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Illustration Agency Lets Clients Talk Directly to Artists

As freelancers, we’re always looking for better ways to work. We want to find channels that deliver clients, processes that ensure we get paid and methods that maximize the amount of time we spend working while minimizing the unbillable hours lost pitching for work and dealing with clients. Advocate-Art started with that goal in mind when a group of illustrators in the UK decided they liked the idea of having an agent to bring in work but didn’t like the loss of control in taking instruction through a middleman. They began as an artists’ co-operative but expanded into an office that handles sales, marketing, legal affairs, accounting, promotions, art management and web hosting. The group even has its own gallery to showcase the works of the 200 artists, illustrators and photographers it now represents.

Work managed by Advocate arrives in two ways. The group accepts commissions which it passes on to the artists for a fee of 30-35 percent. Some of its members rely on that work as their main source of income, while others regard the jobs as just one element of their freelance business. Clients, who tend to be publishers of children’s books, greeting cards and decorative art (pretty much all users of illustration, in fact, except cartoons and graphic novels), often look for artists with clear specialties. Some illustrators only supply floral illustrations or calligraphy for greeting cards or abstract work, for example. But the group’s large numbers also mean that it can act as a project manager putting together teams, sometimes as large as 30, to produce a large work, such as a 300-page children’s book.

The other source of revenue is stock.  Publishers can browse the 100,000 images submitted by artists according to categories divided by usage: book publishing is broken down by age; greeting cards can including wrapping art, bags and seasonal designs; art for products can include photography, posters and designs for jigsaws and other items; ad and design targets design and advertising agencies, and tends to be a bit edgier. Unlike photographic microstock — or even stock — buyers first download spec versions of an image they want to use and are then contacted by the group with a quote and a contract. The quote is made according to usage and varies with the extent of the rights the client needs.

All About the F.A.C.T.S.

That rights managed approach is not the only difference between Advocate and a microstock company, or even an agency. The stock collection is highly selective. The group cherry-picks submissions to ensure quality, beauty and artistic integrity — and so that “clients don’t have to trawl through thousands of  poor-quality images,” explains Felicity French, an illustrator and Advocate-Art’s spokesperson. It’s an approach that works well for an agency that can commission art when a client finds something that has the right style but a subject that’s not quite suitable.

But Advocate also says that it operates according to an ethos of “f.a.c.t.s”: fairness, ability, creativity and trust. It’s a slogan that’s more than a neat acronym.

“Rather than taking control away from the artists, Advocate was set up to operate on a transparent system,” says French, “allowing direct contact between artist and client, and often standing aside after the initial introduction, only acting to assist if called upon.”

That is a big difference to the usual pattern in which clients talk to agencies and artists receive instruction through a third party, usually to prevent the client from snapping up the artist directly. There’s no sign though that that access to clients has led to artists choosing to cut out the middleman — and his fees. On average, Advocate’s 200 artists handle about 400 commissions every month, worth a cumulative $500,000. Ten percent of the commissions come from London but 20 percent come from mainland Europe and 40 percent of business is for US-based companies. With that kind of steady, varied and valuable work, there’s good reason for artists to stick with the group.

There’s Plenty of Work for Freelance Illustrators

And in a positive sign for freelancers — and people who might like to work on a freelance basis — there’s no indication that the level of work is falling off, despite the weak economy.

“It seems we must be recession-proof as this year has been our busiest time in 20 years!” says French. “There is a lot of uncertainty out there at the moment so going freelance can be daunting, but for Advocate artists it seems that now is a great time to be freelance.”

The really good news though is that the group is always looking for new artists. They can submit their work in jpg format to [email protected]. The most successful applicants, says French, are artists who have the most synergy with requirements of the group’s clients. She recommends that applicants take the time to look at the website, and the art on it, to see how well their contributions match up.

But it’s perhaps the fact that a large agency can bring in so much work, allowing some artists to rely on them full-time, that’s the best news. Freelance illustration isn’t easy. (Freelance anything isn’t easy.) It takes time to build up a client base, and it takes time too to build up a portfolio of work that demonstrates your talent, defines your niche and displays what you have to offer to clients. Advocate isn’t going to make that easier for everyone. It’s not going to accept every applicant and its ability to pass on jobs will depend on the market’s ability to supply that demand. But it does show that the work is there and that with effort and patience, it is possible to build up a freelance illustration business.

“The difference between winning a job and being passed over can sometimes rest on one sample,” says Felicity French. “Persevere and always keep on creating new work and evolving your style.”

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