Advice — Grand Matter co-founder Ciara Phelan on how to find the right agent
Ciara Phelan is a collage illustrator and co-founder of Grand Matter, an artist agency spanning illustration, set design and art direction. Trained in graphic design, she has also worked as a freelance illustrator since 2009, collaborating with the V&A, The New York Times, Kiehls and Benefit Cosmetics. Last year, we spoke to Ciara about how to go about finding the right agent, the benefits of representation and what to look out for.
I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with representation, but overall I feel there definitely is a benefit to it, otherwise I wouldn’t have launched Grand Matter! However, finding the right agent can often feel like the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears – you need to shop around a little to find just the right fit.
One of the biggest benefits is the support and advice. The freelance lifestyle of an illustrator can often feel a bit lonely and isolated, so having someone you can turn to – who understands your work and can provide guidance – is often invaluable.
Having an agent allows you concentrate on the fun part. You can get on with making the creative work, while someone else manages the fee negotiations and boring paperwork, such as contracts and invoicing. They can also add a certain credibility, help placate any nervy clients and serve as a buffer if tensions get high.
It might take a bit of trial and error. It’s not necessarily about whether you should have an agent – it’s sometimes about finding the correct one. When you find a good agent, it can be a great experience, but there are also times when the partnership doesn’t fit. You might start to resent giving away that slice of commission pie; the work coming in might be boring, too low-paid, commercial, you feel overlooked on the roster…the list goes on. This leads me to the benefits of working independently; you have greater autonomy. You can control exactly who you work with, how your work is marketed and how much you charge. This way of working really suits some freelancers, especially if they love feeling truly independent.
There is a certain stage when you should look for representation. This is usually once you have built up a solid portfolio of work with an overarching and consistent style. Often this will be a couple of years into the industry, but it could be sooner. It takes a lot of work to get to that stage, and in doing so you will have demonstrated the magic ingredient needed to succeed – a healthy dose of grit and determination. It’s easy to think that representation is what you need to launch your career, but if you reach out too soon, no agent will take you on. In effect you often need to show you don’t need an agent to get an agent; it’s a straight up catch-22.
When approaching people, tick the obvious boxes. Send polite and considered emails, present your work neatly and talk about your practice with passion and enthusiasm. Make sure you take time to get to know the agency and how they operate - which clients do they work with, how many artists do they represent, are their goals aligned with yours?
Take time to get to know your potential agent. This sounds obvious but is really important, and often overlooked. Don’t forget that you will spend a serious amount of time communicating with them, so make sure you actually want to take their calls!
Sweat the small stuff and read contracts thoroughly. Don’t jump into something without serious consideration and don’t be scared to negotiate, it’s your livelihood after all. And finally, always remember it’s a partnership – you are both valuable to each other, so keep the lines of communication open and the relationship will prove fruitful.
As part of their ongoing pursuit for meaningful creativity, Grand Matter recently launched new editorial platform, &wherefore that delves into the 'why' in creativity. The first collection explores blurred boundaries within the visual arts in the context of positive change, and challenges social labels and traditional conventions.