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Design Debate: Do Illustrators Need Agents?

Header image by Julie Campbell
Design Debate: Do Illustrators Need Agents?
Published February 14, 2019 by Madeleine Morley

In our newest design debate, Alva Skog, Erin Aniker, and Yuko Shimizu explore whether it pays for an illustrator to hire an agent. Ready, set, debate.

1. Having an agent means that you can concentrate on what you do best.
Alva Skog, freelance illustrator

I was considering going freelance straight after university, but the prospect of doing everything on my own was scary. Towards the end of my last semester, I emailed a bunch of agencies with my portfolio and I was lucky that my current agent, Jelly, got back to me.

I had always found it difficult to price my work. Before having an agent, I was concerned that I didn’t know how much an illustration was worth, and I didn’t quite grasp licensing. There’s so many things that you have to think about when you price an illustration: Where is it going to get used? How long will it get used for? Now, my agent does all of that thinking for me.

When a client contacts me with a commission, I direct them straight to my agent. My agent talks to them, and makes sure that the budget matches my time and labor. They usually up the price too, which is something I always found difficult to do on my own. If it’s a big commission, my agent deals with all the client feedback—so I don’t need to stress about that side of things. My agent also writes up contracts, invoices for jobs, and then chases invoices to make sure I actually get paid. All of this means that I can concentrate on what I do best: illustrating.

"There’s no doubt about it: social media and the growth of online and offline creative communities have allowed freelancers to promote themselves and get their work out there, which has changed the role of an agent."

In addition to all the obvious admin pros of working with an agent, there are lots of things Jelly have done for me that I didn’t expect. They’ve been extremely supportive of the fact I’m a recent graduate; we talk a lot about what kinds of commissions I would like to do in the future, and how I can make that happen. For example, we’ve been working closely to shape and broaden my portfolio. When I signed, I mostly had portraits; now we’ve been getting together more cityscapes and large scenes filled with lots of people. Working with an agent gives you a support system to explore new ways of working.

An agent, of course, also brings in bigger clients. I’m currently working with Apple, and that came through Jelly. I wouldn’t have been able to handle a big project like what I’ve done for Apple on my own! It’s been extremely helpful to have someone guide me through the process.

2. You learn invaluable skills through representing yourself.
Erin Aniker, freelance illustrator

I've been acting as my own agent and it's been working out pretty well for me. But…over time, the admin and invoice-chasing has ground me down a bit. The more clients I get, the more time consuming that side of things is becoming. If the right agent approached me and we were a good fit, I would definitely consider signing with them.

Sending out emails and updating spreadsheets is definitely not what first comes to mind when you first think about becoming an illustrator. But the reality is, it’s important to be multifaceted as a practitioner. What I’ve personally found is that I don’t necessarily need an agent to find clients. I actually really enjoy connecting with new people, networking, and meeting new art directors and editors. There’s so many aspects of being my own agent that I like and which are important skills to learn, such as communicating and marketing. I also keep 100% of all the profits from my work, since no one takes a cut.

"When it comes to pricing, I’ve been doing quite well on my own."

I’m very active online and have a tight creative network. We’re incredibly supportive of one another: someone will often recommend me for a job, and I’ll recommend them. I have many mentors and peers that I can turn to for guidance, and I would say the information that I’ve established through them can be just as valuable as an agent’s. There’s no doubt about it: social media and the growth of online and offline creative communities have allowed freelancers to promote themselves and get their work out there, which has changed the role of an agent. Despite all of this, I imagine working with an illustration agent can help you focus more on the drawing side of things.

When it comes to pricing, I’ve been doing quite well on my own. I’m half Turkish, half British, and my mom is the best haggler I know. From an early age, we’d go to Turkish markets together and I learned the art of haggling, which I’ve now applied to pricing my illustrations. So, until an agency that’s a good fit comes along, I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing!

3. “Don’t stress about getting an agent. Start out on your own, and see how it goes.”
Yuko Shimizu, freelance illustrator and educator at School of Visual Arts

I don’t recommend that anyone starting out in illustration get an agent straight away. It’s a myth that once you get an agent, your career will be set. It’s not true that an agent means everything’s going to be fine and jobs are going to be pouring in. The truth is that if your work is good, you’re going to get work. That’s the only way that things are going to happen.

A lot of my students are international, so they need to get a Visa to stay and work in the U.S. If they have an agent, their Visa gets sponsored, so often international students will get an agent right of school, which makes sense. What usually happens though, is then other students see their work everywhere, and they think the agent is getting their former classmate work. But in reality, the agent has only approached the student because they were already getting work.

"An agent is only necessary when you start doing big jobs, for instance ad work, which needs someone to help negotiate and organize."

Getting an agent is like entering into a marriage—it’s a commitment. Its their business as well as yours, so they’re only going to work with you if you’re going to be bringing work to them. It’s best to spend the first years of your career gathering clients on your own and getting your name out there, because then you have something to bargain with when the right agent does come along. When I got an agent after around 7 years of working on my own, we agreed that they would only get a cut from new clients that they were bringing to me. If you’re just starting out, how can you make those kinds of negotiations? An agent is only necessary when you start doing big jobs, for instance ad work, which needs someone to help negotiate and organize.

One of the best ways to begin as an illustrator is to do editorial and book jobs, which allow you to experiment and produce a lot of work quickly. You don’t need an agent to get editorial jobs—you send around your portfolio, and once you start to work for certain magazines and newspapers, other art directors will see your stuff, and you get more work. If you then have an agent, and they take a 25-30% cut from the small budget, what’s the point? We live in New York and rent is high, you know?

More about Madeleine Morley

Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.

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