Have you got what it takes to work in the advertising industry? Can you meet the demands of a brief, manage relationships and deliver content on time, every time? Mark Ramshaw takes a look at the place where art and commerce collides.
Of all the markets open to illustrators and digital designers, advertising is, for many, the most desirable. Comparatively well-paying and prestigious, success in this field can elevate an artist's career to a whole new level. But this particular field is also undoubtedly the most challenging. With fierce competition, the difficult-to-predict tastes of ad agencies, complex commercial considerations, and work that has as much potential to be creatively stifling as it does fulfilling - the seemingly straightforward job of using good art to sell a message or product is often actually anything but.
The first challenge for any aspiring ad illustrator is to bring their work to the attention of the powers that be - the art buyers at advertising agencies charged with creating the campaigns that will ultimately present products and services to the public via newspapers and magazines, billboards, poster spaces, the web and other new media channels.
Andrew Coningsby of prestigious art agency Debut Art is intimately familiar with the needs of the advertising industry. "All commissioning clients try to avoid predictable 'wallpaper' illustration styles and approaches," he says. "Ad agencies like to work with artists whose work is, in some way, fresh and new, and reflects, mirrors or exemplifies a new zeitgeist, mood or vogue in society."
"There are definitely trends in illustration, as there are with most things," agrees illustrator Sean Rodwell. "As new techniques are created along with the technology that produces them, people will always want the hot new look to sell their products."
So how do you know whether the range of illustrative styles and subject matter present in your portfolio fits in with that zeitgeist? Coningsby suggests actively chasing trends is probably a futile exercise: "No one illustration style or approach is ever pre-eminent for very long, and all styles and approaches are being used all the time anyway, with the one selected to promote a particular product usually done so because it in some way has empathy or synergy with the brand objective."
Not that a portfolio containing work that's likely to inspire or entice advertising agencies is of much use if the right people don't get to see it in the first place. Sophie Hinds, senior art buyer at Publicis, one of the UK's top four advertising agencies, believes that illustrators are generally quite bad at selling themselves to the people that count. "We generally have two appointments a day put by to see photographers and illustrators, and I find that over a monthly period we see 95 per cent photographers and only five per cent illustrators," she reveals. "I'd love to see more illustrators doing appointments."
Representation can really come into its own when it comes to making contact with potential clients. Any agency worth its salt will have already built up a good roster of art agency clients and so will find it far easier to promote your work to the right people. "Representation makes working outside of London much easier," says Rodwell, who is signed with Advocate Art, and these people have all the relevant contacts to get you a constant flow of work.
But while it's true that representation, like an established reputation, can add an extra air of legitimacy to an artist's portfolio, it's by no means a given that agencies will only work with artists who are well established or have an agent to do the heavy lifting. "The opposite is often true," says Hinds. "We always like to find new talent to work with, as the art directors are keen to make an original ad and create a completely new look. It does make life easier if an illustrator has an agent to negotiate fees and usage, but if they didn't it would not dissuade me."
"The pricing side of the business is another area where having an agent can come in in very handy," says Rodwell. "They have the expert knowledge of how to price a job correctly when it comes to issues such as licensing and coverage."
What to charge
While it's impossible to provide guide figures when it comes to money - fees are dependent on a whole host of variables, including the commissioning agency, the artist, and the representation (if any) - there are some useful guidelines to note.
The nature of the project should be taken into consideration. So too should its complexity and the time required to create the completed design or designs. Prestige can also play a part. Better brands don't necessarily equate to better rates of pay, but the size of the campaign involved should.
"A typical ad campaign would usually work so that you would be paid for the time it takes to produce the images and also for the coverage of the images, so a two month campaign consisting of national press ads, 48-sheet posters and in-store advertising would pay more than a regional campaign," explains Rodwell. "The client will state how long it needs the license of the imagery and pay as suchlike, though if they decided to re-run the campaign six months later after only licensing it for three, there would be a re-use fee."
