Success & Jim Valvano

Everybody who knows me knows that I like analogies, particularly sports analogies. Given that, Jim Valvano was the head basketball coach at Iona and North Carolina State where he helped engineer one of the most improbable upsets in basketball history. In 1983, Valvano’s Wolfpack won the ’83 NCAA Championship ( over the heavily favored Houston Cougars. He subsequently died very young of cancer and his courage in the face of his disease has provided one of the greatest moments in televised history ( Today, over 20 years since his death, Valvano’s legacy is nearly mythic, and he still inspires millions to succeed against long odds.

What does Jim Valvano have to do with Voice-Overs?

Years ago I was sitting in a meeting when someone mentioned Jim Valvano and a quote he had made. It went something like: “my only job is to put my players in position to succeed.” At that moment, a light bulb went off in my head. That was my job! I didn’t have a basketball and seven footers, but instead, I had voice-over clients and opportunities to get them work.

Ever since that day, I’ve lived by that phrase and often use it as a sort of mantra when I am bogged down by distractions or dilemmas that have nothing to do with my actual job. I also use the quote as a foundation for goals that I hope to accomplish. For instance, how does hiring a new employee put ACM’s clients in better position to succeed?

Putting Yourself In Position

I wrote a blog piece a couple of weeks ago titled the “Deadly Dozen: the Top Reasons Voice Talent Don’t Succeed” ( in which I detailed many ways to get off-track. But the focus in that piece was more about what not to do. Instead, what does one do to be ready?

Below, I am providing cliché after cliché as if I was a typical coach. Regardless of appearing trite, everything below is expected of any great athlete trying to get better. The same applies for any voice artist. Here are 12 examples of what to do.

  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Constantly set and reset goals
  • Be fearless
  • Prepare and study outside of practice
  • Invest in the correct tools
  • Invest in the best coaching
  • Be on time and on schedule
  • Hold yourself accountable
  • Keep your emotions in check
  • Visualize success
  • Adapt to changing circumstances
  • Embrace adversity

Training and Discipline

All twelve of these traits take for granted that talent is willing to train and prepare. In athletics, I know the type of rigorous training I endured to be, at best, decent. I also know in hindsight, that I could have been even better if I had been more disciplined.

There was a myth when I was a teenager about great athletes having God-given genetic superiority. Granted, some have more gifts than others, but what I have learned as I got older is that desire, discipline, preparation and hard work trump natural gifts and also lead to far greater sustainable success. In other words, if voice talent put themselves in position to succeed and their agents do the same, a great career is inevitable.

The Future of Voice-Over Agents and Managers

Last week, I discovered a really talented voice-over agent had decided to leave the business. He loved the work and had made sacrifices to stay in the industry, but he just could not compromise any further. His salary was still stuck in 2009 and he was watching non-union work and PTP sites swallowing up a large percentage of his business. It was too much to bear.

I was not going to argue with him. I knew 95% of his voice-over experience was in commercials, and he had built his reputation there.   I also knew his strong suit was developing talent, which has been so marginalized by the desperate need to capitalize on every short-term opportunity.


I didn’t start out in commercials, which remains the backbone of the voice business since the inception of the industry.   Instead, I began in promos (and very secondarily narrations), where I was forced to be more entrepreneurial and improvisational to build my business.   Even when I was successfully running a commercial department, I recognized the day-to-day foundation of that business was still based on a Mad Men era model.

In fact, while discussing Mad Men with a younger colleague, I made a comment that if he had to step back in time to 1965, he would be able to do the same job he does today. All he needed to do was figure out a 50 year old telephone system, a rolodex and carbon paper.   Now, we may have PC’s, email and the Internet, but talent agencies as a rule have stuck to their 50 year old guns and created digital facsimiles of analog methods and called it innovation.


There have been only two predominant types of voice-over agency innovation and both have only evolved in the last 10-20 years.

  • Digital disrupters that combine agency models with casting such as the PTP sites and Voicebank.
  • Voice Agencies pursuing other categories of work beyond advertising, of which the majority have been in entertainment.

When it comes to the “digital disrupters,” the agencies have been competing head to head with PTP’s, and while they dismissed PTP’s as low rent work, they ignored that their business was more scalable and inclusive.

As for new work, talent agencies have only invested in pursuing or planning for new opportunities when the commercial money was flowing. There was never really a plan on how to adapt and evolve if the business changed.


Realistically, and the former agent will admit this, he never imagined the business changing to this degree and he is not the sort to develop an area from scratch. He has, in fact, accepted that he is unable to adapt and is more willing to walk away than cause himself anymore discomfort.

