Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Why I Left My Agent | Advice on Illustration Agencies & Being Represented

In June of 2014 I announced on social media that I was very happy to be represented by a well known London based illustration agency. I wont mention the name, as this post isn't directed at them specifically. This is in no way an attack on specific people I dealt with, nor is it an attack on illustration agencies in general, it's more of a summary of my experience of being represented. I know that whilst I was considering my options on this matter, I very much gained from other illustrators advice and experiences, so hopefully this post will help others decide the right path for them too!

I was represented for just two short months, the quietest two months of my working year, and so I hoped my agent might be able to boast my workload and introduce me to new clients. I was excited about this prospect, and excited by the very complimentary meeting I had with the agency; they really seemed to understand my practice and I hoped they would be able to push my work into areas I might not have been able to tap on my own.

That was one of the main reasons I decided to join, actually. To work with bigger clients I felt I was unable to reach.  I had the notion that larger companies would either a) feel more secure using an agency rather than a single person or b) not have the time to search for and contact independent artists such as myself.

Now, I'm not so sure this is true. If you take a look at my client list here , you can see that both pre and post representation I have been very lucky to work with some quite large names, none of whom minded that I was an independent freelancer working from her bedroom! In hindsight I think I had started questioning my ability to run my own business, question going it alone, and thought an agent would solve this.

I know that for some people, being represented works for them. And perhaps I just didn't sign with the right agency for me. But for me in particular, I found the process of talking to my agent, who then spoke to my client, who then spoke to my agent, who then spoke to me, frustrating! I felt out of the loop - the loop being my business, which I had been building on my own for years. It just didn't feel right to have someone talking for me, regardless of the fact they were working in my interest. I missed the one-to-one contact with a client - I feel you can learn so much from them - not to mention gauge their expectations and attitude to the project. Without that contact I felt in the dark.

I don't know whether my opinions would be different, or even if I'd still be represented, had the agency managed to secure me a decent amount of work. But the fact was that they didn't. A lot of the work I did whilst represented, I sent to my agents from my own inbox. This was another issue I had, that if a client contacted me, I was contractually obliged to forward this email on to the agent who handled it from there. On the one hand I understand why this has to happen - perhaps, for example, the client wants to be naughty and bypass agency fees, after having been pitched my work by the agent - but to have to do this from the moment I signed up seemed unfair. The clients coming to me then hadn't discovered me through the agency, it was too soon for that.

These are some of the main issues I had, but there were a lot of other little niggly things that I begun to realise weren't for me. Instead of trying to explain all of them, I thought perhaps a little pro's and con's list might be in order! This list is based on my own experience and views. Con's to some might seem like pro's to others - it's for you to decide how you want your business to be run!

I hope you find it useful in making your own decision.

The Pro's & Con's of Having an Illustration Agent


Security - in terms of being paid, and in terms of having a job 'secured' once contracts are signed. I feel a client might be less inclined to mess you around if you've got a team of people behind you!

Promotion - it's part of an agent's job to promote the illustrators on their books, and they may have a wider audience, range of contacts and resources than you will on your own.

Authority - as a lone freelancer, you may not have the confidence to barter a higher fee - an agency can be more successful in doing this, although this is debatable.

Advice - having someone to talk to who knows your business and can advise on issues, the future, your portfolio etc.

A Point of Contact For Clients - if you are someone who hates discussing fees, contracts, conditions of license - then the load is off your mind with an agent.


The 'Middleman' Feeling - you're no longer working directly with a client, you may feel out of the loop, you aren't 100% on what is being said on your behalf. You run the risk of information getting lost/distorted when the agent relays it to you.

Lack of Control/ Uncertainty Over Promotion - you're not the only artist on their books - are you getting put forward for enough jobs, are you being presented in the right way? You'll never know for sure.

Contacts Are Harder to Make - if an agent is speaking for you, you can't build a relationship with a client. You could be just another artist from such-and-such agency.

