First Hand — We need to talk about Instagram: Illustration agency Handsome Frank on algorithm anxiety

Posted 19 March 2019 Written by Jon Cockley

Surrounded by a group of top illustrators at artist agency Handsome Frank’s most recent end-of-year get-together, co-founder Jon Cockley was disheartened to hear just how much Instagram was crushing their spirits. Rather than the platform serving as a celebratory space for sharing brilliant work and career triumphs, it was causing a talented bunch a tonne of anxiety. Here, Jon reflects on the issue, exploring the pitfalls of measuring yourself against social-media algorithms. In addition, we’ve also collaborated with Handsome Frank and illustrator Jordan Metcalf to create an exclusive, downloadable poster on the topic.

I should state from the outset of this article that I’m a big fan of Instagram. In fact, according to my phone, I’ve spent five hours and 16 minutes on it this week alone (don’t judge me – it’s a work tool). As a business, we use Instagram every single day; it’s helped us discover new artists and we’ve even been paid to create bespoke content for it. However, in recent months I’ve become increasingly aware of, and concerned by, its effect on our industry and I think it’s a conversation we should be having.

Every year at Handsome Frank we host a lunch for our artists. It’s a great way to to get a disparate group of people (who often work alone) together with their peers and celebrate the year as a group. As well as being a bit of a party (often with an impressive bar tab), it’s also a brilliant way to discuss shared issues and the general state of our industry.

“While everyone saw Instagram as a valid and necessary marketing tool, it mostly left them feeling negative and unhappy with their work.”

The great ’gram depression
This year – almost inevitably perhaps – the conversation turned to Instagram. I was really struck by how everyone felt about the platform. The great consensus seemed to be that, while everyone saw it as a valid and necessary marketing tool, it mostly left them feeling negative and unhappy with their work. Bearing in mind that, at Handsome Frank, we’re lucky enough to represent some of the most talented and best-known illustrators around, so I was struck by just how personally everyone was taking their ‘levels of engagement’.

Conversations about likes, how to get them, how to increase followers, what content works best, seemed to be going on all around me, but the constant theme that everyone agreed on was ultimately how hollow the experience of posting work made them feel. Some conceded they’d more or less given up on posting work entirely.

Now, remember we’re talking about very successful professional illustrators here, so if that’s how it makes them feel, what hope is there for the next generation of artists?

Jordan Metcalf’s poster (see at the top or bottom of this article for how to download)

Likes aren’t created equal
Through our experience of regularly posting work by a range of different artists and in varying styles, it quickly becomes apparent that some posts get better levels of engagement than others. To be clear, what we’re talking about here is likes and comments (the currency of Instagram), but it is not a level playing field. The dice are loaded. The site is engineered to order, to reward, to rank and push some posts more, while holding others back.

What also become clear to us is that the popularity of a post has no direct bearing on the effectiveness or originality of the artwork. Some things work better than others with this audience. Generally speaking, we find that the more trend-driven, youth-oriented and colourful imagery tends to be more popular. Less credence, it seems, is given to the craft or concept behind an image, which might be down to the fact that it’s harder to convey these things on a small screen.

We need an honest conversation
With this in mind, I felt compelled to post something in early January as a kind of motivational message for those artists who feel their work is often overlooked on the site. The post read simply: “I know you all know this, but I’m going to say it anyway. The number of likes a piece of work gets on Instagram is in no way a reflection of how good it is. NEVER stop doing what you do just because an algorithm doesn’t appreciate it.”

The response to this post (and the irony is not lost on me) was huge. In fact, it received more likes than perhaps anything we’ve ever posted, but it was the comments that were most revealing. It was as if I’d opened the floodgates. We got hundreds of messages just thanking us for saying something. Clearly, many people are feeling the same way.

Jon's message to illustrators experiencing the negative side of Instagram

Stop comparing
So what can we all learn from this, and where does it leave us? Firstly, I think we need to stop comparing apples and pears. We need to accept that a photograph of a new puppy is always going to have a broader appeal than, say, an editorial illustration for a business magazine. You shouldn’t compare the likes your art receives to somebody else’s snapshots, because the two things are completely different.

After all, our industry is niche and Instagram is a mass-market, so it’s no surprise that we don’t glean the same levels of interest from the general public as we do from our industry peers. If the art director was happy and the client was happy, these are really the only ‘likes’ you should be worried about.