I look at some of the agencies and wonder if they would be willing to do the same. Most of these agencies do not need commercial departments to remain viable and the one’s who do have principals who should be relatively comfortable if they decided to pull the plug.

Now, don’t assume this is what I am personally advocating. My point is if the talent agencies and managers do not want to continue evolving then they need to decide if participating in the business is still worthwhile to them.

The Deadly Dozen - The Top Reasons Voice Talent Don’t Succeed

Everybody in our business knows the talent. The guy or gal with the great voice who should have been the next big thing…except it never materialized. While the market plays a part, more often than not talent is either not ready for the opportunity or never will be. Here are my “Deadly Dozen:” reasons why careers fall flat. 1. Great voice/no talent - the voice is an instrument like a guitar or a piano. Of course, the greatest instrument is irrelevant if you can’t play it.

2. Lack of experience - in order to get better, everyone needs to get his or her at-bats. Without them, it is virtually impossible to improve.

3. Not enough skills - experience also begets skill(s). Everyone needs to start by doing one thing well but to maintain a career, the best need to adapt and reinvent. Without skill(s) and a foundation to build upon… that’s impossible.

4. Representation - too often agents are blamed for their actor’s lack of success, when several factors are usually the cause. When representation is the fault, either the agent has little enthusiasm for the talent or too little access to opportunities.

5. Lack of professional and personal resources - everyone wants to be working with the right people but the damage of working with the wrong people can never be underestimated.

6. Personal obstacles - whether health, financial or interpersonal dynamics, sometimes life and timing simply gets in the way of success.

7. Lack of motivation - everyone likes making money but as a rule, the more money someone has in the bank, the less apt they are to provide the service that got them the work in the first place.

8. Unreasonable expectations - what is success? Everyone’s ceiling is different but unless a talent’s goals are reasonable, his or her enthusiasm and hard work will eventually wane and the stress will only increase.

9. Lack of education - voice-over education can vary from traditional academic rigor to life experience to voice-specific training. This learning can never stop.

10. Lack of professionalexperience - with so much competition, acting like a pro regardless of profession is more important than ever before.

11. Lack of competitive spirit- Voice-overs is a competition and some simply lack the drive to keep pushing to better themselves and their competition.

12. Burn Out - it can happen to anyone and usually happens even before the talent recognizes the problem.

It’s my job to be on the lookout for these Deadly Dozen within my own stable of talent, but I also have to recognize that I too can fall in similar traps. Hopefully, awareness is the first step to avoiding the pitfalls, as I know I want to be as good at what I do as all the performers who entrust me with their careers.

Microphones for the Voice Professional

The Never-ending Question Keep in mind, I know very little about sound engineering, yet I’m constantly asked the question: “what microphone do you recommend?” In general, I recommend one of two microphones, the Neumann TLM-103 and the Sennheiser 416, with an overall preference for the Neumann U87. Unfortunately, I consider the U87 cost prohibitive for 99% of the voice community and absolutely unnecessary for anyone who is not doing significant commercial or narration work.

The Usual Recommendations

For the sake of this article, I’m assuming the performer is earning a living, making the cost of the TLM-103 and 416 (both between $1000-$1500) a solid investment and a positive step forward from a prior and less expensive mic. I am also going to grossly simplify my perception of the two mics. I think the Neumann is the warmer and more nuanced of the two. The Sennheiser is the more precise and cuts through better, especially if the talent is only a couple inches away from the “sweet spot.”

The Key Questions

When a performer approaches me about mics, I usually ask a series of questions and figure out a consensus depending on individual circumstances. Here, I will ask the questions I normally ask, answer them based on the most common answers, and then recommend which mic based on circumstances.

Here goes:

How noisy is your room? Noisy, such as an urban residency - Sennheiser. Relatively quiet - Neumann.

How large is your room? Large and relatively quiet - Neumann. Small such as Whisper Room - Sennheiser.

Do you sit or stand? Sit - Neumann. Stand - Sennheiser.

What kind of work do you do mostly? TV Commercials - Neumann. Radio Commercials - Sennheiser. Trailers - Sennheiser. Promos - Sennheiser. Narrations - Neumann. Radio Imaging/TV Affiliates - Sennheiser. Audio Books - Neumann. Political Advertising - Sennheiser.

Do you have a professional preamp? Yes - Neumann. No - Sennheiser.

Are you doing the majority of your sessions via ISDN or are you sending compressed files? Yes - Sennheiser. No (uncompressed) - Neumann

Do you travel often with remote gear and mic? Yes - Sennheiser. No - Neumann.

