The Agent Myth

I wish I could count how many times I have seen the comment on various art licensing groups that someone is “still searching for an agent”, or questions like “I have submitted to several agencies, how do I get an agent to sign me?” The belief seems to be that if you are willing to work hard, have a properly presented portfolio with the right combination of product mock-ups and can get signed with an agent then success is not far behind.


There is no question that an experienced agent with a working knowledge of the art licensing market can accomplish many things that most artists will have difficulty accomplishing on their own.
(Let me repeat a few very important words for those that are still looking: experienced, working knowledge, and ART licensing market.)
The stock and trade of a good agent is manifold – names, contacts and often personal relationships with licensees in a wide variety of categories; an understanding of current (and past) trends, colors and how those affect various clients; what clients work in which categories, what is their market share and what direction are they going; a broad “nuts and bolts” understanding of marketing and promotion, contracts, royalties, product design and manufacturing requirements; these are a few, the list goes on. But even given all of this, there is still no assurance that they can get you licensed. That is the myth part. As one agent puts it, “I can guarantee that I will get your art in front of the decision makers, but I cannot guarantee they will buy it.”

The following is from last year’s “Art of Reality” article:
“Licensing agents make their living by representing art that can be sold (licensed) and they will usually snap up anyone they think has significant potential. You may not be a fit for a particular agency for any number of reasons, but if you have shown your work to several agents and they all have passed, it is likely time for a reality check.”

This has not changed. Generally we agents have neither the time nor inclination to train an artist from scratch, but I am here to tell you that if the work is extraordinary, we will make the investment. If your work is just ordinary, or ill suited for product licensing, we will not – some things just can’t be fixed, and no agent can help you become a success if your work is not of licensable quality or style.

This does not necessarily mean that you need to toss your dream and head for employment at Starbucks, but face the fact that if experienced art licensing professionals keep turning you down you are probably not ready to enter the art licensing business. I know one very successful artist who, the first time she showed her art to a manufacturer was told (in a nice supportive way) to get some more training and come back sometime in the future with about one hundred additional designs. She did both, has now has been licensing for years and is responsible for designing well over a thousand licensed products thus far in her career.
Fall down seven times, get up eight is a great philosophy as long as you aren’t tripping over the same root. If it’s not working get some feedback, fix it if you can, and then go back out and see what happens.

Work on You

There is a short article on titled “The Six Traits of a Successful Business Owner”; you can find it here. If you read my posts you already know that I keep harping about how you need to understand that art licensing is a business, and in order to succeed at it I believe you need to not only hone your art skills, but also your business skills, your attitude and perhaps some personality characteristics as well.

Hone your personality characteristics? What kind of nonsense is that? No, I don’t mean you need to turn into Donald Trump (hey, ever see my combover?) but it is time well spent to learn about and recognize what characteristics can help a person be successful, and then work on bringing those to the surface when you need them. There has been a lot of research done on what makes some businesses (and people) successful while others fail, and when you read up on it you will soon notice that many of the same basic traits keep coming through again and again regardless of the type of business.

Three of my favorites from the article and how they can relate to art licensing:

1. The ability to collaborate. This is absolutely Essential with a capitol E. Art licensing is not a take it or leave it type of business – on most occasions you will be working hand in hand with your clients to make your designs fit their needs.

2. Curiosity. You must be curious – about your market, about your clients, about what is the next big thing, about every aspect of art licensing. Not that you need to be an expert at all things, or trying to chase trends, but you need to know how it all fits together.

3. Action oriented. From the article: “Successful founders are proactive and always differentiating themselves from their competitors”. Couldn’t say it better – every day the art licensing business becomes more crowded with hopeful artists and you need to find your key to standing out. What makes you different? How will you be unique?

Continued success in any business endeavor requires a process of honest evaluation, and then adjustment, for everything you are bringing to the market – including you!

Opportunity knocks

We spent our Saturday over at the Minneapolis Gift Market and came away somewhat energized, as we always do after these kind of events, as well as a little bit troubled – kind of a weird combination, but then – times are weird. The tri-annual Mpls show is pretty small and easily covered in a day: a couple hundred showrooms that are mostly rep groups with multiple lines, and a couple dozen temps – nothing like Atlanta, New York, Dallas or other major gift markets. But then those places won’t have several showrooms devoted to (my) Scandinavian heritage items either…uff-da….