Agency Fees - I do believe it's typically 30% of the commissioning price. So on the one hand, the rep has the experience and persuasion to secure a higher fee, but 30% of whatever the client agrees, isn't yours. Also, there's the fact you are more expensive as a signed illustrator, if you go it alone you can offer a fee minus the middleman.

Art Directors Find Agents Unnecessary- some art directors find this. I have been told by a long term client of mine that he finds illustration agencies an 'unnecessary middleman' and would much rather work one on one with an artist. I do imagine its refreshing for clients, working in an often corporate world, to work directly with an independent artist - and that perhaps going through another corporative entity such as an agency, would be off-putting.

Job Satisfaction - I take huge pride in my business and exceeding a clients expectation. I didn't like sharing that feeling with an agency.

And so I left, and continued on as an independent artist. And honestly, I haven't looked back! For me it was a really useful experience having a rep for those two months, because it confirmed what I love most about my occupation, and in what circumstances I work best.

I'd love to read your experiences with illustration agencies - good and bad - and whether any of the above is useful to you (or complete trollop!)

Thanks so much for reading!


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Holly! Where I'm from there really aren't many illustration agents at all and I always had the feeling this was a disadvantage, and that I could be getting much more and better work if I did have one. Having read this and knowing the way I deal with my clients I think I'd probably feel much the way you did. I think best case scenario would be being able to have an agent, but then also being able to continue on your own so that they can score you the projects that might be eluding you... but that's probably not a likely scenario, I'm guessing.

    1. So glad I could help you in your decision in some way. It seems from the comments below that there are agents out there that will take the back seat a little bit, so perhaps its worth seeing if there's an agency that is the right fit for you!

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment :)

  2. Very interesting post Holly - thanks for sharing!

    I agree with all the pros and cons that you mention. Personally I've had two very different experiences with agencies. The first one who represented me a few years back (when I was fresh out of University, and signed me up suspiciously quickly) only ever gave me the sense that I was just another artist on their books - they had hundreds - who brought money. I remember at our first meeting, their CEO rifled through my portfolio in two minutes flat and only asked the question "how long did this take?" ... They also often ignored my emails, and displayed little interest in me as a person or what my ambitions were, to the extent that they narrowly pigeonholed me as an 'educational' illustrator despite my frequent suggestions otherwise. After a while I decided to ditch them and go it alone for a couple of years. New commissions only ever trickled rather than flowed regularly in, and I always found it difficult to negotiate fees and usage terms and write the paperwork... I always felt a good agent could look after this for me as well as help boost my profile, work-rate and confidence.

    So it was a great relief as well as exciting when my current agent agreed to sign me up a couple of years ago. They've helped advance my career considerably and they're always very communicative, supportive and they have a good website and client base. I do get the feeling sometimes that certain clients would rather not have to deal with them (if the amount of enquiry emails I receive despite a message on my website asking them to contact them first is anything to go by) and some people I know think it odd that I'm obliged to pass on enquiries like these over to the agents when hitherto they have no involvement; however when I consider all they've done for my career as well as all the boring/difficult stuff they take care of, such as the paperwork and negotiations, and the fact that they know what they're talking about regarding fees and terms, I regard them as well worth the commission fee.

    I completely understand why having an agency or not works for some and not for others... I guess it does just come down to personal circumstances and experience.

    Keep up the good work (and writing!)
    best wishes, Mike

  3. p.s. One other important point I forgot to mention is that I still feel as though I have direct involvement with the client without someone in the middle being in the way... once terms are agreed at the beginning of a job (with my involvement - I'm consulted on all terms being discussed between the agents and the client during this stage), my agents take a step back and allow me to carry on the dialogue with the client and communicate with them directly about the artwork. I've been able to build some useful working relationships with some individuals at certain companies thanks to this.

    Anyway, now - back to work! :)

    - Mike

    1. Mike - thank you for your amazing comments! Your experiences are so contrasting, and probably a whole lot more useful than mine!
      It's particularly great to hear how positive your relationship with your agency is - they sound like a keeper! That's wonderful that you have so much involvement and control and that they sound like they're really pulling their weight in finding you work.

