DEFINE YOUR TARGET CLIENT TYPE
Building and maintaining a client list is an essential part of nurturing and growing a freelance career. Two key points to work out before researching potential contacts: Know the type of client you are looking for (In which field or fields are you looking for work?) Where does your aesthetic fit? (The artists similar in style as you, where are they getting hired?). Narrowing that down will give you a lot more focus as to where you put your time, and how you spend your money. When you are looking for contacts, what you are really looking to find are art directors, and ideally art directors with similar tastes as you. Art directors tend to move around a lot, and so it’s not always beneficial to only consider a publication or a company as a potential client. Rather, look for the art director specifically. If you build a good working relationship, they will continue to hire you wherever they happen to be at that time.
PRIORITIZE YOUR CONTACTS
Because you will accumulate many, many contacts over time, it’s good to have a strategy as to how you structure your list with priority levels set for each contact. Not every contact is worth the same amount of attention. For instance, my list of contacts is in the thousands, so the personalization of emails to each person can be challenging. Likely, I will never work with even a third, or a quarter, or even an eighth of that list. Yearly, most of my jobs come from a small pool of repeat clients, offset by a second group of new clients that I will only ever work with once in my life (not for any other reason is then they have that one job they want to work with me on and then that’s it).
With these considerations, I split my contacts into two lists, a small grouping of priorities. The first list is people who I’ve worked with and want to work with again mixed in with dream clients. Then my second list, which is everybody else, a lot of what-if’s, maybes, and you-never-know’s reside here. The first list gets the most energy, they are my bread and butter and my friends. When I sink money into a promotional campaign, these are my first considerations. When I send emails, these are my personalized ones, the ones I pay the most attention to. To give you an idea of the numbers, my priority list is in the low hundreds (maybe not even that many when it comes down to it.) My everything else list is, like I mentioned above, in the thousands. I will talk more about how I reach out to each of these groups in future articles.
EXPAND YOUR TARGET LIST
Where do you find contacts? Here are 10 sources.
- The primary spot to start is to look at other artists’ social media and websites, look at artists you admire and whose work is like your own. Better yet, find out who are the ones getting the work you want, and see who is hiring them.
- You can look at client lists that artists post in their bio, look at their portfolio to see client names under each job.
- Often on social media, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, artists tend to thank art directors, so you can see “Thanks to so and so AD at the Times” etc. You know that will be an art director you will want to contact, so write their name down.
- LinkedIn is a useful resource; you can search for job titles according to companies and subjects. I have found this is a great place to find art directors for book publishers which can be difficult to locate otherwise.
- In book publishing, many art directors also freelance, so looking them up online will take you to their website which will have their contact usually.
- Larger companies tend to have several art directors, therefore if you are targeting a specific company but you don’t have any contacts there, it’s easy to just Google the company name followed by “Art Director” or to go to the company site and look for the masthead or staff listing which will also sometimes list the art directors email address.
If you are having trouble finding the email address, try to find the company’s email convention. For example, a first initial, last name @company name.com. This is a bit of guesswork, but it works more times than not. You may also just call the front desk, or inquire online, reach out to whatever public contact info you can find, and ask for a list of art directors currently employed there. This is advice that came from a much more successful artist than I was, who followed it with an anecdote about once getting yelled at by the company’s secretary for doing this (only once), which caused a moment of panic “What if that’s it, they never work with me?” They quickly realized they had been very polite and professional, and there was no reason for anyone to yell at them for this and moved on. They went on to be a famous artist anyway, no harm done.
Sometimes art directors and secretaries are rude, but if you are always polite and professional, there should be no reason to let moments like that discourage you. One important tip to remember: Never reach out to art directors’ personal contacts or phone numbers, only reach out to contacts listed in their companies or their professional websites. Everything else should be off-limits.
It is useful to look at industry publications and annuals to see which companies are the most relevant and hiring top illustrators. Annuals like American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, Creative Quarterly, Art Directors Club (now The One Club), and 3×3 all run annual competitions that collect highlights from the year. They list clients and the art directors who commissioned the illustrations. If you are targeting advertising specifically, look up the Lurzers Archive (which also has an annual competition, 200 Best Illustrators Worldwide).
- A classic way of researching clients is spending an afternoon in a bookstore. Look through the magazine rack and learn about new publications to see who is using illustration and what kinds of illustration. What you are looking for in magazines is the masthead, which is where the creative team is listed and where you will find the names of art directors. Also, look through the books, see which have illustrations on the covers, turn to the inside flaps to see who the art director was (make sure these are relatively new editions to be sure that the art director is still working for that company, and the cover is still a reflection of the companies’ aesthetic.)
- It’s a good idea to talk with colleagues going through the same steps you are. Compare notes and share information, help each other build a larger list of contacts.
- Look at a site like Litebox that has lists of clients with useful info about each company. To fill out a much larger range of clients that you may not even be aware they exist, the site Agency Access, a subscription site with a huge database of contacts spanning many fields, is useful for discovering more obscure clients.
In the end, it’s important to remember your focus though. Know which clients and which type of clients you are seeking; set a handful of specific goals with clients you really want. While it is useful to get your work in front of as many potential clients as possible, it can be time-consuming and expensive. Therefore, know where it is most valuable to focus that time and energy. Starting with a list of a hundred contacts is sufficient to start promoting yourself, and keep in mind that you will accumulate more contacts as time goes on.
How do you build your client list? What struggles do you have when making contacts? Let us know in the comments!
A graduate of The Maryland Institute College of Art’s General Fine Arts program and the School of Visual Art’s MFA Visual Essay program, Matt Rota is an illustrator, author, and instructor. He’s spent the past 15 years working with clients in print and online including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Penguin Books, The LA Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Smithsonian, Variety, Buzzfeed, and many others. His illustrations focus primarily on global politics, criminal justice, social inequality, immigration, and poverty. His work in illustration has been recognized by several industry organizations including Communication Arts, Spectrum, 3X3 Magazine, and The Society of Illustrators, where he has won two silver medals, one for his work on the documentary Silent Truth, a documentary on the threat of violence towards women in the U.S. Military, another for a series of drawings with ProPublica on Fire Stone Tires and the Liberian Genocide.