Money can’t buy you love
Secondly, as agents and clients, I think we also have a role to play. One trend that concerns us greatly is an increase in clients getting in touch and overtly requesting illustrators with “a big social following”. For me this raises two issues. One – the implication is that the client (or their agency) is more interested in the follower numbers than the work. As I have now explained to clients on many occasions, I’d recommend picking the artist best-suited to the brief, rather than the most popular on Instagram. Two – there’s an implication here that the illustrator’s audience is available to buy, which is certainly not always the case.

Most of our artists won’t contractually agree to posting work on their Instagram feeds. If they like the project and they’re happy with the finished work, the likelihood is that they will share the work. However, most don’t sell their audience (or access to it). Even if they decided to do so, it’s not something clients should presume is free. By choosing an artist on the strength of access to their audience, you are essentially trying to buy two different things for the price of one – the creative AND the media. My advice to any illustrator happy to carry commercial messages on their social media account would be: Don’t do it for free.

“If the art director was happy and the client was happy, these are really the only ‘likes’ you should be worried about.​”

The issues with Instagram go wider than just illustration, too. I recently had lunch with the founder of a very well-established UK design agency. We got talking about Instagram and they told me an alarming tale about a client they had been courting. After a couple of meetings and proposals being sent across, a quote was worked up and sent to the client for the prospective work. While the client liked the proposal and felt the costs were fair, he compared it to what he could get from Instagram influencers using the same budget, and decided that it offered a better prospect of ROI [return on investment] than the services of an award-winning design agency.

Ultimately, Instagram is becoming a very powerful and omnipresent part of many of our lives. Most illustrators have come to the conclusion that they have to engage with it, so what can we do to improve things?

Steps towards healthier Instagram engagement

Don’t make art for algorithms
For a start, I think we need to stop feeding the feed. Stop trying to please the algorithm and get back to basics. Make art for art’s sake, make art for people, but don’t chase the likes. One of the most worrying side-effects of Instagram would be if artists change the way they work in order to try and increase their Insta-popularity. This would be a huge mistake. Stick to what you do, and keep doing what makes you unique. Remember, you want to stand out, not fit in.

If Instagram is making you Insta-glum, you’re not alone. A report from the Royal Society for Public Health recently found it the worst platform for mental health.

Have a conversation about it
A real-life one. Most people feel the same about Instagram, and hearing that people you know, respect and admire also doubt their own abilities will help you feel less alone. You’ll be surprised to find out that the projects people are most proud of are not always the ones with lots of likes.

Post what you really want to
Try not to focus on engagement as a gauge of success. Building a brand on Instagram is far more about giving your audience a feel for your work and you as a person, rather than totting up the likes. Remember, people and algorithms are not the same – until AI art directors are a thing, please your clients and not your computer.

“You’ll be surprised to find out that the projects people are most proud of are not always the ones with tonnes of likes.”

Avoid unhappy scroll holes
Comparing is futile, so methods of posting that limit your time on the programme can be a real help. An app like Buffer helps you plan posts in advance and post with very little time needed on Instagram itself. Another thing that can help is an app that intervenes when you’ve spent too long on any particular social media, such as Freedom. Avoid getting sucked into a time-draining habit.

Quality over quantity
When it comes to likes, a couple of interactions can mean more than one hundred if it’s from the right people.

Separate work and life
One reality that illustrators can’t ignore, is that clients are looking at Instagram. Profiles have essentially become an extension of the online portfolio. If I find an illustrator I like online, as soon as I’m done looking at their website I’ll go straight to their Instagram page. Why? Because I want to see their newest work, and get a feel for what they’re doing right now.

This is why it’s so important to keep things professional on your Instagram account. Weekend posts of late-night partying and holiday snaps are great, but do you want them intermingled with your portfolio? Sure, there’s room for putting some texture and visual inspiration around your work. This offers a useful insight for potential clients as to who they’ll be working with and their inspirations, but my advice would be keep things pro and to have two separate profiles – one for work and one for play. This way, you can maintain the demeanour of professionalism on your work page, and there’s the added bonus of being able to log out and switch off from work when you want to.

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Click here to download Jordan Metcalf’s poster

The above artwork was created by Portland-based designer Jordan Metcalf, off the back of a conversation around algorithm anxiety, sparked by Jon’s post.

Posted 19 March 2019 Written by Jon Cockley
Collection: First Hand
Disciplines: Illustration
Mentions: Handsome Frank

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