The Final Prognosis

As you can see the majority of the answers lean to the 416 even though I actually prefer the sound of the Neumann. My feelings, in general, are that the Sennheiser tends to hide deficiencies, so unless you really know your way around audio equipment, start with 416. As your business grows and you begin to upgrade your equipment, consider the Neumann.

Supply and Demand in Voice-Overs?

The Drill Every voice rep has been through the drill:

  1. Someone is looking for an 80 year old woman.
  2. She has to be a great storyteller.
  3. She needs to be the real thing, i.e. not a younger actor pretending to be old.

Life before Voicebank

Prior to Voicebank an ad agency would hire a casting director, usually costing between $1000 and $5000, and he/she would be paid for the time and effort in finding the woman.

In the last ten years two new dynamics evolved:

  1. The ad agency would post the job on Voicebank and the talent agents would bring older actresses (usually on-camera talent) to their offices for the audition.
  1. The agency would post the job on a P2P (Pay-to-Play) and hope there is an octogenarian with a home set-up who will deliver the necessary file(s).

Here is the kicker

All of this time, if the work was union and regardless of the casting resource used…

The work was automatically listed at scale.

If the work was non-jurisdictional or non-union the work paid less, and at times paid significantly less than typical rates.

Why do I bring this up?

I bring this up because non-celebrity voice-over work has rarely been a supply and demand business. If it were a supply and demand business, the 80 year-old voice actress would be paid significantly more because there is such a small supply of these voice actresses.

Granted, there is little demand as well, but as soon as the need arises most market solutions would lean toward the 80 year-old being paid a premium rate. In more frequent scenarios, the same would apply to children and most ethnicities.

Is there a solution?

I think there is a solution: If someone wants to be that creative and needs a specialty voice, then they should pay extra. There will be definite pushback especially in the case of older women and children.

Why? There is a perception that “they should feel lucky to be getting the work”, as if the “good luck and attention received” is more valuable than the “paid fee."

Of course, the belief “luck” is more important is ridiculous and agents will likely ignore that argument, but so should talent and more so their parents to teach the child voice actor the importance of self-worth at an early age.

An alternative solution

Agents can simply resist working on the project, if there is no added financial incentive. I realize this is counter intuitive for most agents who strive to work on every project possible with equal vigor.

However, the return on booking the 80 year-old on a radio spot will likely be in the neighborhood of $30.00, and that is if the agent books it. Usually, there will be three or more other agents who did not book the job and spent at least an hour of time on spec for a relatively meager reward.

If either or both solutions are routinely implemented, I think you will see a change in behavior with ad agencies. Either they will focus on easier and less expensive solutions for their creative, or budget accordingly for their needs.

Developing Voice-Over Talent

During the first 15 years of my career, I had a real simple method of developing new voice-over talent:

  1. I would first focus on a small group of men and women.
  2. Next, I would provide them with as many opportunities as possible.
  3. From there, they would come up to my agency’s recording studio and I, or my booth directors, would spend a tad more time directing them, providing them with pointers, building their confidence and sending them on their way with a better understanding of the audition process.

The combination of repetition and attention was consistently effective. If I compared my results with the 80/20 rule, I would bet my real success was closer to 50/50. Of course, financial success is relative, but the roughly 50% I’m referring to had no other jobs beyond voice-overs.

Client Satisfaction

Better yet, my system was incredibly efficient for the clients for the following reasons:

  1. They were getting auditions almost every day, and while some were at a casting director’s, most were at our offices.
  2. There was no need to hire a coach, as my booth directors and I became their de facto coaching staff.
  3. They already had our representation so there was no reason to produce a demo.

In fact, as they booked we collected their spots, until they had a demo of real material that we then edited together.

In the end, the total cost was virtually nothing. Granted there were transportation and opportunity costs, but in the end, I cannot think of a client that was ever truly in the red.

Things Have Changed

Actors generally need a demo now to get an agent’s attention. The exceptions are film, television or stage actors, who create a buzz for an on-camera commercial client, which somehow gets the attention of voice-over agents.

Regardless, 95% of the actors need a demo and that will generally cost them between $1000 and $2500.

Performers also do not have enough auditions to get better, and without these at-bats, need coaching and work groups instead. After everything is said and done, $2500 to $5000 can easily be spent.

Everyone is also working from home, so they need equipment. Taking into account that almost everyone has a computer these days, there are still costs for a mic, mic stand, pop screen, pre-amp, software, foam padding etc. In the end, decent equipment will run between $500 and $2000.

