Talent Scouts are the Latest Mall Rats

The bubble had recently burst and I was too far between hi-tech jobs. I had no experience as a talent scout, but the job posting on monster.com stated that I’d receive training, benefits, and a competitive salary plus commission. The Assistant Director of Scouting apologized via email for the short notice of the meeting scheduled the next day, but the position was to be filled as soon as possible and it was the only timeslot available.

The deception didn’t end there.

I was surprised the next morning to step into a seemingly newly occupied office suite, expecting something more established, more professional looking. A huge CRT television monitor loomed at the front of the room on an aged rolling cart. While a dozen or so of us recruits waited for what was apparently a presentation to begin, an attractive girl began hanging movie posters on the bare white walls at the rear of the office. Another women told us to take a series of handouts on a table near the door, a couple brochures, a non-disclosure agreement, and multi-generational copies of forms that were barely legible.

We each signed our forms and applications in third-grade style — each recruit taking turns reading sequential paragraphs out loud. Next we watched a polished video that is normally presented to potential talent, selling them on the effectiveness and connections of the scout company.

Each person was told to stand up and tell their story, most of which were five- to ten-minute synopses of life and career. A question-and-answer session followed, most of the responses later turned out to be false or misleading. While the attractive presenter, a former model, seemed confident and assertive, I believe she merely filled the role as saleswoman, selling us on the prospect of becoming a scout.

You will not find talent like this at the mall.
Photo © iStockPhoto / Ivan Mikhaylov

The email that I received that stated the availability of only one timeslot was a lie; it turned out that three separate scout sessions had been scheduled that week, and likely every week. Based on that, I dismissed her response to my direct question as to how many scouts were employed through that particular branch office. I doubt that her answer of 12 was anywhere close to the truth.

We were told to use the same techniques on the “talent” we discovered, to tell them that they must show up at the appointment we provided to them, giving them a sense of urgency.

The brochures handed to scouts were sophomoric, looking as if they had been designed by a high school student — too many mistakes that a professional desktop publisher would have avoided. While the scout position was touted as salaried in the advertisement, she indicated that a recent change in policy at this particular branch had taken effect, that payment was by commission only. There were no benefits, also against what was advertised. All of these changes for this brand-new branch had taken effect long before the placement of the ad; this was purely a case of bait-and-switch.

The frequent quoting of performance metrics of results of scouts on a national scale that made the math of commission calculation way too coincidentally simple; of the 160 prospects that the average scout recruited to attend the “open call” appointments each week, 25% were expected to show up. And of those 40, 35% (or 14) were expected to sign up for the talent package, the math continuing on until the scout had generated approximately $70,000 in annual income, lowish for Silicon Valley hi-tech standards, but a decent part-time living. To earn that, the scout must on average prospect 8,000 potential clients annually, statistically earning $8.75 per prospect.

If I were to discover the next generation’s Mikhaila Rocha, Jessica Stam, or Karolína Kurková, I’d want more than a measly $8.75.

Over and over she repeated the benefits of talent signing up with the scouting company. A one-time fee plus a modest and reasonable monthly expense was all that the client paid, none of which we would have to know or deal with since the “hard sell” was done by telemarketers at the corporate offices. The video and her presentation both expressed the cost savings that models would undergo, including the reduction in photographic and printing expenses. At no time did she reveal that the company does in fact ask potential talent for photographic and other costly fees as revealed in an undercover investigation performed by a local news station.

In a private conversation with the scout scout, I was told that I had been accepted for the position if I still wanted it and, for those “lucky” few (perceived to be anyone who walked in the door that could speak English without a translation dictionary), the meeting resumed two days later — which I attended purely out of curiosity rather than false hopes of opportunity.

A regional conference call ensued, each office taking roll call with a raucous yell. This week’s “graduating class” of scouts consisted of a variety of questionable people, ranging from a scraggly haired 18-year-old girl who had been beaten proverbially and severely with the ugly stick and who did not have the confidence to speak above a whisper, an Afghani taxi driver with horrific body odor, and a lecherous old man with an admitted brain disorder who put everyone to sleep with his mindless rantings — all of whom would undoubtedly inspire great confidence and trust to those being recruited into the modeling industry!

The two biggest red flags to me were the apparent lack of concern for quality of scouted talent, and the utter lack of training for scouts. There were only few criteria for which to search: height, skin, and overall attractiveness. Once that list of steadfast attributes was memorized, scouts were given stacks of business cards with the company address and phone number. Go scout, they said. Meeting quotas was key. While the paperwork conflictingly told us both to avoid the malls and that malls would be assigned to individual scouts on a daily basis, the head scout told everyone to go hit the malls running. Training, such that it was, was over.

It was the airing of the undercover investigation that night during the local news that pushed me over the edge towards nonparticipation. The company accepts basically any “talent” with a pulse and a major credit card. My so-far unblemished reputation of honesty and integrity forced me to abandon the recruitment.

So, if someone walks up to you while you’re shopping at the mall and says that you have what it takes to be a model, be polite and take their business card. Just don’t forget to toss it in a recycling bin on the way out.

Update (2012)

The NDA long since expired, I can now openly say that the agency was John Robert Powers, the new branch office located in the Pruneyard Towers in Campbell, CA.