When actors, writers and illustrators first set out to share their art with the world, nearly all of them ask that one question: How do I get an agent? And if your canvas of choice is the film or the novel, that makes perfect sense. But if your canvas is literally a canvas, you might be asking the wrong question.
“I don’t think illustrators need an agent, period,” says Richard Salzman, who’s represented artists for more than 30 years. Currently, Salzman works with Mark Smith and dozens of others. “When artists contact me and say they’re looking for a rep because they want more business, I’ll tell them, ‘You don’t need a rep for that—you just need to be someone with incredibly rare talent. And if you are that singular talent, which is the only one I’m interested in repping, you don’t need me or any other rep to be successful.’”
Ten to twenty years ago, agents normally handled the majority of an illustrator’s marketing outreach. But the digital era has changed all that. Now, Salzman says, artists can easily do that work themselves with an effective portfolio, proper promotion on social media, some paid directory sites, targeted email (or snail mail), and a strong showing in annuals.
This means that today’s agents are more focused on helping illustrators navigate the many offers they’re receiving, negotiating more money for lucrative commercial projects and communicating boundaries when client revisions go beyond the original scope. (Editorial commissions are generally set in stone, so even the best agents struggle to increase rates to off set their commission.)
Salzman ends up working with roughly one illustrator out of every thousand who contact him. The reps interviewed for this piece typically find new artists by seeking them out. So perhaps the right question is: How do I get an agent to find me?
“It’s unfortunate, but we can’t respond to the flood of emails we receive—doing so would be a full-time job,” says Pablo Steffa, founding partner and director at Agent Pekka, a Finnish agency that launched a Los Angeles office in August 2017. “Instead, we’re quite active following illustrators on Instagram, Tumblr and the handful of good design blogs in the industry. We’re very proactive in finding new talent, and we generally like to be the ones to approach the artist first.” Case in point: Pekka reached out to Ugo Gattoni in 2012 after seeing his book Bicycle all over blogs and social media; fast forward to 2017, when the relatively unknown illustrator completed key imagery for a campaign promoting a limited edition Hennessy cognac blend. Gattoni now counts Nike and Swiss luxury watchmakers Bucherer and Rolex among his clients.
Like Salzman, Steffa seeks out illustrators with a unique, consistent voice. “We want to see a really clear thread throughout their portfolio—someone who can explain their work in a personal way,” says Steffa. “We don’t want illustrators that follow trends. We’d much rather sign artists that are doing their own thing—that’s the sort of stuff that stands the test of time. We think we’re pretty good at finding artists who are just about to become bigger, and we tend to sign them quite fast when they’re on the rise.”
Advertisers, of course, are always looking for the next big thing. But they also enjoy working with a known quantity.
“Today, reps still act as a sort of seal of approval for commercial work,” says Steffa. “If a rep has an artist in her or his book, it means that artist can cope with the tight deadlines of commercial work. And the agency knows that the rep will sort through pricing and contracts, so there’s no need to handle all the back-and-forth with the artist. Just having a producer on hand from the rep’s side means that you’ll always have someone to answer calls and emails.”
“Advertising is extremely fast paced—there are a lot of egos involved and a lot of money on the line, and things don’t always go according to plan,” adds Bianca Bramham, a managing agent and producer at Jacky Winter Group, which has offices in New York and Melbourne. “A lot of clients like to have someone along for the ride who can jump in when necessary, see potential red flags, and make sure the artist and the client have the space to do what they do best.”
On the other hand, having a rep doesn’t always help—it could even hurt. Smaller clients may see the word agent and immediately cringe at the idea of a 25 percent commission on top of the illustrator’s fee, which could also rise if the agent is a particularly savvy negotiator.
“If you’ve gotten your work in front of the right art director and it comes down to two artists, they may call the one who doesn’t have a rep [because they know they’ll save a little money],” Salzman says. “The best art directors aren’t hiring someone who’s represented by a ‘reliable vendor;’ they’re seeking out the best illustrators in the world.”
The mere fact that a rep’s value is up for debate means that agencies are being forced to adapt. Bramham spent the earliest years of her career in a commercial animation studio working with directors, animators and 3-D technicians before taking on her role at Jacky Winter. That background has proven invaluable as the agency has evolved to encompass the work of a creative production studio.
“Today, our value is in playing an active role in the creation of the work,” she says. “As a production partner, we’re working alongside “ our artists and our clients from start to finish, helping with everything from the brief to project scheduling to making sure it all runs smoothly; whereas a traditional agent might be limited to marketing, relationships and the negotiation side of things, and typically takes a step back once the work goes into production.” That work runs the gamut: Jacky Winter’s roster of storyboard artists help agencies visualize creative projects when they’re little more than ideas; up-and-coming artists are available to help with smaller, low-budget projects; and the agency has even started helping clients produce live events. Brolga, a Brooklyn-based artist repped by Jacky Winter, recently painted illustrations on a van to promote the launch of shuttle service Chariot in New York City.
The very same social media channels that have enabled illustrators to tackle their own self-promotion are also hungry for more content, a need that’s often fed by illustrators, animators and video-production teams. “Our clients are commissioning a lot more short-form ‘snackable’ content like animated GIFs, which have really blossomed in the last few years,” says Bramham. “Artists are now being approached as personalities—not just for their work, but for their fan base and their own influence.”
So if you’re a budding illustrator looking for representation, don’t worry about it so much. For now, keep feeding that fan base, keep exploring new mediums and keep embracing what makes you unique. Someday, an agent may come calling. Or not. In the end, even the most experienced reps in the industry agree that attaining their services isn’t nearly as important as you might think.
The idea of ‘If I only had a rep, I’d be more successful’ gets it backwards,” says Salzman. “If you’re successful, you have a need for a rep; and at that point, any rep will sign you. Start out by soliciting art buyers so you understand the experience of selling your own work and getting assignments on your own—get all those experiences under your belt before you [start paying a rep to do it for you]. Otherwise, you’re putting the cart before the horse.” ca