How to get an illustration agent – and how to keep one

Ridin' Dirty Cats by Jordan Andrew Carter, an illustrator represented by Jelly London as part of its 'Futures' roster.

Four agencies provide expert advice on how to choose an agent, how to get an agent to notice you, and how to maintain a good relationship with your agent.

As a creative, there will probably come a time in your career when you ask yourself, 'Should I get an agent?'

It's a question that's more complicated than you may think. The first thing to consider is whether you really need one - will they offer you anything more than you can already achieve on your own? Secondly, how do you go about choosing an agent that's right for you, and then how do you convince them to represent you? And finally, once you're on an agency's roster, how do you keep them on your side and make the most of the relationship?

To answer all of those questions and to give you an insight into the mind of an agent, we went straight to the agencies themselves. We spoke with four illustration agencies: Bernstein & Andriulli, Meiklejohn, Breed and Jelly London.

What can an agent offer you as an illustrator?

If you're considering getting an agent, you should first think about what you want from them. For example, are you looking for someone who'll promote your work for you, or someone who'll help you with the admin side of things? Each agency has different strengths, so determining what you're looking for will help aid your search.

"I think it makes sense at a certain point in your career to have an agent, especially the more successful you are." says Bernstein & Andriulli's Sam Summerskill. "As a professional  illustrator you're in the privileged/wonderful position to be working in your dream job. You don't want to be doing invoicing, you don't want to be doing contract negotiations, and you don't want to be the guy that has to be hard on clients if timings go awry or there are too many rounds of amends. You want to be illustrating and creating new works. An agent can help in all of these areas, and act as a filter to ensure that you can focus on your practice."

Illustrator Mcbess, whose work you may have recently seen around the London Underground, is represented by Bernstein & Andriulli.

"A good agent should offer a blend of skills that lie outside the artist's own natural skillset. However, which of those skills you need depends on your own strengths as an artist," explains Jelly London founder Chris Page. "If, for instance, you're already a dab-hand at self-promotion then maybe you shouldn't get an agent and expect them to replicate that."

"Instead you should look to get an agent so that they can help you with project management or buyout negotiation or any other area where you are weak," Chris continues. "At Jelly, we have a number of artists who came to us because they were drowning in work already and needed help to wrangle clients, as well as those who need help with publicity and promotion."

"Not all agents work in the same way," adds Meiklejohn's Claire Meiklejohn. "It’s worth thinking about you want from an agent and then finding out how the agent you are considering works. Different illustrators want different things from agents. Some purely want someone to take care of the business end of things, others want someone to manage their projects and others want someone whose going to help them develop so it’s definitely worth investigating how agencies work before you sign up with them."

What can't an agent offer you as an illustrator?

Of course, there are also some things that agents can't do, and it's advisable to keep your expectations realistic.

"We can't do the work for our artists – every effort we make needs to be equalled by the artist," Claire tells us. "We can come up with ideas for marketing and portfolio development but the artist needs to create the work."

"No agent can guarantee that they will get you more work," Chris adds. "The good ones will prove to you that they will do all they can – either through direct portfolio viewings or social media or reputation – to help fill your diary. Anyone who promises to make you a millionaire is to be avoided.

"Likewise, anyone who promises to get you bigger budget work should also be avoided. Any cast-iron guarantees and promises of a similar kind usually end up in tears as your expectations will be too high."

Sam agrees, noting: "Sometimes people have an expectation that the minute you have an agent you're going to instantly get a £50,000 advertising job but it doesn't work like that. It usually takes a few months to seed out to contacts properly. This is done through face to face meetings, web and social media and printed publications. Often an art director loves the work instantly but requires a little time to find the right brief."

How can artists attract the attention of an agent?

Once you've made the decision to pursue an agent, you'll need to get them to notice you. Most agents get numerous submissions every day, so you'll want to stand out from the crowd.

"Get up in their grill," is Chris's advice to creatives. "They won't come to you unbidden, unless you're very lucky. Use social media and email assiduously, and get your work in front of as many good agents as you can. Then follow up with new work and regular updates so they can see how you're developing. Look for agents that you think represent the sort of artists that you like and admire, and target them."

"Some artists attract attention by cropping up at certain exhibitions, or by working on specific collaborations," adds Breed's Olivia Triggs. "It shows they've already been noticed, have potential, and know who they want to reach."

Mixed media collage by MASA, represented by Breed.

