Is “AGENT” A Bad Title for Compensation negotiators?

Even though we have been in the talent management game for almost 25 years, we still struggle with the title of being someone’s agent.  When considering the image or archetype of an agent, people often envision a slimy, exploitative, money-grubbing, cutthroat shark. This is about as far from my own self-image as you can possibly get, though I do like making money as much as the next guy/gal. I just don’t value it more than my ethics and ideals.

Throughout our careers representing talent in both entertainment and tech, we have seen both types: the agents who fit the stereotype as well as the ones who relentlessly and selflessly fight for their clients.

We now find ourselves in an interesting position as we launch and expand Ascend, our new service that helps talent in the technology industry negotiate their full-time compensation packages. The word “agent” carries so much baggage that it has been challenging for us to use, so much so that when forming 10x, we elected to call it 10x Management instead of the 10x Agency. As founders, we really did not want our potential clients and customers thinking of our team with such a negative association.

Unfortunately, because of this reputation, every time we announce a new, innovative talent management (or agent) concept, the haters, doubters, and skeptics come out to question our motivation and point out how all we want to do is exploit the people we represent. See the response to a Hacker News post launching our newest venture Ascend.

Given the unfavorable preconception surrounding agents, this is understandable but also very frustrating. While outsiders can’t always know the good intentions we have internally, the clients and customers who have worked with us for years know that we regularly put their interests in front of ours. We work with our clients with a long-term perspective in the hopes that by working towards what is best for all parties involved, the relationship is lasting, and they come back for additional opportunities. We genuinely like helping both our clients and our customers and strive to protect both sides from those who would like to take advantage of them.

Our business model speaks to this concept, as we are always paid a commission percentage of our clients’ compensation. Of course, as some critics are quick to point out, there are still ways for conflicts of interest to arise. Here are a few issues we run into and ways we try to avoid them.

Trying to close a deal so we get paid – even if it is not a great deal.

We always defer to our clients, but as a reminder, neither side gets paid if gigs do not close. That said, one important benefit that we provide for our clients is to assess the customer and their request beforehand and, if we develop a weird feeling, we advise our clients to walk away. Additionally, if a seemingly amazing deal starts to go south, we can provide advice and brute force to keep our client happy.

Having an interest in the company that is on the other side of the table.

While this tends to be rare, we always disclose this information and offer to sit out the transaction and/or not take commission. Our goal is to make sure our clients never feel as though they are taken advantage of, either by a customer or by their agent.

Sacrificing one client for another.

This is bad business. Since we represent so many developers with similar skills, we never want to pit them against one another. We’ve had customers ask us to show them a few, and we respectfully explain that we only pitch our clients one at a time so that they are not competing internally. If a customer looks at a client and doesn’t think they are right for whatever reason, we will show them another client, but the first one is no longer on hold and now free to be pitched for another engagement. Now that doesn’t mean that we can’t use two clients to leverage both for mutual benefit, but we would be terrible advocates if we did this without any consideration for one or the other.

When these situations occur, we call them out and discuss them with our clients to be as fair and transparent as possible. We serve at their pleasure, so we want to keep them happy. They can leave at any time for any reason. There is little that can be done to completely eliminate conflicts of interest, but good agents and managers do all that they can to mitigate them with disclosure and discussion. In short, “agent” doesn’t have to be a bad word. It’s up to both agent and client to make sure that the agent’s needs are never overshadowing the needs of the client.

While our main focus is freelancers, we do often get asked and participate in the negotiation of full time roles and aqua-hires. Based on these transactions, we have really learned what moves the needle for candidates in regards to the job offer they accept and it is usually not for the reasons you would think.