From being asked to bring her father in when asking for a startup loan to fund her business, to getting commissions from Prince; Anna Goodson Illustration Agency has come a long way. Twenty five years, to be exact; as the agency is celebrating its 25th anniversary on the 6th of February 2021. In this 2-part in-depth interview, we sat down with the woman behind the agency to find out how it all started, and to hear in her own terms what success truly means.
Talk to us about how you got started, 25 years ago.
Twenty five years ago, I was working in a fashion photography agency in Montreal. After a year and half of working there, I decided it was time to go out on my own. I felt that I could run the kind of business that I wanted to work in and have relationships with artists that are a little bit different than the company that I was working for at the time. I didn’t know anything about illustration back then, but I met this top illustrator, Mark Tellok, who came to Montreal from France. When he applied at the agency I was working for, and we told him we couldn’t represent him because we were a photography agency, I mentioned that I was going to start my own agency and I could take him on.
I also decided to start my own agency because I was a passionate roller blader back in 1996. And I wanted to feel like I could go out and roller blade whenever I wanted, and make my own hours. I wanted to feel free, and to have fun. I wasn’t having any more fun where I was, back at the time, and I felt that if I started my own company, maybe that was a way to mix representing creative talents and having freedom; to have fun, and to go rollerblading whenever I want.
What excites you about illustration?
The irony is when I decided to become an illustration rep, I had no idea what illustrators did. It was Mark who told me that it was a career. I thought it was fantastic that people actually have careers drawing and painting. My mother was an artist, and she painted for herself. My father was an amateur photographer and I knew of professional photographers because I was in photography for a while, but I didn’t realise that commercially, illustrators had so many opportunities with their work.
As I learned about it, I became more and more passionate about it. I started seeing all these different styles and finding styles that appealed to me. However, at the very beginning I was not very picky. Since it was so hard to bring artists on board, I basically took on anybody who would accept having me as an agent. Over the years, I’ve become a lot more selective. I’m really passionate about the work, and I still get very excited. I’m probably our biggest fan, because I’m often on the website looking at the artist’s work and sending them notes about how impressed I am, and how blown away I am whenever I see them post something on Instagram.
What obstacles and challenges did you overcome when you first started out?
There were so many obstacles in the beginning when I first launched the business. One of the biggest of all, is when you’re an agent – I was representing both photographers and illustrators at the time when we launched – I couldn’t find any talent to represent. Whenever I meet up with illustrators and say, “Hey, I’m starting this agency, would you like to come on board?” most people refused. They’d say that they didn’t want an agent! I spoke to so many local talents at the time in Montreal, and many of the artists that I approached turned me down. That was such a struggle.
Another was starting a business, being a young woman, and having ambition, and yet no one would give you a chance. Financially, it was a huge struggle as well. I had to cash in some Canada Savings Bonds to cover some of the initial costs. I had no money, and there were no options for financing like there is today. I even went to my local bank manager to see if I could get a loan. He sat me down and told me to come back with my father, so that he could sign for me. I was so insulted. It was very condescending. I decided to not come back with my dad, and instead, I put everything on Visa at the time, despite the high interest rates, because I preferred to self-finance the business instead.
Everything was a struggle back then. I did what I could. I bought a used laptop – it was 150Mb dial-up; and I also had a Motorola flip phone that weighed 4 pounds! I also put together a couple of portfolios. I was lucky enough that this artist we had from France helped me design my business cards. So I printed up business cards, had a computer and a phone, and like a peddler, I went on my way to secure businesses for him. Later on, I managed to secure more artists, and then I was on my way.
What’s been the most surprising part about the journey so far?
The most surprising thing I have to say about the journey is how much gratification I get from launching the careers of the artists I take on. Contrary to most people, I didn’t launch a business to make money. I launched a business because I wanted to find a career that would make me happy. I ended up doing quite well because I was having so much fun, I was working with people I admired, and working with illustrators. Over the years, there’s been so many situations where I’ve taken on artists who were just starting out and who had no money, but wanted to create a career in the arts, which is difficult, and there’s so many wonderful stories of how they’ve succeeded.
I have to say that more than anything else, is this gratification that I’ve made a difference in people’s lives. I always felt I had a mission in life. It’s because of what I do, that so many artists get to do what they love, and that makes me feel great. It’s an awesome feeling, knowing that you’ve made a difference in so many people’s lives.
Talk to me about some of the big successes in the last 25 years of running your company. What moments stand out to you? What are you most proud of?
