If you’re a freelance illustrator, you might have thought about getting yourself an agent. But what exactly can they do for you and your work, and how do you go about approaching one? We invited Helen Rush, director of Rush Agency; Victoria Pearce, senior agent at Illustration Ltd; Caroline Thomson of Arena Illustration; and Claire Meiklejohn of Meiklejohn and New Division agencies to discuss everything from how they get their illustrators commissioned to negotiating contracts, fees and rights. They also shed light on how they can help illustrators to manage their own style and exposure and develop a long-term career in the industry – whether they are a recent graduate or an established freelancer.
CR: Let’s begin with a wider look at the industry. Can you describe any trends that you’ve noticed in recent years, in terms of the work being made, and also the kinds of clients who are looking to use illustration?
Victoria Pearce: One trend I’ve noticed over the last 12 to 18 months is the use of ‘live illustration’ at events. Selfridges did a shoe promotion over the course of a week with Jacqueline Bissett working on illustrations of the clients coming in, doing live work onto shoe boxes. Ted Baker did a big event last year with illustrators for a social media campaign: people were photographed, the image was sent to a bank of illustrators who created a fashion portrait for them, and all of this went on social media. It’s where illustration can come into play interactively.
CR: So clients are also coming to you with a social media angle in mind?
VP: Yes, they see it as a way of translating their brand; making something that can be used quickly and that customers can engage with.
Caroline Thomson: And as a result, the people getting in contact with us are also more varied. We’ve never had so many PR companies contact us. It’s that need for very fast content, and lots of it, that has spurred a new client base.
VP: It’s immediately sharable work. Going into Warehouse and getting a portrait done; the first thing someone’s going to do is Facebook it or tweet it.
CR: How do your illustrators feel about this way of working?
Helen Rush: Some of them absolutely love it, it’s their thing; others it fills with abject horror!
CT: We have quite a lot of children’s book illustrators on our roster and events are something that they’ve done a lot of over the years. What I’ve noticed more though is PR companies asking illustrators to do live events for adults as well as children. Alex T Smith, for example, was asked to talk about ‘imagination’ to a group of adults and has also done workshops. Those that do that are, I think, ahead of the game.
CR: How do you go about getting work for your illustrators? Do you still place value in showing a physical portfolio, for example?
VP: There’s a whole armoury. When I started out as a junior booker for a photographic agent 20 years ago, it was just based on the reputation that you built with your client. Sending portfolios over by courier, hoping one would get selected. Now you have to be as competitive as you can digitally. You need a well-designed, optimised website backed up with the traditional forms of promotion. We first reacted to the digital age by doing e-marketing and newsletters, but now we’re all aware that people’s inboxes are terrifying things to open every morning – so there are opportunities for print promotions to stand out.
HR: It’s so nice to see something in a decent format that you can hold and see in print. And the majority of the time it is going to end up in print. But when we show work, it is always backed up with an iPad so people can zoom in and see all the details. And the volume of work on an iPad means we can carry around much more.
Claire Meiklejohn: When you have meetings, it’s also an opportunity for the person you’re visiting to get away from the screen. Your mind becomes clearer as you look at something physical.
VP: I saw a fantastic presentation by a young graduate illustrator, Chris Gilleard, who we’ve recently taken on. He had a small traditional portfolio but then each project was extended by a digital presentation on the iPad – all these long continuous scrolls. But from a purely selfish point of view, with a physical portfolio it was always very difficult to get the edit correct if I was seeing different people. It wasn’t flexible – so the iPad was the answer.
HR: We have loose-leaf portfolios that we change depending on who we go to see, as well as individual portfolios for the artists, then iPads for animations. You can’t do all that on your own though, it’s hard work!
CR: How do you actively look for new talent?
CT: In the main, it’s really recommendations from a client – they recommend us to the illustrator. Obviously, we have to love the work, and we might then have a six month trial period and go from there. We also go to student shows; we’ve picked up a lot of people from D&AD’s New Blood, and we have affiliations with certain universities, so we see the illustrators coming out of them before the shows.
CM: The amount of submissions is always tricky to manage, as it’s huge. But you get quick at going through them. You know what you’re looking for, you can tell.
CR: And what is it that? Can you quantify it?
HR: No! It’s a bit like falling in love, isn’t it?
VP: Yes, it’s seeing the work and getting a shiver down your spine. It is like sieving for gold though, because of the sheer numbers we get as a large agency. We have on average over 200 submissions a month through the website.
CT: You have to be really honest as well. We’re a 2 3 small agency, so we don’t really take on that many people a year, two or three. And we find we have to be really honest, as much as we might love what they do, will we get them the work?
