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What it Really Takes - Starting a Modeling Agency from the Ground Up w/ Ciarra Guthrie

Ever wondered what it takes to launch and run a model/talent agency from the ground up? From navigating the newfound world of COVID-19 to fighting for diversity, managing a model/talent agency is no easy task.

On January 29th, 2021, I had the chance to sit down with Ciarra Guthrie of Priority Talent Agency based in Arizona to give you all a glimpse of what it really takes to tackle the modeling industry as a new agency.


"What aspect(s) of the modeling industry drew you in that made you want to pursue creating a modeling agency of your own?"


"Well, the modeling industry is very glamorous from the outside - you think beautiful people, beautiful gowns, photoshoots, working with fashion houses, etc. Those are the things that come to mind when you think of high fashion modeling; super models like Tyra Banks and the whole fantasy of modeling was very intriguing. It's a fun industry looking from the outside, of course. Obviously, once you're in it, you learn some things and your vision of it changes.

But, aside from the glamour of it all, the lack of representation that I saw when I was working in the industry was one thing that I wanted to focus on, I wanted to bring more diversity and create a strong platform for those who want to break down that barrier but don't know who to talk to or where to go.

What's interesting about this industry is that we're starting to see the barriers getting broken down. There's more curve models and different personalities - it's not just the model mold that we're used to seeing."


"What is your background in the modeling world, aside from Priority Talent?"


"When I was younger, I was actually signed to a modeling agency, believe it or not!

I did a lot of commercial work when I was young; I think I started around the age of 5. My mom put me into the industry - she was a momager before momagers were cool. After being put into the modeling industry, I actually booked a Girl Scout catalog, K-Mart ads, and I think I was in Essence Magazine.

That was my first understanding of what commercial modeling was. When I got older, I interned at a modeling agency here in Scottsdale, Arizona and I fell in love with the business side of it. I was in front of the camera when I was younger and now that I'm behind the scenes, I see the work that gets put in when a project comes in like negotiating rates, submitting talent, and actually seeing the project come to fruition.

That whole process is super exciting for me - at the end of the day, the check is just the cherry on top."


"What are the pro’s and con’s of being a model and talent agency in a smaller market such as Arizona?"


"One of the pro's is that you get to develop your models to get them ready for bigger markets. Everyone in L.A. wants to be a star - there's so many models out there. Again, New York is jam packed with people who want to be actors and models but in Arizona, there's more opportunity for models to get their foot in the door, network, build their portfolios and test shoot with photographers.

[In Arizona, it's much easier to] build up your resume so that you can show other bigger agencies what you're capable of, what your range is, and how far you've come as a model. Arizona is great because the casting directors are more accepting of new faces and working with talent who have never worked in the industry.

The biggest con is that there is very low visibility. There are definitely good projects that come in but it's not the big beauty or high fashion campaigns that most models want. They do come sometimes but it's not like L.A. where those opportunities come in abundance."


"What have been the biggest challenges, aside from COVID-19, of creating Priority Talent on your own?"


"Well, that is the big challenge. [she laughs]

But, the biggest challenge aside from COVID-19 is the financial aspect of starting your own company - it takes a lot of money to get a company off the ground. During the first 6 or 7 months of Priority, we paid for talents' headshots, test shoots, wardrobe, and everything while also working another job on top of that. My work-life balance was [difficult to navigate] and the most important thing was where my money was going so I could see if I was making any.

Our first year in business, we were in the hole, but that's just business. Any business goes through that when getting it off the ground.

In addition to the financial aspects, being a newer agency in a market that has established agencies took a lot of networking and always being on the hunt for new opportunities that other agencies have the luxury of just waiting around for - we have to go out and find them. It's kind of like being the new kid in school."


"What were the biggest challenges you faced in 2020 pertaining to COVID-19?"


"Well, we were essentially born in a pandemic so that's all that we know but I know that there's more opportunity out there. We weren't getting that many projects and they were coming in very slow. People are being very selective!

For example, if I wanted to submit talent for a campaign or magazine shoot in L.A., the client will ask if our talent is local to L.A. and if you have to travel then it's a liability on their end. It's a struggle trying to get our talent seen for good projects outside of Arizona during the pandemic.

