Whenever I meet new people and tell them what I do for a living, I am most often asked how do I judge if a new person is worth signing up? Or how do I find prospective new clients? After doing this for almost 20 years, happily I get plenty of referrals from within the industry and tip offs as to who might be the next big thing. I’d be a fool to ignore an experienced producer or publisher who advises me to meet so and so, and I’ll always take the time to check out a new person who has somehow created a buzz. In the world of TV chefs, the market is now so crowded, that a stand out talent really doesn’t wait long before they are snapped up by me or one of my competitors! It may not surprise you (and it’s always a disappointment for people not in the know) to hear that actual cookery talent has very little to do with a chef’s ability or potential for TV stardom. What we look out for are the big characters with something different to offer. We all like the crazy ones – they make good TV…. I mean, do you watch Gordon because he knows how to make a nice leg of lamb, or are you waiting for him to kick off and go nuts?
From my agent’s perspective the tough world out there just got tougher. On Monday we were asked by a major broadcaster for chefs to appear on a well known branded cookery show, filming four days for free because it would be good PR for their restaurants. On Tuesday we were asked by a major production company if one of our better known chef clients would please film four episodes of a show in one day, provide all the ingredients, prep it all up the day before and all for a fee that barely hit four figures – and by the way, chef also provides the location. On Wednesday a client of ours was turned down for some lucrative endorsement work because she didn’t have enough Twitter followers. On Thursday a PR firm actually said that our client’s association with their brand would further enhance our client’s PR and visibility so, you guessed it, they could do all that work for free, and Friday I stayed at home and wept into a box of After Eights because I can no longer afford Fazermints ( http://www.fazer.com/Products–Services/Chocolate-and-confectionery/ ). When I started Deborah McKenna Ltd www.deborahmckenna.com 17 years ago there were about seven celebrity chefs on the scene. Needless to say they were all in huge demand. Nowadays, even a chef with no TV experience and a famous restaurant can call him (or her) self a celebrity chef, and get invited to local food festivals to demo their recipes (for a fee I hope!). Nothing is wrong with that, but it does dilute the market somewhat and, following basic economics, supply has exceeded demand and prices are consequently down. So many chefs are competing for the work out there; it’s no surprise that we’re on a slippery slope downwards when you look at fees. Add to that that you now need to create a successful Facebook profile with loads of friends and build up at least 2000 Twitter followers in order to be a player, and you can see that making it these days is an awful lot harder than it used to be. But I like to look at the positive and on the flip side of this doom and gloom, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have all created platforms where previous unknowns can build up followers and prove their merit, hopefully attracting the media attention that can eventually be converted into an income. Home cook Caroline Mi Li Artiss is a case in point, having built up a fan base who watch her videos on her YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/carolineartiss which are shot in her kitchen – Caroline is now a client of ours with TV and endorsement deals and a book in the pipeline. www.sorted-food.co.uk started out as three students uploading easy recipe videos for students who needed to break out of PNS (Pot Noodle Syndrome), and they are now set to break the 1,000,000 views per month on YouTube. TV prodcos are banging down our door to meet them and we also have a confirmed two book publishing deal for them. Finding a gem of a client on the internet is a real treat, but adding them to the bursting list of talent out there, getting them noticed, and paid a living wage has become a huge challenge. Where will this all lead to in the long term for agencies and their clients who aren’t paying attention to the opportunities that digital media has presented?
I don’t know about you, but when I tune in to a cookery show I am hoping to be inspired by the food I am supposedly learning about. It struck me recently that this is simply not happening enough, and that it’s the chefs who are on the pedestal and no longer the food. Now don’t get me wrong – I make a living from creating culinary gods, but nowadays our airwaves are crowded with cooks who are no longer cooking, and I am feeling ripped off. Or if they are cooking, it’s still foods that are very safe and familiar to us all. Why? How very dull! I had a fascinating meeting this morning with two ladies who want to bring East African food to the fore with their cookery book idea. I was amazed at how little I knew about the cuisine, history and cultures behind their foods and lamented that every time I walk into a Tesco or even to my local farmer’s market, I am railroaded into cooking the same old things with the only variety achieved in spices and textures. I have never worked with the ingredients that make their staples, and until we start to search further than European cuisines and produce for our daily meal, we’ll be stuck with the same old same old. I am definitely guilty of the uninspired spaghetti bolognaise (though I do want to try it with Quorn the next time I make it). Here’s an example: James Martin’s next series for UKTV is on Mediterranean Food. I can see it now – sexy shorts, tan, sail boat, freshly caught fish, olives, parsley, tomatoes, flames and sunsets. Nice TV but am I gleaning new ideas? Am I inspired? On a happier note we have Yotam Ottolenghi hitting our screens later this year in a one hour special on the food of Jerusalem. As he’s a master of unusual ingredients and one of the most creative cooks around, I have no doubt that his moment on screen will be wall to wall inspiration and education. Now that’s the kind of food TV I look forward to.