CM: You also might already represent someone similar. And even when you’ve got to the point where you like their work, what’s their personality like, what’s their background? We talk to our illustrators a lot, the relationship is absolutely crucial.
CT: And you have to learn about how they work. Even how long it takes them to do a piece of work. It sounds obvious, but it really is true – it’s important that you know that, so you can tell the client.
CM: We’ve been representing some of our illustrators for over 15 years. But every new person we take on, in my mind, we’re still going to be repping them in 15 years. It’s long-term.
CR: Can we talk about fees and rights? What factors determine how you work out these aspects of a project?
CM: It’s really simple: it’s the usage rights and the artist involved.
HR: Yes; exposure, territory. And the client budget.
CT: It’s all based on the exposure of that image. Is it worldwide, or just regional?
CM: So it’s actually a lot of factors, and while it’s probably very simple for us because we do it all the time, unfortunately a lot of independents fall into not necessarily knowing how to price things.
HR: I think they just lack the experience. When I was training someone in pricing things up, we both wrote our figures down and I’d say, ‘Well I don’t know how I got to that’. But it’s experience, it really is. Having a feel for what you’re doing.
VP: A younger freelance illustrator might just be flattered to be asked to work. But they aren’t thinking of the bigger picture: that the client wants to work with you specifically because they like your style in order to sell their product. The illustrator is part of that selling, that promotion and so there’s a value to that. And you need to be very careful about that value. A really useful point of call can be a membership with the Association of Illustrators (AOI) who have a telephone hotline. They are there to help you specifically with costing as part of the membership.
CT: I was part of the pricing survey that they did recently. In the members’ section online it gives you examples of certain parts of the industry; like ‘a book cover on somebody else’s book with a UK publisher’ and there’s a fee bracket for that. But rights are changing so much, with ebooks and audio downloads – an image might now be on the audio account, too. And most publishers are now also thinking about worldwide usage, as many of the big publishers are global.
VP: And if clients say that they want ‘all rights’ and we cost it up using the formula that we work to, it would make it unfeasible immediately. So, really, it’s much better if the client can be specific about their shopping list of needs, and we can tailor the budget to that.
CT: So many clients say to me, ‘We will retain the copyright’. But it’s not theirs to retain, it’s the illustrator’s, it’s their intellectual property. And in the majority of cases, when an illustrator comes up with their own characters, backgrounds and scenes, it’s their IP, their copyright. So it’s only
for the client to buy, or make use of – they can’t
CR: If one of your illustrators’ styles becomes very popular, how do you manage its exposure? Might its success rule out working for other brands in the same sector, for example?
VP: Say it’s a beauty client, who wants to work with an illustrator for a large campaign that might therefore discount them working with a competitor brand. Our aim would be to weigh that up and negotiate the best possible deal, and explain to the client that by buying the particular amount of 2 3 usage that they want, it will discount the illustrator effectively from working with other brands; so that will be costed appropriately. Occasionally a client will pay an exclusive, but it’s rare, that’s more common in photography.
CM: And the chances are, if you work for one telecommunications client, is another one really going to want to use you anyway? It’s probably not going to become an issue as brands don’t want to look like each other either.
CT: Recently, someone wanted one of our illustrators to do something for Aquafresh. And I said that I didn’t think that was very wise, as he was actually doing some stuff for Colgate. And the reply was, ‘Oh I’m glad you told me that!’ I said, ‘Well that is why I’m here, to police that. I can recommend some other illustrators for you.’
HR: You have to take it into account with the artists. If an illustrator does an album cover that’s going to be everywhere, all over the world in their very specific style: they’re not going to be able to work. People don’t want to have ‘that’ on everything else for a little while. So you need to bear that in mind. It’s a big decision, as the job might not be as rosy as you think it is in the first place. The thing that clients say if they want us to do something for a tiny fee is, ‘They’ll get loads of exposure.’ Well that’s not always a good thing!
CR: For those thinking about working with an agent, could you sum up what it is you look after for an illustrator? And is there an ideal time to work with one?
HR: It’s about supporting somebody and developing a career. When we take new grads on, that’s what we do – show them what to do and build a portfolio.
CM: Generally speaking the portfolio they come in with is not the one they’re going to work with, it needs to be produced into a commercial portfolio. The right samples and subject matters are crucial. But most important are the fees and the contracts.
CT: Yes, knowing always to ask for money for something – not to do free work, on the whole.