How Much Does This Cost?

Those three things can easily add up to $10,000 without yet booking a job. Even worse, if you spend less, you likely are increasing the time needed to be successful so the short-term savings may actually be incurring even greater long-term costs.

The more and more I think about this, the more often I think that voice-overs have evolved into all the other professions you need college for except there are no scholarships, student loans or Pell Grants. Pushing this analogy further, there is also a vast gulf in the costs and quality of coaches and demo manufacturers like there are for universities.

No Guarantees

You may do everything right and hire a top coach and demo maker, but like attending Yale or Harvard, there is no guaranteed success. There are only better odds you will be successful. The reverse is true for talent choosing the wrong path. Whether you realize it or not, your odds of success are incredibly slim regardless of how much money you spend unless you align themselves with the right people to nurture you and provide you opportunities.

Voice-Over Rates Part II: Maintaining the Floor

I wrote a piece last week about the unforeseen consequences of accepting lower rates. The response has mostly been positive and since then I have received a bunch of really nice comments and emails lauding me for being so open about my mistake.

While I appreciate the sentiments, I realize I may have stated my problem, but did never offered a solution. More importantly, although I learned a lesson, I’ve still made plenty of crappy deals subsequent to my ESPN experience for dozens of reasons mostly beyond my control.

Planting the flag in the ground

If you were curious where I stand when I negotiate any deal, the first thing anyone should know about me is I’m a strong advocate of SAG-AFTRA. Why stand by this union, given these turbulent times and especially when SAG-AFTRA has been so slow to act on so many issues? The answer is because they at least create a floor (scale) for most of the various voice-over markets.

Why is scale so important?

Two factors make scale important:

  1. Misinformed, unscrupulous or ignorant talent
  2. Agents/managers undercutting market rates

I’ll start with talent first

Do sleazy talents exist? Of course they do just like in any profession. There are some sleazy performers who will willingly undercut other performers for their own gain. While I take issue with those individuals, as much as anyone, I am not concerned with them in the long term.

Why? A percentage of these talents will always exist and trying to convert them to act otherwise is usually fruitless. Instead, I look to the misinformed and the ignorant. The majority of misinformed, naive or ignorant performers will aspire to “fair wages," but don’t realize that offering voice services at $5, $10, or even $50, is not creating a “floor." It is one of multiple sub-basements below a market that few bother to participate in.

Groom yourself as a logical thinker

The only answer for the misinformed is education and one place to start is to burst this bubble of flawed logic:

  • “Well hey…It pays $10 dollars, but it only takes 10 minutes. So, it’s like making $60 an hour. Right?”

If that’s the only job in that hour than you are still making $10 dollars an hour. In the meantime, talent has to learn the going rates and SAG-AFTRA needs to make their rates searchable with a few clicks instead of needing to rely on third parties to figure out what to charge for a given job.

Now on to agents

I’m including managers here, but keeping things simple by just using the one term.

Here’s a secret for voice talent: If someone calls for a talent with a below market, but not insulting rate, it is NOT the agent’s jobs to turn down the voice-over work. It is the client’s (voice talent’s) job to say “no." Here’s another secret: If the talent does say “no," it is the job of the agent to offer the buyer a talent who will say “yes.”

How often does a voice talent actually say “no?” The odds are maybe 1 in 100. How often does an agent turn that low quote into a job for another talent? Close to half the time.

Is this business behavior unscrupulous? Absolutely not, but if you are concerned it is rigged against the performer, let’s just say it is definitely not in his/her favor.

The balance of power

So, what has maintained the balance of power all these years between talent, agents, and production? Now is the time to circle back to the performing arts unions.

Unfortunately, I think the union membership and its hierarchy have over-inflated their value and forgotten their function in the business. If they simply do their jobs and negotiate fair contracts, then the unions are successful. Personally, I believe a core issue is the fact that the unions are more focused on protecting talent “rights,” as if the unions’ members were working in 19th century coalmines, instead.

What is the solution? SAG-AFTRA, as well as their brethren in AEA, DGA, WGA etc., all need to negotiate as many contracts as quickly as possible and stop making excuses. The active daily market does not care about union committees and protocols. They only care about making deals, fast. If SAG/AFTRA does not reshape itself, then the market will evolve into greater and greater consolidations and talent will almost always lose.

In conclusion

Let me end by saying, when I started in the business focusing on on-air promos, I was considered to be working in the “Wild West” of the industry. The promo industry never had union support, and although agents may have been initially responsible for negotiating relatively fair rates, this is rarely true today.

