If you've seen an episode or two of the HBO show Entourage then you have a pretty good idea of the world that exists with an agency.
What an Agent Does
A lot of people know that they need to get an agent, but few know exactly what an agent will do for them once they have them. An agent's job is to utilize his/her contacts and inside information in a way that benefits you by getting you acting gigs.
The typical process for new clients is that the agent will initially set up "general" meetings with executives, producers and casting directors around town to sort of 'introduce' you to the decision makers. The purpose of these meetings is to put a bug in their ear so that when an acting opportunity comes up that matches your gender, age, appearance and skill level, you'll be first in line.
This is really one of the MAIN reasons you want to get an agent. It's getting to utilize the web of contacts they have made over their years in the business to your benefit.
Beyond the initial meetings, the agent is your 'representative.' They essentially can speak on your behalf regarding particular roles and upcoming projects. Unless you bring a separate attorney to the table, they are also your representative in legal matters that are related to your job. Your agent will negotiate the terms of a deal for you and will often work with others at his/her agency to make sure you're top of mind for opportunities in other departments (e.g., movies, television, commercials, etc.)
Getting an Agent to Notice You
I hear too often upcoming actors complaining that they can't get an agent and yet, when you study what they've done over the past year or two, they can't point to any one event where an agent might have actually shown up! The point is, you can't get an agent by sitting on your couch. You have to take the initiative and start working wherever you can, so that you won't have to seek out an agent, they'll come and see you!
Find plays, short films, student films, whatever and whenever you can. Take classes if only because you increase the likelihood that you will meet someone who has a connection (or even has an agent) that will help you get what you need.
You might even consider becoming your own producer. We live in a time where you have a global audience right at your fingertips. All you have to do is give them something to watch. So, consider creating your own content that will help to get you noticed. There are success stories every day of the unknown who posted something spectacular on YouTube, or of the actor whom no one knew until he wrote a role for himself to play and managed to get his own funding. You simply have to find your own path and not wait to be told what it is.
Getting an Agent is Secondary to Starting Your Career
Don't let not having an agent keep you from starting your career. The search for an agent is secondary to your getting out there and making a name for yourself first. Besides, an agent will be much more inclined to represent someone that he/she believes is going to find their own opportunity.
The big misnomer is that once you get an agent, you simply have to sit by the phone and wait for it to ring.
The sad truth is that agents will definitely work on your behalf, but they're going to get the clients that are already established working first because they know that's where their meal ticket is. So, sitting around waiting for them to make you famous is as ridiculous as it sounds.
So How Do You Get an Agent?
The process differs from person to person. But the one key factor that everyone has in common is that they communicate their desire. When appropriate, you need to bring up the fact that you're looking for an agent. You might be at a casting call where they ask about your agent -- don't lie -- tell them you're in the process of looking for one and ask whom they recommend. The point is, you need to be sure you're communicating to those around you because you never know who will be in a position to help you. Let them know you're looking and always find out if they have opinions on the best agent for you.
Agents vs. Managers
The main difference between an agent and a manager is how much personal focus you get. An agent is concerned with one thing -- getting you your next (or first) gig. A manager however, is more of a personal thing. They do much of the same work that the agent does, but they will also handle you much more closely than a typical agent because they handle more personal issues in your life.
Look, all you really need to know is that if you put yourself out there and fully commit to your career as an actor both in your performances as well as in your decision to pursue your dreams, then more than likely, you'll have your choice of agents knocking at your door.