When I have a model who wants to do more print shoots and anything that's coming in for Arizona is commercial work, how am I going to fulfill the goals that my talent has? It's an internal struggle because I want to be the best agent I can be for my talent and give them opportunities, but at the same time, I have to take what I'm given and keep the agency afloat."


"Who have been your biggest supporters during your journey in building up the agency?"


"I love this question because it gives me the opportunity to point out the people in my life who have been so instrumental to Priority's success!

I have such a strong support team: my family, of course - before I moved out, I was living at home while starting this agency so I was able to save money and put it straight towards the agency. My sister and parents would do anything for Priority's success.

We actually just bought more hats for promotional reasons and my mom bought them and won't let me pay her back. It's just little things like that which really add to our success.

Aside from my family, my boyfriend is such a shark when it comes to potential. If he sees potential in you and the things you're capable of, he's going to keep poking at you until you get things off the ground. Before I started, I kept holding back by saying, "I don't know what to do" or, "I need to do more research", and he told me to just do it. A month later, I started Priority.

It took me two years to get the agency off the ground so at that point I just had to step out of my comfort zone.

And shoutout to God, he's my everything."


"Who did you look up to in the fashion world before you started your agency and who do you look up to now for inspiration?"


"Before I started Priority, I actually read a lot of books on big modeling agencies, like Premier Models in the U.K., and on Carole White, who started Premier. I just wanted to see what the course of her career was and the trajectory for Premier Models was. I also read about Eileen Ford who started Ford Models - I just wanted to know what they went through and to see if I was on track and experienced the same things they experienced.

Now, instead of networking up, I network laterally. Everyone thinks you need to network up by talking to a CEO or an owner, but I network laterally with other agents in the same position as me. You can talk to a friend who may know somebody or just talk to another friend who could give you advice in certain situations."


"Do you suspect any major changes in the fashion world to come about anytime soon? If so, what are they and how would you plan to address those changes?"


"I think we're seeing major changes now with fashion shows. A lot of them don't have people in the audience and they're in cool places like the desert, enabling us to watch them online. Fashion houses are becoming very creative, which is a good thing. Not that shows were boring, but we could usually guess what they were going to do every year, but now, it's more so, how are we going to out-wit the pandemic?

In terms of Priority adapting to new changes, we are going to align with whatever the industry decides to do. I love innovation and creativity and since we're such a young agency, we can do things outside of the box. We are also willing to do new things, as opposed to some other agencies who are very stuck in their ways.

We are willing to go with the flow and be apart of what will make this industry better."


"If you could give your “pre-business owner self” any advice, what would it be?"


"Stick with the process. Do not veer off from the process.

Sometimes I felt like I didn't want to do what I was doing at the time - I didn't want to work at my job or other things. However, now that I'm at the professional level that I'm at, I realize that every single part of that process has brought me where I am today.

For instance, working in sales: I do that all day now, I sell models/actors to clients all day.

Everything that I didn't want to do has led me up to this point that I'm at today. I pull pieces from my experiences for my day-to-day work now.

So, I'd say: 'Girl, don't cry in your car, it's going to be okay.' "


"In your opinion, what ways can the modeling industry be improved and how do you aim to make those changes within your own agency?"


"I think the main way the modeling industry can be improved is by opening the doors to all types of models. Whether it's a black/white thing, or a short/tall thing - just giving a shot to anybody who can represent a brand well instead of sticking to the same traditional mold of what a model should look or sound like.

In terms of making those changes, I want to be the change that I want to see. I understand that we aren't going to change the industry overnight but being apart of the change and seeing that more brands are open to accepting newer looks. I want to create a platform to give models opportunities."


"What does the future look like for Priority Talent Agency - or, in other words, what are your next biggest goals for the agency?"


"The biggest goal is to get out of the pandemic alive!

We got through the first year, so we're going to trek through the second year. Our goal is to go big or go home. We want to do more beauty campaigns, do more fashion, more editorial, and things like that. We want to get our models outside of Arizona and bring more exposure to them. We want to build strong connections with brands in Arizona, whether they're a retailer or independent brand, so that those brands know where to go to for quality models."


A huge thank you to Ciarra Guthrie, agent and owner of Priority Talent Agency, for giving us the inside scoop of what it takes to build an agency from the ground up.

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Philippians 4:13

-- Faith Blackshear

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