How to start a modeling agency

This may come as a surprise, but nearly every business is connected in one way or another to a modeling agency.

Think about it — whether on a website landing page, in print advertising, or in digital media, you’ve likely seen stock photography or videos featuring models. Modeling is more than just ruggedly handsome people in fashion shows and perfume ads — it’s a huge, multifaceted industry with lots of opportunity and fierce competition.

In the United States, modeling is a steadily growing $2-billion industry, according to a report from IBIS World. It’s also an industry that’s receptive to up-and-comers on the agency side. New businesses in the industry find that the popularity of social media has fed a rise in independent talent eager to sign away from established firms.

At the same time, modeling is in an enormous state of flux. Higher-end and bigger agencies took huge hits in the past year, as the pandemic forced organizers to postpone or cancel runway events and major campaigns.

These rapid changes have affected individual talent the hardest. A survey by the nonprofit Model Alliance found that around 50 percent of models were still waiting on significant back payments from clients or agencies. Widespread dissatisfaction over these conditions can spell disaster for these larger firms, splintering their rosters and making room for new, smaller agencies.

With less power concentrated in big firms, now more than ever, starting a modeling agency is a goal that’s attainable with perseverance and a well-planned approach. If you’re interested in making a play in this ever-evolving industry, read on for some essential tips on how to start a modeling agency.

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Know your niche

Forget Fabio and Giselle. Modeling spans such a vast range of looks and niches that it’s easy to get lost in all the different avenues you can take. 

Are you going to be the go-to agency for hand models? The one-stop shop for e-commerce stock imagery? Or maybe you’re the best fit for fitness and athletic wear brands? These are the first questions to consider when you think through how to start a modeling agency.

Finding your niche will help you differentiate your brand in a hyper-competitive landscape. You’re going up against numerous other upcoming agencies elbowing their way to a seat at the table. In a complex industry, it’s far too risky to try to be a catch-all agency from the get-go.

Instead, start by homing in on a speciality that speaks to you or a lifestyle you’re familiar with. From there, you can expand into different or adjacent modeling spaces if you find these new areas can complement your brand and show that your business is naturally evolving.

For example, take a look at one of the most well-known and well-regarded agencies that focuses on specialty groups: London’s Ugly Models. Though the name is off-putting at first, its founder, Jill Searle, was pinpointing an untapped market when she opened her business in 1969. The company placed an ad in the paper for anyone with a “unique appearance” that was not common or desired in the modeling business at the time.

More than 50 years later, Ugly Models is an example of someone seeing an opportunity in the vast modeling world where no one else did. They now represent talent like Elaine Davidson, the Guinness World Record holder for most piercings, and Sultan Kösen, the tallest living man at over eight feet tall. They specialize in extraordinary and outside-the-norm looks and have learned that their clients are willing to pay top dollar for uniqueness.

Though you can’t replicate the genius of the Ugly Models approach exactly, it’s an excellent example of carving out your place as you learn how to start a modeling agency. Think about what speaks to you or inspires you — or what you have some expertise in. If you’re into fandom events like Comic-Con, for example, maybe an agency for talent that specializes in cosplaying, makeup, and effects could be a great starting point.

Like with any business, connecting what you want to achieve to what you’re passionate about is the fastest way to success. Starting a modeling business is no different, so leverage your vision to your advantage.

Plan out your business

Learning how to start a modeling agency from the ground up requires some forethought on how you’re going to build your company. Before you get going, lay out a road map for how you’ll define and grow your business.

First, think about your budget. If you’re just getting things moving, starting out of a home office and running the day-to-day operations with digital tools is a great way to save money. 

Outside of that, the budget for launching an agency will depend on your initial clientele and talent roster as well as the niche you’ve chosen. Make sure you have the financial means to keep your initial efforts afloat while you grow.

Next, with a budget handy, you’ll need an online hub where your models and clients can find you. Build a website landing page where they can learn about you to see if your agency is a good fit. Jotform offers a simplified landing page template you can easily incorporate into your website to collect visitor information.

Beyond that, be sure to register your name, domain, and business as a legal entity so there’s no question that you’re a legitimate operation. Your digital presence will be a huge factor in your early success, so invest a healthy amount of time in making it look great.

Last of all, you’ll want to lay out a road map for your business and growth goals. Aim to have a certain volume of talent and clients by six months, one year, and five years of operation. Plan out the networking and expansion strategies you’ll employ to reach those goals and the ways you could eventually see your specialty evolving.

From here, your strategy should center on building a talent list that will attract business to your agency.

