Food for thought: what if agencies were more transparent?

A short post, because I’d really like to hear from you. What would our industry look like if agencies were more transparent about what services they provide and what percentage of the total project fee they earn? For example:

In other types of “agent” relationships (authors, athletes, etc.), the client knows exactly what the agent will do, and what percentage of the total billings they will take in exchange. If you find a salaried job through a recruiter, they get a percentage of your first year’s salary, and you know what that percentage is.

This idea came to me for a few reasons. Good agencies have trouble finding good translators, even if they are willing to pay/interested in paying/desperate to pay real money for their services. Partially, this is because some good translators have had it with agencies and will only work with direct clients. A more transparent model could solve some of that problem. In addition, a more transparent model would make it clear that the agency is adding value (or not), and translators could choose to jump on that value (or not).

For example, I understand it when translators rail about “agencies that add no value,” and simply forward e-mails back and forth from the end client to the translator. I get it, and I also avoid working for those types of agencies. But I also think that agencies add a value that they don’t always trumpet: finding the client in the first place. As anyone who works with direct clients will tell you, finding them is a lot of work. It takes time and creativity and persistence and research, so the fact that a translator who works with agencies is freed from that step in the process should be worth a lot, and agencies don’t always point that out.

So what about this. The agency tells the translator how much they’re charging the end client. Sometimes translators already know this, because agency staff mistakenly send us e-mails meant for the end client. In any case, my assumption is that my agency clients are charging the end client 2-3 times what they’re paying me, and I’m OK with that. Then, the agency takes a set percentage of that amount, just for having found the client in the first place. Then, the rest of the agency’s fee is based on what they actually do; the translator knows whether the document is being edited by another translator in the same language pair, or proofed by a speaker of the target language, or not reviewed at all, and the agency charges accordingly. It seems like this would also allow translators to gravitate to agencies that provide the level of service that they want or need. For example, I spend a lot of time researching and marketing to direct clients, and I’d rather work with my own editors than with an anonymous editor provided by an agency. So, I’d be interested in working with an agency (or perhaps more accurately, an agent) who would simply find clients for me, forward the work back and forth and take a percentage of my billings.

Further disclaimer: I’m not at all anti-agency. I disagree with translators who call agencies “parasites,” and I really enjoy working with my agency clients because they let me focus on the parts of the job that I enjoy and am good at. But I think that a) agencies need to do a better job of highlighting their strengths (such as finding and retaining clients), and b) there’s room in the market for more of a commission-based “translator’s agent.”

An idea whose time has come, or a non-starter? Over to you!

30 Responses to “Food for thought: what if agencies were more transparent?”
  1. patenttranslator May 27, 2014
    • Andrew M May 28, 2014
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    • Andrew M May 28, 2014
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