No to numbers, YES to art! Dan Woodger and other illustrators on surviving the 'follower bias'

By Dan Woodger

More and more clients are moving away from names both big and small due to follower counts. So how do illustrators fight back against this new trend – if they even can? Find out with Colin Kersley, Shawna X, Dan Woodger and Jelly London.

Warning: this story contains real-life client interactions not for the faint-hearted.

"An email landed with the usual inbox ping," Colin Kersley tells me from his Cardiff studio, and my heart's already pounding.

"It was what every illustrator hopes for," the artist alternatively known as Alternative Aesthetics continues. "A new potential client complimenting your work and outlining a project they want to work on with you; from this initial contact, there was the typical back and forth of clarifying project details and arranging meetings. Within these emails, I'd linked to a couple of recent pieces on my Instagram for reference to work being described in the project. This triggered a response I wasn't anticipating at all..."

My palms are sweaty, knees weak. This won't have a happy ending, will it?

"It was a reply, explaining that as I didn't have 10k+ followers on my social media accounts, it wouldn't be possible to move forward with me on the project."

My suspicions confirmed I freeze in shock, inert as one of Colin's trademark black and white illustrations almost, as the artist continues his sorry tale.

"I'd never had anything like that happen before," he reveals. "I'm used to losing projects due to budgets or timelines being too tight but never based on how many followers I've had. I didn't think that mattered to clients at all as they usually approach you based on your work."

Colin sat there looking confused at the email he'd received, wondering why he'd even been contacted in the first place if follower numbers were such a vital requirement. A reasonable question about a very unreasonable situation, most illustrators would agree.

"Everything up to that point seemed really positive and there were none of the usual red flags to suggest they'd be a difficult client," he says. "I took to Twitter in the hope of someone else being able to make sense of it, or at least see if anyone had experienced this as a stipulation for a commission before."

By Colin Kersley (Alt Aesthetics)

Turns out Colin wasn't alone, with other confused illustrators coming out with their own tales of falling victim to this seeming new trend of 'follower bias.'

One of them is Dan Woodger, arguably one of the most recognisable illustrators and animators working today, counting the likes of Samsung, McDonald's and Pepsi among his happy and satisfied client base.

"I worked on a pretty big job for a company in another country; the project was well received there, so when I was put forward for a potential collaboration in the UK, I mentioned this work and how I was familiar with the company's creative ethos," Dan writes, putting pen to paper for this second ghoulish tale of woe.

"When I heard that while they liked the work I’d done abroad, but were going to go instead for somebody with at least 10,000 Instagram followers, I was so disheartened. I have no idea who is responsible for setting this arbitrary number but it’s deeply frustrating and pretty insulting."

As Dan tells me, he set out to be an illustrator, not an influencer, but it seems in today's climate the line between the two is becoming increasingly blurred.

If this is the new paradigm, then how on Earth can today's visual talents survive? Can they fight back? And what's the word from one of the UK's most respected creative agencies on the issue?

I set out to find out more for Digital Arts, speaking with Colin, Dan, US artist Shawna X and agency Jelly London for answers.

What Brands Want

"The frustration lies with the misguided thinking behind it," Dan argues when I say this is as simple and lazy a case of brands wanting to buy their way into an artist's popularity.

"Followers might equal eyeballs (in theory), but judging an artist on their social media following instead of their body of work is farcical. Yet it seems rewarding popularity instead of quality is a growing trend in the industry.

"The magic number seems to be 10k+," he continues. "That's the number I’ve had quoted to me by a potential client and have heard other creatives quote similarly. For the record I fall under that magic threshold; I have 7.4K followers and thus missed out on the job in question. But I like to think the average person sees that this ‘like-chasing' economy is nonsensical.

"If you were to break down the Instagram page of an illustrator with 10k+ followers, who is their audience? It’s a good bet that 80% of them are made up of fellow artists, art directors, art students, graphic designers, motion designers, art buyers etc. So when a company's marketing team commissions this 10K+ illustrator to promote their product, is this the audience they're hoping to reach? I'm not so sure.

Dan Woodger for McDonald's Japan

"Perhaps more importantly, who’s to say that the following is even real?" Dan points out. "Of course some followers are flesh and blood, but there's no easy way of knowing how many for sure. If I buy 3k fake followers, does that make me commissionable now?

"Obviously there are fantastic artists with a very large following out there. I’m not trying to say that because they have large numbers they must’ve bought them, I’m just trying to shine a light on the concept of companies setting a minimum bar before commissioning work. If that becomes the norm and companies no longer commission artists below 10k followers then you can bet your ass there will be an influx of people paying to boost their numbers."

Such an inauthentic consequence ties in with Colin's belief that there's no such thing as 'organic' online marketing; not anymore, anyway.

"Thanks to algorithms," he begins, "we're fed content by robotic systems that attempt to predict what you want to see on the internet and social media – you liked three posts by this person this week, so guess what, you'll be seeing all of their posts at the expense of other content.

Image: iStock

"Algorithms can only work on numbers and basic interactions, which doesn't always translate to value. It's an entirely broken system, creating bubbles that narrow people's intake of information and choking who sees your creative content.

"This limits exposure to other people, potential clients and customers that sit outside of the bubble you've been placed in," Colin argues. "If anything, it's anti-social. When you apply a marketing focus on a system that favours 'popularity' based on numbers alone, it will deliver on hitting desirable figures of reach or likes. But is any of that actually valuable?"

