Getting seen

Ten years ago, the phones of illustration agents were constantly ringing with requests for their artists’ books to be sent out to art buyers and potential clients. Now that images can easily be browsed onscreen, some agents have abandoned the printed portfolio altogether, while others still see its value. So what is the best way to GET work SEEN?

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Talk to illustration agents and they will all tell you that they rarely, if ever these days, send out individual artist portfolios. Instead, one or more general agency books will contain several images by each of their artists which they can take to meetings. Victoria Pearce of Illustration Ltd, for example, says that the agency ‘retired’ all its physical artist portfolios 18 months ago. “Requests for physical portfolios really were few and far between,” she says. “On the rare occasion they are requested, we can print off work and put one together.” Pearce is quick to praise the iPad as her main presentation tool: “The beauty being,” she says, “that I have all our illustrators’ portfolios at the touch of a button and it fits into my bag. No more lugging heavy portfolios around.”

But other agents aren’t retiring their physical portfolios just yet. Jon Cockley at Handsome Frank, has also invested in an agency iPad but claims it has been met with “audible groans” on occasion. “It seems people really value seeing tangible printed artwork in meetings with us,” he says. “I think most ad agency folk are just sick of staring at a monitor all the time and love the opportunity to pore over and pick up some printed work.”

Of course some work by illustrators is created to live on digital platforms, such as animation, so showcasing it on an iPad makes sense but Cockley insists on carting around a heavy wheeled suitcase full of leather-bound agency portfolios when going to meetings. “I’m a big believer in taking the folio books out and they get a really good reaction,” he maintains. “We now rep 28 artists and I take out as much work as I can carry. Ours are A3 folios and we print on nice uncoated stock to make the work look as good as possible. I usually take out five or six books containing eight to ten printed pieces from each artist.”

While different agents have varying approaches to putting together their physical and online portfolios, most agree that clients and art buyers still love the physical experience of looking through a book of printed work and, furthermore, that face-to-face meetings remain vital to establishing and maintaining relationships with art buyers.

“Face-to-face meetings, more so than ever I think, are really important,” says Big Active’s Greg Burne. “The temptation nowadays is to do everything by email and not meet anybody but that’s just not good business. It’s more about fostering relationships and you definitely still need to go out and meet people. It’s not just about presenting work either, it’s about discussing the market, talking around the subject of the work as well. I’ve been working with some of the artists on our books for ten years, so I’m not necessarily introducing someone new to people when I take out a very well established artist’s portfolio but face-to-face you can find out what’s new for them, what they’re working on. It’s a way of keeping it engaging and interesting.”

Nicki Field at Agency Rush agrees. “There is so much digital communication in our everyday lives and work gets lost in stacked up email inboxes,” she says. “Booking time with someone to meet and establish a relationship with them is so important. It’s an invaluable way to find out what clients are on the lookout for. It makes such a difference working through a project or enquiry if you have a face to the name and it’s often key in somebody initiating that first step of getting in touch with us about a project they’re working on.”

However, booking art buyers’ time is becoming increasingly difficult. “Art buyers’ time is as valuable as gold dust,” says Pearce of Illustration Ltd, “especially in this economy where teams have sometimes shrunk. One of our illustrators was unable to book a single appointment in New York recently. I think [art buyers] are more likely to make the time to meet an agent when they know they are going to see a range of selected talent.”

Burne at Big Active was also in New York recently looking to meet art buyers. “Trying to get appointments to see art buyers face-to-face using traditional methods of phone or email has become almost impossible,” he concurs. “When I was there I was almost at a loss as to how to get face-to-face time and when I did meet art buyers they suggested I try writing and sending letters. It’s almost got back to that.”

It would seem that as the amount of methods to communicate digitally increases, so too does the power of older analogue means of communication. Here at Creative Review, emails, PDFs and other digital communications arrive, are digested and are deleted. But physical items  such as prints and postcards remain. They’re far harder to discard, especially if they’re beautifully printed. Some illustrators and their agents understand and take advantage of this. Big Active artist Andy Rementer, for example, regularly sends out illustrated postcards to clients and friends. These invariably end up propped up against computer monitors or stuck to walls. Handsome Frank produce limited edition screenprints of their artists’ work which they can leave with art buyers at the end of a meeting, and Breed recently commissioned one of its artists, James Joyce, to produce a postcard-sized mailer printed on thick board to hand to or send out to clients to let them know of their recently opened New York office.

“This is definitely something for artists to think about,” says Burne. “As an agent, if I send out promotional cards every month, it might become annoying and predictable, but if an illustrator does it, it seems personal and thoughtful. I think the general rule of thumb with all forms of marketing is that you kind of have to buck trends because if you stick to what everyone else is doing, then the danger is that people just get a bit jaded and lose interest.”

Portfolio tips

Olivia Triggs, Breed
A portfolio needs quality not quantity. Try to keep it current and updated.

Jon Cockley, Handsome Frank
Print on nice uncoated stock to make the work look as good as possible. Present a coherent and consistent signature style – art directors need to feel confident that they know what they’re going to get.

Nicki Field, Agency Rush
Don’t ‘say’ the same thing again, less is more, show diversity within your work but make sure the common thread in your work is strong. Begin and end on the strongest pieces.

Victoria Pearce, Illustration Ltd
Portfolios need to be kept up to date, including the best new commissions that the artist has worked on. It’s important for the portfolio to feel fresh not stagnant.

Greg Burne, Big Active
Focus on personal work. An art director doesn’t want to associate your work with a brand you’ve worked for previously – it could be a competitor client down the road. They want to believe that they discovered you and get excited by that.

Alice Ball, NB Illustration
Tailor your portfolio depending on who you’re showing it to. We’ll put different pages in depending on whether we go to see ad agencies, magazines or book publishers. We also have a separate portfolio with all our artists’ childrens artwork which we’ll take separately when we go to meetings.