It is always energizing to get out and scrutinize finished product on the shelves, see who is doing what and how they are doing it, what is good and what is just plain bad. I would venture to say that there is no better connection to the art licensing business than a gift show – better than social media groups, coaches or seminars, better than walking Surtex or Licensing. All of those have something to offer but pale in comparison to what you can learn in the “trenches” of the industry. After all, this is what it’s really about – the business of getting those products out of the factories and onto the retailer’s shelf.

And then the little bit troubling part. Normally in any gift show we usually see a fair number of new products that have us mumbling “wish I had thought of that”, but not so much last weekend. (Actually, not so much last Atlanta show either.) We were able to stand outside many of the showrooms, look in at the displays and see that we didn’t need to bother with closer inspection as it was the “same old stuff.” A disquieting number of showrooms were empty of buyers – and some were jammed – and we could make a direct correlation between the quality of the lines they represented and the number of buyers. Notice I said “quality”, not the number of lines represented or the amount of product displayed. Those selling well designed, nicely done product lines were busy writing business. Even so, as one (very busy) rep we talked with said, “They are only buying what they are sure they can sell.”

Yes, times may be a little weird, but I think the best way to view this is as an opportunity – the market is always seeking clever new ideas and fresh design, and apparently never more so than right now.

Let’s do the math

There is no question that manufacturers and importers have some very real and difficult challenges in this economy. The retailers continue to hammer their wholesale costs lower, while at the same time production suppliers and overseas factories are ratcheting up prices due to rapidly rising material and labor costs. Even shipping has gone through the roof. As the hard costs of manufacturing go up and selling prices go down they need to look wherever they can to recoup some of that loss, and soft costs – such as the royalties paid to product designers – become prime targets. Seems to be a bit of that going around lately.

Of course we really have no one to blame but ourselves. As a nation we have pushed the lowest price model forward until it has become the prime reason to buy – made in the USA, or locally produced, or retailer ethics, or quality, or any of those attributes that were once important to a buying decision now all take a backseat compared to low price. One needs to look no further than the exponential growth of the mass market discount stores for proof.

Here is the problem – let’s say you have a contract coming up for renewal that is paying you a 5 percent royalty. Your licensee is looking to cut costs, so they propose that they renew the contract at a lesser rate, say 3%. “Times are hard” you are told, “and this is only 2% less than what we were paying you. Our costs have gone up 10 to 15% – what’s the big deal?”

Um, not exactly a fair trade:

A 2% reduction on a 7% royalty is a 28% reduction in your pay.
A 2% reduction on a 5% royalty is a 40% reduction in your pay.
A measly 1% reduction on a five percent royalty is still a 20% reduction in your pay. If you worked in an office or warehouse and the boss came in and announced you were getting a 40% salary cut would you be sticking around?

We have seen all of these situations and worse. We once had a client ask to chop the royalties on an existing contract because, as he said, “You have made enough money on this product”. It was still selling well – he just wanted to cap our royalties. (No, it didn’t happen). We will be the first in line to help our clients stay competitive and work toward an equitable solution so we can all succeed, but that is the key – it needs to be equitable for everybody involved.

Of course every case is unique, but it is always a difficult decision to hold the line, and possibly end up walking away, because you believe that what you are providing is fresh, contemporary and valuable in today’s market (let’s hope it is…). Just make sure you know exactly what you are giving up before you agree to give it up.

What is it?

The local morning news did a little piece yesterday on the Christmas displays that are already going up in some stores in the UK – a tad early, perhaps? Better start buying, there are only 140 shopping days left…

It does bring to mind the subject of why people buy product, a subject that should be of interest to every licensed artist. We are not going to plumb the depths of psychological motivations that might cause someone to pick an item up off the shelf – we’ll leave that to the theorists – but look more at the question often asked in our studio – “Sure it’s cute, but what is it going to be?”

This is what you should be asking yourself about every piece of art you want to license. How is this art going to translate into a fresh, unique but still mainstream product that will actually cause someone (preferably a lot of someones) to part with their hard-earned cash? We often say in our office that a design needs a “reason for being”, meaning that it may be a cute…penguin, snowman, kitty, character, etc… but that is generally not enough to make it commercially viable.

The greeting card industry is a great one to study because they have it down pat. People buy cards for holidays and life events like birthday, baby, grad, get well, new job – the list is well defined. And they target who they are buying for – spouse, mom, uncle, co-worker, and so on. They also have mastered that important “connection” part of the equation – as the saying goes about cards, “the art stops them but the words sell them”. That same philosophy can be translated into whatever category you are going to target – put together a group of products with good enough design to stop them, and a meaningful message to connect with them, and they will be much more likely to be picked up off the shelf.