"With such a demand on hitting those marketing metrics, maybe the easy choice for marketing/comms teams is to hope the famous name with large follower numbers aligned with their product translates to mass coverage and not just shouting into a void of bots and fake accounts."

The Impact on Illustrators

The follower bias affecting illustrators' career prospects stems then from a misguided and almost blockheaded attitude to numbers, with little space anywhere for quality left. But what of the other impacts this race to the bottom is having on the artistic community? And what about all those recent illustration grads out there with empty pockets and zero profile?

"Imagine how disheartening this must be for them," Woodger agrees. "Building a real Instagram following has been made much harder since the algorithm change last year, so unless you’re prepared to buy fake followers to reach the magic number, do these new hungry creatives not get a look in?

Dan also wonders whether such hungry creatives can ever find their voice in this sort of playing field.

"Bottom line is, I think it makes people afraid of making mistakes," he says. "Art is about creative self expression; sometimes it resonates with people, sometimes it doesn’t. But if you’re deciding whether to share artwork based on how many likes you think it will get as opposed to sharing artwork that you believe in, is that really of merit?

"It ties in with the big increase in 'follower chasing' which I'm seeing. There’s been this growing trend of people creating fan art for anything in the zeitgeist or upon the death of a celebrity; when the third season of Stranger Things came out last month, there seemed to be a flood of art related to the show posted within the community.

"Personally, I love Stranger Things, and I loved seeing people so hyped about it, but I couldn’t help wondering if the likes and follows people were racking up was because people liked the artwork, or because people liked the show. It’s likely a bit of both, but where's the originality? I’m not trying to put people down who create fan art, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I just don’t want people to be afraid to be original because it might not get as many likes.

"There's a quote passed on to me by my friend and fellow illustrator Alison Carmichael: 'Your Instagram follower count is the measure of how dedicated time-wise you are to your social media, whereas your portfolio is the measure of how talented you are as an artist. Two totally different skill sets. Not to be confused.'"

Artists on how illustrators can fight back

Concentrating on making the best work you're capable of instead of making the best 'fake friends' you can earn is one tactic artists can employ in this strange war between illustration and so-called 'influence.' As the Brooklyn-based Shawna X tells me by email, "money talks, but trust in your vision is louder."

The uber-talented and uber-colourful artist has also lost out on jobs due to her 28k follower base not being good enough (huh?), to the point where she "sometimes almost expects it to happen."

"But don't focus on it," she advises fellow illustrators. "I think data and metrics will be a selling point regardless; once this trend moves on, another will replace it, and so on. But if you let that drive you, then you willingly give up the driver's seat to your own passion in life."

Kersley sings from the same hymn sheet as Shawna. "Sure, when you spend so much time creating something, it can be disheartening to have hardly any response to something you put out to the world. It can feel a bit like a comedian bombing on stage with a bad joke. But I'm a firm believer in focussing on just creating good work that you're happy with and posting, then moving on to the next thing.

"Most illustration commissions after all come about because your illustrative style or concepts tick the right boxes for a project, so forget about the numbers and just share work that makes an impact," Colin concludes.

Agencies on how illustrators can fight back (Clue: Business smarts)

While illustrator's opinions on the follower bias are crucial – after all, they're the ones to bear the brunt – what about the view from agencies, especially one as revered for its respect for illustrators on its books as Jelly London?

Nicki Field, head of illustration at Jelly, believes the follower phenomena is nothing new.

"We’ve been fielding enquiries like this for the last few years and it’s all part of the 'influencer marketing' that is turning the traditional advertising business on its head," Nicki writes, stressing that she still refuses to view influencer as an interchangeable term with artist.

"Initially we at Jelly felt very strongly against it, but truth be told it isn’t something that is going away fast. I would agree that to lose out on a job merely down to followers feels very wrong; however, we find that most enquiries headed this direction are predominantly social media-focused briefs from their inception, so it makes sense for this to be a consideration in matters."

Race to the bottom of the barrel? (iStock)

But if social isn't the main driver, then Nicki's killer point is that freelancers and represented illustrators should be prepared to raise numbers – and we ain't talking followers.

"If social isn’t a big part of the project/activity," she underlines, "then an artist's following shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. If the artist is subsequently requested by the client to post on their social, then this should absolutely be treated like additional usage.

"For us, the only scenarios where these social-led projects make sense is when the creative work remains decent and it has the right brand alignment. Otherwise it just whiffs of an ad that’s chasing social audiences.

"Our general rule is that if there’s no artwork creation/creative involved in the partnership, then it probably doesn’t make sense to pursue it. And if you feel like the attraction of the client to the artist is only about followers then – alarm bells, ding ding!"

The tell-tale signs with this approach all comes down to money, Nicki explains.

"We can often tell how legit a project is in the way that we are asked about pricing for something like this," she reveals. "Most influencer-marketing agencies are used to requesting rate cards from influencers, as the rates differ on the number of followers. It’s treated very much like a media buy, but we at Jelly will always continue to price the work in the traditional way: art production plus usage."

This business sense hopefully trickles down from agencies to the illustrators on their books, even if the agency is doing all the handling; freelancers who get approached by clients would be wise to take the same approach.

For illustrators to truly fight back, they need to see how social-biased the brief is from the beginning, and, large following or not, be prepared to negotiate for whatever makes it out onto their Instagram and Twitter.

Read next: Jelly London on why (and how) illustrators should get into animation

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