The imaginero (maker of images) has always found it tricky to make a living.

Even painters we now regard as masters died without fortune and sometimes in poverty. Painting was a trade. It paid as such.

Of course, when means for mass reproduction came along, artists or their gallerists could distribute works that would meet public approval and this made some very rich. But even then, many of the best suffered a lifetime of penury if their works didn’t conform to the tastes of their time.

Fast forward and the emergence of the commercial internet has meant artists can promote themselves. The din is greater than ever and it’s hard for artists to get heard.

However, commerce, the internet, increase in media consumption and social media specifically make for greater demand than ever for visual design. As web design gets both more commonplace and more sophisticated, companies seek to differentiate themselves with better branding, advertising and content marketing.

And perhaps brands are getting serious about patronising new artists?

Whatever time an artist lives in, patronage has always been the surest way to security. Whether of the King of Spain or Charles Saatchi or Debenhams.

Yep, Debenhams.

Debenhams has partnered with, a network of UK creative talent, to market its #knowmysize campaign, highlighting its free bra fit service.

This project involved five illustrators producing work based on sentences describing common problems for bra wearers, provided to the artists without context e.g. ‘digging into the shoulders’.

You can see a snapshot of some of the work below on some flyers I collected from the launch event. Apologies to the artists for not displaying them at their best, but you can see it’s art with serious chops.

The artists include graduates of Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art and those that have worked successfully with many brands already.

debenhams #knowmysize artwork

Social media will be the main medium for this work, as well as placing it in the bra fit areas in-store. A film created for the campaign will also be distributed online.

Debenhams is looking at more work for wider upcoming campaigns and this approach promises to allow unique content sitting alongside a commercial message.

Here are a few thoughts I had about this content marketing model:

1. This isn’t exactly patronage

Although the artists are all delighted to be involved, they’re doing it for free to gain exposure. is paid and creates the network and opportunity for artists, including recently flying some photographers to Barcelona for a project with Canon.

This could conceivably pique some artists who think that work should be paid for. Of course, Debenhams is paying for the work, it’s just not going to the creators.

I think this is probably not too great a concern for the artists in question. As I discussed with the founder of, this creates a sort of production line, artists get a break from working with a big brand and effectively ‘graduate’ from the programme.

Many of the artists take part because they have lots of work that isn’t being used and they are perhaps reluctant to engage directly with a brand (or vice versa).

This almost-agency model that is developing may be something we see more of. A more authentic creativity achieved by working with this kind of intermediary.

I’m not saying the model doesn’t pose questions, but the proof will be in how many artists are willing to jump aboard. I think it may allow artists to produce commercial work without being too constrained. That’s a good thing in terms of getting true examples of their work into the market.

The artists are also able to continue distributing the work through their own networks, rather producing the work and remaining mute and sometimes uncredited.

2. Debenhams is following in a lengthening line of bold brands

Red Bull and its extreme sports network. Louis Vuitton and its Paris gallery (discussed in this post). Burberry and its unsigned artists.

Whether these are content marketing or branding, I’m unsure. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that brands are increasingly seeing creatives and pioneers as sensible investment.

In many cases it may not require too great an investment either. I don’t know how Burberry’s model works but I’m sure some of the musicians, like with Debenhams’ illustrators, are involved for free. However, there’s still investment in the web architecture and events associated. It’s still a big undertaking. 

3. Brand awareness is starting to make sense through social

Brand awareness might be becoming more about great content than it is about ads (Apple aside?).

Whether this means using artists as discussed, or creating funny and engaging videos that happen to feature a brand. See Purina’s ‘A Cat’s Guide To Taking Care of Your Human’ produced by BuzzFeed.

Artists and marketers and artistic marketers, let me know what you think through the medium of paint, dance, song or the comments box below.