13 November 2006
Maria Piscopo
Maria Piscopo

As competition for design assignments increases, many creative professionals are considering working with a professional representative. Though not common - reps traditionally sell photography and illustration to designers - it is a brave new world with many marketing traditions in flux.

So, what can a rep do for you? Basically, reps work in three important ways to build your design business:

1) They find new clients.

2) They keep those clients coming back.

3) They negotiate the best pricing and terms with these clients.

Finding the right rep
Reps own their own business and represent individuals that own their own businesses. The relationship is that of an "independent contractor" working on commission and not employee/employer. The designer signs up with the rep for marketing services and pays anywhere from 20% to 30% of each job fee on all clients in the rep's territory. Territory can be defined by geography (local market only) or type of work (packaging design). Business or office management are often not part of a rep's job responsibilities because these tasks are overhead activities and don't directly generate sales and commissions.

Finding a rep is very similar to the search for clients. You must research the reps and do the regular follow-up required to build a relationship. Reps are a lot like clients in that they may already have someone that does what you do and good follow-up is the only way to break through this barrier to working together.

Knowing whom the rep already works with allows you to approach the rep in a way that will make the best impression. Perhaps you find out the rep sells directly to companies and does not have a designer that handles corporate identity. Your approach will be to provide the rep with this service so that they can offer their clients a better, more complete package of talent - design, illustration and photography.

You can find listings of representatives in most of the creative source books. Some, like The Workbook, list the talents represented and the rep's Web site and mail. Another source is the 2003 Artist's and Graphic Designer's Market. It is in their Market Books section that the reps are listed based on what kind of talent they are looking for. Of course, check out the listings for the rep's professional organization SPAR, the Society of Photographers and Artists Representatives.

How do you know you are ready?
You're ready for a rep if you have enough "bread and butter" work in a stable client base that allows you to spend the money on the additional promotional material reps require.

You are ready for a rep if you have a strong style or specialty that a rep can target to potential clients. You're ready if you have enough knowledge about how to sell yourself, but want someone else to do it!

You are ready if you consider yourself both as a business and as a designer - the ultimate balancing act. Reps work well with creative people that appreciate the "for profit" nature of their work. My most successful rep relationship was with an illustrator who would call me weekly and ask the most wonderful question, "What can I do to help you sell my work?" A rep is available to help you realize your goals, not to create them for you.

You are ready if you are willing to spend the time to work on your marketing. You will not spend less time on your marketing by having a rep. You just won't do the same things - for example, instead of showing the portfolio, you will be creating new portfolio pieces for the rep to show! You are ready if you have a portfolio of the kind of work that you want to do more of.

Or - hire a marketing coordinator
The designer as sole-proprietor is still the most popular form of design business, but this does not necessarily mean working alone. Today's designer may need to employ people to help with the daily chores of marketing and management. Before you say, "I can't afford to hire someone," keep an open mind. Maybe it is costing you more in lost sales than it would cost to hire someone part-time. In the past, you could be just a designer and survive nicely on whatever came in the door. That is no longer true.

First, check with your accountant about becoming an employer and the financial responsibility involved. Then, start your search with a good job description of your coordinator's duties. As you go through your day, write down the tasks you could have delegated that did not require your personal attention or design skills. Do this for two weeks and then categorize the tasks into these three areas: marketing, management and production.

Because you employ this individual, they have a much broader range of responsibilities to you than a rep, plus they only work for you and your firm. Another option is to work in a studio where you can share the employment of a marketing coordinator with your studio companions.

Here are some examples of a job description analysis:

1. Organize client and prospect database.

2. Research new leads and update database as needed.

3. Organize materials for portfolios and Web site.

4. Prepare materials for cost proposals.

5. Manage direct mail/mailing house and e-mail list.

6. Inventory promo pieces, publicity reprints and client tear sheets.

7. Keep master calendar of marketing design and production tasks.

8. Respond to requests from potential clients.

9. Send and get back traveling and drop-off portfolios.

10. Write and mail press releases.

11. Bookkeeping and office management.

12. Updating vendor files and samples.

13. Keep track of design competitions and process entry forms.

Finding the right employee is critical to the success of working with a marketing coordinator. Remember, they are often the first encounter with current and potential clients. They may be keeping track of deposits, cash disbursements and receipts. The short-term pain of an intense search for the right individual will pay off with long-term gain. Start looking for someone at:

1. Local colleges (business departments, of course!).

2. Customer service reps at printers, photo labs (related businesses).

3. Referrals from your design or advertising associations.

4. The vast and highly-qualified pool of early-retirees from the downsizing of corporate America.

For salary, you'll pay the going per-hour rate for office or administration personnel. Many designers that employ someone in this position understand that high-level client contact can be compensated with salary plus some commission. Start with part-time and you will soon wonder how you ever worked without someone to help sell your work.

Yes, it will be hard at first but it will be worth every penny. You are making an investment in your business and in your future.

For more information, contact:

Maria Piscopo
W: www.mpiscopo.com

About this article

Originally published in Communication Arts November Design Annual 2003

Maria Piscopo
Maria Piscopo is a creative services consultant and art/photo rep based in Southern California. She is the author of four videos and four books, including her latest book, The Photographer's Guide to Marketing & Self-Promotion, Third Edition (Allworth Press). She is a frequent contributor to the Freelance Column.