The Value of Retaining Clients

August 23rd, 2010 | Posted in Freelancing

For the freelance illustrator there are two tasks that are absolutely essential for being successful:

  1. Finding new clients
  2. Keeping the clients once you’ve found them

The first one is all about marketing yourself, doing appealing work and targeting the right clients with your promotional efforts, and is universally considered the hardest part of being a freelancer: Finding the work.

The second one is at least as important as the first, however. Once you find a client, doing ongoing work for them is one of the cornerstones of building a successful (and stable) freelance business. One cannot rely on a constant influx of new clients providing enough work to stay busy. You need a core group of clients who give you steady or semi-steady work that you can count on to be your “rock” while you continue to pursue new work. When you find a client who gives you constant work… they are worth their weight in gold and you should do everything you can to keep that relationship strong and healthy.

I’m fortunate to have a few of those types. MAD is of course one, but I also do a fair amount of work every year for Scholastic and National Geographic World publications. Penthouse is proving to be a client that gives me a handful of jobs a year, and I have been doing a lot of work for Ray Griggs and his various movie and TV projects.

I was asked in a comment last week to explain about these “workplace posters” I am always posting the artwork for on The MAD Blog. Those jobs all come from one client, and this client is one of those long term, constant work types that are so important to a freelancer’s success. The client is The Marlin Company, and they produce communication materials for industries and employers all around the U.S. They make both print and electronic display units that a company would put up in their employee areas and provide a subscription based service that sends monthly content for those displays. The content consists of posters, placards and electronic animations that promote teamwork, safety, stress management and other important employer messages to the subscriber’s work force. The content is tailored to the specific display unit and some target certain industries like health care or manufacturing, but most are universal messages that any business wants their employees to understand. The poster art¬¨‚Ć I do is part of their “humor” line and usually depicts some zany scene or situation that enforces the message that goes along with it. The final printed poster is 17″ x 21″ with my image being 17″ x 17″ and text at the bottom. I basically do one a month for them, and have been doing so for about 8 years or so… although to be honest I can’t recall exactly when I did my first one. It was a physical painting and not digital, so that was a while ago. I estimate I’ve done over 100 poster images for them.

So how do you retain these kinds of clients? The first step is of course to do a great job on the artwork and on meeting any deadlines they have. Communication as always is key, so staying in touch and keeping them informed of your progress is important… but of course that is something you do for all clients and all jobs. You just don’t know when that first call from a new client might evolve into steady, on going work, so you need to do every job like it will be the first of many. It also is important to make the client feel like you appreciate their business, so the occasional thank you note or holiday card is a great way to convey this message.

It will become apparent quickly when a client falls into that “steady source of work” category, and that’s when you need to go the extra mile for them. When I have a client like that, I will make sure they are taken care of ahead of other work if that becomes necessary. I won’t blow a deadline for another client, but I will pull an all-nighter if my “gold” client calls with an emergency piece or something with a shorter deadline without batting an eye. I certainly will never turn down a job from a client like that no matter what the cost in effort may be.

The reason these kinds of clients are so hard to find and retain is that is is rare for anything to continue in the long term in the publishing world. Some things are out of your control, and no matter how good of a job you do changes will take place that will change everything. This often involves an art director losing their job or moving on, and a new art director taking over who has different ideas and tastes. I used to do a lot of work for a company called Business and Legal Reports, but when the art director I worked with left I never got another call from them. I know a lot of illustrators who would do a steady gig like a spot illustration for a column for some magazine for years and then lose that work when a new art director takes over the publication. You can’t get worked up over that kind of thing… it’s life and it will happen. All you can do is a great job and let the chips fall where they may… it’s always been my philosophy that when you work hard and put great effort and heart into what you do, good things will happen eventually. The world of business has a lot of cut throat to it, but the good will outweigh the bad if you just don’t give up and keep giving it your all.

Here are a bunch of my favorite Marlin Co. posters I’ve done over the years:



  1. pati says:

    If you just have an idea about how right was this entry for me today. Thanks so much!

  2. Taylor says:

    Thanks for sharing the art and especially the great advice! I’m with Pati, too. This came at a useful time.

  3. Ernie says:

    A diverse client base is also important. If you only work for clients in one industry you can find yourself trying to re-establish yourself if that industry goes sour.

  4. Mark Engblom says:

    “Penthouse is proving to be a client that gives me a handful of jobs a year…”

    Is that a pun?


  5. Thank you for the words of wisdom! Your work is amazing, Tom!


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