I've had the pleasure of working with talented artist, Andi Butler, during my past career as an art director for Klutz Books. While there, I was in the position of working with the agents who represented illustrators. I was curious to hear the other side of the story - the point of view from the artist being represented. I'm so glad Andi was willing to share her thoughts on the subject.
Q: Can you tell us about your artistic path? How you started in the business and how you got to this point in your career?
A:Everyone starts out drawing and painting, I stayed with it! I was sewing at 9, decorating cakes at 11, in and out of art classes all through middle school, high school, and finally in college, I added merchandising and fashion to my commercial (that’s what it was call then) art curriculum. I received my first paying gig from my dad, he paid me to design his dart team’s logo while I was still in high school. After a few retail jobs and trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I went to work for a major retailer’s in-house ad department in Detroit. I was a visual merchandiser for some of the soft lines for the rotos (weekly ads) and our offices were next to Product Development. Keep in mind, there were no “pattern work” degrees. You went to school for art, fashion and merchandising if creating patterns was what you wanted to do. I introduced myself to the director and asked her what she wanted to see in a book (portfolio). A month or so later, I showed her mine. She bought two patterns on the spot, and, offered me a transfer. I was thrilled! This was also just as Apples were coming into the design offices, so we created repeats (and plaids) by hand painting them. I was in on the ground floor of digital design in 1992. In 1997 I left and became independent, and ironically, my old job would hire me. In 1999, I received an opportunity to move here to Chicago and work for another major retailer. I couldn’t say no to their regular paycheck which was high for PD. After a few years I was downsized and became independent again. I had so much experience under my belt from going to print shows (which were much smaller back then, in NY), I felt very confident I could make a living.
Q: When did you first sign with an agent/rep and what led you to the decision to do so?
After I was downsized, websites were just getting very popular with freelancers. So, my husband (who knew some code) put one together for me, and I’d sent out postcards to various print studios and reps. I signed with one, and did pretty okay. Then when I started to get freelance work from my old job here in Chicago, it was hard to keep up with a large enough volume of work for the studio, so I left.
Q: Did you research a few agents before making your decision?
A: Yes, I talked to people I'd worked with.
Q: What was your criteria for signing with a particular agent?
A: My first studio agent was great with giving us trends and had pretty good communication skills, that helped me tremendously.
Q: Are agents open to letting designers talk with their signed artists to get a feel for how the agency is run?
A: I’ve had a couple offer me names when I’ve asked, but they won’t offer them unless you ask. You also have to be careful about what you’re asking these artists, they’re being put in a bit of a spot. They don’t know who I am, and what my motives are. And there are a lot of variables to success that some artists do and others don’t. I think if you’re asking, it should be about the agency’s operating procedures, how well they communicate, etc., not personal things.
Q: How many different agents have you worked with?
A: Not all have been studios or licensing agents, I’m with my third licensing agent, and I’ve worked with a couple print studios, I’ve also had a couple of illustration agents.
Q: Have you ever worked with more than one at a time (like in different markets)?
A: Yes, but I’ve always been transparent. By that I mean, they both knew about the other, but not what I was doing for them, nor did I give them the same work. I’m kind of doing that now as well, as I just signed with a new licensing agent, but I’m also part of The Textile Collective (which is more of a stock agency). You can’t work with two agents in the same market, even if you could keep it under the radar, it’s just not professional. You certainly don’t want a reputation like that.
Q: In your experience, what have been the advantages and disadvantages to working with an agent?
A: There are so many variables with different agents. They all have their own style, and way they work, and expectations. You have to be careful lumping them together. An artist isn’t going to always fit. That doesn’t make things bad, it actually is a good thing, as it helps one to re-evaluate their work. So I think that’s a definite advantage. They help you look at your work objectively, and from the buyer’s POV. You can’t be married to your work if you’re going to put it out there. You get a lot of exposure, there’s potential for a lot of diversity in the work, and if their communication is great, and they’re open, the relationship really gels and it’s a great time. They promote you, and it truly can be not only lucrative, but a rewarding experience (from the relationship side). One can learn a lot, even when one thinks there’s no more to learn. I did have one agent though, who never told me they liked what I was doing. I got a lot of crits, but not a lot of encouragement. What hurt though was, I did primarily children’s prints and was told that my stuff was weird (I created a lot of retro design in 2002), and I was only inspired by my self. Ironically, so much of my work sold through them, and I couldn’t figure out why they would say that to me. It was hard to leave because I sold so much through them, but inside I was feeling pretty horrible. That’s a disadvantage to working with an agent. You are, for the most part, able to have only them for the length of the contract, and it can leave you second guessing your skills if it’s not going well.
Q: What would you say is the key to forging a good relationship between an artist and an agent?
A: Sometimes, knowing what you don’t want is as important as thinking you know what you want. I knew I didn’t want to be part of a mill. Believe it or not, there are some artists that are fine with it. Having really good communication, and clear direction are the most important things, to me anyway. And by direction I mean, what their expectations are. I have heard that some agents have a standard procedural guidelines packet they give to their new artists so things are formatted all the same, what shows they attend, and generally what the expectations are. I have never had an agent who’d given that to me, but I wish I had. The artist has to be clear too. What they can do and when they’re in over their head. I had one agent who was so understanding when I couldn’t get work to them (we were going through testing with our younger son at the time, and he was later diagnosed with autism) but I felt terrible about it. I had to leave them, I had to have that slot open for someone who could produce. It was really upsetting for me, but they were running a business. That is another thing the artist needs to be sure they have: an excellent work ethic. I have things dropped in my lap all the time (usually illustration work), I do my best to hit the ground running. There may be a lot of creative competition out there, but there is a shortage of people who have awesome work ethics. Have a great one and you’ll always have people who want to work with you.
Q: Do you have any advice for guild members who are interested in finding an agent or agency to represent their work?
A: Do you need an agent? Ask yourself why you feel you need one. Many agents want to see how you’re faring on your own, so if you think “if I just get that one agent, I’ll have it made.” Forget it. The work you produce, and your clients precede you, and speak volumes. If you don’t have a large body of work, only approach studios when you do. Send postcards, have a mailing list, use social media, learn from people you admire. Be aware that a large following doesn’t meant they're good at what they do! I have friends who love their agents, and those agents have a small following, because they’re working! So, don’t let that be the bar. Have many collections of what you’re good at. Enjoy what you do, you don’t have to design everything. Get a feel for what you should be designing (meaning, trends or holidays) at different times of year, so you’re always ready to show new things that may be what they need. Really feel good about what you’re creating. Don’t copy someone else’s style if you can help it. There are a few styles that are trendy right now, but that will be replaced with the next popular thing. Make sure you’re creating out of you, and not mimicking what you’re seeing as popular at the moment. Lastly, the agent works with you, they don’t work for you, and you don’t work for them, keep in mind it’s a partnership, and their cut isn’t for nothing. They travel, and put their reps on the line promoting their artists, they’re in it to win it. If they are promoting you, give them some love and be sure to get to them what they need. However, when it’s not feeling good, get out of the relationship. If they’re not sharing with you, if they’re not talking about shows they’re attending and what to have for the show, expect you to read their mind, have a weird or no sense of urgency, or just general evasive maneuvers, you have to cut them loose. I’ve had an agent who never communicated with me - even via email - and avoided my one phone call! It was really frustrating because an entire year was wasted, I didn’t make a dime from it (which is why I love my illustration clients, always straightforward and reliable). Always feel good about what you’re putting out there, and others will too!
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