I often explain what illustration agents do as 'dealing with the boring stuff, so illustrators can concentrate on the fun part’, and in a sense, this is accurate.
I often explain what illustration agents do as ‘dealing with the boring stuff, so illustrators can concentrate on the fun part’, and in a sense, this is accurate.
Illustration agents can take all the worry and stress of negotiating fees, navigating contracts, invoicing, chasing late payments and much more off your plate so you can do what you love. Established agencies will have a large network of clients that they can introduce your work to. They will be able to get your work seen by many more people (and more importantly, the right people) than you might be able to achieve on your own.
You don’t need an agent as an illustrator, but there are a lot of benefits to working with one:
- Introduction to a wider range of bigger and better clients
- They can often negotiate higher fees
- Agents are very familiar with contracts
- Agents know the value of different kinds of work
- You have access to the combined experience and advice of your agency
- Often agents will have a creative background, so can talk to you about your work with at least some knowledge of your technical process
- Agents can protect you from unfavourable contracts, clients taking liberties or asking for too much
- Agents know which clients are good to work with and which aren’t
- They can fight for your rights if you have been unfairly treated by a client, or your work has been used without authorisation (or payment)
An agent’s primary function is to connect illustrators with clients. There are a few ways this happens:
- An art director/ client will get in touch with the agency with a brief and some style samples and ask for recommendations.
- A client will get in touch to enquire about a specific artist.
- An agent will take portfolios and introduce artists to appropriate clients. There may not be a job at the time, but agents can keep in touch with those clients to keep your work fresh in their mind for when the right project comes along.
Agency websites are great for clients because they can go to a handful of websites and see a curated collection of proven, professional illustrators. Agencies are often the first place art directors will look to find the style they want.
What an illustration agent can’t do
Even the best agent can’t change your career overnight. It takes time to introduce new artists to the agency’s network and market you to the right clients. Occasionally an artists career will explode very quickly after signing with an agent, but this is sometimes just good fortune as much as effort, so don’t use it as a benchmark – Actual results may vary, so be patient.
Signing with an agent is unfortunately not a guarantee of regular work. Freelance illustrators still exist in an industry at the mercy of trends, subjective opinions and peaks and troughs of work.
Many new illustrators think that having an illustration agent is a magic solution to becoming rich and famous without the effort. It doesn’t work like that. Agents will promote your work to the best of their ability, but you should still be prepared to do your own promotion and sourcing work. The best results come when you and your agent work as a team to progress your career.
Illustration agents can’t make you work. If you’re lazy and don’t hit your deadlines, your relationship with the agent probably won’t last very long.
The illustrator/agent relationship
The important thing to remember is that your agent is your partner. They want you to succeed and they are on your team. At a very basic level, an agency is a business, they want all of their artists to be successful and make money. It benefits everybody. On a more personal level, once you’ve been working together for a while, you can become friends with your agent, which means they will be even more invested in your success.
Be proud of your illustration agency and be part of the team. Working as an illustrator can be a lonely career, your agents might be the closest things you have to co-workers for much of your career. As much as an agency wants you to succeed, you should want the same for the agency. Everybody wins!
Working with an agent is a relationship of trust. You trust that the agent does their best to find work for you, and they trust that you will deliver work on time and to a high standard. If you think the agency isn’t working hard enough for you, tell them. Don’t complain and do nothing. A friend of mine who was working with an agency wasn’t seeing the results he wanted, after months of complaining about them, he finally had an open conversation with them and they made every effort to improve their service. A couple of years down the road, he couldn’t be happier with the work they have found for him. Equally though, if you don’t put the effort in to working hard and keeping your word with clients, an agent may not feel that they can confidently recommend you to clients.
Don’t lie to your agent. You’re on the same side. If you can’t make a deadline, or you don’t want to do a job for whatever reason, let them know. If your agent has all the information, it becomes a lot easier for them to work out problems with clients. Agents have to deal with missed deadlines and other such problems all the time, so give them the facts and they can deal with the issue in the best way.
Want more money for a project? Tell your agent and let them be the bad guy. An agent can try to negotiate without the client thinking any less of you personally.
If you feel that you have been treated unfairly, let your agent argue with the client on your behalf. I was once involved with a project in which an artist spent 5 weeks, full time on an oil painting for an advertising campaign; the agreed upon fee was close to £10k, a fair fee for the skill of the artist and scale of the project. When the project was 90% complete, the client killed it and offered an insultingly low £1000 cancellation fee (less than minimum wage!). Left to his own devices, the artist would have cut his losses and probably been quite angry about it for a long while, but the agency was furious and wouldn’t accept the fee. After a four week exchange of emails, phone-calls and counter offers, the fee was increased to 50% of the original fee. Still not a wholly satisfying end to the project, but a better result nonetheless.
That kind of argument usually isn’t worth an artist’s time, but a good agent will fight for you if you have been left in the shit.
Working with an agency can remove all the stress of clients that don’t pay on time. The Brave New World agency on multiple occasions have not paid invoices for over 6 months, but some agencies will pay the artists on time regardless of whether the client has, which takes some of the headache out of difficult cashflow situations.
Although an agency may take care of a lot of the business end of your work, you still need to treat your work like a business. You need to keep track of finances for one thing. Even if your agent is completely trustworthy, occasionally mistakes are made with payments etc. You need to know what’s going on with your livelihood all the time so mistakes can be resolved quickly.
