The Agent-Manager Confusion

By Earnest Harris, Talent Manager, Harris Management

I was standing outside a small theater in North Hollywood talking with a client of mine, congratulating her about her just-completed performance. As other audience members, as well as cast members, made their way outside, one of the fellow actors came over to say hi to my client. 

Earnest Harris

My client, aware that when introducing me and saying my job title, there was always the possibility of the conversation going in a different direction, hesitated to say what our relationship was. But she took the leap.

“Earnest is my manager,” she said.

Well, it happened as can generally be expected. The castmate perked up and wanted to talk about my being a manager. If the conversation involves actors, writers, directors and such, 7 out of 10 times it leads to someone that makes it clear they’re interested in talking about the possibility of management. 1 out of 10 times the person might be indifferent. 2 out of 10 times it’ll go the way it did that night.

“What does a manager do exactly?” she asked. “I mean how are they different from agents?”

As I told the young woman that night, despite her embarrassment for not knowing the difference, I told her a fair number of people who work in the business don’t get the difference. Believe me, even people who’ve been doing this for a long time, get confused.

I could answer the question the way Adam Sandler’s character did in the hilarious Netflix original movie about a talent manager, “Sandy Wexler,” did. 

“An agent is business,” he says to Arsenio Hall’s character who had just told him he already had agents. “But a manager is family.”

Now that is not completely accurate, in that there are many agents who are like family to their clients and there are many managers who are strictly business. But the sentiment is true. Agents, most of them, spend their days working to get their clients auditions or bookings, then negotiating those deals should the client land the gig.

Managers handle, well, everything else. While there is a definite blurring of lines between the agents and managers these days, as most managers do get involved in helping clients get auditions, it is not our primary function, indeed it is a function we are not really supposed to do at all. Our job is managing the careers of our clients, what happens to get the client to the place where they are ready to land agents and book jobs, managing their careers from project to project and beyond, helping them make the right decisions to grow in a direction they want to grow. It means helping them beyond bookings, to helping them create their own projects a lot of the time. Many managers are heavily involved in producing, in effect being producing partners to their clients so they are not solely at the mercy of auditions and that phone ringing.

And yes, managers, since by necessity we carry smaller rosters, tend to be more involved in the “whole life” of the client. Thus the feeling that we are like family sometimes. 

So as you can see, it’s hard to give a simple answer sometimes when asked that question the actor was asking me that night in North Hollywood. Honestly, I don’t even remember what I said that time. But my simplest general answer is, managers do whatever we need to to help our client succeed. Since no two clients are the same, those daily tasks then are very different from client to client. Thus the difficulty in the answer. We manage. What and who we manage means different things from person to person, and even different things to the same person as their career evolves.

So next time anyone asks what we do, or confuses us with agents, I think I might just stick to a version of what Sandy Wexler said in the movie. I’ll say, agents are about the job, managers are about the career and life beyond the job.

On the other hand, that might spark more questions and confusion. So I’ll just take the question case by case. There just isn’t a simple answer to what we do. And you know what? I like that.

Twitter: @earnestharris Instagram: @earnestharrisla