Expand your talent roster

A famous phrase tells us we need to “spend money to make money.” Essentially, you have to invest in yourself before you can expect other people to invest in you. When it comes to figuring out how to start a modeling agency, that means pulling in great talent in order to sign great clients.

If you have a good idea of what niche you’re targeting and a smart business plan with real resources, building a roster will come much easier to you. As mentioned earlier, many great potential signees can be found in all corners of the internet. Explore what social media has to offer, whether on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, or other platforms.

IMG, one of the biggest players in the space, has used its “We Love Your Genes” platform to source young talent by asking aspiring models to post their pictures with the hashtag #WLYG. This stroke of marketing genius from their talent development team gives IMG a wealth of options to comb through while simplifying the process for up-and-coming models — not to mention cutting out the cost of headshots.

These massive social platforms are also making it easier than ever to scoop up talent that fits your specialty. You should already be doing the hard work of seeking out talent through all available means possible. But if you can also manage to get a conversation going on social media and direct it toward your agency and the niche you’re representing, you’ll have an enormous opportunity for creating a strong, eye-catching roster.

From there, plenty of great tools can help you easily sign new talent — while cutting out unnecessary communication friction. For example, to collect talent photos for your website, you can customize Jotform’s easy-to-use model contracts and photo release forms with your own questions, legal language, and branding.

Network as much as you can

No one can expand the reach of their business without leveraging a network. In a deeply relationship-centric business like modeling, networking is going to be the backbone of your agency. Part of knowing how to start a modeling agency means flexing your contact list.

This doesn’t just mean wining and dining clients and swapping business cards. In the modeling industry, you should always consider your talent first when networking. You’re an advocate not just for your business but also for everyone you’ve signed.

When your agency is new, the odds are that your clients are newer to the industry as well — especially if you found them online or on social media. As their champion, you can help new talent set their goals and use your networking skills to connect them to the industry. Your roster is your responsibility as well as your best asset — use every opportunity to push your people to the forefront of the conversations you’re having with others in the business.

There are plenty of ways to network. Start by looking into local events in your area, such as fashion shows or industry events, and look into the organizations that put these on. Event planners, designers, and similar professionals with the inside scoop on the local business perspective can help you advertise your roster and make more connections.

You can also look into modeling forums and online sites to read behind-the-scenes conversations. These will also give you a great idea of what both established and aspiring models are seeing in the business, offering insights that can lead you toward what’s trending and where you can pivot your business for it to thrive.

Sites like Model Mayhem provide a look at these conversations, while others like Portbox give you a direct line to freelancers and industry regulars to expand your agency’s reach. Networking happens in many different ways, at various venues, and on different platforms, so you should always be prepared to talk shop, push for a connection, or work for your talent.

Build your client list

With a strong roster and some early connections under your belt, you should be well on your way to compiling your client list. Your efforts to lean into the strength of your talent and establish a cutting-edge niche will help make potential clients feel excited about working with you.

There are a few ways to get your name out to clients, such as cold calls and emails with polished designs and high-res images of your talent. But you need to do a lot more work to get a considerable number of eyes on your models. Just as with networking, lead with your roster — particularly if your specialty makes you stand out in a crowd, like the previous example of cosplaying and practical effects makeup.

Other effective strategies include hosting an open house to show off your talent in person, giving potential clients a firsthand look at who they’d work with. This is also a key time to use the network of fellow industry professionals you’ve been building. Ask them to share the event with their own contacts to get the buzz going about what you’re offering with your new agency.

Though live open houses are the norm, digital events and Zoom open houses can work as well. Since this is less of an open forum for chatting, include other elements to entertain people. For example, you can try to find creative ways to show off your talent on screen.

You can also manage clients and event invitees with some of Jotform’s event registration form templates. Customize these with some dazzling imagery or shots of the models your potential clients will meet to get them excited about and engaged with your upcoming showcase.

Afterward, when it comes time to sign clients, be prepared to offer specific contracts that fit the customers’ needs. Whether your models will participate in a photo shoot or a full-fledged multichannel campaign, you can use forms to streamline the details. Make contracts more manageable with Jotform’s contract templates. You can even incorporate e-signature widgets into forms to make the contract-signing process entirely digital, translating to a better experience for your clients.

The modeling business has evolved considerably over the decades. Innovation and ever-changing tastes keep this industry fresh and eager for new faces to get involved, both in front of and behind the camera. If you can successfully learn how to start a modeling agency, there’s a great chance you can find a place in this competitive and exciting field and build a network you can be proud of.

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