A good relationship between an illustrator and their agent is like a marriage. “If it’s going to work, it’s all about the long-term,” says Jon Cockley, co-founder of Handsome Frank, an agency based in London that represents over 30 illustrators internationally. “You’ve got to be sure that your agent’s long-term relationship is with the artist, as that’s the one that really needs to be maintained and nurtured.”
Like marriage, an agent isn’t necessarily for everyone, and career longevity and success don’t depend on finding your way onto a big agency’s books. “It depends on the artist's desire to be involved in both aspects of business and creative,” says Jennifer Gonzalez, co-founder and business director of New York’s Hugo & Marie. “If you like numbers, negotiating, and navigating difficult conversations with people, and you have a tolerance for the administrative aspects in addition to doing the work, then hire an in-house producer and work as a team. If you hate everything I just described and want the support of an established team, get an agent!”
Illustration by Hisham Akira Bharoocha represented by Hugo&Marie for Adidas.
Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple; securing representation vs. going solo are both full of pros and cons, and depend a great deal on an artist’s skills, experience, and the kind of work they want to pursue.
“There’s a certain amount of satisfaction that comes from handling it all myself,” admits Laura Callaghan, an Irish illustrator working in London who’s been freelance and agent-free for the past seven years and counts Adidas, Nike, and Refinery29 as clients. “I enjoy dealing directly with clients and getting a sense of who they are and what they need. On the other hand it's not so fun to be emailing them a month and a half later enquiring about a payment I’ve never received.”
Like many young illustrators fresh out of art school, Callaghan was keen to get on an agency’s books. Immediate access to an established network of potential clients appears a more shrewd move than cold calling art directors. “It seemed like the done thing, and I really didn't think it was possible to get steady work without one. But my work was in its infancy and a bit confused, so I received little or no response. It was a blessing in disguise because figuring out how to get clients and market yourself makes you learn quickly and become a bit more ballsy.”
Cockley believes it’s essential for every illustrator to have first-hand experience managing clients solo, if only to have a firm grasp of what an agent could and should do for you. “All of the things we do for our artists—like negotiating contracts and fees, sorting out licenses and project management, and chasing debt and invoices—you should understand and know that if you need to do them, you can do them yourself. Then, if you ever have an agent, you can appreciate what they’re doing and know how time-consuming it all is.”
Italian illustrator Sarah Mazzetti knows only too well how stressful managing clients can be. After single-handedly building her career by contacting art directors and hustling for new business with clients like The New York Times and The New Yorker she was picked up by an Italian agent and signed by two more, one in France and another in the U.S. “Now I don’t have to bother with estimates, discussing fees, and putting boundaries in with clients, which is a great relief.”
Illustration by Sarah Mazzetti for The New Yorker.
Working with three agents gives Mazzetti a unique position to reflect on the difference in service provided by each. “My French and Italian agents are perfect,” she says, “because they only take a commission when they handle the job. With my former American agent it got complicated, because their commission applied to all the jobs I took in America, Canada, and Australia, regardless of whether they handled it or not.”
Fee structure varies from agent to agent, but is usually split roughly 70/30 between illustrator and agent. Some agencies insist on a percentage of every job an illustrator takes, but this approach is decidedly old-school and overbearing, and plenty of agents are much more progressive with their finances. This was one of the founding principles Cockley established at Handsome Frank, surprised in his previous role by agencies demanding payment for jobs they didn’t instigate or even handle. “I thought that was really unfair and not conducive to a good relationship,” he says. “Our deal from day one was that if you have a contact or an ongoing relationship, or if someone contacts you direct and you wish to handle it direct, then you’re free to do that.”
Of course, Cockley hopes that his artists will pass the work his way, and his aim is to keep his roster of artists so busy that they don’t have time to worry about managing client relationships. “Over the years, we’ve found that most of our artists pass on the work to us, which is great because it shows they appreciate and value what we do and there’s no resentment there. It’s not like, ‘Shit, I’ve got to hand this over to my agent!’”
Agents also offer a level of expertise that it would be hard for a solo practitioner to maintain on their own; keeping on top of changing usage rights and billing best practices alone can be overwhelming. “There are more factors involved now,” says Gonzalez, “including multi-media content creation, multi-format deliverables, artist participation and ambassadorship, and more. Editorial usually has a baseline regardless of size and scale of publication, and generally fees are lower and determined by page size, story depth, and cover visibility. Advertising is more complex and depends on how, where, and for how long [an image] is used. Size and scale of campaign and media buy are important, and the global nature of both brand and campaign visibility factor in.”
“It’s also easier to get commercial clients with an agency,” says Mazzetti, an opinion echoed by Callaghan, who is considering finding representation in the near future.
Illustration by Laura Callaghan for Phlox.
“I've been thinking about agencies more recently, because even though I'm pretty established there are still some jobs that almost always come through agents rather than art directors. Big advertising or branding jobs can be more exciting and interesting to work on because (unfortunately) the bigger the budget the more creative risks they are willing to take. So it would be great to work with an agent who could get me some work with fashion brands and big clients. Longevity is also a concern; it would be nice to have someone to talk this through with and plan for the future, work-wise.”
It’s not all about big bucks though, says Cockley. Though an agent can certainly help you to find better pay, they’re also keen to help you find an interesting balance of projects. “We’ve got some illustrators who have turned round to me and said, ‘Right, this year I just want to make money.’ In which case we’ll just actively look for ad work for them and turn other stuff down. By and large people are looking for a mix of work that represents them and allows them to continue to grow.”
Before you jump the gun and start looking into representation, the final thing to consider is whether an agent wants to represent you. Recent graduates should concentrate on building their portfolio. Agents are looking for artists who are established and have a signature style to boot. “It’s sort of a purity,” says Gonzalez of what she looks for in an artist. “That sounds romantic, but there’s an artful, expressive, unquantifiable quality about our artists’ work. They have a love of craft, a unique gift and technique, and a dedicated commitment to the quality of their work. They are determined and have a point of view, and they are professional and communicative. It’s a constant dialogue we love.”
Illustration by Jean Jullien, represented by Handsome Frank for Majestic Wines.
Cockley is more pragmatic. “We need the finished article. They’re going to be dropped in at the deep end and we need them to perform under pressure. Can you work quickly? Can you take feedback? Are you up to being on a Skype call with six people halfway across the world who are tearing you apart and making you go away and change your work—do you have that mental toughness?”
If the answer is yes, Gonzalez offers this advice before you start sending out portfolios. “Consider the group dynamic and how you impact the team. Do the other artists inspire and intimidate you? That’s a good thing. Do you respect their work and love their clients? That’s great.”
If the answer is no, then it’s probably best to wait a few years. But don’t fret. “To be honest, you don’t need an agent to be a successful illustrator,” says Cockley. “And if you’re not at a point in your career where handling workload is the biggest problem you have, then you probably don’t need that help.”
James Cartwright is an editor and art director with a particular interest in environmental, design, and lifestyle writing.