No matter what topic is being covered in a TV show or series, I have no illusion that ultimately, TV is there to entertain us. Yes it is occasionally enlightening, however, when you watch a show covering a subject on which you have a deep knowledge, I am sure you’ll agree TV is maddeningly shallow and trite. So I was quite surprised at all the furor over Gordon Ramsay’s recent show about shark fin soup. Channel 4 likes to commission across a theme, and their Fish Fight was no different to that. They would expect all their main chef presenters to participate and contribute a show to their “season”, and there would be a decision making process governing who does what. Pairing up Gordon with sharks was an entertainment coup, and indeed the press leading up to its broadcast demonstrated some good ratings pulling thinking behind that decision.
We have all sorts of clients at Deborah McKenna Limited, and I can’t say there’s any perfect one, (sorry!) but there are certainly those clients who are better at utilising our services than others. I write this following years of conversations with other agents, and seeing some clients go on to great things while others go off in a puff of smoke. One major mistake I see clients make is thinking that now that they have an agent, all the hard work for them is over. In fact, if you have a good agent, then you should now be working even harder, because you are now part of a team, and you can’t let each other down. You see, the way I see the agent client relationship is this: you have convinced your agent that it’s desirable to become a part of your business - the business of your career - and all the potential income it could bring. The ownership is split 15/85 or 20/80 depending on the commission you are paying out, and together you are now going to build this business up into something that earns you a living. Like any business this means each person in it has a role and in this case the agent sells you/your content, and you create that content. A seller and a creator. Simple right? I can honestly say that those clients who are active every day creating content, sending me ideas, watching rival shows, reading and writing blogs - these are the ones who create their luck and then get lucky. At the same time, the agent is selling selling selling. This is done through meetings with producers, publishers, PR companies, the channel heads, magazine editors, marketing managers…the list is endless. Every time you give your agent a new idea, they have something more to sell - a reason to call that magazine editor and try to place a feature you want to write, or finally clinch you a crucial meeting with that genius producer who then goes on to develop your own series. This may sound so obvious, but it seems to me that more than ever we need to hustle, sell and produce new ideas in order to stay at the front edge of what or who is being talked about - it’s a noisy world out there and very competitive.
And then there are the clients who sit back and wait…and it’s not as if they get forgotten, but I will say it gets harder to sell them as time goes on, especially if the agent hasn’t heard from them about what they are up to, what is their latest passion, who they met that inspired them, what shows they are enjoying, who do they like/hate/admire, anything really. Without that info, the client will stagnate, and you’ll hope the agent will call the client in for a refresher meeting to get back on track. I should of course say that the creative process can also be collaborative, where the agent and client dream things up together that can be sold. Lastly there is serendipity… I simply love that moment when a client is raving about some new thing which then, two days later a producer asks me about. Something goes “click” and the next thing I’m arranging a meeting between two people who I just know are going to love each other and do some business…maybe. The thrill and excitement of that big maybe - maybe we’ll get that juicy deal - is still such a fun part of an agent’s work, and I never tire of it.
I’ve had a very constructive day. First I met the new head of commissioning for Factual programmes across BBC 1 and 2. Then I had lunch at one of Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie’s” restaurants with a top dog in AFP (ad funded programming). Starting my day, I was far more excited about meeting the BBC person, as she holds the pen that ticks the box for so many commissions for my clients’ shows. However, during my lunch I soon realised that an awful lot of the power in TV is fast moving away from the channel controllers and towards brands-with-money. Of course the BBC will (for now) float above this grubbing style of doing business in TV as they can’t pursue sponsored shows. But I have now heard it too many times not to believe that any brand with £500,000 and a message, will be able to buy their way onto our TV screens in a much more significant way. I am not against this development and it’s certainly not new, but it’s fast becoming mainstream. In short, it’s possible that our TV schedules are soon to be filled more with paid for ads disguised as series, than bona fide series that a TV channel has actually paid for itself. This is born out of necessity, as ad revenues for channels have shrunk and online ad spend increased and this trend has had a detrimental effect on TV commissioning budgets. Long term, TV could become just one big billboard for brands in our living rooms, using our favourite characters in well established shows to demonstrate new products. As I said, I am not against it, but I am mourning something which I can’t quite put my finger on. But I suppose that’s just business. It’s no different to the chain of Jamie’s Italian eateries. Looking around me at the restaurant today, Jamie the young man I once knew well has grown up into a big manufactured brand and what you’re eating and experiencing at Jamie’s is an endless ad for all that is Jamie Oliver. There’s effort behind it, but no soul…
I have just agreed to be a judge on ITV’s This Morning Show next week. “Kitchen Stars” has pitted some amateurs against each other in a bid to present cookery on This Morning, and next week there will be three finalists, one appearing each day Monday to Wednesday. I am supposed to judge their performance and the final taste and presentation of their food, to help decide on a winner, along with Tana Ramsay, Olly Smith and the viewers’ votes. I have watched the original audition videos and was impressed. I suppose people are much more media savvy these days and indeed, one of the finalists has their own youtube channel, loaded with recipe videos. The question I ask myself is what is it that grabs me about a new cookery talent? Why will one stand out against the others? As a start, a lot of what makes a talent work at a particular time and place is that they offer something that is fresh. However, a fresh culinary style can’t be so “not done on TV before” that it will never be done, like German Tapas or Gourmet Urban Wildlife dishes. Moreover, getting beyond the cooking style also needs to be taken into consideration, and I’ll stick my neck out and say that a successful culinary hero needn’t be a great cook. Passion, personality and confidence without arrogance work well on screen. I think professionalism only comes later, and so often it’s the early years of any talent that deliver their best performances. I suppose after a while it just becomes their job, and sometimes the twinkle in their eye fades…I won’t name any names though!
