Today it is my pleasure to showcase my good friend, the talented, award-winning illustrator Thodoris Tibilis. Thodoris, based in Athens, Greece, has worked for leading advertising agencies throughout Europe and the USA, including McCann Erickson, Saatchi & Saatchi, BBDO and Ogilvy & Mather. His clients include Coca Cola, Fiat, Procter & Gamble, Heinz and the 2004 Olympic Games as well as many others. He specializes in commercial assignments that call for funny, energetic and humorous characters aimed primarily at the child and young adult markets.
If you are like me, you may not have a clue about what the advertising world is like beyond the shores of the USA, so let’s find out.
Hile Design: Hi, Thodoris. Let’s start with the fact that you live and work in Greece, a small country compared to the United States, where most of our readers are from. Can you tell us about what it is like to make a living as a commercial illustrator in Greece, and a bit about the overall advertising industry in your country?
Thodoris Tibilis: Hi, Dave! Though Greece is a small country, many international ad agencies are located here. From my personal experience of working with ad agencies both in Greece and in other countries, I’d have to say the experience is about the same. The main difference is an issue of exposure. When you work for a Greek ad agency, most of the time your exposure is limited to the Greek market. Of course there are always exceptions. I have created illustrations for Greek ad agencies that have been used in many foreign markets as well.
But when you work for an American ad agency the exposure is greater. The target market is much bigger to begin with, and the benefits to the illustrator don’t stop there, because you have the possibility of reselling additional rights through different channels.
So far, my responses have concerned the commercial [agency] illustration market. Things are not so optimistic if we talk about the book publishing industry in Greece. Publishers here pay very small project fees and demand that they receive complete illustration copyrights forever! It is outrageous but sadly, it’s common! That is why the majority of the talented Greek illustrators are working as freelancers worldwide or for Greek-based ad agencies and not for book publishers.
Actually, there are only a few Greek commercial illustrators who make a living at it, because the market is small here and there’s a lot of competition. It takes time and effort to became one of them, but when you succeed you are rewarded.
The overall advertising industry in Greece produces very high quality work, and things are getting better year by the year. Some campaigns from these agencies are used internationally and many Greek ad agencies have been recognized in international competitions.
HD: As you mentioned, besides Greece, you work for clients in other European countries as well as the USA. What are some additional differences that you experience when working with clients outside your country?
TT: The main difference I experience when working for ad agencies in foreign countries is the many miles separating us. But thanks to the Internet this issue has largely been resolved. Unfortunately though, I don’t have the opportunity for direct interpersonal communication. Another thing to mention is that the legal contracts differ from country to country, due to varying laws.
Also, different countries belong to different time zones and, especially when a project is in progress, you have to be available at all hours of the day and night. Of course the currency is different, but that is a minor problem. The last difference I should mention is that promoting yourself to ad agencies in different countries makes for an awful lot of self-promotion.
HD: I bet it does. Let’s turn to your background. Growing up did you always know you wanted to be an illustrator? And what is your educational background?
TT: As a child I didn’t know what I wanted to become professionally. But from early childhood I always enjoyed drawing and making sculptures and handcrafts. Even though I successfully graduated from university with a degree in economics the only thing I truly learned is that I knew what I should avoid! So I am a self-taught illustrator. It took me many years after university to realize that I wanted to be an illustrator, mainly because I didn’t even know whether there was such a profession that could sustain me.
HD: For a self-taught illustrator you certainly have learned your lessons well. You have such a great style. Your cartoon characters have a lot of vitality and energy, and they definitely appeal to the kids’ market. Is this the subject and cartoon style you have always worked in, or did it evolve over time?
TT: As a self-taught artist I have tried many media that I discovered in art stores without knowing how to use most of them at first. Different media led me to different forms of art. Through this procedure my main cartoon style evolved over time.
DH: Speaking of different media, I know that you have recently been experimenting with creating characters in clay, which you then photograph. What led to trying this new medium?
