Cog in The Works: Ben Cox, Central Illustration Agency

Ben Cox, Director, CIA

Ben Cox, Director, CIA

We started in Covent Garden in 1983, so it’s our thirtieth birthday this year. Brian Grimwood, who is a commercial illustrator now and was a particularly busy commercial illustrator in the 80s, recognised the fact that he was spending so much time in front of the drawing board doing commissioned work that he didn’t actually have any time to go out and show his portfolio to people. The risk is that if you’re not meeting people, you’ll end up working with a very limited client base.

So he employed a friend of his to take his portfolio round and visit the advertising agencies and publishing companies. Within a couple of weeks, six or seven of his friends who were also artists working in the Covent Garden area got in touch to ask if he was setting up an agency. It hadn’t really occurred to him to do that before, but he recognised it was a great idea, so that’s what he did.

There weren’t many illustration agents around at the time, but it’s quite a busy marketplace now. So the agency started off in his flat in Neal Street in Covent Garden and then we moved to Wellington Street, where we were for years. And then we moved to Perseverance Works.

At that time, I had just moved from Notting Hill to Stoke Newington – I was the last person to have moved to that part of London, all other staff were living in Hackney by then. We were also in Mayfair for a bit and it just didn’t make sense to be there; the property prices in the West End are astronomical and a lot of the artists and clients we work with are in this area. It’s such a creative area around here, so it seemed like a very natural move.

The Perseverance Works community is mad – everyone here is just so creative, it’s a really nice part of London. When we were in Mayfair, we were above a horrible restaurant and bar, looking down on the tourists. So to come to a place like this that has a lot of bustle but is also pedestrianized so is really quite peaceful is great. We have such a good view of everything that’s going on in this office, especially in the summer with the French doors open – it’s a great space for us, and has such a lot of character with the semi-industrial architecture.

The challenge of recent years has been the recession. Decorating your message with beautiful imagery is a luxury. There are ways of delivering a message about your product without necessarily employing beautiful image makers to dress it up and make it look more engaging and inspiring. Because of the economic downturn, we found ourselves dealing with clients who had had their own budgets slashed. A lot of the editorial work, the bread and butter work that our illustrators do, is newspaper and magazine work because though it doesn’t pay very well, it’s regular. And it’s a good shop window. But a lot of editorial departments have had their budgets cut to such a degree that they’re having to use cheap stock library stuff or they are happily employing graduates who will do anything for next to nothing. So that part of the market really dropped out for us.

Also book covers, which has been a really busy part of our marketplace, you get book designers doing as much as they can in house. There’s a lot of photo-collage with stock library imagery. Unfortunately that was really hit as well.

A bit like black cabs, advertising is a really good barometer for how the economy is shaping up in a country because it’s a luxury – people will reign it in if they can’t afford to do it. You do get the innovators and entrepreneurs who will see the downturn as an opportunity to actually flood the market with advertising because other people aren’t… The sad thing isn’t the fact that less work is being commissioned, it’s that the work that has been coming in has been very straight. People haven’t been willing to take much of a creative or intellectual risk. If you’re a brand with a product to sell, especially with fashion-based brands, more often than not you’ll try to ally yourself with a particular demographic you want to relate to. In that case, you might take quite a brave approach to take a visual direction that might actually alienate other people. When everyone is skint, you can’t afford to narrow your marketplace and so you need to make your message much more mass-market, dumb it down a bit and not be so dangerous. So the more innovative, conceptual ideas of the artists we represent, whose work is more challenging, they’ve suffered the most. Whereas our quite traditional painters whose work is quite nostalgic and very easy to absorb, they’ve done better.

But it has been improving an awful lot of the last six to twelve months. We’ve seen a lot more work coming through from the ad agencies, newspapers and magazines. So it’s exciting again. It’s ok for us, we’re a team of people and we’re aware of what’s going on in the wider industry. But for the artists it can be a very isolating experience. We probably only represent about eight or nine artists who live in London; the rest are scattered around the country and abroad. They’re like little satellites floating on their own, and they’re very much reliant on us to tell them how it’s going. It takes a lot of time and energy to keep people buoyant and encouraged, because it’s very difficult to do work like theirs when you’re stressed and there are very few things that are more stressful than being strapped for cash.

It’s been an education, for sure. It’s the first recession I’ve been through in a senior position and a lot of lessons have been learnt. Things like reigning in on expensive marketing practices. But thankfully we’ve ridden it out and it is picking up and we’ve got a lot more exciting briefs coming in now. The clients seem to be enjoying themselves a lot more as well. It’s much more fun.

The most rewarding part of the job is… well we’re like Cilla Black doing the whole Blind Date thing! It’s a very personal endeavour; not only the image making but also the creative idea the client that’s commissioning the work has, because they’re creatives too. Art directors at ad agencies, creative designers in publishing houses – they’ve all been through art school. We’ve all been through art school – it’s a very likeminded community. And they come to us with an idea in their head that they haven’t been able to visually articulate themselves. The whole process of shortlisting people who are not only aesthetically right for the job, but also emotionally and intellectually are a good fit.
We know our clients well enough to judge which artists will get on well with them. And seeing a relationship creatively blossom through the briefing process, the working process, the rough stages, the feedback, the spats along the way when two creative people meet head on and one person has a very strong idea of what needs to be done and the other has a strong idea of how they think it should be interpreted… working your way around those problems is a very entertaining thing to watch and it’s hugely satisfying when it works out.

But we don’t really ever want to have more than 100 artists on our books, otherwise I think it becomes too hard to maintain a personal relationship with each artist. And we also need to make sure that any fresh talent we take on doesn’t compete with the artists we already represent. Their work needs to look totally different to anything we already have. But it’s really exciting when we find someone new, because it’s a bit of a gamble. We’ve all come from a creative background, so we trust our own judgement that when we take on somebody new it’s because their work is really good but that doesn’t necessarily always mean that the market will agree with you. We recently signed an artist, Mads Berg, who has taken off immediately in the space of six weeks or so, and everybody is really excited about him. But we’ve had another artist we signed two or three years ago now and we think her work is absolutely sensational, but it’s been a tough graft getting other people to see how they can use it.

There is some work that is overtly commercial – it’s bright, it’s happy, it’s figurative. You can immediately see how it could sell a product. Some of our artists have a fine art practice and are represented by galleries as well as being commercial illustrators; their work is a bit more cerebrally lateral and it isn’t so obvious how it can be worked into a commercial brief. And ultimately, it has to be approved by a bunch of suits, because as much as we’re working for an advertising company full of creatives, they’re working for a petrochemicals company who aren’t creative. And that’s been another frustration during the recession. There are an awful lot of people in an awful lot of jobs who have been concerned about keeping their jobs, and therefore they need to be heard and seen to have a voice and an opinion to justify their position at that table. And so approval by committee has been a huge issue for us. They now want to be much more hands on. It can be incredibly frustrating.

I went to Exeter School of Art, originally to do illustration but then I switched to photography. The college couldn’t afford a London degree show, and we knew that nobody would come to Exeter to see it. So me and two mates put together an independent show with sponsorship and press. Lots of people came and people got jobs from it. It was really successful and a really fun exercise and I really enjoyed the whole promotional aspect of things. So when a friend of mine who was already represented by an illustration agency said that his agent was looking for a new guy I went along and met them and that was the start of that. I worked for them for four and a half years. I met Brian early on because he had an exhibition at the gallery that was attached to that particular company. We got on really well and kept in touch and when he wanted someone new he took me out for dinner and that was the end of that! That was eleven years ago.