Image Rights seems to me to be the last frontier of control when doing a deal in any media. With the proliferation of content for websites, the hunger for PR and the multiple ways companies want to exploit their bit of content, the only way you can retain control of how and when your face is used to promote something, is to retain your Image Rights. To think that a publisher can bring out an app using the content from their books and only have to pay the author the pre-agreed split strikes me as stepping over the mark. So, it’s advisable to retain your Image Rights so that they need to come back to you before launching the app with your face all over it. Of course, most people want this added exposure, I mean an app is the latest sexy accessory to have, no? But the world of apps is largely untested, and needs careful control starting with how your face is used within it. Likewise, in a TV deal, it is important to retain your Image Rights. We have a presenter on a popular TV series, and the production company now have a book of the series coming out. The deal was already done when we signed the presenter up, so the production company had already hogged the prospective book income to themselves. The problem for them though was that our presenter is the face of that show, so we were able to carve out a deal based on the fact that the production company did not have Image Rights to exploit, and the publisher wouldn’t have brought out the book without that presenter’s face on the jacket. So even though the presenter had no share of the book deal originally, controlling the Image Rights was key to getting a share retroactively. Authors, presenters and artists, take note! Control your Image Rights!
How does this grab you? We have:
The speedy section: Nigella Express, Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food, Delia’s How to Cheat at Cooking and Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals. Then we have the warm and fuzzy section: Nigella’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home, Gordon’s Cooking for Friends, Jamie at Home and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Family Cookbook. There’s the how to section: Nigella’s How to Eat, Gordon Makes it Easy, Delia’s How to Cook and Jamie’s Cook with Jamie. Then we go further afield and have the exotic section: Gordon’s foray into India, Jamie’s America, an Italian selection from Delia, and a Far Eastern Odyssey from Rick Stein. By this formula Gordon and Jamie are due to write a Christmas book each, Hugh owes us a River Cottage Quick Cookbook, Nigella should travel more and Delia needs to write about how to cook for friends.
Agents have a terrible reputation, and some people think they are a complete waste of time. But that’s like saying all blondes are dumb, and not taking into account that so many dumb people dye their hair blonde and then bring true blondes’ reputed average IQ below where it should be. So I will agree that certainly some agents are a waste of time, but the good ones are worth their weight in gold. But how to spot a good agent when you’re shopping around? If you’re promised the world, and they say they can make you a star, run away. Nobody can promise these things. Ask them what their strategy would be in marketing you/your book. Do they listen to you and understand your unique selling points or do they keep comparing you to existing celebrities (ie can they think outside the box?). How long have they been in business? How big or small is their list? What companies do they regularly work with? What deals have they done recently? A lot of bigger agencies will set you up to meet Mr/Ms Big Star Agent and then after you’re signed, you’re fobbed off onto his/her minions who click you into their mass marketing churn in the hopes you’ll end up with a deal. On the other hand a newer, smaller agency may not have the reputation to get your TV or book proposals to the top of the reading pile. So it’s a dilemma and you have to find the right balance between being a small fish in their big pond, or a big fish in their small pond. I am not saying that the size of the agency matters, it’s the quality of their list you should look at. Are their clients all working? Check an obscure name on their list and google them. If the last book they wrote came out 6 years ago, or you haven’t seen them on TV in ages you have to ask yourself, why is that client there on that list? Of course there is client loyalty to account for, and agents will stick by a talent they believe in, long after they have failed to sell them. Ask yourself, is this a good service to them? Could it mean they have no room for you? But after all is said and done, make sure you like them. If your career takes off, you’ll have to trust them with everything and probably spend lots of time with them and it helps if you can truly think of them as your friend.