"We get maybe 30 submissions a day," Sam explains. "We try to respond to every one, although this is hard of course. People that stand out are people who've got a unique outlook, whether that's conceptually or style wise. A mistake I’ve found over the years is when an illustrator gets in touch with the agent of an artist that they admire/copy and say, 'Hi, I really love so-and-so's work. Look at my work, it's a bit like theirs.’ Research the agency you are approaching and ensure that what you are offering is fresh to them”

Not all agencies have the same ideas about the best way to get your work seen, though. While some suggest sticking to emails, others say something physical sent via post is the best way to get noticed.

"We receive so many emails on a daily basis, that it's easy to get lost in the masses," says Claire. "We do our best to work our way through all our email submissions but a postcard or something printed definitely makes you stand out from the crowd."

Sam disagrees. "I can think of two people I've signed on the basis of something that's arrived in the post," he says. "Being sent something is lovely, of course it is, but it can get expensive. I think that unless you know someone personally, or you are sending something unique to that person or agency, a simple email introduction with a link to a website or a PDF of of 10 low res jpgs is a great starting point. The best thing you can send is something new."

Chris also suggests that an email will suffice: "Send us a nice polite email with a link to some well-presented work and we will take time out to look at it. We all sit down together as often as we can to go through the new work that we've been sent and assess it."

What should illustrators find out about an agent before working with them?

While aiming to get yourself an agent, it's important to make sure you're targeting the right ones. You want to make sure they suit your needs, and, even more essential perhaps, you want to feel positive about the agent you're signed with.

"Find out everything you can," insists Chris. "Decide what you need an agent for and then ask around for the ones that'll best suit your style and purpose. If it was me, I'd contact one of the artists already on their books and get some feedback from them."

"It's important to feel as though you'd sit well within the roster of artists. You need to consider which territories they cover, the size of the agency, how many artists they look after and the mix of talent represented," adds Olivia.

"Even if you find that you are struggling to get an agent and one that gave you bad vibes offers you a spot, wait," Sam advises. "Be patient, and take the advice you get from the other agents that you did like and go back to them once you’ve explored their thoughts."

What qualities do agencies look for in an artist?

Even if you do manage to catch an agent's eye, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll agree to represent you. After the initial introduction, artists need to prove that they've got the qualities that agencies need in order to be able to work well with them.

"You should be true to yourself, showing a strong, consistent edit of work," says Olivia. "There also needs to be a good connection and energy between us," she continues. "We'll be working together closely, so being totally behind them and their creative ambitions is essential."

"We are constantly looking for something that we don't represent already," said Chris. "We're not keen on having a portfolio of artists that all do the same thing so don't approach us if we've already got someone on our books who's well-known for doing something very similar"

"It comes down to one thing for us, the quality of the artwork," says Claire. "We only want to represent the best."

"I love it when our illustrators send new samples through to us," she adds. "They are like little illustration jewels popping into our inbox, which we can immediately share with our clients and showcase their work."

"This beautiful illustration is by Lucy Truman," Claire tell us. "We've been representing her for over 10 years. She is fantastic at keeping her work fresh and always spends her spare time working up new samples and experimenting."

How can you maintain a good relationship with your agent?

It's not just qualities as an artist that agents are looking for. It's also important to put across your personality, and prove that you're going to be someone who's easy to work with. Further still, once you've convinced the agent to represent you, you need to be able to maintain a relationship and keep that agent on your side.

"I speak to some of the people I represent more than I speak to my wife," Sam admits. "I've represented some people for 10 years. Through this time people have children, get married, buy houses and an agent is part of all of this. An agent can be as much a friend as anything else. A sounding board for ideas. Essentially, the better an agent knows you and your thought processes the better they are at discussing your work on your behalf."

"You need to have professionalism, a passion for your craft and a determination to work hard," says Olivia. "It's a tough industry so you really need to be prepared to put the work in. We take the careers of our artists seriously and we expect the same for them."

"There's no substitute for hard work. Ever," adds Chris. "I like to see illustrators that are constantly working on personal projects – even when not being commissioned. A creative mind should be constantly restless and all of this material should be shared with your agent so they can pass it on."

All four of the agents we spoke to agreed that communication is the key to a good relationship between agent and artist.

"The relationship between artist and agent should be an on-going dialogue; I would suggest that you talk to each other as often as you can," says Chris.

"If it's looking like you're going to miss a deadline it's better to let us know, then we can manage the clients expectations," Claire adds.

"You need to work together to drive new ideas forward," Olivia tells us. "From an agent's point of view it's important to have very tailored goals for each artist, as they are all unique in their aims and the direction they want to go in."

"Some artists are more personable than others but it's the agent's job to try and deal with whatever personality you're blessed with," concludes Chris. "If you're a difficult bugger then we just have to make sure the client doesn't find out! It does help when you make yourself available for creative calls, as art directors often want to swap ideas with talent and it often makes for a smoother job if you talk to them."

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