This question was posted recently by the (very talented) Melissa Washburn in one of my Facebook groups:
“Is anyone else *not* going to Surtex? I realize that Surtex is not necessarily the place for everyone, and is a huge time and money commitment that not everyone is ready for, but I feel like EVERYONE BUT ME is going (leading to those terrible comparison thoughts and “If I don’t go to Surtex I’m never going to get clients” thoughts). Anyone care to start a “Not going to Surtex” Support Group, lol?”
Melissa’s posts received lots of responses from “maybe some day” to “I wouldn’t miss it!”. It’s a timely subject and I was planning to write a blog discussing this exact issue. Taking each side of the argument, I’ve written my own little Point/Counterpoint—with myself. So here we go!
Why you SHOULD exhibit at SURTEX:
SURTEX attendees are a concentration of art directors and decision makers across lots of disciplines and product categories. If they are in the business of licensing art from independent artists and agents, then they will likely attend the show to scout for current projects and also to discover talent for future product lines.
By exhibiting at SURTEX, you have the opportunity to be seen by and meet with the companies that you have dreamed of working with. And as a bonus, you also have the opportunity to meet people you didn’t know you wanted to work with. (And sometimes you can cross a few off your list once you have met with them because you won’t work well together…).
SURTEX is an enormous networking opportunity to meet potential clients, industry influencers and lots of other artists who are doing, or aspire to do, the same thing you are doing. It’s a way to develop face to face relationships with people that so far you have only met online. And that’s really fun, plus you never know when those paths may cross again.
If you exhibit at SURTEX you might even get a deal for your art! Yes, that’s right; you could walk away with a licensing contract under your belt before the end of the show. It has been done, however in reality it doesn’t happen often during your first few years.
If you are on the hunt for agency reputation, you can scope out the agents who are exhibiting and possibly have a conversation with them. At the very least you can get a sense of who they are, and maybe whether you would want to talk further with them.
Exhibiting at SURTEX (or License Expo or Blueprint, etc) is only recommended when you feel like you have a clear vision for your business–and your body of artwork is deep enough to attract a wide range of manufacturers—and is at a competitive level for the market. This is no time for a “well, let’s see how this goes” attitude unless you have recently won the big Powerball. (Then you’d probably just want to hang out on the beach in Maui anyway. Call me!)
This is a show chock-full of eye candy: great art, emerging art trends and industry insights that you can observe first hand. Exhibiting at SURTEX can make you feel like you are playing with the big kids—that you are ready to take a big step in moving your creative career forward.
Why you SHOULD NOT exhibit at SURTEX
Contrary to popular opinion, SURTEX is not the Holy Grail of success in this industry. There are many artists, agents and a lot of licensees who never set foot in the place. Exhibiting at SURTEX does not guarantee success by any stretch of the imagination; in fact it could take a very long time to earn back your expenses from the show.
Here’s the math:
Say your booth and other expenses total somewhere around $7000 for a 10 X 10 booth. Figuring a 5% royalty on wholesale, your deals would have to net your clients $140,000 at wholesale in order for you to break even. As in no profit yet. And that’s a lot of money. Many deals (like a few greeting cards for example) will never come close to that number. And most artists will tell you that they didn’t get any real traction until they exhibited for multiple years. Yikes.
You are early in your career and are not really sure if your work is right for the industry. Many artists and art styles are not. Instead of risking those kind of expenses you could spend a little more time showing your work to art directors via email and reaching out through social media. Getting additional feedback makes much more sense, particularly in the beginning.
If you believe that you will never make it unless you exhibit. Many artists who have either never exhibited, have stopped exhibiting or do it only occasionally have viable businesses and lots of profitable licenses. It’s just not true that if you don’t exhibit at SURTEX you will be missing out on all the best deals.
If you believe that you’re not “somebody” until you have exhibited at a show. If you are eager enough to make a living with your artwork, you can find other far less expensive ways to get in touch with decision makers and influencers.
Keep in mind that you do not have a lot of control over who sees your art (despite making appointments and promoting yourself) at the show, due to your potential client’s schedule and agenda. They have a lot to see in a short time, so they may not stop at all. You may have better results by sending targeted information to them when they are not in “show mode”.
If you have never walked the show (trust me, you only have to do it once to figure out if it is right for you or not), then you need to pony up the money to attend as a visitor before exhibiting. Spending a grand or less (depending on where you live) is a whole lot cheaper than dropping upwards of $7000 and finding out that you are in the wrong venue for your art.
So there you go—some reasons why you should and why you shouldn’t exhibit at SURTEX. It’s not for everyone and it’s not guaranteed success. A well-planned strategy and thoughtful promotion of your artwork places you in the position to be seen by decision makers–whether at a show or not.
I hope my little argument with myself helps you in your decision!
Note: All of the free in-person coaching spots have been filled at the show, but keep in mind that I am offering a 20 minute free “get to know each other call” after I am back from New York. Sign up here!