There’s so many moments and so many stories in the past 25 years, that I don’t know if I remember every one of them! One of the moments I remember most was getting a call from the Los Angeles Times to do a black and white illustration. And their budget was USD$150. It was the first contract that we got in the US, and I was elated. I was so excited because at the time I thought, wow – the Los Angeles Times is calling me here, in Montreal, to work with one of our artists, and we’re going to get paid USD$150, and that it’s crazy. It was our first contract in the US, and I was so happy. When I think about that moment, I still get chills.
Another moment that’s fantastic was when I got a call from Prince’s agent. His agent had seen an illustration that was done for an editorial piece in Connecticut, and called us because he wanted to buy all the rights to the image that Pablo did. We contacted Pablo, and we didn’t even know how to quote it. We ended up negotiating a really great budget that worked for Prince and Pablo. At the time, Pablo was a starving artist in Argentina, and not that well known at the time. After that, Prince got back in touch with us again, and they asked us to do a portrait of his wife so that they could be hung side by side in his home.
We also represented another artist early on, who had never had anything produced. He was just coming out of school, and I saw his work and thought it was fantastic. We took him on and ended up doing a huge campaign for a dating service company called Lavalife. The images were on buses and subway, on billboards, and it was one of the biggest campaigns that was done with illustration, and it took this illustrator from being a complete unknown, to launching his career.
There’s also Sebastian Thibault, who works in a small town in Eastern Quebec, and I first saw his work in a free, semi-underground magazine called Urbania. I saw his work in it and I thought he was a genius and that we could totally have fun together. At the time, he was working part time in illustration, and as a graphic designer on the side. We ended up launching his career to the point where he gave up graphic design, and that was over 10 years ago. And he’s still swamped with work. Because of his wonderful work, he’s constantly in demand with clients in Europe and North America. He’s also won so many international awards, and is a stay-at-home dad.
Katy Lemay is also one of the earliest artists I’ve represented and she was just coming out of school. Back then, she created 3D illustrations – where she’d build sculptures, and would then have them photographed and scanned. It costs so much that in the end, she barely made enough money, because the production costs so much! When I first met her, I wasn’t sure about taking her on, because she was a bit different. We just celebrated 23 years of working together.
There’s so many stories and contracts that we’ve worked on. Some with huge budgets, and others were small, beautiful pieces. There were clients that we worked together many times for the past 25 years who kept following us. It’s all fantastic, and I wouldn’t change anything at all.
What’s the whole philosophy behind the way you work?
Having fun is really important to me, and if we were to talk about success, most people in business tend to focus on success in terms of how much money they make, or how successful they are when other people say how successful they are. So things like the salary they make, or how far they’ve climbed in a corporation.
Personally, I feel that I’m very successful. Whether it’s the weekday, or weekend, it’s all the same to me. I have just as much fun. I don’t feel like I work to make a living, it feels more like a hobby. I work all the time, and yet I play all the time. We spend so many hours at work that we might as well find something that we love, and I love what I do. So whether it’s meeting with an artist, or when I wake up and get to work on a new project, it’s all good.
I can’t wait to wake up to get to work, and my day starts early. I’d wake up at 6, and make coffee and then I’m writing to people, and thinking and creating, and it’s a real trip. That’s success to me. I’m 56 and I have 2 beautiful kids that I spend an awful lot of time with. I’m doing the kind of work that I love, and it doesn’t even feel like work; it feels more like a hobby where I’m heading this illustration agency with 50 amazing artists from around the world. I’m lucky that I’m healthy too. It’s not just about the money either. If you can find the recipe to your own happiness. You’ll figure out that success really doesn’t have to do with just money, it has a lot to do with being free, and spontaneous.
Were there any factors, events, or technology; that has shaped the growth of the business?
So many things have changed from when I started the business. When I started out in 1996, I met someone who told me that I needed to get a website. That sounds like a simple thing in this day and age. But in 1996, nobody had email, and I had just discovered the fax machine. So when she said that I needed this thing called a website, it was so surreal to wrap my head around. How do images float around in the universe? I was so used to printed images and artwork on paper. But I trusted this person, and built our first website in 1996. Nobody saw it, and nobody had access to it, but we built it. Of course, today, the website is everything to us and others. It’s how people see our portfolios.
