A Ranting in Defense of Agents’ Assistants I just returned from a small industry party where I happened to bump into a long-time industry colleague. Now, I will admit I often don’t see eye to eye with him/her but he made a comment about agency assistants and it got my skin crawling:
“I’m looking for another assistant,” she said, “do you know anybody.”
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“I know what I’m not looking for… the typical 22 year olds who think they are all so entitled.”
Without rolling my eyes I replied, “I’ll let you know if I hear of anyone,” while knowing full well that was unlikely.
Been There, Done That
What bothered me so much about the judgement of “typical 22-year olds”? It was a bunch of things but specifically the fact I’ve heard the same criticism for the last 20 years, and that includes when I was the “entitled assistant”. So what is the problem? It cannot be that assistants (and some future agents) have deteriorated every year for the last few decades. The problem has to be the perspective of the agents who rely on them.
Before I continue, I realize too that generation bashing isn’t limited to talent representation. I’ve heard similar things from people in different industries, but I think the critique takes a unique nuance in talent representation because I think 1) there is greater vitriol and 2) due to the fact there is a rather large age gap between top agents and their associates. So, what then is the actual problem?
The first place to look is within the structure of many of the talent agencies. When I started in the voiceover business, I was still studying at Columbia to get my MFA and had worked in television for 3 years prior to grad school, where my salary peaked at roughly $45K. By the time I started as an assistant the country was in a recession and I very willingly took $18K a year for roughly 50 hours a week with no expenses paid, and no overtime despite labor laws to the contrary.
Exploitation as status quo
To say I was “exploited” is an understatement and the longer I stayed, the more I realized that “abuse” was simply the nature of the job. I soon had to begin analyzing “Is there a future in the industry?”, or should I quit and just find some other work. The majority of my peers decided on the latter. I was very fortunate in that I quickly became an agent, changed agencies and worked with much better people, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a revolving door of assistants at the new agency. My new employers may have been “nicer” but the structure of exploitive behavior was endemic to the industry and dozens of people in a four- year period came and went to be replaced by a new batch of fresh faces.
If everyone knows that assistants are “exploited” why wouldn't agents treat them with more sympathy, rather than disdain?
I draw a parallel to doctors and interns
Despite medical evidence to the contrary, doctors continue to force medical interns to work crazy hospital hours with little or no sleep because that’s what they did when they first started. Agents, in turn, force assistants to jump through hoops as a way of proving their mettle but does it prove anything? No. It only shows they can take a bunch of s***. The difference between a doctor and an assistant though is that doctor’s have already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into their career and have to endure while an assistant can simply walk away and likely move on to a better life. In that case, the agent inevitably pays for retraining a new assistant with time, energy and opportunity costs yet they don’t really look at it that way. Instead, they see someone who wasn’t tough enough to survive and have already moved on to the next recruit.
A forever expanding age difference may also come into play. The age difference between agents and assistants varies among different specialties, but in the world of commercials and voiceovers, the gap is especially alarming. Currently, in New York over half of the predominant agents are over 50 and only a couple may be under 30. I contrast that to my second agency, where I was the second youngest at 29 and from there the agent ages varied through the 30’s and 40’s up to the senior partners who were in their early 50’s. If 50 year old agents are consistently hiring 22 and 23 year old assistants, of course, there is a generation gap but, in reality, I think the problem is fundamental jealousy.
Why? Do these new hires have to suffer the same outrageous business and personal behavior that they and their peers did? Not in the least. Labor laws have changed for the better in the last few decades and issues such as verbal abuse, sexual harassment, gender bias, homophobia, etc. have declined dramatically, yet there is still some romance to the belief that the old “trial by ordeal” made the older agents what they are today.
To sum up
If entitlement is to be treated with dignity and respect, I am all for every potential young worker to come in with an entitled attitude.
Agencies and management groups are still fundamentally a meritocracy, so if young people cannot prove they add value, they will still be culled. This may sound harsh, but if the rules are relatively the same for everyone and everyone is treated fairly, then let those young workers who long to be in the entertainment industry prove their value.
And do so without wasting the time and energy on hazing or humiliating them.