      Thanks again, I'm sure your comments will help a lot of people reading this page :)

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  5. Great post. I agree with you, the thing I found difficult about having an agent was not being able to talk to the client directly. I found having everything relayed through an agent frustrating. Also I'm a bit of a control freak and like to be in control of who I'm working with and how my work is represented and promoted.

    I have just signed up to a new agency, but they only represent me for children's book and they quite take a hands off approach. They find me the work and take care of the business side and I talk directly to client and take care of the artwork side.

    1. Hi Emma, thank you for your comment!

      I didn't actually know you could be represented in specific areas, that sounds amazing! Really great if you want to boost certain areas of your profession but keep control over others exclusively. This certainly sounds like a route I'd be more comfortable with, as I'm sure others reading this would too.

    2. You can get agencies that specialise in publishing, licensing or advertising, or just specific territories, like America and Canada only. I've had a few agencies get in touch with me in the last year, but I was waiting for one that felt like a really good fit.

  6. Thank you for this post Holly.

    I found it really interesting as I've been battling the idea for the past year whether join an agency or not for a steady income and to draw full time. As a freelance illustrator I still have a day job as I worry about having a regular income to pay the bills. I understand one should sometimes take the plunge and freelance full time to see what happens. See if its greener on the other side..

    Thanks again for writing this.

    1. I can't believe you have a day job as well considering all the work you produce. You must work HARD Robert!

      As you have read, agencies aren't a dead cert for regular income, but it's all about finding the right agent for you and your needs I guess.

      Keep on doing what you do!

    2. You be surprised I actually don't get a lot of work. Probably because I've never contacted any potential clients, they've all contacted me luckily. But I do work very hard as you can imagine on top of a day job. No rest for the wicked...
      New Years resolution is to sort this all out, once and for all!
      Also to move out of London, its just too expensive.

      I will defiantly ponder about an agencies a little longer than... over crackers.

      Thanks for the encouragement. I hope you, the rabbit and the wee pug are doing well.

  7. Hi Holly!
    I found this post really useful to read as I'm going into my second year working as a freelance illustrator I've been considering approaching agents to take off the burden of the nitty gritty - licensing etc which is still a bit fiddly in my mind. But reading your post has made me realise that perhaps approaching companies direct is absolutely acceptable and it's important to stick with what's working already for me.
    I really get stuck with how much I should be charging to be honest - is there any references online that you find useful when putting your fee together or bench mark pricing from?
    Also, do you just approach company art directors?
    You've clearly done really well with your current approach so, as they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it :) your work is awesome and now I've discovered your blog I will continue to follow!
    Very best wishes for an exciting new year Holly
    Thanks again, Angie x

  8. AnonymousMay 31, 2015

    Hi Holly,

    Thanks for your post.... I have found it really hard how to know if an agent is reputable or not..... I have been with two agencies, both just did not get me any work really..... - apart from just googling them, if you don't have tons of connections in the world of illustration, its really hard to even know if they will get you work after they sign you...... The first one I joined I really think were a cowboy agency... they kept on asking for money all the time to promote you, and all they would do was sign more and more artists..... It seemed they made more money from charging for promotion than getting anyone any work.... So thank you for this article....I remained signed, I remain to be getting no work from said agency, and I am just toddling on getting plenty of my own work ! Unless they are a massive agency, I don't know how you know if they are reputable, if you don't have tons of connections.... so thanks for your great article ! x

  9. Very interesting Holly. I had been under the impression that, (in the advertising world,) art buyers were reluctant to use freelancers, But after reading your client list, that's obviously not the case! Lovely watercolours, very slick.

  10. You may find the second post on my blog interesting. It's about why I fired myself!

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  12. Great post, Holly! I wanted to ask you (or anyone else here with experience) how if you've got a regular client or two under your belt already, who you deal with one a one to one, would you then have to relinquish that relationship in favour of the agency taking control of future commissions? I feel like you'd lose a lot of trust that you'd worked hard to build over time, by introducing a third person into the relationship?

  13. I would love to know more about this and would probably go through your other blog posts. website

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