The agent agenda

Whether or not to team up with an agency is a tough decision at any point in an illustrator's career. We talk to the industry about this hotly debated topic...

As a freelance illustrator, going it alone can be tough. Not only does your intensely creative artwork need to have a commercial value for your clients, you need to have a handle on financial and business issues, not to mention self-promotion and problem-solving. Plus there's all those deadlines in-between. How do illustrators do it?

For those blessed with a creative talent as well as the gift of the gab and good business sense, they enjoy success and reap the full financial benefit of every job (except the tax bit, of course). Creative-types with absolutely no handle on financial planning or selfpromotion, however, might seek the assistance and professionalism of an agent. But for the large majority, who fall somewhere in-between these two poles, choosing between a solo career and the support of an illustration agency is a tough decision. We've spoken to five people, whose varying experience you may find useful in helping you make that all-important choice.

The illustrator with an agent
Allan Sanders began his career in computer programming, but a change of heart, an art degree and an experience with an Apple Mac led him to become a full-time illustrator. Much of Allan's work is editorial because his friendly style suits a wide audience. Like many, his break into the industry took a lot of time and hard work.

"I was lucky to get a few editorial jobs as soon as I left college. It helped me find my feet," says Allan. His first couple of years as an illustrator were spent trying to meet new clients: "I was pounding the pavements with my portfolio, finding contacts in different ways - browsing magazines, going through the Artists and Writers Yearbook, sending out postcards and following contacts from other clients."

After two years of serious effort, he decided to look into getting an agent. Allan explains: "I was at a point where I felt confident I could handle more commissions if I could spend more time in the studio and less darting around London with my portfolio. I approached a number of agencies and chose Heart based on the other artists they represented. I liked their set-up and position in the industry."

One valuable piece of advice is that signing up to an agency doesn't mean commissions from day one. "It took about five or six months to really get going. They kept in touch regularly and since that bedding-in time I've had a pretty regular flow of work," he says.

Allan keeps in touch with the Heart agency mainly by phone and email, but they meet up once a year to discuss progress and promotional activity. He continues to get work from clients he had before joining Heart, but is careful to balance the two sources. "I try not to say no to my agent too often. They're after all in the business of representing you and if you're too busy with your own work, it doesn't make a good relationship."

Based on Allan's experience, an agency suits him well. Their cut of his fees is outbalanced by the increase in effort and time he is able to put into his illustration work.

The illustrator without an agent
Towards the other end of the scale, Paul Bateman has worked with five different agents since his career began 17 years ago but he's now gone solo. His collage-style artwork has been commissioned by editorial, design and advertising clients. "Even though I've had over 1,000 illustrations published, I still get a buzz when the phone rings with a new job!"

Paul sought out an agent after a year of full-time illustrating. "I think I was expecting too much too soon and that experience was short-lived. I worked with another small agent whom I was happy with for a few years, but she left the industry." In subsequent years he was signed to three larger agencies, one of which also closed. "My experience is very varied but I preferred the smaller agencies as you feel much more part of the team."

These days, Paul relies on himself to generate his success. "Times have changed and self-promotion is much easier for an individual. Your website is available all around the world 24-7; you can print your own high quality mailshots and take out pages in source books. You should really ask yourself if you need an agent."

Paul continues: "I would advise a new illustrator to gain experience of dealing with briefs and clients professionally, getting first-hand responses and building up contacts. Don't view an agent as the solution to everything but as just another weapon in your commission-generating arsenal."

The agency
Advocate is a growing agency which began as an artists' collective. Similar to many agencies, it takes 25-35 per cent of the fees for each commission. Five agents now represent 40 artists in a wide range of styles. "We aim to represent original imagemakers from fine art painters to 3D artists," says Luke Wilson, one of Advocate's agents.

According to Luke the main benefit of having an agent is to increase workflow. "Agents have excellent data sources which enable artists' work to be shown to clients who are harder to track down or approach as a freelance illustrator."

Advocate has regular contact with its artists about promotion and other aspects of their work. It also holds monthly artist days where new or existing artists have one-on-one time with the agents. "A good agent creates a safe and secure environment for their artists to work in," begins Luke.

