Desk Job: How to Launch Your Entertainment Career at a Hollywood Talent Agency

Step 1: Start in the mailroom. Step 2: Get out of the mailroom as soon as you can.

Credit: HBOCredit: HBOHollywood talent agencies are the gateways to successful careers in entertainment. Those who start in the mailroom (yes, the mailroom) and then succeed as agency assistants go on to work for the top executives, producers, writers, and directors in the business.

This agency “tradition” has been in existence for over half a century, but beware: it is not for the faint of heart. The often shocking depictions of fictional agent Ari Gold and his assistant Lloyd in HBO’s Entourage are not too far off. 

To succeed at a talent agency, you must be a hard worker with toughness and mental grit. You won’t be paid much—minimum wage or a bit better—and the hours will be long, but you will have privileged access to the inner workings of Hollywood.

If your goal is to start your entertainment career at a talent agency, here is some practical advice as you begin the hard but rewarding journey ahead.

Network To Find Your “In”

To get an interview at an agency, fire up your networking machine. Referrals are often the only way to get in the door.

Begin your search with a well-crafted email. Here is a link to a sample email you can send to a targeted list of mentors, family, and friends. You should specifically be looking for connections at any of the top four talent agencies: CAA, WME, UTA, and ICM. If you receive email introductions at multiple agencies, pursue every lead with the same enthusiasm, and keep the friend who referred you updated on your progress.

The Agency Process

If you start in the mailroom and then become an agent’s assistant, it is understood that you will “put in the time” and prove yourself for at least one year before you can pursue opportunities outside the agency. If you want to be a talent agent yourself, you can apply to the agent trainee program, but most people decide to leave.

After one year, if you were a great assistant and established a rapport with clients, your boss may grumble at first, but he or she will eventually be happy to help you find a new job either working for a client or for another reputable Hollywood influencer. It is to the agent’s advantage to have alumni from his or her desk doing well in many corners of the industry.

Interview Success

Because most assistants only stay at agencies for one year, there is a high turn over rate, and new candidates pour into the HR department every day.

Here is how you can set yourself apart from the pack:

Look The Part

Talent agency HR execs are looking for people who have skills, but who will also fit in with the agency culture—a culture where everyone takes great pride in their appearance.

For your interview, you don’t have to look like a supermodel by any means, but you must look polished and wear a professional outfit. This means dress pants, skirts or dresses for women and suits and ties for men. Agencies are not casual environments, so absolutely no jeans. And lastly, walk in the door with an authentic smile and greet HR with a strong, confident handshake.

Highlight Your Customer Service Experience

Out of everything on your resume, it is most important to highlight your customer service experience. Dig deep. This can be retail or restaurant experience, etc. Additionally, if you are good with money management, this is a huge plus. Why? As an assistant, you will be faced with handling your (often difficult, stressed) boss while providing top-notch customer service to his or her 50+ high-level clients. The most important part of your job will be handling client paychecks and financials.

The Power Of The Hand-Written Thank You Note

This may seem trivial, but great candidates will get passed over if they don’t send a note. Buy beautiful stationary and make sure the letter gets to the right people within 24 hours of your interview.

What The Mailroom Is Really Like & How To Get Out Early

On a typical day in the mailroom, you will work alongside colleagues in a basement office while sorting mail, signing for incoming packages, reading TV pilots and movie scripts, fielding calls from assistants upstairs, hand-walking items from one agent’s desk to another, delivering flowers—everything.

Since you are constantly on your feet, you must invest in comfortable shoes. Seriously. Women wear flats in the mailroom and don’t start wearing heels until they are hired upstairs.

Depending on the agency, new employees remain in the mailroom for three to six months, but if you understand the system, you can get out early.

Here’s how:

Befriend The Assistants

During your daily mail delivery runs, start a rapport with assistants you like. In a natural, friendly way, ask if they’d be willing to go to lunch sometime and give you advice. The assistants you befriend will be the ones that help you get hired upstairs.

Make Sure Everyone Knows Who You Are

Everyone will be dying to get out of the mailroom, so inevitably you will encounter some backstabbing. You must remain above it all. Stay focused on developing relationships with assistants, introducing yourself to agents, and checking in with HR. If you do this, you will be the first one to get called upstairs for interviews.

How To Be A Top Agency Assistant

Agents give new assistants 90 days to prove themselves. In this period, it is expected that if you make a mistake once, you will never make it again.

Your desk will likely be 10 to 20 feet outside of your agent’s office. The majority of your day will be spent yelling things out at each other about incoming calls and other questions. It takes time to get used to the shouting, but once you do, and the more confidently you respond, the more your boss will like you. Agencies are not silent libraries; they are loud, frenetic places where the world is in constant motion.

Here is some advice on how to survive, and then thrive as a top assistant:

Become A Machine

Everyone’s boss is different, so you need to develop your own unique strategy for success. But this strategy never fails: simply become a machine. When people engage you in conversation, keep your positive, friendly personality, but otherwise, you have no time to spare. Take pride in tearing through emails, swiftly connecting calls, and pouring over client financials to make sure not a penny is out of place. The key is to take charge, and make your boss look good at all times.

Show That You Care About The Company & Get Involved

Most agencies have cultural and/or volunteer programs. You will be tired and stressed, but it is important to save some of your energy and get involved with the company’s activities. You need to show that you care. Furthermore, if you volunteer for events (or organize company-funded events yourself, which is even better), these are great opportunities to establish relationships with agents. When it is time to move on, these agents will be the ones who help open doors for you—either within the company or to the exciting world beyond the agency.

Kate Lupo started in the mailroom at ICM. In 2 years, she went from from the mailroom to being featured in Variety magazine’s issue on “Hollywood’s New Leaders: 10 Assistants to Watch.” 

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