Most agencies are unlikely to take on too many artists that look quite similar in their style as it creates unnecessary competition between their own team of artists. Every artist should be respected and valued for their skills. If an agency takes on 5 artists that all look alike, each one of those artists will get less work as a result. The agency can benefit from doing this of course, but an agent that does it isn’t respecting the individual artist. There is enough competition out there already, you don’t want to feel like you are competing for jobs within your own agency.
An agent is most useful when it comes to taking care of the business end, but they can adjust how involved they are with a project depending on how the artist likes to work. Some artists prefer not to talk to clients, but through direct communication you can build a personal relationship with them, which is good for the long term. You may change agents, but you still want to have good relationships with clients. An agent should be kept up to date with projects though, so they can see potential problems, or intervene if the client is taking advantage of your generous nature.
Different agencies have different terms for working with artists, some will want exclusivity and have very tightly locked contracts, some will be a bit more relaxed. Many artists have multiple agents in different territories, it makes sense for a French artist to have a French agent as well as an international one for example for ease of communication.
One important thing to consider is that art directors and clients will often contact artists directly even if they have found the work through the agent’s website or promotion; most likely to try and get a better price. If I were a client, I would likely do the same thing. It is not always easy to tell how an opportunity lands in your lap. Agents invest a lot of time and money into promoting artists and this is where the question of trust comes in to play. If you choose to do a job with a client and don’t inform your agent, they will most likely find out. So the question is, do you think that job came to you through your own promotion, or through your agent’s? You may feel like any job emailed to you is fair game for you to work on alone, but from an agent’s point of view, if it comes about because of their hard work, it is unfair for them to be left out of the process. It’s a difficult situation to navigate, but honesty is the best policy in these situations. Agents will treat you fairly if you offer them the same courtesy, but they may be reluctant to promote you if you cut them out of the process.
Choosing an agent
When you are still in the process of establishing yourself as an illustrator, you may not have your pick of the top agencies, but the first offer you get isn’t always the best offer you are likely to get. You should carefully consider each agency on different factors:
- How established are they? / Do they know what they are doing?
- Do they have a good reputation? You should email other artists from the agency to get a review.
- Location – This may not be as important as it once was, but an agency operating from a bedroom in a small village may not have the same opportunities as an agency in a big city.
- Experience – How long has the agency been running? And what kind of client list do they have as a result?
- How big? – An agency doesn’t need to be a big operation, but if there’s one agent working with 30 artists, you can’t expect to get the attention you deserve.
- How/when are you paid?
- Commission rate
- Can you keep your existing clients? I personally think this is a more than fair request.
You should not be paying any upfront fees to join an agency. Some agencies charge a lot of different fees to the artists: For advertising in illustration books, for promotional items, some even charge artists to be featured on their website. You can’t expect to go through your career without investing in promotion, and investing in illustration annuals and promotional items isn’t a bad thing, but it should be your choice. A fee for appearing on an agents website seems ridiculous to me. You can be the judge of where you draw the line.
Some agencies are cooler than others, no doubt. But should coolness be a factor you look for in an agent? One particularly cool looking agency I came across recently had a few great artists on their website, so I did a little digging to see if they were as good as they looked:
- The named agent on the website is also a featured illustrator on the website
- The Agency phone number is the same phone number on the agent’s illustration website, suggesting a one person operation
- The website is run on a Wix ‘build-your-own’ website service
- The agency claims 15 years of experience, but cross referenced with the agent’s resume on their artists’ website, a large portion of that time was spent as a freelance artist and 2 years were spent as a student. So in reality, only 3 years experience representing illustrators, along with doing their own illustration work.
Some of these factors alone are not really a problem, but combined, they tell a different story to the one being represented.
All agencies are different, but make sure you ask the right questions before joining. Remember that agents negotiate on a daily basis, so any terms that you aren’t happy with, try and negotiate them. A good agent will respect you for doing it. If they are unwilling to bend, maybe they aren’t a good fit for you.
Agents join associations just like artists do. It benefits the industry as a whole if all agents are on the same page. Here are a couple of links to the Association of Illustrators and Society of Artists Agents websites:
AOI code of practice for agents: https://theaoi.com/resources/professional-practice/code-of-practice-for-agents/
SAA code of ethics for agents: http://saahub.com/ethics/
Does your agent adhere to these codes of conduct?
See how to submit work to an illustration agency here
There are some shifty agents out there, and it’s not easy to spot them, but asking artists for reviews is a great way to get an insight. Some agents are all about the money and will encourage you to take any job regardless of whether it’s right for you.
I have personally witnessed agencies working on amends to artwork in house, without the illustrator’s knowledge or consent. I can’t advocate that kind of behaviour.
At the end of the day, if you work with an agent, you are paying for a service. Some artists are of the opinion that agents take money away from them. You may pay 30% of the fee for a job, but you might not have got the job in the first place without the agent’s help. An agency is a business that provides a service to illustrators, and they should be paid for it.
You will always get mixed reviews of agencies. Artists that have success with agents and work well with them will be positive, people that have had bad experiences or can’t get an agent may have bad feelings towards them.
Not every agent is right for every artist, regardless of how good or bad the agent or artist is. Sometimes it’s just not a good fit. Be honest with your agent, if you feel like it’s not working out, say so and maybe things will change, or maybe it’s time to move on. As long as you’re open and honest, there shouldn’t be any bad blood or resentment between you and the agent. Sometimes relationships run their course and you may be able to find a better fit.