The SAA are very pleased to be supporting the World Illustration Awards by sponsoring The SAA Agents Award for New Talent.

Arena in conversation


This month we are talking to Caroline Thomson, Director at Arena Illustration Agency about her role as an agent, social networking and what newcomers should be aware of when looking for representation.

Please give a short summary of your company history and provide a bit of information about yourself and how you got into the business?

Originally called Young Artists, we were founded over 40 years ago by John Spencer. The agency flourished under the care and expertise of Alison Eldred throughout the 70’s and 80’s, evolving into Arena in the 90’s. Alison handed over the reigns to Tamlyn Francis in 2000 and I became a co-director in 2005. I studied Graphic Design and Illustration at Norwich School of Art and did a Masters in Illustration at the University of Brighton. I freelanced as an illustrator for 10 years, Arena represented me during that time and then I joined the team as a rep in 2001. We have carried on the tradition that has made Arena one of the most respected boutique illustration agencies in the UK. We now represent 32 very talented illustrators, many of whom are also authors.


How would you describe your day-to-day role as an illustrators’ agent?

My day can be very varied which makes my job so interesting. It’s important that I understand how each of my artist’s work so I can schedule their time effectively. We have a hands-on approach at Arena and are very involved throughout the job, so some of my day is spent going over a brief with an illustrator or contacting clients, for feedback on roughs, quoting on new jobs, negotiating amendment fees or new contracts.

We take general portfolios out to show our clients. These showcase a selection of our illustrator’s recent work; pertinent to the client we’re seeing. We always tailor every portfolio, including individual artist’s portfolios to suit each publishing, design or advertising client. We also email PDF portfolios to clients who may not have time to see us personally

The website is often the first port of call for our clients, so I spend time writing various blog posts, updating news about our artists and updating their online portfolios. We also use social networking to great effect, spreading news as it breaks

Of course, it’s also important that we invoice regularly, so that our artists can get paid quickly.


What are the commercial advantages for artists represented by your agency?

One of the huge advantages of being represented by Arena is that we have a very wide client base to introduce an illustrator to. Our website and promotional avenues can give an illustrator great exposure in the market place. We tend to advertise in a variety of places, and we send out smaller, one off promotions targeted at specific clients on our database. We obtain higher fees for our artists, thanks to many years of collective experience in quoting on a day-to-day basis.


What other benefits can an artist gain from being represented by you?

An illustrator can get on with creating, whilst we get on with business of promoting them, sorting out the brief, negotiating fees, contracts and invoicing for the jobs on their behalf. Contracts can be a minefield and again, it is our experience of seeing many that helps and enables us to negotiate better advances and rights.

We feel we have a reputation to look after, so when we take on an artist it’s important that they share our sensibilities and want us to help them build a career, we’re there to listen to them and understand the goals they want to achieve.


What are the benefits of networking within the wider artistic community?

We liaise closely with other SAA member agents on a regular basis which gives us a wider network of fellow industry peers, with similar ethics who are willing to give advice, support and share important information. The SAA have a representative on the Pro-Action committee, which was established to improve the rights of artists, it petitions companies with questionable business practices and contracts.

We have close links with various Universities, giving their students an insight into what we do and the commercial world of illustration.

We’re also members of the AOI and offer advice to their members and involve our artists in many of their events and competitions.

We take advantage of Social Networking, which has opened up new avenues for us within the wider artistic community.


How do you help your artists to recognise their market and help them adapt to new ones?

Knowing your illustrator’s market and adapting to new markets is very important in this technological age so we try to understand their strengths and weaknesses and help them develop their work throughout their career. We pass on any feedback we receive from our clients to our artists, advising them about possible directions to experiment with when they are producing new samples. We also encourage our artists to participate in events, talks and other socially aware activities to broaden their knowledge of the industry and engage them with their peers.


What do you consider is the main role and responsibilities of the illustrators you represent to help you to build their career?

Like all relationships, the one between an illustrator and their agent needs input from both sides. It’s a partnership that with nurturing will hopefully last many years. We like to be updated regularly with an artist’s latest speculative samples. Personal work can really feed into an illustrator’s commercial work; we actively encourage it and think it’s essential to an artist’s career. An artist must be able to develop and progress their visual language and it’s our job to help them do that.We insist that our artists are punctual with deadlines, organised and industrious, we both have a reputation to maintain. The reality is that a lot of commissions can expand and be delayed, so we also have to be flexible. We have to schedule an artist’s work time, so we need them to keep us up-to-date with any holidays, teaching, family responsibilities or part-time work they have arranged.


What advice would you give to an illustrator looking for an agent?

The illustration world is highly competitive, there are more illustrators coming out of University every year with the expectation of getting commissions. Those that succeed have to be very single minded and tenacious irrespective of whether they are seeking representation or not.

Choosing the right agent is a good start, many specialise or have strengths in certain markets, and so a freelance illustrator must do their homework before choosing an agent to approach. They need to understand the market their work fits into and find an agency that serves the same market. It’s vital to get along well with the agent as they will often be an illustrator’s support, quality control, sounding board and often their agony aunt – all rolled into one. It’s important to take time to decide on a suitable agency and not to rush into an agreement that you may not understand. An agent should be able to answer all questions with transparency; this is a relationship that must be based on trust.

Agents get so many samples sent to them, so an illustrator will need to present their work with professionalism. It sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many samples I’ve opened that are poor quality copies with no covering letter and no contact details. Most agents have some indication on their websites as to how they accept submissions, and who to send them to. Always follow these guidelines. If they’re sending work by email, ensure that they send low-resolution jpegs only, so they don’t fill up an agents inbox.

From our point of view, we’re not looking for a “jack of all trades”, but someone with an original visual language who stands out from the crowd. We prefer to take on new illustrators whose style doesn’t clash with anyone else on our list as we feel that it would be a conflict of interests.

Approach agents who belong to The Society of Artists Agents, a member run, trade organisation with the broad aim to promote the use of illustration and to unify and improve the working practices between illustrators, agents and clients.

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Next month, Artists Partners

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