Anna Goodson / The Message Canada’s Mighty Women’ List 2023

—The Mighty Women judges were impressed with how Goodson started and built her illustration agency, while always keeping social justice and inclusion at the core of what she does—

When The Message spoke with Anna Goodson about how she built her successful illustration agency, she shared two anecdotes that pretty much sum up why she’s on The Mighty Women List this year.

Early in her career,  a boss gave her some advice: “He said, in business if you want to make a friend, buy a dog.” She thought the advice was terrible—it’s not who she was then, or is today. She cared about people, and wanted to care about the people she worked with. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to start my own agency and that way I’ll be able to run it the way I want.’”

Then, when she went to the bank to talk about a possible loan, the bank manager looked at Goodson, a young woman on her own, and suggested she come back with her father. “I basically said ‘screw you.’” (That story was included as part of the original Mighty Woman submission, and elicited multiple “can I speak to your husband” stories among the jurors.)

Photo credit: Sidney Goodson

Today, the business she started on her own 27 years ago is one of the most respected illustration agencies in the industry, attracting top talent from around the world, doing stunning work for brands and publishers across the planet. While it’s the Anna Goodson Illustration Agency, it is very much Anna Goodson. “I started with nothing,” she says. “Nobody gave me any money. Nobody helped me. I built this company in my image.”

Not that it was easy. There were some scary months in 1996 as she hustled to get the business off the ground and the Visa bills multiplied. Part of the problem was that Goodson was breaking new ground for the Canadian industry. Back then, illustrator reps were not common, and illustrators didn’t see the value of paying a commission to an agent.

But over time, Goodson’s passion for them and their work started to draw illustrators to her. In that first year, she made about $14,000. Today, she works with 56 artists all over the world, and gets thousands of emails a year from illustrators asking Anna Goodson to represent them. (That includes Martin Tognola, who created the illustration of Goodson at top.)

Goodson was and still is a pioneer in this part of the industry, says Elana Gorbatyuk, chief strategy officer at Sid Lee and one of the Mighty Women judges. “When she started, late ’90s and early 2000s, I knew artists and illustrators that were repped by her and they truly thought it was great to be represented by Anna Goodson,” she says. “She fought for them to get visibility and equitable pay for their work, which is what they deserved but it wasn’t happening. Many artists and illustrators were taken advantage of.”

“Anna’s vision and drive to make us shine by promoting our work is amazing,” adds Katy Lemay, who has been with Goodson almost since the beginning. “With her vision she’s not just a rep, she believes in us and always there to help.” British illustrator Andy Potts has been with Goodson since 2005. “She took a chance on me as an upcoming U.K. illustrator,” he says.  “She’s the kind of person that inspires loyalty and has certainly fought for my corner over the last 18 years.”

That belief in her illustrators and passion for their work is what has driven Goodson from day one. She’s built a successful business, but it never felt like a job. “I never ever went into business to make money,” she says. “I feel like my mission in life is that, because of what I do, artists can create—and artists need to create, this is their raison d’etre,” she says. “I’m super passionate about them, and about what we do. When I take somebody on, I get excited. It makes me happy.”

One of the other important reasons Goodson was chosen by the Mighty Women jury was because of her belief that her illustrators’ work can be a vehicle for change and social justice—that they can make a difference with their art.

She has long pushed for client work to demonstrate representation and inclusion, pointing out when the business people are all men, or there aren’t enough visible minorities in the work.

Each year, the agency produces a set of drink coasters as a promotional gift for the holidays, with illustrations supporting a different important cause. They’ve done reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and the environment. Goodson is also proud of the fact the agency was briefly blocked by Facebook over some less than flattering illustrations of Donald Trump they shared on social media.

Goodson believes that this way of doing things—a view that the work can be both beautiful and make statements about change and justice—is what appeals to many of the illustrators who want to work with her. She thinks of her agency as a safe place for some of the “misfits of the world.” A place where she can help them and advocate for them, and where they can feel comfortable in who they are and do work they are proud of.

“I think fundamentally it’s because I identify as being a misfit,” she says. ”Growing up gay, I never felt like I fit in… I always felt bad—we were meant to feel bad,” she says. “This was way before Britney kissed Madonna. So it was a time when you’re hiding a part of yourself… you just feel different than everybody else.

“So probably because I felt so different, it’s such an important thing for me that people feel that they can be who they are.”