One vital thing to remember about design for advertising is that commerce, not art, will always win out. While this work can be creatively rewarding, it's important to understand that open briefs and free pitches are by no means the norm, even for the better known artists. "The illustration brief is usually very strict, as we have previously agreed with our client exactly how the ad will turn out," says Hinds. "This is done in a pre-production meeting, which all members of the agency team attend, along with client and illustrator. We go through every part of the ad with a fine tooth comb and agree on all aspects of the layout and images. Sometimes we have jobs where we do ask for more creative input from the illustrator, but this depends on the brief and how creative the client is."
The good news is that an illustrator is usually chosen because the agency likes their work, so it's rare for an artist to be asked to create a design that's totally out of sync with their own personal style. "When an agency approaches you for illustration, nine times out of ten they already have a solid idea of how they want the campaign to look, and from there it's a case of marrying that look with the right illustrator," agrees Rodwell. "With the Aero campaign I worked on, the emphasis was always on bubbles, so my style was the obvious way to go."
Once a fee has been agreed and a commission handed out, it's vital to maintain good lines of communication. While some clients will want input every step of the way, others may well be happy to leave the designer to get on with their work - trusting them to remain faithful to the commercial and artistic parameters of that brief.
"One of the jobs of the illustrator is to consider how their imagery will work best for the client and adapt it to best serve its purpose. Clients who know your work and have commissioned you before tend to leave you to it, trusting your abilities to produce something eye catching that sums up the idea they had in the first place," says Rodwell.
Ironically, the less intrusive the client, the wiser it is to keep them in the loop. While they may have faith in your ability to produce a strong design that satisfies the brief, it's all too easy to start pursuing artistic avenues that deviate from this vision. And the further down the development process problems are spotted, the harder it will be to correct them.
"I always like to produce test images to make sure the client is on the same page as me, and this can often eliminate problems further into the project," says Rodwell. "If you're doing your job correctly, the refining and tweaking of the imagery can be kept to a minimum, but again, this is down to a good understanding between yourself and the agency."
Remember that the final submission is not the end of the story. The clued-up designer will also view each project as a way to build inertia in the marketplace and strengthen relations both with the agency and the client. Impress people with new ad work and you may even find yourself with a little more control and input next time. "As we became more established and our portfolio of large projects for happy clients grew, we received more and more creative briefs from large advertising agencies," reveals Jonathan Kenyon of Vault49. "We were offered flexible briefs dependent on our input and direction for projects such as PlayStation, Camel, Samsung, and David Beckham's perfume range, all from worldwide agencies. It seems that now our clients feel confident they are going to get a quality design from us, we have been allowed much more creative freedom to surprise them."
Again, it's essential to undertake a little self-promotion. To this end, ensure that your portfolio is updated the moment a major ad project is completed and modify your website to include information, links and samples of any new designs. Then get really proactive, sending out emails and mailshots to agencies you've worked with in the past, as well as those you hope to work with in the future.
"I always enjoy being kept up to date on an illustrator's latest work via email," says Sophie Hinds. "Then, if I like the work, I'll quite often forward the JPEGs directly to the creatives. Sending out decent-sized prints is also another good idea - most art buyers have pin boards where they display a range of their favourite pieces."
Of course, the best self-promotion tool is always a job well done, and so ultimately, those who truly get ahead in advertising are those with the finest artistic skills and the ability to adapt them to the needs of the client. As Rodwell says, "A successful campaign where these factors have come together will only heighten your profile and keep the client coming back for more."
LEARN FROM EXPERIENCE
Three professionals on how to get ahead in advertising
"I'd love to see more illustrators doing appointments. We like to hear about the work and what they've been doing, and it's useful to put a face to that work. If they then send updates on their latest projects via e-mail, I can forward the JPEGs to the creatives if I see something I like."
SOPHIE HINDS, SENIOR ART BUYER
"Not every client will want to use the same look, so I think it's best to have a few different styles in your portfolio and to always continue adapting these and refining them. That way you can cover as many bases as possible."
SEAN RODWELL, ILLUSTRATOR
URL www.aeriform.co.uk or www.advocate-art.com
"Design trends often change dramatically from year to year. To keep yourself in the limelight, you just have to keep pushing your work forward and make sure that you work hard to keep both yourself and the viewer interested."
SI SCOTT, ILLUSTRATOR
URL www.siscottdesign.com or www.debutart.com