CM: Some people seem to think that if they do work for free this time, they’ll be paid next time. And we’ve all been in the industry long enough to know that at the moment you do it for free, that means you work for free! That will carry on.
VP: We probably take on fewer graduates as we like people to be a couple of years out of university – to have come out with these high expectations, spent a year getting them dashed. Have a couple of years – like an apprenticeship – out in the real world. So they’re starting to market and promote their own work with clients, and managing the process. But one important piece of advice would be to separate yourself from your work – see it as a business and create a business plan for your work over a year or two years. By separating your creative from yourself you can see it objectively and strategically.
CT: After two years they’ll probably have a better idea of whether their work is selling, for a start, but also they might be getting to a point when they’re really quite busy. And that’s the problem with illustrators – the busier they are the fewer clients they are able to see. And that’s when an agent is really handy, because we do the business side of things and they can get on with being creative.
CM: Yes, if you’re at the point in your career when you’re very busy, that’s the other area when we come into our own as well. Lots of people presume that if you’re really busy you don’t need an agent because you’re getting the work in. But actually that’s exactly when you do need an agent.
HR: I remember one of our artists getting a great job but they weren’t used to pricing. He said, ‘Oh I’ll do it for a couple of thousand’. We got him £68,000. That’s a life-changing amount of money.
VP: There can be a perception with agents that we can be unfriendly, that we’re the bad guys, but we’re not, we’re here to facilitate and help everybody in the process. And, hopefully, make everybody happy by negotiating the best deals all round. Us then 2 3 invoicing clients frees illustrators up. And it can be hard to chase up that client who might well be the same person who commissioned you.
HR: It’s quite easy for us to ask for more money; it’s sometimes very different to ask for more money
CR: What else can new graduate illustrators do to get their portfolio into shape?
CM: You need to know where illustration is being used. Go into WHSmiths, look at the editorial – that’s how to develop your portfolio. All the work you’ve done in university should be about honing your skills. So the briefs you’ve responded to aren’t necessarily enough like ‘real life’ – you need to know your market. The easiest way is to be commissioned, but you can set your own briefs. Look through a magazine and find an illustrated article, that’s your real life brief. Set yourself ten from ten different magazines, then you’ve produced ten pieces of work for your portfolio which are as ‘real’ as you’re going to get them.
CT: Many new illustrators don’t think about the end-user and I think that’s because of what’s happening with illustration courses at the moment: because of the situation with the fees you’re getting a lot of students who perhaps would have done fine art being pushed into illustration, because it’s deemed commercial. But it’s not commercial unless you want it to be commercial; it’s as ‘fine art’ as you can get it if you want. College is a great place to experiment, but if you want to go out and get work then you do have to think, ‘Who’s going to buy my work?’
HR: And push yourself – don’t just pick the safe and easy magazine articles to work from – be tough with yourself so your work is always moving. Remember it is a rollercoaster. Even the busiest illustrators have quiet patches.
VP: One of our artists, Nuno DaCosta, is very strategic and organised. At the beginning of every year he does a ‘vision board’ – he puts up his targets in terms of the covers of the magazines, the clients he wants to work with. From that he’ll break it down into steps of working towards those targets. Working with him over the years I’ve seen several of those targets become ticks on the list.
CR: Finally, have your own opinions on what illustration is – and can do – changed over the years you’ve been in the industry?
VP: I think there’ll always be a place for illustration because what it offers is a unique identity to clients and brands. They want something very distinctive.
CM: Yes, you can get illustration to do or be anything that you want it to be.
HR: And you can work with anybody from anywhere in the world.
CT: I still think of it as being the most basic, most fundamental communication tool out there. It is specifically designed to communicate an idea, sometimes with text, sometimes without. But in the most simple and graphic terms it’s an amazing tool.
VP: With the rise of digital media, I felt some of the magic and the art was being lost in photography. With illustrators, still working by hand, I could see the art was there. I’d love to see more use of fashion illustration within an editorial context, though – to one day see a return to an illustrated Vogue cover, if there’s an art director out there who’s got the balls to do that. In fashion photography there are a lot of fantasy images but some of it is too objectifying, there’s too much retouching. Looking at illustration, I know it’s pure fantasy. It has a sophistication.
CM: When someone uses illustration it just stands out from the crowd, from editorial through to advertising. It’s the medium that is going to grab your audience’s attention.
For more details on each of the agencies featured and the illustrators on their books, see Agency Rush at agencyrush.com; Arena at arenaillustration.com; Illustration Ltd at illustrationweb.com; and Meiklejohn and New Division at meiklejohn.co.uk and newdivision.com