Don’t refer to mistakes as failures.
Mark Willingham is a longtime Fashion Industry Expert and CEO of AGENT, the fastest growing modeling platform in the world. As the CEO and Co-Founder of AGENT, Mark is responsible for ensuring initiatives are aligned with the company vision, spearheading strategy, overseeing operations, and ongoing corporate performance. Prior to joining AGENT, Mark was the northern hemisphere president of Brazilian high-fashion brand Carmen Steffens. During his 11 years tenure, the brand grew from 69 Carmen Steffens stores to more than 550 stores across 18 countries. And, prior to Carmen Steffens, he was vice president of marketing for 6 years at HeyAnita, a ground-breaking voice recognition and next-generation mobile messaging software company founded with executives from Microsoft. Prior to HeyAnita, Mark was the president of The Willingham Group a marketing agency focusing on brand strategy and promotions. Clients included Warner Bros, North Face, Baskin-Robbins, Kahlua, Canadian Club, Sauza Tequila, Makers Mark, Dunkin’ Donuts, and others. Mark is a frequent public speaker and has been a guest lecturer at California State University Long Beach since 1998.
Where did the idea for AGENT come from?
The idea for AGENT arose from the fact that while the world continues to progress when it comes to addressing social inequities regarding business practices and individual rights the modeling industry has remained largely stagnant for more than 70 years. News headlines bring this fact to our attention on almost a daily basis (i.e., Harvey Weinstein, Michael Epstein, etc.). In 2016 my business partners and I decided we would change things. It was time for a safer, more efficient and completely transparent modeling industry where clients could utilize the power of technology to reduce costs and find & book professional models in minutes (rather than days) and where models could work safely and be paid in a timely manner.
It all started when my business partner Dustin Diaz was awarded a book deal several years back about photography and lighting. He was trying to hire 20 models to shoot for the book and, not knowing where to find them, he ultimately ended up reaching out to models on Instagram and Model Mayhem. Well, his experience was less-than-desirable with more than half of the booked models not showing up and, of those that did, there was a range of issues from not having experience to not being able to accept payment by credit card. One model even asked if she could give him weed as change for a $100 bill!
All of this got Dustin thinking that if he had such a bad experience trying to book models for one job there must be a much bigger overall problem in the industry. It turns out he was right. He and our other business partner, Ashley St. Clair, did some research and discovered a highly fragmented $4.8B industry that is extremely inefficient, has little to no transparency and little to no safeguards against predators. We conceptualized AGENT as an answer to these problems.
AGENT provides companies with the tools to quickly find and book professional models in minutes for every type of job while empowering models to take control of their own modeling careers and to work in a safer environment that is completely transparent and supports inclusivity.
We save clients time and money, assist models in growing their careers and improve the overall industry.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Like any fast-paced startup, the day starts early and goes quite late. With team members across multiple time zones, there are usually meetings first thing in the morning and then a team meeting every day via video conference to discuss all things AGENT. With more than 35K+ registered models and thousands of registered clients on the platform, there is never a shortage of team engagement related to new processes, features and functionality to improve our overall solution.
How do you bring ideas to life?
It is truly a collaborative process. Almost daily informal and formal brainstorming sessions ensure that we always have a full plate of ideas. The hardest part is prioritizing them because there are so many. Usually, the ideas that bring the most immediate benefit to our users, both clients and models, take priority over the others. For example, we have a new team collaboration tool which allows clients that have more than one person involved in the decision-making process to share a collection of models with all the appropriate stakeholders so that they can provide input. The tool when then provide a summary report so the perfect models can be booked for the job.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The trends in support of personal empowerment, safety and transparency have all provided positive winds of change in our sails. We started AGENT at the beginning of 2016, prior to the awareness-raising headlines surrounding Harvey Weinstein and Michael Epstein and many others, however, the awareness that has been created by the courageous women and men who have taken a stand against such horrific predators is a social turning point that has been a long-time coming.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I don’t like to sleep.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Keep life balanced and don’t waste time on things that do not add value life. We all only have a limited number of heartbeats and they can never be taken back. Never waste them.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
When we started AGENT, many people thought it would be impossible to disrupt and improve a billion-dollar modeling industry that has been entrenched in its ways for decades, however, we had strong convictions and proceeded anyway. And today, with the support of some amazing investors and a team of incredible employees, AGENT is now the fastest growing platform in the world.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I try to learn something new every single day, whether it be about business, science, something I am passionate about or life in general. The pursuit of knowledge should be towards the top of everyone’s “to-do” list on a continuous basis.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Always be willing to challenge your own beliefs. Sometimes we become so close or vested in our own ideas that we become blinded by them. Seek alternative perspectives and then test whether these reinforce or weaken your current beliefs. It’s not always a comfortable task but it will make you stronger.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Wow, I have had many “learning experiences” as an entrepreneur because I only refer to them as failures if I have not learned something in the process. One example is staying focused. I always have ideas for new businesses and early-on I would try to execute on multiple ideas at the same time. This often results in a whole lot of ideas with little traction and can be extremely frustrating for someone who is detail-oriented. Don’t overextend yourself across ideas.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
At any given time I probably have 10-20 ideas for business, many of which never make it off the paper. One idea I had many years ago, which I still think is a solid idea (although it is not fully tech-based), is an overnight auto repair/tune-up/tire shop. Most car repair places are only open during the day while most of us need to be a work. There should be a national chain of such shops where you drop off your car on the way home from work and pick it up in the morning with the option of it having been washed, full of gas and ready to go. Convenience is everything today . . . it make sense to me. (Now, I just want a small percentage ownership from whoever executes on the idea!)
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Interesting question. I would have to say it was on a bottle of Caymus Cabernet that I shared with some friends around a fire pit.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Slack for sure. We use it more than any other tool at AGENT for sharing ideas and consistent communication across our team and platform. But I would be remiss, if I didn’t mention our own AGENT software platform which, while the clients and models use it on the front-end to book jobs, our team leverage the extensive backend, CRM, administrative and reporting tools to manage the AGENT network of bookings and tens of thousands of users. You can check out the front end for free at
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I recommend “A Brief History of Time” by the late Stephen Hawking because it allows everyone to understand the cosmos . . . how it started, what is out there and where it’s going. Amazing how he can simplify such a massively complex topic.
What is your favorite quote?
My favorite quote from the book is “The universe doesn’t allow perfection.”
- The idea for AGENT arose from the fact that while the world continues to progress when it comes to addressing social inequities regarding business practices and individual rights the modeling industry has remained largely stagnant for more than 70 years. News headlines bring this fact to our attention on almost a daily basis (i.e., Harvey Weinstein, Michael Epstein, etc.). In 2016 Mark and his business partners decided they would change things. It was time for a safer, more efficient and completely transparent modeling industry where clients could utilize the power of technology to reduce costs and find & book professional models in minutes (rather than days) and where models could work safely and be paid in a timely manner.
- AGENT provides companies with the tools to quickly find and book professional models in minutes for every type of job while empowering models to take control of their own modeling careers and to work in a safer environment that is completely transparent and supports inclusivity. AGENT saves clients time and money, assist models in growing their careers and improve the overall industry.
- Don’t refer to mistakes as failures… Mark has had many “learning experiences” as an entrepreneur because he only refers to them as failures if he has not learned something in the process
- Mark’s favorite quote from the book “A Brief History of Time” by the late Stephen Hawking is “The universe doesn’t allow perfection”.
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.