The Producer: Hi Maria. We’ve known each other for years and you’ve worked in so many capacities in the photo world. So how would you define your title now?
Maria Hummel: I am an artist agent for photographers, but an à la carte agent.
TP: So you are a “free agent” agent. You work independently, directly with photographers on a project-basis or do you work with them on your roster?
MH: Yes, it’s pretty project-based. When a photographer reaches out to me, we talk about what their needs are, the scope of their focus, what exactly they might need me for. So, I might help on one particular marketing project, but I can also help on estimating a project. But also, I have photographers who I work with on coming up with their whole marketing scheme for the year.
TP: So your services are à la carte. Now tell me a little bit about you!
MH: I grew up in St Louis, moved to Chicago to go to photography school and I was in Chicago for 14 years. Then I came here [to NYC] a couple of months ago. I’m excited!
TP: How about your business goals?
MH: My business goals are to have a nice roster of photographers that I rotate working with, as well as reps that I’ll rotate working with. There are a couple of others - I just got in touch with a stylist as well as a producer who would both like me to help them market their business. So I think it’s a lot of fun to have different aspects and hands in several areas because as far as marking goes, it’s generally the same equation but coming up with very different alternative strategies, instead of just the typical model.
TP: Sounds like a diverse range of individuals could benefit from your approach. What would you say are the skill sets that you possess in order to do your job?
MH: I think a good understanding of branding and all of the options out there for marketing. Also, I have had such a wide spectrum of work experience, which really helps in knowing what art buyers need, or what they need to see from photographers and other talent, such as stylists or producers.
TP: I’d love to come back to your specific experiences, but let’s stick with the skills for a moment. It also seems like resources would be really important as well - having established relationships, contacts and resources to help you support your stylists or photographers.
MH: Yes, definitely. Being able to pass people around and make introductions is definitely a huge thing, basically helping everybody help each other.
TP: That’s the goal here at TheProducer too!
When I first met you, you were a studio manager for a photographer in Chicago - so let’s talk about all the different hats you’ve worn. You started off at Columbia College as a photo student, right?
MH: Yup, so I was a photo student at Chicago’s Columbia College, which has a great praxis-oriented program. When I graduated, I worked at Crate & Barrel’s in-house studio as an assistant, then started studio managing for Laurie Rubin Photography. From there, I went on to be an art buyer at Upshot Agency and then was the executive director and co-founder of Latitude.
TP: And Latitude is…
MH: Latitude is a non-profit, open digital lab for artists in Chicago. I recognized a need - you go to school and learn all these digital formats and how to use them, but it’s so cost-prohibitive to buy a huge printer or know how to use a drum scanner, so we set up a lab where artists and photographers can go. At Latitude, they are familiar with the equipment and can easily do their work without having the expense and upkeep of printers and scanners.
TP: It was a brilliant idea - I know so many photographers in Chicago were super excited about it too.
MH: It was pretty awesome! (laughter)
TP: Maria, you’ve always been really community-minded and supportive so I think it’s a natural progression to be moving into this à la carte rep service too. You are truly supporting photographers.
MH: Yeah, I really want to be able to help everybody! I’ve ended up being able to help people push off their career and I’ve actually been working with a handful of photographers who who were doing really well, and then left for one reason or another or perhaps hit plateau and now they are looking to jump start back into it. It’s a lot of fun helping them figure out a way that works for them. A way that makes sense for each individual so they don’t feel like they’re doing something they don’t connect with when they’re marketing, or so they don’t feel like they’re bothering people. It’s a targeted approach and what speaks to their individual brand.
TP: One thing that I enjoy about you is that you seem to really be in tune with social media. I understand that you’ve been helping other reps with their social media and you have kind of a fresh young perspective on that too. Can you tell me a bit about your social media work or approach?
MH: My approach is to make sure that people are using relevant outlets. Post where your audience is at, and make sure you have content that lets them know who you are and what you’re about. Social Media is also about keeping up to date on relevant outlets and how to use them appropriately.
TP: So your ideal situation would be to have a rotating roster of photographers and individuals that you support. Do you plan on having a larger company with assistants at all?
MH: One thing at a time! I haven’t gotten to that point. I was just really concentrating on how to be the most effective for photographers and the most effective for reps. By doing that I thought, “Ok I can apply this to producers and stylists” - this absolutely works. But I like the idea of helping!
TP: Would you look for an assistant for your own business?
MH: I’m sure at some point I will need to.
TP: When you take on new clients, or you start new working relationships, for example, when you’re looking to work with photographers, do you have certain requirements? My guess is you aren’t able to offer services to everyone. What do you look for in a photographer before starting a commitment or working relationship with them?
MH: I look at their expectations. I definitely try to pull from them what they feel they are missing and why they aren’t doing it. I try to figure out all the negative things first so that I can see if I can make those into positives. If I feel like my strong suits can’t balance their needs to turn those negatives into positives, then it’s time for me to say, “I’m not the right fit for you.”
TP: I’m on board with your solution-based approach and I like hearing you focus on the positive. Now when you’re working with other reps and you’re supporting them, what does that conversation look like? How does that conversation start?
MH: That relationship usually starts with the questions “Are you looking for somebody to help with overflow?” or “What are you looking for help with right now?” Mainly estimating social media and finding out where I can be of best service. That’s how we start the conversation and it’s pretty fun because people always need to take vacations, go on maternity leave or take personal time. As a rep, it’s really hard to take a vacation. Life happens and you need to be able to continue moving the business forward while you take a breather and allot some time for yourself.
TP: What are some of the challenges in doing your job?
MH: I think it’s managing expectations and making my clients realize that my approach is long term, not an instant fix. Once you start working with me, jobs aren’t just going to be falling out of the sky. It’s a long-term plan so that you can build relationships. It’s not just some shot gun solution.
TP: In general, I feel that having a working relationship with a rep is like planting a seed - it does need to be nurtured. Like any relationship, you have to invest in it before there are tangible results.
MH: Yes, and I think the hardest thing is making sure that people follow up and continue to do their own homework that I give them. Because I don’t design their things for them. It’s very rare that I’ll do follow up phone calls for them or send out their email blasts for them. It’s a collaborative effort.
TP: But you provide accountability.
MH: Oh yeah. I’ll check in every week. And I’ll call a day or two before our deadlines and ask, “Your deadline’s in two days, where you at?”
TP: So you corral. Sometimes creative individuals need a little bit of structure in order to treat their work as a business and it’s hard if your natural mind is to be creative and go after those pursuits. You need somebody to help support you in your business and marketing developments.
MH: Definitely, because that’s the first thing that gets pushed aside.
TP: We producers and agents provide the structure and foundation for those creatives to go after their vision and pursuits.