7 tips for deciphering agent contracts

Victoria Pearce, senior agent at Illustration Ltd, explains how to ensure your contract's sound.

Getting an agent can transform your life as a designer, leaving you free to get on with the creative stuff you're good at while someone else takes care of all the business things that you used to hate. Before you sign up, though, are you sure you're getting a good deal? Victoria Pearce from Illustration Ltd outlines the key points you need to look out for in your contract.

01. What's the agency commission?

Agencies are free to set their own commission rates, so check what is being proposed before signing any contract. As a broad rule of thumb, 25 to 35 per cent agency commission is industry standard. Whatever the calculation, however, the contract should specify the structure clearly.

02. Break down promotional costs

Advertising, marketing and promotional costs should be specified and clear up-front. Some agents will ask you to pay a portion - usually in the region of 25 per cent - to cover certain costs. Larger agencies may operate an efficient, collective promotional spend, and charge a shared nominal annual cost when you have established a workflow. On the other hand, smaller agencies might be more limited and require promotional costs from you, but the types of promotion they do might be more tailored to your style and market.

03. Specify territorial agreements

Your contract should clearly outline the territories in which your agent will represent you. For example: worldwide, UK and USA, UK and Europe, or any other combination of countries and regions where the agent might have satellite offices or sister agencies. Your contract can also exclude territories where you are represented by another agent.

04. Retain copyright

Under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988, the creator should always retain ownership of the original artwork, unless a change is agreed in writing between the agent and client, and with your prior agreement. The client is normally granted a licence to reproduce the artwork solely for the purposes negotiated and detailed on the order confirmation. Pay very close attention to this part of your contract - don't blindly sign away your copyright to your client, or to your agent for that matter.

Getting an agent can transform your life - but make sure the contract works for you

05. Acknowledge house clients

A good agent will appreciate that you have invested time, effort and money in developing a number of your own clients. These are deemed 'house clients', and you'll be able to supply a list of them. When you work for house clients, you won't have to pay your agent commission. Or, the agent might offer to run these clients for you through the agency, for a reduced commission, and absolve you of the responsibility of paperwork, chasing money and so.

06. Breaking up is never easy...

...But having the terms clearly laid out will help to make the process as pain-free as possible. As with a marriage, you might not wish to think about splitting up before your honeymoon, but should things not work out for either party, it'll help enormously to have already agreed the terms. These should cover the notice period required for either party to say goodbye and how the process is managed.

07. Pick up the Freelance Handbook

For more tips on how to get the most from your agent - plus all the advice you need to be your own boss - don't miss The Freelance Handbook, updated for 2014 and on sale now.

Illustrations: Graham Robson

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 224.