As some of you may be aware, my first ever illustration job was a year-long contract drawing cartoon strips for West Ham United. It sounds quite good on paper. Not to mention ridiculous. Small, ridiculously inexperienced illustrator gets job for with big Premiership Football Club. How did I manage it?
It was by being cheeky.
Or to be more accurate, it was a mixture of being cheeky, almost organised and mildly hard working. So how do you get a cartoon deal with West Ham United when you have precisely stuff all experience as a freelance artist, and you’re actually a first year illustration student with a limited understanding of computer design software?
I’ll tell you.
You decide that you want to get some of your illustrations published. Nevermind that you don’t know how to use industry software Adobe Illustrator, and you’re actually only just competent at using Adobe Flash, (a much less powerful bit of kit) – you can just about wing it so no one would ever know.
Next, you try and think up how much you’re worth. This is hard. Because technically, you’re worth whatever someone is willing to pay. If you’re trying to flog a pretty picture to a single mum with a part time job and 9 kids your work is probably worth a couple of quid. But if you can find someone with a bucket load of cash, you could be worth a lot, lot more. So you try and think of an industry where there’s a shedload of money kicking about and no-one is going to miss the odd bit of cash here and there. Ideally, an industry where it’s easy to get in touch with the person you really want, but with backups in case your first choice knocks you back. (A bit like getting drunk and trying to chat up a girl at 3am in a nightclub.)
Next (you don’t get drunk), you ring up the main switchboard at Arsenal FC. You ask to speak to the person in charge of their Matchday Magazine so you can sell them some cartoons about their football club. They put you through and you have a brief chat with a nice young lady before being told they’re not interested.
Then (and here’s the clever bit that actually isn’t that clever) you ring up Aston Villa and ask to speak to the person in charge of their Matchday Magazine. They’re out so you ask for their e-mail address to send copies to.
They oblige you, and you have a glass of lemonade because it’s all a bit exciting and you’ve got an e-mail address and you need to calm down.
Then you ring Birmingham City and ask if you can speak to the person in charge of their Matchday Magazine. At this point you figure it probably won’t hurt to say what a big fan of the club you are. (You’re not.) And you figure if nothing else it will get you brownie points. And so you go on. And on. And on.
You rinse and repeat until you’ve gone through every single Premier League Club (including your beloved Liverpool FC who you’ve supported from the age of five), plus a handful of Championship clubs. By this time, you’ll probably have got through several glasses of lemonade and your nose will feel a bit fizzy.
That’s the tricky bit, and that’s exactly what I did. The responses ranged from “Ooh. That sounds nice. Send us some samples.” to “Do you even know our club?! We’ve already got a match day cartoon!” I took all those responses and typed them up into a little Microsoft Word file and organized it so I could clearly see who were interested, who weren’t and who would tell me to go !&*$ myself if I tried ringing them again.
In each instance, I was polite, friendly, asked the operator’s name and how their day was going. To be honest, I think the only reason I got half of the phone numbers or e-mail addresses that I did was due to the fact I was amiable and direct about why I was ringing.
In total, 19 clubs either told me to get stuffed or didn’t get back in touch, and so I was left with four clubs that were interested in possibly running my cartoons: Hull City, Sunderland, Aston Villa, and West Ham United. If I hadn’t got any positive responses at this point I’d have been quite happy to ring the rest of the 92 clubs in the Football League, and then if nothing was forthcoming I’d have had a reasonable stab at the 30-odd clubs in the Scottish Football League, too. As it was, I decided it would be a bloody good idea to knock up some samples and send them off to each club.
Obviously, each cartoon strip needed to represent the club in a good light. It should connect with the reader, be funny and reflect well on the club. The most obvious way to do that would be to do some caricatures of the players and make them funny, light hearted and witty. The problem I had with this was twofold: one, I was gosh darned awful at caricatures, and two, it sounded an awful lot of work having to draw different players at different clubs for all these samples.
On a purely mathematical level, that was four clubs. Three sample strips for each. 3 panels a strip. That would mean drawing at least 36 different drawings.
So what I did next was (I like to think), an inventive blend of cheeky and clever. I figured if I made the comics about the fans going to the games I could draw their experience (which would be something the reader could relate to) it would save a stuff of a lot of time as I could change the colours of the strips and alter the text digitally, effectively giving the look of a customised cartoon with minimalist effort. At the time I felt like a bit of a cheat.
Then I read this quote by Bill Gates…
“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
…and actually felt quite good about myself.
Now as it happens, only Hull City and West Ham United said they were interested in the strips, and they asked me how much I would charge.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t have a bloody clue. How much is a cartoon strip worth? Well, like I say it depends how much someone is willing to pay. I figured given these clubs paid men who could kick footballs around a bit of grass £50,000 a week, I could maybe ask for £250 a go and negotiate downwards if needs be. Hull City (rightly) said that was nowhere near what they could pay. At least, I think that’s what they said, I couldn’t hear much over the sound of them laughing. West Ham on the other hand said in earnest that they’d struggle to pay anywhere near that much.
I gave it a couple of days and then rang West Ham back saying that as a dedicated fan, I’d be willing to do it for substantially less. We met at £50 a strip (which seemed like a small fortune to a student such as myself) and I drew up a contract that said I’d give them a comic strip for every home game that season (including the cups) and in exchange I’d get £50 a go, plus 5 Match Day Magazines for my own portfolio.
To this day, I don’t know whether the Head of Matchday Services knew I was just a cheeky student trying it on, or if he genuinely thought I was a ‘proper’ illustrator with an illustrious career and was a major coup for his publication. Either way, West Ham United did well in the league that season and even when I started running out of ideas towards the end of the season, they kept winning their bloody cup games meaning I had to draw more and more strips to meet my contract.* In fact, that very season, they reached the cup final against (without a word of a lie) Liverpool.
For once in my life, I watched a cup final involving my boyhood club and cheered when both teams scored. As daft as it sounds (and in hindsight it sounds very daft) I genuinely felt like I’d played some small part in West Ham getting to the final of the FA Cup. I’m not saying it was on par with Marlon Harewood scoring against Birmingham at Villa Park in the Semi-final, but it counted for something.
So what does the power of cheeky get you? Not a tenuous claim on the FA Cup (mainly due to the fact Anton Ferdinand can’t score penalties for toffee) but it did get me my first ever professional contract with a Premiership Football Club. And that’s not bad either.
* I’m reasonably sure I still owe Chris and Steve a fair number of pints for a bunch of punchlines.