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Surface Pattern Design: Working with an Agent

Surface Pattern Design: Working with an Agent

Working with an agent is like being in any relationships: it requires teamwork, constant communication and most importantly, trust. If you’re an artist and have been wondering what it’s like working with an agent, I’m here to answer your questions! I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned from my own experience, as well as what I’ve gathered from other creatives who have or are working with an agent. 

How do you find an agent?

I met my former agent at Surtex few years ago. She came to my booth and told me she was interested in working with me. I wasn’t looking for an agent at that time, but after careful consideration, I decided to give it a try. Initially I wanted to give myself a year working with her. I ended up working with her for 2 years before I terminated the contract. 

If you get approached by an agent, it’s great! Because that means someone has been paying attention to your work and it’s like a stamp of approval. However, don’t jump right into it! First, google this person. Is she representing other artists? Who are those artists? Who are their clients? What kind of projects do her artists get? These are the questions you need to find answers for. Don’t be afraid to reach out to some of the artists and ask about their experiences working with her. Also, ask for a contract from the agent so that you can review it before you make any decisions.

Another way to find an agent is attending an art licensing show. If you’re exhibiting, you can display a sign at your booth saying that you’re looking for an agent. Some vendors find their sales rep this way too at a retail show. You can also discover the agents who are exhibiting at the show for their artists even if you’re not exhibiting. I don’t recommend that you go straight to the agent and pull out your portfolio right away – it’s not a cool thing to do – instead, take down their names and contact them afterwards. That’s when you would show them your work. If they’re not busy talking to anybody, it’s ok to say hello and introduce yourself a bit. Just remember to make it really brief. 

If attending a show isn’t an option for you, then you’ll need to do some digging online. Again, do some research about the agent before you get in touch with her: who are represented by her? Who are their clients? What are the projects they get? And of course, you need to be ready to impress the agent with your portfolio.

So, what kind of work do you show her?

Quantity vs Quality

First of all, try to think like an agent. What do you look for if you were an agent? You certainly don’t want another artist whose style is similar to your current artists, do you? So I’d say that quality is more important than quantity when you first approach an agent. If your style is not what she’s looking for, then it doesn’t matter how much work you’ve got. You just wouldn’t be a good fit. So take a look at the work of the agent’s existing artists and get a sense of what the agent might be looking for. I wouldn’t worry too much about the quantity at this point. Once you sign up with an agent, she will let you know what she needs for her meetings. She might need you to put together a catalogue with prints and mockups, and perhaps a specific one for a specific product category. 

When sending your wok, attach a PDF with no more than 5 pages which best capture your style of work, and then include a website link. That way, she can quickly get a picture of who you are and what your style is, instead of finding out herself from your website. The point is, you want to make it easy for her because she probably gets tons of emails like this everyday.

What do agents do exactly? 

Well, every agent does things differently, but generally speaking, they set up business meetings with potential art buyers and pitch your work to them. They represent you when dealing with the clients, including signing contracts with them on your behave, providing that you have approved the key terms. The agent should run those key terms by you before committing to a deal. In terms of the commissions they take, it varies from 20% to 50%. The percentage is something you can negotiate with your agent before you sign up with her. Most agents would do marketing for you, although the degree of it varies. Some charge a marketing fee annually as their advertising budget; some exhibit at shows and charge for the cost if you choose to join. 

What do you do if you already have existing clients? Does your agent gets a cut from that too? This is something you need to clarify with your agent as well before signing up with her. Personally, I think it’s fair that she only gets a cut from the new business she acquires for you, unless you want her to take over all the business matter you currently have. Therefore, you need to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, so you’re not tied up in a contract that limits your business growth. An ideal agent should invest in your relationship and help you grow, because it’s a win-win relationship.

Does it save time and the amount of work you do?

From my experience, it didn’t really save me time nor the amount of work I had to put in. I still had to spend a lot of time submitting work to my former agent before each meeting, submitting new work for her marketing platforms, as well as following up with her. While it was great that she could get me some “big” deals from the meetings that I wouldn’t be able to set up myself, it didn’t necessarily save me time. So, I don’t like the idea of looking for an agent because you want to “save time”. Sometimes you might even have to babysit them instead because they’re not organized enough. Remember, they also have 20 other artists they represent so you’re certainly not the only focus. You still need to do the dirty work to promote yourself if you want to grow your business. Don’t expect an agent to do it all for you.

When does working with an agent make sense to you?

You need to evaluate yourself the following:

  1. Do you feel comfortable reaching out to new clients and dealing with them once you get the business?
    If you’d rather not deal with things like contract and price negotiation with clients, and you prefer to just focus on your craft, then an agent might be helpful for you.

  2. Are you good at selling yourself? Do you feel comfortable promoting yourself?
    Not everyone is born a sales person. Some people are pretty natural with self promotion, but for some it take a bit more effort. But the good news is it’s something you can learn. If you’ve tried and it’s just not for you, having an agent might benefit you.

  3. Are you trying to break into a certain market but haven’t had much luck?
    If you’re trying to break into a market with a foreign language or culture, it can be quite challenging. In this case, having an agent would definitely be helpful. In other cases, for example, you want to break into the advertising industry, then working with an agent who specializes in that can help too.

To summarize, here are the pros and cons of working with an agent:

Pros:

  • An agent has her own resources and network that may benefit you

  • An agent can give you some professional advice and act like a teammate whom you can bounce ideas off of and go through tough times

  • Easier to break into a foreign market with a local agent

  • There’s more separation when it comes to negotiation with the client. Also one can be the bad cop and the other good cop.

Cons:

  • Risk of miscommunication – miscommunication is always a possibility when there’s a middleman. Some agents are more detail-oriented than the others though.

  • Lack of personal touch - some clients prefer to work with the artist directly, so you might lose that personal touch with an agent

  • Some agents try to art direct their artists, which is never a good idea. You should be the creative director of your work and she’s the salesperson.

  • An agent might not have the same goal as you do. Since the relationship is based on profit, there’s a conflict between immediate profitability vs long term profitability if the agent doesn’t understand what you really want as an artist, or she has her own agenda.

A few reminders if you work with one:

  • An agent is NOT your friend. Your relationship should be purely business. You need her to make money for you, and she needs you too to profit. So don’t take it personally if something doesn’t work out. It’s just business. Having said that, it’s important to recognize if your agent is willing to invest in your relationship and have the same long term goal with you. You’re also making commitment to her so it’s a mutual investment.

  • TRUST is very important. Yes, it’s business, but without trust, this relationship can’t be healthy. I’ve heard horror stories about agents doing certain things behind the back of their artists. That’s a big red flag. You should always communicate with each other if there’s any doubts to avoid future conflicts.

  • There are no good or bad agents (providing that they don’t betray your trust), only suitable ones. Since everybody works differently and has different expectations, you need to find one that works well with you. It is like any relationship in which you need to find a better match. Set a time frame for yourself, and at the end evaluate if you’d like to continue the work relationship. Remember that it might take years before you and your agent gain traction together.

  • Manage your expectations. Remember that nobody is going to care about your work more than you do. An agent is not like a magic pill who can turn you into a super star overnight. Set your goals and your expectations. If she doesn’t meet them, you can always walk away.

I hope all this information will help you determine if you should work with an agent. Let me know what you think in the comments section below!

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