Name: Meg Davis.
Agency: Ki Agency.
What was your first job in the industry, which led directly or indirectly to your current agent role? Although I was on course to be a Russian interpreter (abandoned when I realised what Russian food is like), I weirdly managed to gain experience that gave me a head start as an agent. My dad worked in television (although in Canada – no useful contacts), and I got a good sense of the things that can be uppermost in a producer’s mind. I had a backstage job in the theatre for a few years; besides starting to understand that business, I also learned how to read scripts. I went on to a job in a bookshop, where I see who published what, and was eventually allowed to buy for the shop, and test whether my instincts were right as to what would sell well. Even my glorious career as a waitress trained me in multi-tasking, and not panicking when things get busy.
There’s no specific agent qualifications, so what would you say best qualifies you to do your job & allows you to do it well? Most agents talk about needing to like people, to like the media they work in, to have good business sense. Beyond that, I like to get a sense of what the writer intends a particular piece to be, and try and nurture that. I’m inherently an optimist, which helps since this business brings much rejection. One of my clients called me her ‘terrier agent’; I guess not just because I’m happy to run and fetch commissions, but also, where it’s necessary to get my teeth into something, I don’t let go.
What routine, if any, do you look to start each working day with? I’m afraid I am one of those people who leaps out of bed at six and runs to the gym. An agent has to absorb a lot of stress; we have to give a measured and professional response to whatever is going on. Much safer to take it all out on the cross-trainer. Back for a shower and breakfast, then hop on the train and start reading. There’s always reading, and it’s a challenge to keep on top of it.
Lift the lid as best you can, and describe a typical working day? As all agents say, no day is like another. But I do prioritise things: check the bank and pay the writers for whom money has arrived. Tackle contracts: responses, drafts of new contracts, rounds of negotiations. Sell stuff: sending scripts out, putting clients up for jobs, conversations with producers, meetings, editorial discussions with writers. Other admin and catching up with clients. Touching base with other agents, and keeping on top of industry news. Lunch is frequently at my desk (I’m famous for my sad little things on oatcakes). I’m also struggling not to have 35 cups of coffee a day, which is what I’m craving since I quit smoking cigars nearly a year ago. Herbal tea isn’t really doing it for me.
What do you feel a client and agent should expect of each other in the course of a fruitful working relationship day-to-day? Each relationship is different, but is always a hybrid. It’s a professional relationship, so the focus has to be what the client needs for their current job and long-term career and how this will be achieved. But the advice needs to be fine-tuned for each client, so it’s important to have a sense of their personal taste so I’m not inadvertently putting them together with producers they won’t have anything in common with, landing them jobs that don’t interest them, and so on. The personal connection is also crucial when it comes to problem-solving. Arguments and drawbacks happen all the time, and an agent should be a buffer for the writer so that things get fairly and quickly resolved. I depend on clients to be honest and open with me. If I’ve got bad news for them, I want to be able to be frank but sensitive with them. Sometimes I’ve got it wrong – failed to really ‘get’ a writer, tried to encourage them into the wrong media or genre – and sometimes it’s turned out the client and I weren’t right for each other. It’s always painful to part company, since you both put a lot of commitment and hope into the relationship. But I’m very happy to say that most of my clients have been with me for a long time.
Is there a typical process that sees a first enquiry turn into a working client relationship? I invite people to send a full script. This is the only time I’ll have an unbiased opinion of a writer’s work – the same experience the producers I might send it to will have. If I meet them first, I’m likely to like them, and then I worry that this will colour my assessment of their work. Having read a script, if I like it, and think I can sell it, I might ask to see something else, to get a broader sense of what the writer’s range is and what they’re about. Then I’ll meet the writer, to discuss the ideas I have of what to do with their work and ask them where they’d like to go. This is where we see if we’re on the same wavelength; it doesn’t always happen. All being well, we work out a plan of campaign and I get to work. Establishing our working relationship often also includes my helping them establish a relationship with the industry. There’s a lot to explain, and this process usually takes a couple of years. The business can be bruising, baffling and infuriating, but an experienced agent can usually add context and background so the writer can keep their heads from exploding, and carry on writing.
What is the best way to approach you, or any agent, with a view to representation? Is there one part of an approach that makes you think this client is or isn’t for me? Email a script. I hate being phoned up. Chances are I’m thinking quite hard about my pitch email or a clause in a contract, and an interruption from a nervous writer may not be ideal. A covering note in the email as to the writer’s background and ambitions is also good: something matter-of-fact and professionally-minded. A writer is asking an agent to invest in their work, with their time and efforts, so an unashamed, business-like sales pitch – combined, of course, with an excellent script – works for me.
Is there any part of your day-to-day work that manifests itself in evenings & weekends? For me, the work often involves evenings – launches, play performances, screenings, parties, and dinner with clients. Sounds like the life of Riley, doesn’t it. But the point is to speak to everyone you need to, make new contacts, and maintain relationships. Work on the weekend is strictly only if necessary. For instance, running a business also means dealing with the accountant’s queries at the end of the financial year, and certain other big jobs that there isn’t the time to do during the working week. I’m lucky to naturally have a lot of energy, and running a company is so much fun that it gives you energy. Even my cash book looks cute to me, and I love playing with it: each entry means a nice deal, and money that makes a difference to each client.
What one piece of advice would you give to a writer just starting out? Use both head and heart. Watch and read as much as possible, as analytically as possible. Bear in mind that agents and producers sell things best when it’s something they love. If a writer’s put a lot of love into what they’ve written (not in a self-indulgent way), others are more likely to love it. You can get away with some flaws if people warm to it. There’s a willingness in the business to nurture new talent and spread the word, so don’t be daunted by the tales of how many other new writers are out there. This should just mean a challenge to write the best you can, and get it out there. Lots of new writers make the mistake of writing something that’s broadcast-able, rather than what’s interesting and heartfelt. Most of our rejections are of work that’s competent, but for which we can’t find a reason to persuade someone to produce it.
What one piece of advice would you give to your younger self? Well, I’ve made a lot of mistakes – trying to sell stuff just because I thought I could sell it but didn’t care about; having a go with some projects that weren’t ever going to work because of market trends; sometimes being debilitated by the rejection of something I really cared about. But you learn more by your mistakes than with your successes. I wish I could edit out all the projects and relationships that ran aground, but there’s a lot to learn in this business and it’s also naturally wasteful. But I wish I’d spent much less time worrying: will I sell this / how will I break it to the writer if I can’t / is the writer all right / what else should I be doing for my writers / where is the industry going and what can I do about it / who else should I know / etc.
Favourite film? The Philadelphia Story (well, and also Star Wars).
Favourite TV program (currently or all-time)? The Avengers, Mad Men.
Favourite book? War and Peace, The Cuckoo Song.
Favourite director? The Coen brothers, Billy Wilder
Favourite writer? Marti Noxon, Fran Walsh.
Favourite actor (male or female)? Cate Blanchett,