How to Get an Illustration Agent | Part 4

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.

Martina Flor created Lettering vs. Calligraphy as a way to show off her skills. Ultimately, it was a great way to prove her skills and attract paid projects doing what she loves.

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.

Letterpress printed promotional postcards by the author, Tom Froese. Letterpress printing is a specialty printing process that results in a very tactile, visually striking finished piece. This retro printing technique perfectly suited his style of his illustration.

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!

Keep your cool! Image from Giphy.com

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.

TF

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Categories: Wednesday Wisdom

Author:Tom Froese

Tom Froese is an award winning illustrator and designer in Vancouver, British Columbia. Working independently since 2013, Tom has worked for companies, organizations and small businesses around the world. Clients include Yahoo!, Air Canada, GQ France, and Abrams Publishing. He is also a Top Teacher on Skillshare, where he teaches a handful of classes based on his unique approach to illustration.

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4 Comments on “How to Get an Illustration Agent | Part 4”

  1. June 26, 2019 at 10:57 am #

    May I ask what benefits you have seen from Instagram?

    Speaking for myself, I used it for a couple years and became burned out on trying to keep up a consistent level of output, while dealing with the normal problems of social media (making subconscious comparisons to other accounts, habitually scrolling when I was bored, etc)

    Furthermore, my work got some decent exposure, but only from people I would call art “enthusiasts” or other artists, not anyone who actually wanted to give me work.

    • July 3, 2019 at 10:48 am #

      Hi Chris, I have personally seen benefits from Instagram. Here are some of them.

      Specific benefits from Instagram include:
      – Feeling of community with fellow creatives
      – A platform for sharing my work outside my main website, including finished art, unused concepts, and WIP
      – A useful way to stay in touch with my Skillshare audience
      – One of the most visible ways to show that I am actively working and open for business
      – I have been hired many times by people who follow me on Instagram
      – Some sense of which work of mine most resonates with a “mass” audience (this is helpful but not to be confused with what is “good”)

      Of course, Instagram has also been challenging. Here are some ways:
      – Comparing myself to others with more following/likes
      – Feeling pressure to create something every day, often at the cost of priority client work
      – Wasting time (scrolling)
      – Measuring the worth of my work based on likes
      – Worse: Making work that I think would get likes

      I do not know if there is a formula we can all follow and expect the same results. I seem to have found an audience that includes friends, enthusiasts, and importantly, those who might be in a position to hire me. With the above benefits and challenges listed, I would say I have found a balance that seems to be working for me right now. I do not hold myself to any standard of regular posting. I just post what I love, when I am able, and most importantly when I want. I do not work for Instagram and I do not have to “hustle” on Instagram. It might stunt my growth, but maybe growth alone is not my motivation. My ideal purpose for Instagram is to have a place to share what I am excited about and to feel a part of the illustration community. To participate and contribute in the community. The best way to do this is to share content that others might enjoy. But the only way to ensure I do not get burnt out is to make sure the content I share is something I enjoy. If I enjoy something but nobody likes it, I might feel bad for a minute or two, but I will still be able to feel good about the work because I liked it whether or not anyone else did. If others do like it, it only becomes more valuable, because I liked it first. I am wary of those posts I didn’t like but others loved, and then I suddenly start valuing it more because of the response. This is not going to make me do better work, only tempt me to make work based on popular opinion.

      I think Instagram has worked for me because it is not my focus, but rather one element in my overall social/content ecosystem. Such an ecosystem includes my portfolio website, my actual client base, the work I’ve made that exists in the world, my classes on Skillshare, my Twitter account, my Instagram account, interviews, blogs posts, my YouTube channel, and so on. All of these things combined work together in one way or another. There are stronger connections between some than others, but in many ways, these are all inseparable. That I have a decent following on Instagram is not really because I am good at Instagram, but that people want to follow me because they know me from somewhere else.

      If you can see any social media platform as a tool rather than your main focus, it takes some pressure off of it to be the be-all end-all. Of course, if you do not see even minimal growth or reach with Instagram, you should definitely stand back and ask some questions:

      – If you are not seeing engagement/following you want, what kind of engagement would you like to see? Be specific. How many followers do you think you should have? How many likes per post?
      – What are you doing to attract the kind of engagement you want?
      – Why might people not be responding favourably to your posts?
      – What makes your content attractive to people who don’t know you or your work?
      – Is the audience response on Instagram reflective of your success as an illustrator? The more successful you are as an illustrator, the more engagement you should expect on IG. If you are not getting a lot of work as an illustrator, you should not expect a huge response on Instagram. These two things are not completely related, but social engagement and demand as a freelancer are both indicators of how much your work resonates with others.

      There are many good illustrators who simply have not figured out Instagram and do not enjoy huge engagement. That does not mean they are bad at what they do. It just means they haven’t invested into the platform enough to make it attractive to a larger audience. In some ways it is a choice, in other ways it is the natural result of where their interests lie. Some people are simply not naturally drawn to certain forms of expression, and that will result in lower reach for those forms.

