The life of an illustrator is hugely rewarding and unconventional at best – but it doesn’t come without hard work and many challenges.
It’s almost impossible to avoid commercial projects, but these have to be balanced alongside personal growth and creative satisfaction – clients like to see a well-rounded portfolio, and illustrators that flourish are the ones who can adapt yet refine their style.
That’s why being represented by a creative agency can be extremely beneficial. It can increase an illustrator’s portfolio reach, remove the fear of constant multi-tasking between business and craft, all the while ensuring someone is there to check in with progress.
But creative agencies also need illustrators to offer a sense of direction, know their limits and not be afraid to ask for advice.
So how do you forge an efficient and strong relationship between both illustrator and agency, so everybody wins?
Equally, illustrators from these agencies and more – Alex Tait (Jelly London), Alec Doherty (Grand Matter) and Rod Hunt (Bernstein & Andriulli, B&A) – have insightful tips (and incredibly delicious food analogies) on how to work with an agency.
We begin with advice from the illustrators.
Advice, illustrator to illustrator
“The most important thing is to work with people you get on with – you’ll probably spend more time talking to them than you’re poor mother so you’ve got to get on.
“Knowing what direction you’re both heading from the start, you don’t want to end up in Burger King on the third date with a vegan, you’ll both be upset with each other.
“Being honest with each other, if they’ve ordered you onions rings and you’re actually a hash brown person – these are things you need to let each other know so you can move on.
“Trusting each other and respecting each other’s opinion is really important – which sometimes means trying a Cajun Tendercrisp on occasion – you might like it and it will broaden your culinary palette.
“Seeing each other socially is important, it’s in those candid moments over a pint you can stumble on a good idea and it’s also fun to hang about drinking beer.”
Rod Hunt (Bernstein & Andriulli)
“It’s vital to communicate with your agent. So update them with new work regularly, it gives them something new to show to clients. If you’re in the same country try to meet with them at least once a year for a chat.
“Ask them for help and advice on how to develop your career and work. They know the market and what clients are currently looking for, they can suggest how you can tailor your portfolio to reach new markets and clients. Let them know who your dream clients are, maybe they can get your work seen by them.
“If there’s a problem when working on the job don’t get frustrated, let your agent sort it out! Sometimes jobs don’t go according to plan, whether that’s an over demanding client or a brief that keeps changing. This is where your agent can do the difficult conversations with the client and be the ‘bad guy’, you can keep your hands clean and concentrate on the creative elements.
“Don’t feel you have to take every job they put you forward for. It’s a reality that we can all be too busy sometimes, you might feel a job doesn’t suit you or a fee is just too low. You’re under no obligation to accept a job and an agent should be understanding of your reasons.
“If you feel a suggested fee is too low, it’s ok to ask your agent to see if they can negotiate it up.
“If there’s a client your agent introduced or they have an exclusive deal to represent and manage your work in a territory, don’t go behind their backs and work directly with a client. More than likely they will find out and this is very likely to damage your working relationship.”
“There are a lot of benefits to having an agent. Things that don’t seem obvious when you first consider working with one.
“First and foremost, you equate having an agent to getting more work. That’s true but there is a lot of other things that they take care of. More often than not, it is the things that you wouldn’t want to do such as negotiating costs, usage rights and contracts. I am personally not great at multitasking, so removing as much admin from the equation helps me focus on creating the work.
“It’s always great to just have someone to check in with. When you are in a slump, or feel as though you need to push your work along you can always talk over potential projects and mull over existing work. It’s important to try and take on board any feedback your agent passes on when it comes to strengthening your portfolio. They are the ones who see what is being commissioned. It’s fine to be precious about your work, but if you are working commercially, it will often come with compromises.
“I signed with my agency (Jelly London) shortly after leaving university. Having only decided I wanted to pursue illustration in my two final major projects I hadn’t really thought too much about how to position myself once my course was over. Luckily I became a part of Jelly’s ‘Futures’ signings – introducing new grads to commercial illustration.
“It was a really nice way of refining my skills and knowledge and stopped you from feeling as though you were in it alone. As time went on I learned a lot – not just to do with my own work but also gaining insights into other areas in the creative industry works. That isn’t to say that you wouldn’t accrue this knowledge without an agent, but that the road getting there is a little less bumpy perhaps.”
