Professional agents take substantial fractions of client wages: 3-10% in sports,10-15% in music, 10-20% in acting, and 15% for writers. Somewhat relatedly, job recruiters take 10-30% of a first year salary, and home realtors take 2-3% of home sales.
The logic is simple: you might be good at your job, but you can’t be the best at everything related to your career. There is room to be helped by people or organizations who specialize in advising, presenting, evaluating, matching, and networking for workers with your sort of career. Such help can be useful not only when you seek to change jobs, or get promoted within an organization, but at all points in your career. Even at the start, when you are deciding where to get trained in what.
The agency relation works smoothest with a clear division of labor; your tasks and their tasks. But there is also room for collaboration on shared tasks. Such as by their giving you advice on choices that are ultimately up to you.
The best agents are usually paid via an “incentive contact”, wherein they get paid a fraction of what clients get paid. This seems a big improvement on how we usually pay tutors, advisors, mentors, personal coaches, or inclined-to-advise friends and family. When you instead pay someone by the hour, or by favors traded, their interests are less clearly aligned with yours. Yes, you might judge them based on reputations or track records. But track records are rarely visible, and reputations are often only loosely related to help. You may not be much better at judging if their help and advice is good than you would be at just trying to do those things yourself.
In contrast, paying your agent a fraction of your earnings more clearly aligns their interests with yours, and also makes it easier to choose an agent. By agreeing to be your agent, someone credibly signals confidence in their and your abilities, and that you can work together. This is similar to how most lawyers will happily take your case if you pay them by the hour, but will be much picker if you ask them to be paid a contingency fee (i.e., % of the verdict). Also, all else equal, the lower the fraction of earnings they will take to do the same tasks, the higher their estimate of your earnings given their help.
While most people informally collect some career advisors and mentors, it seems something of a puzzle that more people don’t have career agents. You might claim that agents just can’t help most careers, but that seems just wrong. Maybe they don’t help a lot, but surely they could charge a little do a little. You might note that most of us have goals other than making money, but that is also true for most who have agents; the incentive contract method doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be better than other methods, such as paying by the hour.
Yes, if your career is very risky, with a small chance of huge success, then being your agent is risky too. But each agent can have many clients, and agents can band together into larger firms to spread risk. As a result, risk-aversion need not greatly limit agent incentive contracts.
Now perhaps you object that an agent just couldn’t help enough to deserve 10%, or even 5%, of most salaries. But you can use an initial signing fee to separate an agent’s incentive from their net compensation. For example, assume that your and your agent’s fractional incentives must add to 100%, and that for incentive purposes the most efficient fractions are 70% for you and 30% for your agent. But also assume that the cost to an agent to put in that optimal effort is equivalent to only 10% of your salary. In this case, a better contract is for the agent to pay you a 20% up front “signing fee” for the right to be your agent and then later get 30% of your earnings. In this way your agent will on net get paid 10% of your earnings, and yet have a 30% stake in your income to give them a strong incentives.
Yes, for short term contracts such incentives only make agents work hard in ways that can produce short term gains. And we might rightly be wary of committing early on to one agent for our whole life. A simple solution here is to have each new short-term agent pay their up front signing fee to your previous agent, instead of to you. In this way each of your agents has a long term incentive about you, even if they may not always stay your agent. Your first agent may then pay you an especially large signing fee, which you might use to help pay for early career education or training (or you could paying for those part of their tasks).
To avoid the problem that a stronger incentive for your agent comes at the cost of a weaker incentive for you, it is actually possible to have the sum of your and your agent’s wage fractions add up to more than 100%. All you have to do is find a third party “anti-agent” willing to accept the remaining incentive. For example, you could get 100% and your agent get 50% of your earnings, if your anti-agent takes a -50% stake. You’d pay your anti-agent an up-front signing fee, and then they’d later pay your agent 50% of your earnings, while you just kept your earnings.
The main problem with an anti-agent is that they’d have an incentive to hurt your career. So you’d want to make sure to pick anti-agents only from organizations who are set up so that it is hard for them to hurt you. Perhaps (1) they are only your anti-agent for a short period, (2) you use cryptography so they don’t know who exactly you are, (3) they are headquartered far from where you live, and (4) they are just a financial holding firm, without employees able to do things to help the firm.
It wouldn’t be terrible to use auctions (or decision markets) to pick your agents and anti-agents, and their fees, from qualified candidates. For example, you might initially pick optimal agent and anti-agent fractions, and identities, via an initial auction for the max net singing fee given to you. You could probably use many criteria to define who is qualified, though your agents would be wary of your later using arbitrary conditions to extort the signing fees that agents were supposed to be paid. So you would have to agree on some limits to changes in qualification conditions.
If agents expect that you will may make choices that cut your earnings, they would likely pay more for agent contracts that put those choices within their sphere of control. Such as the ability to format your resume, or perhaps to veto job choices. So you’d want to think carefully about which choices agents get full control over, and which they can only advise you on. And current laws may limit these contracts in many ways.
Think about it this way: with a good initial auction to choose an agent, if the help of an agent isn’t actually on average worth its cost, then the winning bid should be someone who just pays you up front for the present financial value of a fraction of your future income. They won’t include an amount in their bid to cover costs to help you, as they don’t plan to try to help. If that’s the winner, accept them, and walk away wiser for knowing that you are better off without an agent trying to help you.
With all these options available to help set up a productive agency relation, I am honestly puzzled about why more people don’t seem interested in having agents. Especially as it tends to be the more prestigious and successful people today who have agents. Why don’t people get an agent, just to brag that they have one?
(Note that I’m not making any assumptions about how the roles of “agent” are organized or divided. They could be provided by individuals or by large firms, and could either be unified into one role or divided up into many differing roles.)
Added 19Apr: Many say they’d rather pay an agent a percentage of earnings over some reference earnings. But that’s mathematically equivalent to an agent who pays a signing fee and then gets a percentage of all earnings.
Hi Robin, do you recommend "The Economics of Contracts (2nd Ed)" by Salanie for further reading in this space? and/or other books? Thanks in advance
Why not charge a % of the salary *increase* than a % of their salary?