      If you are not enjoying a huge payoff from Instagram, but also don’t feel motivated to jump through the hoops to build an audience, then maybe Instagram is just not for you. Will your career suffer as the result? It might, but who knows how much? The most important thing is that you are doing good work and attracting paying clients in other ways.

      I may sound as though I am contradicting myself. Earlier I said that I don’t feel beholden to post all the time on Instagram. But now I just basically said that you have to play the Instagram game if you want to build your audience. Both are true for me. There are some times that I ramp up my Instagram game, and especially as I approached the 10k followers mark, I was really motivated to excel. The benefits of having a larger audience are clear: more reach, opportunities to promote things I care about. But at the same time, the more you get, the more you want. So at the 10k mark I started expecting more of myself. But my expectations grew too grandiose, and I was starting to feel badly about everything I posted. So I decided to take things down a notch. What I have found is that the world doesn’t end when I pull back. And I think others should realize this too: being a superstar on Instagram is great but not everything. The most important thing is, and I will say it again, to be doing good work and getting paid for it. If IG is pulling you away from doing what you are truly responsible for, it is probably going to hurt you more than help.

      Since I am advocating not ditching Instagram but rather adopting a healthy attitude about it, here are some ways I believe you can both improve your content and engagement, and also some healthy attitudes as you sit and watch the numbers grow (or not grow):

      Guidelines for Good Instagram Content
      – A good Instagram post has at least two of these, but hopefully all, three qualities:
      1. It is immediately articulable. Someone could easily describe the image. “A crow on a telephone wire.”, “A hand-lettered quote”.
      2. It is well crafted or unique. The content is made in a way that others find impressive, beyond average, clever, and unexpected.
      3. It is relevant. The idea expressed in the content is well understood and important to your followers.

      When people are scrolling through, the first two are more important than the last, since these are the most visual and take the shortest time to identify. The third is what will often cause someone to stop, scroll back, double tap, and even comment.

      – Post frequency matters. Post 1-3 images per day, and space multiple posts apart. Posting too often will annoy much of your audience, although the algorithm will likely throttle what content shows on others’ feeds anyway.
      – Stay on topic. Post images that relate to your overall feed and area of interest. If you are an illustrator, posting only your illustrations is best. You can mix up digital images and photos of your work (say, in print, or work in progress). Except maybe once or twice a year, resist posting photos of anything else, especially if it doesn’t directly relate to your topic — the reason strangers probably follow you in the first place.
      – If you must post personal or off-topic images, that’s what Stories are for. I use stories to let my personal life bleed into my feed a little bit. The motivation for looking through stories vs. scrolling through posts is different. I think people are more relaxed and looking for more diverse and unexpected content when in Stories mode. They are open to spending more time with each post. I think people are in a more curious mode when looking at stories. They want to see behind the scenes, or be more distracted.
      – Have a simple profile bio and a decent profile pic. Your profile should simply state what you do and hint at the topic/theme of your feed. Have a link to the most important site outside Instagram. That usually means your portfolio site.

      Guidelines for a healthy attitude to Instagram:
      – Give without expecting back. Put effort into making good content you believe in. Don’t expect the world to come back and crash your doors with appreciation.
      – Post only what you like. Don’t pander. Posting what you love means you don’t care how many people like it. If you pander, you expect more to like it, and when they don’t, you only fall deeper into the mire of self-loathing.
      – Be honest with yourself: are you naturally drawn to share on Instagram? Do you have the energy to play the game? If so, then commit and do it diligently. If not, then don’t worry about it.
      – You be the boss. Instagram/your audience are not your boss. Use your time the way you want. Do not feel pressure to conform or to act according to a schedule you did not agree to. When you’re busy, be free to let things slide with Instagram.
      – See Instagram as a tool. It’s there as a very powerful way to reach other people and to be a part of something bigger. Remember to always go with a giving mindset, not a getting one. Follow others. Comment. But most importantly, create content that not just shows off but hopefully inspires and relates to other people. Make Instagram just one part of your overall online fingerprint/ecosystem.
      – If you don’t get the following you desire, again, ask yourself if you truly desire it. If you do, you will have to put in the work to make it grow. Otherwise, don’t worry bout it! If that means deleting your account so you can stay focused on what really matters to you, then do that. Nobody died from not having Instagram.

      Okay that is all I have for this topic. I’ll have you know this is a draft for my next Wednesday Wisdom post. Thanks for your question, Chris, and feel free not to read the whole thing! ;)

      T

  2. July 4, 2019 at 4:32 am #

    Holy cow, thank you for your extremely thorough and candid response, as well as your insight and advice!

    I’m glad this is a draft for your next post, because I would have suggested it be otherwise.

    Best wishes!

    • July 12, 2019 at 10:16 am #

      Thanks Chris. For some reason I got stuck in trying to push this draft into a final version. You can read all about it in Wednesday’s post. Maybe next time though! :)

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