By Tobias van Schneider Published December 5, 2016
If you're a designer, illustrator or other creative, this article might help you answer this question.
When we imagine leaving our nine-to-five job and going freelance, we picture a world opened up to us: Fewer stuffy clients and strict deadlines, more work we actually want to be doing, and a lot more sleeping in. When I left my full-time job I learned that yes, sometimes it’s just like that. More often, though, I spend my day answering a shit ton of emails, starting the actual work at around at 2 a.m, and rarely sleeping in as long as I’d like to.
But this is not an article about whether or not to go freelance. It’s about what the hell you should do once you already have, and the emails are pouring in, and the deadlines are still looming, and the clients are annoying, and it’s hard to find the right jobs, and you keep telling everyone and yourself that you’ve got this, but you’re not sure you do and – deep breaths, deep breaths – do you maybe need an agent?
I’ve discussed this question with a lot of people I respect.
Malika Favre and Simone Giertz are two of them. Malika is an amazing artist whose work ends up places like the cover of The New Yorker. Simone makes shitty robotsand hundreds of thousands of people watch her YouTube videos about them. Two very different creatives with different styles, but both of these women work for themselves – and they do it well. So on recent episodes of the NTMY Show podcast, I asked for their opinion on the matter.
Because let’s face it: Having an agent represent you changes things for you. An agent requires commitment. They take a cut of your money. They seem a little slimy and uncool, generally. But Malika and Simone may have changed my mind about everything.
The wonderful work of Malika Favre for the New Yorker
One plus to having an agent: They negotiate your fees higher.
This is their job. They’re going to work hard to make you more money because their own paycheck depends on it. So when the project does come through and your agent takes a cut, you can let that money go more freely. You wouldn’t necessarily have it otherwise.
Having an agent allows you do what you’re good at: Being a creator, making shit!
You got into this because you love creating, not because you love sending emails and networking. Removing yourself from the outward-facing stuff allows you to focus more on getting the actual work done.
“It’s playing to your strengths,” Simone explains. “If there are other people who can do it better than you can, let other people do it and make sure that you only do the things that you need to you and that you want to do.”
Plus, it allows you to keep your relationship with your client healthy. An agent makes the tough negotiations so you can start your project without the emotional tension that comes from talking about money.
Having an agent means less stress.
“I’ve just built this fortress of people around myself,” Simone says of her manager and publicist, who essentially serve as her agents.
For a long time, Simone waved off help and said she could it all on her own. Then she broke.
“I got to a point where I started crying every time I opened my inbox because the workload was just so high.”
It was a panic attack that finally drove her to dig through her inbox and email an agent who had reached out in the past. She said that letting go was one of the best decisions she’s made.
“To me, it’s helped a lot,” Simone says. “And I enjoy work, and life in general, way more than I’ve ever done in my whole life. We’re just trained to be hard workers, and as much as that is a great thing, it can also hinder us a lot.”
(Yes, Simone has an agent so she can do more stuff like this. Do I envy her? Absolutely!)
It helps to have someone on your side.
Malika believes the first few years of your career, especially as an artist, can make or break you. If you don’t choose the right clients, or the right projects, or you choose too many of the same projects and do too much of the same stuff, you can end your career before it even begins.
So it’s kind of nice to have someone there to look out for you. Someone whose job is helping you do your job. Someone to help you shape your future, and form a game plan for how to get there.
“It’s also about not going with the cool agent or the big agent; it’s about finding someone that works for you and your personality,” Malika explains.
This person is going to be working closely with you and representing you to other people. Find someone you actually like and respect.
If you do decide to get an agent, there’s a secret to doing it right: The non-exclusive deal.
With a non-exclusive deal, you are free to search for projects on your own. If a client reaches out directly to you, you don’t have to give a cut to your agent. Then you can treat the stuff your agent brings in as a bonus. If they find you a job, great. More work, more money. If they don’t find you a job, no big deal. You’ve got your own thing going. It’s a give and take. A relationship.
But this doesn't mean you need an agent.
Truth is, social media has replaced the need for agents in a lot of ways. It used to be that agents had all the connections – they knew the people who were looking for an artist or designer, and they made the introductions. They helped you get your foot in the door. But now those people can just look at your Instagram and see the work you’re putting out into the world.
Use social media to your advantage. Post your work there, spend time investing in relationships there, and do it consistently. Share finished products, your process, your workspace, inspiration, even pictures of yourself. Carve your space out on social media, because that’s where people are looking.
If that sounds like too much work, then maybe you do need an agent. At the end of the day, it depends on your personality and the kind of stuff you want spend your time on. It also, of course, depends on the kind of work you do.
But if you’ve already been thinking about working with an agent, try a non-exclusive deal. That's kind of like a friend with benefits.
Do you have experience or advice about getting an agent? Send me a Tweet and tell me about it.
Thank you for reading,
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the founder of DESK, nice to meet you!