"Making sure the best effort is made to obtain regular commissions from reputable companies. Good agents also provide relevant services if an artist faces a difficult situation so they have someone fighting their illustrator corner and don't feel alone. I can't see any disadvantages in having an agent."

The industry regulators
There are two organisations that keep track of the artist-agent relationship in the industry. The AOI (Association of Illustrators) and the SAA (Society of Artists Agents) may represent different sides of the coin, but share an agent code of conduct to which members are expected to adhere.

The AOI doesn't actively recommend or discourage its members in seeking agency representation and can only help with problems in an advisory capacity. "We try to cover the pros and cons, as there are more illustrators wishing to be represented than agencies able to take them on," says AOI Membership Officer, Derek Brazell. "We give advice on how to approach agents and questions they should ask such as how transparent the agency is with paperwork for fees, commissions and promotional expenses." They also recommend a new illustrator spending time developing a professional portfolio and client contacts before approaching an agency.

The artist collective
Some illustrators choose to forgo the agent and set up a collective where a handful of artists work together and share experiences while managing their individual affairs. 741 Illustration is such a collective. "It allows us total control of how we present ourselves professionally to the market place; we are able to plan our marketing strategy and working practice to our own agenda," explains founder member Jacquie O'Neill. All promotional costs are divided equally and five per cent of all commission goes towards maintaining the business. "An illustrator is usually a 'lone wolf', but a collective gives the artist a feeling of camaraderie and security. The energy from this team spirit is both inspiring and supportive."

A handful of the illustrators at 741 have had previous experience of agents and offer some advice when approaching an agency. "Recognise that you are setting up a business - ask relevant questions and even make some demands. Don't sign any restrictive agreements where the agent represents you totally. Keep some aspect of the promotion of your work exclusively for yourself so you're not solely reliant on the agent for income."

But for this successful collective, agent days are over. "The collaboration of each illustrator's extended skills, from web design, PR, tech head, art-worker and copywriter is a powerful and successful combination."

The options aren't endless but they are available and worth the research. But once you've made a decision to join an agent, start a collective or go solo, your career isn't set in stone. Be honest with yourself about your business skills and research a number of agencies by talking to them, looking at their website and even contacting its illustrators before you make that decision.

Back to basics

Disadvantages:
€¢ Agencies will take a cut of between 15-35 per cent of every commission. You may also be required to contribute towards their promotional expenses.
€¢ It can take between six months to a year for an agency to source a decent amount of work for you as they build up your industry profile.
€¢ If you want to change your style of illustration, you need to at least warn the agency, if not discuss in-depth how it could effect your offers of work.
€¢ Some agents will insist all client work goes through them, even work that is gained independently of the agency.
€¢ If you're used to doing everything yourself, it can be difficult to relinquish control over your income, self promotion and client interaction.
€¢ An agent will decide who to put forward for a particular commission. You need to be able to trust that they will represent each artist equally and not favour certain illustrators.
€¢ There is no limit to how many illustrators an agency takes on, so bear in mind that large numbers can effect how much work is put into promoting you. A good agency will of course stick to a manageable amount.

Benefits:
€¢ An established agency has a profile or reputation within the industry as well as a huge contact book.
Your work will be seen by far more people than you are able to contact, especially at the beginning.
€¢ Their experience means they can advise you honestly on your portfolio and client work.
€¢ They can advertise more than one illustrator at once, which works out cheaper than conducting your own promotional activities. Some agencies have gallery spaces and host exhibitions too.
€¢ As a new illustrator, being on the books alongside many established illustrators can enhance your professional status.
€¢ They are often able to source new types of work for you in different areas of the industry.
€¢ An agency will negotiate fees, discuss contracts, send invoices and chase payments. They are therefore useful for less confident or less businessminded illustrators.
€¢ They can be the middle man in discussing the occasional difficult issue such as artwork changes or deadlines with clients.
€¢ If an agent has an overseas office, they are far more able to show your work overseas and maintain closer contact with clients rather than rely on email.

Whether or not to sign up to an agency isn't a straightforward decision. Here are just some of the pros and cons you should consider before making your decision...