of a problem.
This problem becomes apparent when some agencies may turn down paid work for you if it doesn't make them enough money. A photographer may desire to work with you and offer $50 an hour to do so. In return, an agency may demand $200 an hour from the photographer for your time. The motivation here is money, and not your career. And if the photographer, reputable or not, does not offer enough money, he may get turned down simply because it doesn't make the agency enough money (even if the shoot (and the paid work) would be of interest to you). Your best interest is typically only in an agency's best interest as long as they see a way to profit from you.
Clients that are willing to pay top dollar for models are generally seeking top quality and experienced models. Therefore, if you are just starting out with an agency and your agency consistently demands top dollar for your services, they may be doing you more harm than good.
Beware of agencies that are over-eager to sign you. While there are some good agencies and some not-so-good agencies in existence, it is important to keep in mind that they all tend to work based on that one simple need, to make money. If an agency sees potential to make money off of you (or from you), they will sign you. And while signing with an agency may sound like a favorable proposition, this is not always the case.
As a general rule, it is a good idea to avoid any agencies that also have a "school" attached to them. What these agencies will do is convince you that if you take the classes they provide (at your own expense), you will much more likely realize your full potential as a model. These classes, however, are generally a waste of time and will not offer anything over getting actual real-world experience by working with real-life photographers. As I mention above, the main way an agency makes money is by finding you work. If they need to supplement their income by requiring you pay for "extras", then it is not very likely they are finding many models work.
What is key when you are signing with an agency is that you are completely aware of exactly what type of commitment you are making when you sign the dotted line. If an agency feels they will make money from you, it is entirely possible for them to sign you and make money from you without ever providing you with any work. Just the fact that you are signed with them creates an impression upon others. Obviously the more people they sign, the more "reputable" and "legitimate" they appear. This creates "credibility" that, in turn, increases their audience. An agency can generally survive off of the professional work of a very few successful models who they actively promote.
When working with an agency, never sign an exclusive agreement unless they can guarantee you a set amount for the duration of the contract. Otherwise, you may be bound to a contract that will not allow you to accept paying work outside of the agency you work with. And If that agency is not finding you work, you're screwed.
Unfortunately, it can often be very difficult to determine a good agency from a bad one. Both will often tell you the same things and make you promises about finding you work, providing for your needs, and planning for your future. The difference is, some agencies will fulfill their promises and others will not. And when they don't, it is at your expense.
It is in your best interest to ask a lot of questions. Find out how an agency plans to promote you. Find out how models at your level of expertise are treated. Find out what they realistically expect from your partnership. Find out if your agency will allow you to do TFP with other photographers. Whatever you do, make sure you do your homework and never sign anything without being confident that you are doing the right thing.
All photos, text and graphics © Byrd Photography, 2005. All rights reserved.