TT: I like to experiment! It’s fun and I believe that it is extremely helpful to spend some time trying to express oneself in new ways. At the least it charges my batteries and gives me new ideas. This is true whether it leads me into a new style or just expands my horizons in my current style.
HD: Let’s talk about workload. As an illustrator myself, I know that life can be filled with industry ups and downs. Depending on the project, one day I’ll feel on top of the world and the next I can feel like no one in the world likes my work. Can you share with us the most enjoyable and rewarding project you have ever worked on, and conversely, the worst, most horrible job?
TT: It’s nice to know that I am not alone in this world. I share the same ups and downs (fortunately for me, more ups than downs), but I know now after 15 years as a professional, that this is the reality of being an illustrator.
I feel lucky to have done many enjoyable and rewarding projects over the years. I wouldn’t want to choose one of them, but I can definitely say which was the worst, and really horrible. It was a book that I did 13 years ago. In mid-project the deadline changed to half the time we had agreed upon, so I was rushed. Though the client was happy in the end, I was not satisfied. After a couple of months, when I saw the published book I felt so disappointed that I promised myself to never do something like this again. It was a great lesson and since then I’ve tried in every project to give it my best.
HD: I think all illustrators have had similar experiences. You and I email back and forth a lot about how we market our illustration services. Tell our readers about how you reach new markets and obtain new clients. And I never asked you whether you have ever used an illustrator’s rep—have you? (For our readers, an illustrator’s rep is someone who partners with illustrators to handle the business side of project negotiations. Typically a rep will work with between 5 to 50 or so different artists, each with their own unique style. The rep handles drumming up assignments and advertising for the illustrator. Then the rep takes an agreed-upon percentage of the illustrator’s assignment fee.)
TT: Self-advertising and showing my portfolio are my promotion tools. I try to maintain a strong presence on the Internet as well as in publications through illustration ads. To date I have never used a rep, but I am thinking of finding someone to represent me in the US market.
HD: If there are any reps reading this, take note! Thodoris, I have always been impressed by the amount of work you turn out. It’s a testament to your talent. But a downside of being so busy for extended periods of time is “Illustrator Burnout.” Earlier in my career (when I was much younger) I pulled a lot of all-nighters. It’s just something I had to do to build my business. I know that you have experienced similar stresses due to your workload. How do you deal with burnout, and has there ever been a time when you just wanted to get out of the commercial art business?
TT: I have experienced “burnout” three times (fortunately, for small periods of time). The symptoms: feeling miserable and losing the desire to illustrate. I just wanted to go on extended vacations and spend my days doing nothing. I handle it by just stepping back and listening to myself, then I get over it. Interestingly, it doesn’t happen when I have projects in progress. It happens to me when I’m on vacation, because then I allow myself to relax from all the hard work. [With burnout] I just want to stay on vacation indefinitely. I think that burnout happens because of our love of illustrating. We love it so much and we accept all these nice projects coming, without keeping in mind that we also have a need to rest. It’s a love issue…
HD: Yes, I agree that because most illustrators love to illustrate so much, they don’t separate their work life from their private lives. It all blends together. And that can lead to burnout.
With a 15-year career behind you, what is there to do as an illustrator that you haven’t done yet?
TT: One of my goals is to do character design for a 2D or 3D cartoon movie. Another goal is to better master the 3D software that I am now learning, in order to create 3D illustrations as well as 3D animations. I am sure that when I succeed with these goals I will create some more goals and this is the way it goes.
HD: I know I will be keeping an eye on your work in the future. Thanks for sharing with us, Thodoris.
Finally, I would like you to end this interview with whatever you would like to say, but it has to be in Greek! Then if any of our readers are fluent in Greek, they can leave me a comment translating your text. (Readers beware: I will run your reply by Thodoris for a quality check of your translation skills!)
TT: Ευχαριστώ πολύ για τη συνέντευξη. Εύχομαι για την εταιρία και εσένα προσωπικά ό,τι καλύτερο!
Visit Thodoris’ website to see more of his illustrations.