If you’re a newly graduated creative dipping your toe into the murky waters of the freelance world, that little envelope icon blinking on your laptop screen bearing news of your very first commission can be as terrifying as it is exciting.
Agents can act as fairy godparents holding your hand through the process of landing commissions, delivering work and getting paid, but they can also be more of a hindrance than a help. So, do you need one? We spoke to a host of top creatives working in graphic design, illustration, photography and art to get their advice.
No, not straight away
Most of the people we asked said, in short, no. “When you’re starting out, seeking representation should be the last thing on your mind,” photographer Ryan Hopkinson, who graduated from the University of Falmouth in 2008, told us. “As you progress you will notice that the burden of production gets bigger on every job, and the people who you want to share your work with are behind a glass ceiling. Only at this point you will need to start thinking about that.” Illustrator and Camberwell graduate Oscar Bolton has never had an agent. “I was with someone for a little bit after I graduated but I only did one job with them,” he says, “and not too long after they dropped me from their books. I’ve been doing OK since then.”
"Mysteriously, agents get jobs for you that you cannot, and negotiate prices you wouldn't dare ask for. Then they act as a buffer between you and the client."Ian Wright
Big clients, small clients
Ian Wright, who has a solid 37 years of experience in the industry, says agents can however be helpful when it comes to securing big jobs. “I think a lot of people believe they will manage your career for you – which I’m sure we all want – but they are there to get work, and hopefully to make money for you both. Mysteriously, agents get jobs for you that you cannot, and negotiate prices you wouldn’t dare ask for,” he says. “Then they act as a buffer between you and the client. I think if it’s a mutually supportive relationship then it can work.”
“An agent can be a great way of gaining access to a range of clients who might not see your work ordinarily,” graphic designer Leif Podhajsky says. “They are also great for freelancers, as they may handle workload, production and invoicing. On the flip side, for small jobs you may lose out as they a take cut of your pay.”
Moreover, smaller clients might be scared off altogether by the prospect of working through an agent. “Having an agent can give you the platform to be seen and promoted on a grander scale than if you were to go at it alone,” designer Shaz Madani says, “and you will receive plenty of support and expert advice. But on the downside, commissioning illustrators or photographers through an agent tends to be a lot more expensive and a little off-putting for smaller, more creative clients.” And it’s often the smaller clients who will give you the creative freedom to make work that secures the kinds of jobs that will get you hired again and again further down the line.
Taking care of business
Illustrator Chrissie Macdonald says that where agents do come in handy is on the business side, in managing workload, production, invoicing and the like. “If you’d like help promoting your work, pricing jobs and dealing with clients and contracts, it’s important to find the right agent for you.” Ryan echoes this. “The most important thing they should offer you is to aide your development along with production, negotiation, insurance, etc. It’s important to be represented at a certain time in your career, but it’s not entirely impossible to go at it alone.” What’s more, learning to manage the business aspect of a creative career is vital early on when you’re looking to learn and grow as much as possible. “I think when starting out it’s interesting to learn and manage projects on your own, so you know what to look for when you do need an agent,” Leif says.
“I think when starting out it's interesting to learn and manage projects on your own, so you know what to look for when you do need an agent.”Leif Podhajsky
Finding the right one
One point all the creatives we spoke to were unanimous on is that when it comes to agents, one size does not fit all. In fact, you should treat it a bit like interviewing for a life partner. “I don’t think it’s something to rush into,” Chrissie Macdonald says. “Do your research! They’re all different; commission rates vary, some put more emphasis on promoting your work, and some are more transparent than others. Ultimately you’re entering into a relationship, so it needs to work for both of you. For illustrators, membership to the AOI is a great place to start as they can advise on quotes based on current industry standards.”
Similarly, the relationships you build with clients will be key to securing work later on, so you need to find an agent who mirrors your own values. “Look around and find one that fits your personality and style,” Shaz says.
Ultimately, we’d argue that work comes first, agents come second. When you first graduate, all you really need is a relentless work ethic, military organisation, a confident but friendly email manner and somebody who can teach you about pricing and invoicing. Pricing and invoicing are hard. The sooner universities introduce a module in business savvy, the better.
It’s Nice That has created a special Grad Pack for new Graduates, which features a collection of tailored advice on how to land on your feet after leaving uni. We had a chat with It’s Nice That Graduates of years gone by, listened to words of wisdom from established creatives, and put together a studio-wide list of references and resources.
We are very pleased that The It’s Nice That Graduates 2015 will once again be supported by Represent Recruitment. The graphic and digital design recruitment specialists have developed a peerless reputation working with designers of all levels and matching them up with the right positions in some of the top agencies around. Represent’s support has helped us grow the Graduate scheme over recent years and we are thrilled they have partnered with us again in 2015.
About the Author
Maisie joined It’s Nice That fresh out of university in the summer of 2013 as an intern before joining full time as an Assistant Editor. Maisie left It’s Nice That in July 2015.