This is the final part of a four-part series about how to get an illustration agent. In this series, I detail my top 10 recommendations for illustrators looking to find an agent. Be sure to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 first! Follow Illustration Age on Twitter to be notified when the next part drops.
We covered a lot in Parts 1, 2 and 3, including how to have a top-notch portfolio that showed your work at its best and demonstrated your readiness as a commercial artist. We also covered how to make the right impression with a well-written bio and a decent head shot. Today, we wrap up the series with some more strategies on making the right impression. Finally, we discuss the least fun but most necessary part of the hunt: patience.
7. Have a strong online presence
I’ve written a lot about your online portfolio. Now to turn to social media. I believe that being active on social media is important for illustrators. Of all the platforms, in 2019, Instagram is still the most important. Particularly, keeping your account fresh is a good way to show that you are active and evolving as an illustrator. Unfortunately, your social media stats will be used for or against you. I would just say that, if your following is lower than you’d like, focus on making good quality content that you like, which you also believe resonates with your audience (which includes agents). If you show up and make good content regularly, the numbers will more or less work themselves out. Having a low follower count can actually work in your favour in some ways. You have a carte blanche and no weird history to worry about. You can have total control over your entire feed from now moving forward. The only advice I have is to take it seriously enough to make meaningful posts, but also to not overthink it. Here’s a rule of thumb: if you’re anxious about what you are about to share, perhaps you’re not ready to share it. Don’t share for sharing’s sake: share because you’re excited and what to share something you love with others.
Also — good work is key, and far more important than followers and likes. It’s possible to have a ton of followers but work that doesn’t have strong commercial value. The inverse is also true.
I don’t mean to focus only on Instagram though. Where else are you creating content that could bolster your presence as an illustrator online? Do you have an creative vlog on YouTube? Do you have an active Behance account? Do you keep a blog? What about Dribbble? If you have ways of creative expression outside of your portfolio and Instagram, find ways to align these with your overall artistic voice. By doing so, you reinforce your standing as an active and engaged illustrator — all attractive to someone who might consider adding you to their team.
Here’s a rule of thumb: if you’re anxious about what you are about to share on social media, perhaps you’re not ready to share it. Don’t share for sharing’s sake: share because you’re excited and what to share something you love with others
Another important way of being present online is by having your work featured elsewhere. Submit your work to illustration blogs and Instagram accounts like Ballpitmag and They Draw and Travel. Seed your work on Pinterest. Collaborate with other artists on something that might generate a little buzz. I think of Martina Flor’s Lettering vs. Calligraphy, for instance.
8. Strategize your first impression
It’s one thing to have a body of work online, but a whole other thing to get agents to go and look at it. The traditional way of self promotion for illustrators is of course the post card. If you do make yourself a post card, I would advise you to choose a piece that represents you and your work well, which also works good as a standalone piece. Not all illustrations make great postcards. You should also consider the printing and paper quality. Think about being on the receiving end of your own postcard. Would you hang onto it? Would you want to hang it up on your wall? I believe the best physical promotional pieces are ones people will want to keep. Just because you printed it, or made it into stickers, or comes in a fancy blind embossed box, it doesn’t mean others will value it or be able to envision a commercial use for it.
You’re only as strong as your weakest link. If your illustration work is still in its early stages, putting it onto a postcard may not be the answer to your prayers. On the other hand, if you have amazing work but it doesn’t translate well to postcard format, or if the printing quality of the postcard is poor, it might actually diminish the work significantly. It is also possible to obscure good illustration with excessive printing effects and features.
I cannot tell you what the best physical format for your work might be, but I can tell you that having your work in some kind of physical format is the best way to stand out. When I first set out to find an agent, I did send out postcards. But my postcards were special and stood out because they were letterpressed. They demonstrated my ability to make illustration for letterpress (which is a skill in itself), but more importantly, the very format of a letterpress post card perfectly captured the essence of my illustration style, which at the time was highly influenced by older printing technologies. I wrote personalized messages with a nib pen and black ink on the backs of my postcards and sent them out to maybe 5 or 6 agencies in the UK and US. The postcards themselves would go on to win a CA award of excellence, and be featured on a few blogs, most notably FPO (R.I.P.). All this not to brag but simply to underscore that the postcards I made were not only vehicles in which to showcase my illustration, but they were objects of desire in themselves. This is the level of effectiveness I want to aim for in my printed promotional materials, and which I recommend others to aim for themselves. Oh, and not just one but two agents responded to my postcards with an offer to represent me.
In my case, I sent only postcards, and this was enough to elicit a response from two agencies. But let’s just say none had responded. Should I have given up? Maybe sent a new batch of postcards to my Plan B agencies? Because I received the response I was looking for, I never followed up with the others. But that would have been my next move — after I was certain the postcards had enough time to be delivered and seen, to send a follow-up email.
About a year before sending out these letterpress post cards, I had tried emailing reps without postcards. I did hear back from some gracious agents, but most never replied back. And ultimately, nobody offered to represent me. At that time I was probably just not ready in terms of my body of work, but I also wonder if the emails simply looked too much like everyone else’s emails (and agents get a lot of emails).
The most important thing to consider here is what unique value you bring to the agency.
To summarize, be strategic in how you communicate and promote yourself to agents. If at all possible, make some kind of physical contact first (by way of a beautifully printed piece or product with your art) and then follow up by email. If you are lucky enough to live in or near a city where agents are, keep an eye open for events where they will actually be available to meet. Then sneak them your beautiful objet de désire.
9. Make it about them, not you
We artists can be a narcissistic bunch. We tend to think only about how an agent will benefit us. But how will we benefit an agency? This goes along with my first point about looking for an agency with the best fit. The fit goes both ways. We want to find an agency that we fit in with, that we would be proud to be a part of, but we should also be an illustrator that the agent is proud to represent.
The most important thing to consider here is what unique value you bring to the agency. What can add by being on the roster? What opportunities are there to complement their current roster? What experience do you bring to the table? What unique perspective?
When reaching out to an agent, be sure to make it about them. Don’t just offer obvious flattery and ask them if they’ll have you on board. Believe me, you won’t stand out. Be specific when you complement them — say what you love about them and why you think they’d benefit from having you join them. And go easy on the sell. Obviously, if you are sending them a postcard, you are showing interest in being represented by them. Most of your messaging can be about saying hi, expressing your fandom, and inviting them to take a look at your work online. You can close by saying you’re looking forward to hearing back soon. That’s all.
10. Have lots of patience and no expectations
If you are patient enough to read through this series of articles, you likely have the patience to keep working on your portfolio and experiencing the ups and downs of trying to get yourself out there!
The most important thing is to keep pursuing work, putting your best work on your portfolio, strengthening your presence online, and actively pursuing connections in the illustration world. Agents are just one part of the illustration ecosystem, and to focus solely on getting an agent is to discount the many other ways freelance illustrators can make a living and gain a sense of accomplishment. It’s sort of like relationships. If you’re overly focused on finding the perfect person and you look desperate, you will scare away the type of mates you’re trying to attract. But if you have a life of your own and are enjoying it quite apart from anyone else, you suddenly become more attractive and look more in demand. Similarly, as you reach out to agencies, do your best to look your best, but don’t have expectations for how it will turn out. Just know that, in time, with proper care, effort and attention, you will find your match, and they will find you.