Out there

Illustration agencies are beating the downturn by looking outside their traditional client base and taking their artists to the people, using everything from social media to exhibitions and murals. Garrick Webster reports

Harry Lyon-Smith is smiling. He runs Illustration Ltd and the first six months of 2010 have been some of the best in the agency’s history.

espite the economic downturn, the much-predicted ’death of print’, the increase in the use of stock imagery, the rise of digital photography and everything else the illustration market has faced in recent years, there’s still plenty of opportunity.

Agencies have changed their approach, with the focus shifting to creating fan bases for their artists. A good example is Illustration Ltd’s weekly Scrapbook e-mail. Each one offers a short-but-sweet interview with an illustrator, a look inside their studio, and some personal work. ’We are individualising things more, making them into personalities and heroes. Perhaps it helps to understand the person behind the great work. That dovetails with a whole lot of Twitter, Facebook, blogging and Linked in,’ explains Lyon-Smith.

Social media activity is being wonderfully exploited by Central Illustration Agency too. Before the recession it invested in an online shop, selling affordable prints to fans of its artists. ’The CIA Shop launch strategy was the catalyst that moved the agency into the world of PR, social media, blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Without the need to push an online shop I think we would still be catching up with the times,’ says agency manager Alicja McCarthy.

Selling prints was just the beginning. Generating a market for illustration among the public at large is now just as important as appealing to art directors in the traditional markets of advertising, publishing and editorial. CIA now co-ordinates projects like the Pop-Up Pirates Bar in Hoxton. The illustration collective Pirates refitted and hand-decorated an entire pub in colourful type for the Mothership Group. For McCarthy, the future looks exciting. ’We hope to start working with hotels on interior design projects, continue to collaborate with companies and institutions, to give talks, to develop the shop items and to put on some great shows and parties,’ she says.

Another agency striving to get illustration seen in the real world is Higginson Hurst. It’s much smaller than CIA or Illustration Ltd and, according to one of its two co-founders, James Hurst, this keeps overheads low, making the agency cost-effective for recession-strapped clients. Alongside winning commercial briefs, it takes full advantage of events such as Pick Me Up, the applied arts show held at London’s Somerset House in April.

Representing eight artists, Hurst and co-founder Kate Newbold-Higginson use their other ventures to gain exposure for their illustrators and incubate new talent. Newbold-Higginson is director of Print Club London, a screen-printing studio used by numerous artists. When Print Club runs an exhibition, Higginson Hurst illustrators can very easily get involved.

Meanwhile, Hurst runs Cure Studio which specialises in curating art shows and events. Some of the talent comes from the Higginson Hurst stable, collaborating with other artists. Projects include The Big Antidote, a pass-the-pen project where 100 creatives each draw panels of a comic book story, and the Hoxton Hoarding Project, currently displaying work by various illustrators on Old Street in London.

Reaching the illustration consumer is what it’s all about. ’It’s vital that the final buyer is actually engaging with the work of our illustrators,’ says Newbold-Higginson. ’An ad agency may well employ one of my guys, but it’s Joe Bloggs who buys our prints at Print Club, and who also responds to, for example, a brand that has used our illustrator for a big campaign. So, it’s integral that the consumer on every level is familiar with their work.’

According to Pocko founder Nicola Schwartz, his company just had one of its best years yet. Part-publishing company, part-online community and part-creative consultancy, Pocko initiates projects where clients benefit from illustration in more indirect ways, and are seen to foster creativity. It recently set up an ’artists foundation’ for Italian energy giant Eni which involved Eduardo Recife, Joey HiFi, Nomoco, Hennie Haworth and Staffan Larsson. The artists worked on corporate material, riffed on the company logo and provided online imagery.

The Museum of Small Things saw Pocko artists create a museum within Selfridges’ London store, filling it with handmade objects to engage consumers with the department store’s brand, and with creativity. More out-and-about projects are on the way, including a photographic exhibition called Light Still Works. ’In the near future, we are planning to produce a variety of on-site work, from in-store displays to public installations,’ says Schwartz.

Today’s best illustration agencies are doing a lot more than schmoozing art directors, updating portfolios and booking space in the regular directories. It’s now all about getting illustration out there, so watch out for the iPhone app coming from Higginson Hurst, and Illustration TV at the Illustration Ltd website. ’We’re being found by people who aren’t yet commissioning, but in the fullness of time they might be,’ Lyon-Smith says. ’Hopefully, it helps us build the association of quality with this brand and with all the artists within it. We’ve definitely had work from our Facebook group, which is quite exciting.’

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