I also used to run around with physical portfolios. The group back then was smaller, but when you have 9-10 artists, and each artist had a leather portfolio, getting on a plane and flying to New York with all your portfolios to show your work was very physical. So without a doubt, the internet and our website was a huge change. And for our artists as well, transferring from actually painting to working digitally – we used to send stuff via FedEx – these days you can’t do anything fast enough. So even if we’re working digitally and people need sketches and final artwork, they need it very quickly. So technically, the website made a huge difference. We see more motion graphics, animations, so it’s not just images, but moving images. A lot of our clients not only want a regular image, but want it to be animated as well, so you see that shift as well.
We try to stay very current and we try to be innovative in our business, and that’s why we’ve been around for so long. We’re very interested in technology, and moving forward with trends. As things move forward, virtual reality would be next.
How has the illustration industry changed throughout the years you’ve been in operation?
Being in an industry like illustration for 25 years, there’s been so many changes. One of the things is how artists are working – from working traditionally by using water colour and collage, to working digitally, and scanning and sending. One of the things that’s changed for sure is no matter what technology offers, clients tend to always be in a hurry, and they seem to be even more in a hurry today, to get things done. We could do work with an overnight turnaround: we’ll get a briefing in the morning, and then the artist will work all night, do a sketch and supply the final artwork the next day.
I think that one of the great things about technology and the web is that there is no border that separates us from the clients, only time zones. We represent artists from around the world, and we have clients from around the world, and being able to work with people everywhere is fantastic. Whereas when we first started out 25 years ago, we were a very local agency, and now we’re an international agency. That’s definitely a big change from the early days of having to run around in the city.
I also used to be able to see and meet with clients one-on-one. I’d go and do presentations, and for so many years, we would only communicate via email. And since Covid, clients are now zooming with us, and I get to see them again, which is great – I love to see the people who I’m working with. Sylvie has quite a few meetings via Zoom because of the briefings, and I meet with artists regularly, and we do group zooms, which is fantastic. During the pandemic, because of Zoom, we’ve managed to have more meetings and see each other face to face, even if it’s online.
How do you choose which artist to represent? What do you look for?
First of all, it’s visual. I would see something, somewhere, whether it’s on Instagram, or I’ll get an email and I’ll be searching around, and I get this cathartic reaction. It’s a very quick response that I get in an image. I like images that are different. I’m always looking for styles that I haven’t seen. I love originality, and I love finding artists have a signature to their work. There’s so much out there today, and everything looks like everything else, so when I see something I like, a part of it is based on intuition.
I also need to feel that the person that I’m taking on gets me and gets the agency and how we work. We have such a personal approach to business, and the way we work. I need to work with people who understand the philosophy of our agency, who are collaborators, who are professional, who are fun, and committed. And they should be as passionate about the work like I am.
It’s really a feeling that I get. Usually I’m right. Every once in a while I get excited about a style and unfortunately it doesn’t pan out the way I’d like it to, but I think I’ve been pretty right on over the years. And I think it’s one of the reasons why we’re successful, or why people keep coming back to look at our portfolios, check us out online, or see what we do on Instagram, is because they’re asking “who is Anna Goodson going to add next?” We don’t follow trends in illustration – we like to set them. I think that’s a really big part of who we are and what we’re about.
You have a culturally diverse group of artists. Talk to me about how this came to be.
Cultural diversity is huge for me. One, for being a woman, and starting out, the struggle that I went through trying to establish the business. I think being gay is a huge issue for a lot of people. It was something that I didn’t really talk about very often when I launched, but I’ve noticed that with the artist that we represent today: they’re coming out, they’re more open and more vulnerable, and I think it’s very important that we represent all of these people in our group. It’s something that we’ve done for many years. Now, it’s trending because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBT communities and other minorities that have never been exposed in the art world, but we’ve been doing that from the very beginning.
I used to comment that there were never enough women in business images. I’d confront the illustrators directly and say, “hey, that was great, but how come there no women running around holding briefcases?” We need to show diversity in the group, and it’s important that we show different cultures. Most used to draw what they see in their immediate entourage, but now, artists are much more conscious.
I think that when a piece about black people is done by black artists, they do it with a sensitivity that only the artist can bring to it. The same goes for gay, queer and artists who are minorities. I think having artists like Queenbe Monyei, Iliana Galvez, My Tien Pham, and Angelo Dolojan – who all come from different cultural backgrounds – it gives them a platform to express themselves. It also gives choices to our clients to really be able to work with people in different communities. It’s absolutely crucial, we’ve always taken that into consideration, because of where I came from. It’s wonderful and meaningful today, that we’re getting these requests to work from clients from different backgrounds looking to work with artists who are diverse in culture and sexuality as well.
… to be continued in Part 2