Imagine you’re a young and enthusiastic Illustrator
Let’s say you like drawing and you’re quite good at it. In fact, you’d like to start charging people money for it – the one problem is that you have no track record behind you, and you haven’t really got the first idea how to go about it.
That’s where I found myself after my first year at Sunderland University. I was 19 years old and decided that I wanted to get some (paid) work before I went back for the second term.
Some friends suggested I try and do some work for local magazines or businesses (such as logo designs for local plumbers), but that didn’t really get my pulse racing. The one thing I knew I deeply wanted to do was draw comic strips. But as with a lot of illustration jobs, you’re very unlikely to find a vacancy for such a thing in your local job centre.
So I had a think – a damned good think – about what I wanted to do and how to go about it. And exactly one week later I had a contract drawing cartoon strips for a Premier League Football Club.
Before I go on, I should just explain that when most people try to sell their illustration work, they look around at other artists they like, develop similar work, and then send it to the same clients as every other illustrator under the sun – Newspapers, national magazines etc. I’m not a rocket scientist, but I figured if I tried this, I wouldn’t have great odds of success. I mean, newspapers receive a HUGE number of illustrators sending work into their features department each week. To stand out and grab their interest, you either have to be:
i) a better artist than 99.9% of all your competition (I wasn’t)
ii) very well connected with the right people (ditto)
iii) able to kidnap their loved ones and hold them to random in exchange for getting your work published (The Association of Illustrators doesn’t approve of this.)
So instead, I sat down and tried to think through things a little differently.
Rather than sending my illustrations to the same places as everyone else, I tried to think of an entirely separate audience that your average illustrator would never approach.
Being a relatively cash-driven teenager, I decided that any list of potential clients should be:
a) rich enough that they could pay me lots of money
b) large and expansive, in case my first choice didn’t fancy it
c) easy for me to send work to.
And that was when I realised the clients I needed to approach were football clubs.
So I booted up the internet, found out the switchboard number for each Premier League Club and then rang them and asked nicely to be put through to the head of their Match Day Magazine. In some cases, I got a phone number. In others, I got an email address. But I kept a spreadsheet with the details, and politely asked each and every one of them if I could send them some samples.
The rejection rate was fantastic.
Fifteen told me to get stuffed.
Three said “Sure. Send in some samples.” (Of that three, two never got back to me.)
But, West Ham said “We quite like these. How much do you want?”
Being a young illustrator with nothing to lose, I figured I should say too high a price, rather than too low a price. However, shortly after they finished laughing at my idea of £250 a strip, they proposed a more realistic price of £50 a go. I said I’d have to think about it, and hung up the phone. I did a ridiculously happy dance at the idea of getting my first published job, and rang them back 10 minutes later to say in a calm and measured way that as a huge fan of the club* I’d be happy to do it at a reduced rate. We drew up a contract for 1 year of comic strips, and that was how I got my first ever break, drawing cartoon strips for a premier league football club.
The one other thing that is worth mentioning here, is that when I sent all these samples off to the club, I realised that I’d really struggle to create unique cartoon strips for each club. In fact, I wasn’t great at caricaturing, and so drawing each team’s players would be something of a hassle. So instead, I ensured that the comic strip I created focussed on the fans, and in particular, the relationship between one kid and his dad going to see their team every week. This subtle shift, away from the player to the fans, meant that I was able to create funny stories that wouldn’t be dictated by which players were flavour of the month at any given club at any given time. It also meant that I saved myself hours when putting the samples together, because all I had to do was re-colour the images digitally and change the name of the strip depending upon which club I was sending the work to.
I still think back to getting this first job every now and again. I’m not so much proud of the artwork any more, but I am proud of how I got the job. I tried literally every Premier League Football Club, and I’d like to think that if I hadn’t have managed that, I’d have kept going through every Championship club, and then League 1, and 2 as well as the Scottish Leagues, too.
As a freelance illustrator, rejection can seem like a very scary thing. But it isn’t – it’s just a question of how you look at things. Either, I can look back at this adventure and say that I had a 95% failure rate at approaching premier League Football Clubs, or I can say that as a teenager I managed to get a season long contact with a multi-million pound, internationally renowned sports team. I like to focus on the latter. And it’s fair to say I wouldn’t have managed that if I gave up at the first “no” when I started ringing around those Premier League Clubs.
*Steven Gerrard, Kevin Keegan & King Kenny, please forgive me.