The super-agents with added punch
The Financial Times
When UK animal psychic Joanne Hull approached London-based literary agent Luigi Bonomi of Luigi Bonomi Associates before Christmas, she just wanted her book published. After Mr Bonomi read the first chapter of Kissed By An Angel – a guide to communicating psychically with your pets – he saw something more in the animal communicator. He saw the potential for a powerful new brand.
“I got her in and took her on,” he says. “Then I pitched her to the television agents I work with and they got her in and signed her up too. We pitched her to Channel Five and to a production company, Wag TV, who signed her up. Within four weeks of her coming to see me I have got her a production company, a television agent and Channel Five is interested, and we haven’t even pitched the book to publishers yet.”
In creating a brand around his new client, Mr Bonomi knows what he is doing. He is literary agent to a host of well-known British celebrities whose names have become national brands, including BBC gardening presenter Alan Titchmarsh and celebrity cleaners Kim Woodburn and Aggie MacKenzie, who feature on the show How Clean Is Your House and who have made a splash on television screens on both sides of the Atlantic.
“If I had sent a book like this out to publishers without TV behind it, probably all I would get is ￡15,000 ($27,000),” he explains. “But if it is backed by a commission for Channel 4 or Five, I can say it will be a six-part television series that will be on at peak time and can ask for offers in the region of ￡300,000.”
If the television project takes off, Ms Hull can expect her “brand” to be in demand for everything from newspaper columns to dog food.
Mr Bonomi’s strategic management is typical of the new breed of media savvy agent shaking up their colleagues in the literary, sporting and theatrical worlds. More brand strategist than deal broker, their tactical approach to clients’ careers has altered the dynamic be-tween client and agent, making clients less dependent upon their primary markets – be that books, sport or television – and more dependent upon their agent to build them as sustainable long-term earners.
There are two drivers behind this change. First is the success of huge US agencies such as William Morris and ICM, which between them represent the cream of the US sports and entertainment world from Mel Gibson to Macy Gray. Able to charge top dollar for services that range from stylists and media training to brokering deals for everything from perfume to cookware, they have maximised clients’ incomes and broadened their appeal across markets.
UK sports agents, such as SFX, quickly picked up the lessons taught by their transatlantic counterparts, brokering deals for clients such as soccer player Gary Lineker to expand their careers beyond the traditional route from track or field to commentary box. Mr Lineker is now as famous as the face of Walkers Crisps as he was as a footballer or is as a commentator. Agents in other sectors, notably books and television, are now following suit.
The second driver for change has been the emergence of experts in place of professional presenters on prime time television, which has provided a powerful base from which to reinvent clients as brands across a variety of markets.
Nicola Ibison, managing director of NCI Management, noticed the change in television talent five years ago and developed her company accordingly. “It has been a very calculated strategy to develop clients as brands,” Ms Ibison says.
“What we are doing is putting together a much more comprehensive package for our presenter clients that gives their careers more longevity than they once had. In the past they would only be as good as their last TV job,” she explains. “Good agencies are becoming much more like the American model.”
Among NCI’s clients is celebrity nutritionist Gillian McKeith, whose You Are What You Eat brand created through the Channel 4 television series has spread to bestselling books, a branded magazine and a supermarket food line.
Another reason agents are pushing branding is the consolidating number of retail outlets for creative products, says Simon Trewin of film and literary agency PFD. Coupled with the flood of products on offer, this means recording artists and authors need to make a bigger splash both with retail buyers and a public spoilt for choice.
“Bands and their managers should not dismiss the usefulness in PR terms of a book, which can then be splashed across newspapers and fit in with their marketing strategy for their music,” says Mr Trewin, whose clients include Live 8, Boy George and Status Quo. He adds: “A book can be as useful, if not more than, an appearance on [chat shows] Parkinson or Letterman in branding terms.”
As well as a shrinking base of retail outlets, the proliferation of television channels also means falling rates for television presenters – unless they have the pulling power of a household name. The supplementary income from ancillary deals is a way to bolster income.
The need is especially acute for expert presenters whose television work may result in a substantial drop in income. For each episode of an eight to 12 week series, a medical consultant from London’s high-profile Harley Street district will typically now receive ￡2,000 an episode, each of which takes five days to film, compared to the ￡200 an hour they might earn from the day job. By extending clients’ brands agents fill this gap until the client reaches a level of public awareness at which fees can be renegotiated.
Indeed, while the success of Extreme, the autobiography of Sharon Osbourne, in the Christmas bestseller lists was no doubt celebrated by those companies associated with her – she is the public face of Asda, the Wal-Mart-owned supermarket – they may not be smiling so broadly when her contract comes up for renegotiation. “She can now go back to them and say 50,000 people a week were buying her book,” says Mr Trewin. “That has really increased her value.”
Brand extension to in-crease the awareness of clients often includes newspaper columns as well as books.
“There are some who should be paying the papers they work for because it gives them a profile,” ob-serves Mr Bonomi dryly. “Publishing has entered the realm of entertainment. Books compete against CDs, DVDs and computer games. The supermarkets, WH Smiths and Borders of this world want publishers to market their authors as en-tertainment brands that can appeal to a broader market.”
However, some argue that such brand extension can go too far. Philippa Milnes-Smith, managing director of Lucas Alexander Whitley, says an agent’s duty is to protect their client’s core market.
Among her agency’s clients is solider-turned-author Andy McNab. Under LAW’s guidance, the Gulf War veteran has branched into fiction, children’s adventure books and computer games, through a deal with Sony PlayStation. “Everything that has happened with Andy has developed organically rather than splashing him across as many markets as possible,” explains Ms Milnes-Smith.
The branding of pet psychic Joanne Hull is only just beginning. “If I can make it work she will be a brand as big as Kim and Aggie,” says Mr Bonomi. “Then the money will start pouring in for an author who just wanted to write a book.”
HOW TO MARKET TALENT THE AMERICAN WAY
■ The success with which US talent agencies have maximised clients’ earnings has prompted UK agents to copy their practices by treating clients more like cross media “brands”.
■ The strategy can offset falling income in a client’s primary market as television channels proliferate and retails chains consolidate.
■ Extending a client’s brand in this way gives them greater leverage when renegotiating fees in their primary market – be it television, sports or books – or when it comes to advertising contracts.
■ Turning talent into brands also helps print media compete against CDs, DVDs and computer games in the wider entertainment market.