Advice, creative agency to illustrator
Jelly London: Head of illustration Nicki Field
Jelly London is a production agency representing illustrators, animators (it has its own in-house animators The Kitchen), lettering artists, designers and directors.
“The most important thing about the artist / agent relationship is to remember that it exists because of the complimentary skills you both have – together you are a team. I’m an agent because I’m in total awe of the creative skills being an illustrator involves and I love supporting that. Clients aren’t only asking for a visual that looks good, it has a job to do; communicate a message. Elevating and transforming a brief, taking direction, being on brand – it’s a tough job.
“I can do the new business, pricing and rights negotiation, produce a job – but I sure as hell can’t make the work. Respect each other’s skills and expertise – that’s why it works. Give each other the space and trust each other to do the bits that you’re best at.
“The more you both work at the relationship and the body of work together, the more you will get out of it. Your agent’s job is to put your work under the right people’s noses. It’s a relentless task and it’s one that’s never finished – but opportunities also come down to the work itself. We try to be directional with our artists if things are quieter or we feel there’s a gap in their portfolios or experience. We’re constantly seeing clients and when we have feedback for particular artists, we take that on board and discuss it with them. Don’t rely on the agent to do all the work for you – it’s a two way street. A portfolio needs challenging and pushing constantly. It sounds obvious but the more effective you are as a team, the more you will conquer.
“I always think it’s important to be comfortable with your voice and visual language before seeking out an agent. The work you promote will attract like work, so you need to be confident and content with your style or longevity of a direction before you seek representation. If a portfolio is confusing for a client, this will only make your agent’s job harder when presenting it. That being said, it’s our job to spot something or a new talent that perhaps isn’t as polished or perfected but shows a great deal of potential. I love this bit. This is why we launched Futures, an initiative to help illustrators new to the commercial world hone their portfolios and find their feet in the industry.
“Be as open and honest as possible. As you work together you will learn so much about each other’s ways. If you’re just starting to work with an agent, make sure they take the time to fully understand your processes, your methods, the outer limits of your comfort zone – it’s not just about getting any work, it’s about the ‘right’ work. Always be honest about timings and realistic about what you can achieve too – don’t talk things up to your agent or bite off more than you can chew if a brief comes in. Your agent’s job is to manage client expectations on your behalf to help you fully focus on the creative part. The less uncertainties there are between you both and the more familiar you are with one another, the easier (and more enjoyable) the ride will be when the pressure’s on.”
Grand Matter: Director Dorcas Brown
Grand Matter is a talent agency that represents illustrators, designers and art directors. The brand new agency is run by illustrator Ciara Phelan and director Dorcas Brown. It currently represents Owen Gildersleeve, Ale Doherty and Joe Cruz among others.
Choosing the right illustrator
“There are so many wonderful illustrators out there, and so to pick the right one it helps to consider why you are using illustration in the first place, and what you would like to communicate. What’s the right tone and where and by who will it be seen? Have you seen anything else that makes you think illustration or a particular style is the right route? This will help narrow down your search, and when talking to illustration agencies or individual artists this will help them make useful suggestions and understand your needs. It’s also worth considering what the illustrator as a person can add to a project too, as a great collaboration comes from a shared passion for something.”
“When briefing an illustrator, it’s super important to provide guidance or a starting point for what to create, whether you have an idea already or some pointers to focus their ideas. That said it’s always good to commission with an open mind, and allow the chosen illustrator to play to their strengths offering up their own, sometimes wonderfully unexpected, ideas.”
Taking a risk
“On occasion it can pay off to take a risk and commission an illustrator to create something they wouldn’t usually be asked to work on. Maybe you’ve seen something in their portfolio that makes you think they’d have a fresh and unique take on an otherwise overdone theme.”
Discuss techniques and style
“Consider what stood out as a motivator when choosing a particular illustrator for a job, and make this clear in your brief to them, even if it’s picking out a few references from their portfolio that you think are relevant to this job. Some illustrators have a few feathers to their bow, using different techniques or approaches, it’s easy to assume it is obvious what you’re looking for when it might not be. Ask questions about the illustrator’s process to also inform the timeline and how and when’s best to feed back.”
Getting the basics right
“It sounds simple, but make sure you include all of the specs within the brief from the start. The size, the file type or set up needed, colour palette, any reference photos /material, and how the illustrations will be used ultimately. This will save time helping the illustrator create their file in a useful way from the start.”