Sunday Mailbag

June 1st, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Whenever work gets slow, I always think about trying to get an artist’s rep to circulate my work around. Have you ever used one, and if so, what do you think of them?

A: Reps are great if you can get a good one. I’ve heard horror stories about bad ones, so you need to be careful. I’ve never had a real rep, although I am a part of Cagle Cartoons’ small stable of custom illustrators, and have gotten a few jobs from them over the years.

For those who may not know what a “rep” is, the term is short for “representative” and they are like an agent for an actor. They go out and find jobs for their artists. Most reps also handle the negotiations with these clients for the fees, do the invoicing, handle past due accounts and in general act as the buffer between the money and the client, allowing the illustrator to focus solely on the work and the creative side of things. For this they take a percentage of the fee, usually in the 15% range.

Artists are creative beings that are very often business-challenged and find it hard to deal with analytical things like marketing, money, negotiations or all that those kinds of things entail. Many just want to sit in their studios and draw or paint. Reps provide a solution to the business end of things, and in some severe cases an artist couldn’t make a living without someone doing that kind of thing for them. Personally I have always been very good with the business side of things, so that aspect of a rep doesn’t much interest me. For some artists it would be a very good thing to consider.

The main allure for a rep is the generation of work. Good reps have a large network of art directors and contacts that they routinely work to solicit jobs for their artists. Most reps have a “stable” of artists working in various styles that they try and sell and pair with new clients. In theory, a rep’s main job is to seek out and find work for their artists, so it’s like having a full time marketer doing the leg work for you. That part sounds very enticing. Reps are often located in the big markets like New York or L.A. as well, which makes it easier to be an illustrator living in Podunk, Idaho and still get work in the big leagues.

Like anything, however, there are good and bad ones.

A good rep works hard to find their artists work. They actively pursue clients, follow up with completed jobs, constantly try and make new contacts and expand their network, strengthen their relationships with current clients and art directors, etc. In the old days, they did actual “leg work” by schlepping their artist’s physical portfolios around to the publishers or big ad agencies and meeting in person with art directors in pursuit of work. These days it’s more about the direct mail and sourcebook/on-line marketing than anything. A good rep also watches out for their artists and works to get them bigger and better jobs. The artist’s success is their success.

A bad rep can be a real pain. Generally you sign a contract with a rep for exclusivity. Some reps will then try and tell you they now should get 15% of all your work, whether they got it for you or not. I understand they want to do the billing and such now for all your work, but I could never figure out how any rep could figure they deserve 15% of your pay for jobs you are doing for longtime clients they had nothing to do with getting. New clients, whether they came by your rep or not… that’s debatable. In principal I would say you should refer new clients to your rep if you have now got one regardless (especially if your rep is good at negotiating top dollar for your work). Another sign of a bad rep is if they load you up with lousy jobs. Some reps insist you work non-stop and may expect you to take jobs you’d never have accepted in order to keep you working. Bad paying jobs illustrating menus for some corner deli? I’d prefer to have a little time off instead. The opposite may sometimes be true, where the rep decides your work isn’t “selling itself” enough and they stop working to sell you and concentrate on some other artist in their group who’s style happens to be hot. Then you have little work but a rep who insists on 15% of any outside jobs you get even though he/she isn’t working hard for you. Finally a bad rep is one who places ads in sourcebooks (which they only pay 15% of , BTW. Typically a rep will put together marketing materials but the artist pays the lion’s share of the costs), puts up a website and then sits back and waits for the phone to ring. That isn’t any more effective than any artist could do on their own.

Good reps are hard to find and often are booked with artists already. I’d love to have a good rep on one of the coasts getting me higher profile jobs for magazines and ads, but I have never really pursued any reps and none have pursued me, so I do my own marketing and promotion. I’m usually busy so I don’t miss it much, but there are aspects to having one that I wouldn’t mind having.

Thanks to Bill White for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me???????? and I’ll try and answer it here.

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