The multi-nationals took over and set the floor. Today, rates are significantly lower than they were 20 years ago. I knew back in the 1990’s that eventually the networks would force our hand and make us commit to taking less.

Today, I see what’s happening in all facets of the industry and I know the same thing will happen again and again unless SAG/AFTRA cleans up the streets before the producers do.

Voice-Overs: Fighting the Race to the Bottom

Dilemma circa 1995 In 1995, I had a dilemma. I was a young, fairly successful voice-over agent specializing in on-air promos and was one of a handful of agents throughout the country specializing in the field. One of the dozens of networks I worked almost exclusively with was ESPN (prior to them being bought by Disney in 1999). They used a 24 year-old talent who ESPN somehow discovered. To my dismay, they paid him one of the worst rates in all of on-air promotion.

I had inherited the ESPN business when I arrived at the agency and I didn’t have a strong influence yet. The talent was making roughly $50K a year. I also knew the talent’s backstory. Only six months prior he had been selling plumbing supplies for minimum wage.

Regardless, I felt the rate was unfair . Over the next year, I established a relationship and carefully negotiated a $50 bump. The new rate was still below the market, but at least I was raising the bar I told myself.

Cut to... a year later

Through my ESPN on-air contacts, I was hooked up to the marketing department which had a job for someone to read dozens of international promos, twice a week. The catch? The rate they proposed was even lower than the original on-air rate.   It would have been really easy for me to say no except I had another young guy.

Let’s call him Tom.

Tom was really talented and I was working really hard on his development. He was also really struggling. The 20K they were offering would actually change Tom’s life (at least for the time being). After thinking about it I offered Tom to ESPN and they accepted.   The good news was Tom went on to work for them over the next four years and developed into one of the most successful under-30 year-old voice talent in the entire business.

I moved on and always had mixed feeling about Tom’s job. I knew I had done a service to the client, yet I wondered if I had done a disservice to the entire industry?

I would find out in 1999

AFTRA had asked promo agents to meet at the union to discuss rates. I was working in commercials at this point, but my colleagues felt that it was important for me to show up given my working history of rates.

At the round table discussion ESPN was mentioned. We didn’t have clients at the time working at ESPN, so I was not up to speed on their current practices. I found out at that moment the rates had actually dropped below my former rates, and the rate I established for Tom was the bottom floor.

Was it a coincidence? My stomach turned as I sat amongst my peers and wondered whether I was responsible for the reduced rate. Intellectually, I knew it was very possible that another agent just undercut my former rates. This was fairly common at the time especially by one particular agency I knew who had a couple of talent working there. Emotionally, I was still incredibly bothered by my potential culpability.

Do we send mixed signals about acceptable rates and wages?

I never did find out the truth, but I realized that day how market rates never exist in a vacuum. No matter how insulated I felt from the rest of the market by accepting the job, there were still potential repercussions. My biggest questions were:

  • “Did I signal to ESPN that paying low wages was acceptable to New York talent and their talent agencies?”
  • “If so, did I also create a race to the bottom starting with ESPN and possibly the rest of the promo marketplace?”

I never discovered any answers regarding my direct involvement, but ever since that time I have been incredibly sensitive on the topic of accepting low wages. Yes, I have a responsibility to my clients, who may want the work, but I do feel a responsibility to the market and voice-over community as well.

Although, I might lose some work temporarily, I am convinced that the benefits are far greater in the long term and I will bet my reputation that I am correct.

What Does a Great Voice-Over Demo Cost?

Answer: Much More than You Think I was speaking on the phone Friday with an interesting prospective client when the subject of (voice-over) demos came up. The prospective client had a handful of different commercial, promo, etc. demos. What he did not have yet is a tremendous amount of experience so I assumed that the demos were just that, “demos” and not “actual spots”.

The funny thing is I liked all the demos, which is a rarity for me. When I finally asked, “Who produced the demos?” he went on to rattle off five different productions companies each responsible for producing a single demo. When he finished off the list, I smiled.

Why? Because he figured out, perhaps by accident and/or stroke of good luck, that no one place is equipped to produce demos from scratch for all the different subsets of voice-overs, including but not limited to commercial, promo, trailer, narration, imaging, animation, political advertising, etc.

In my experience…

Before I begin and possibly ruffle some feathers, I should start by saying I have a lot of experience with demos. Not only have I heard tens of thousands, booked hundreds of voice-over jobs directly from them and personally produced over a thousand myself, I have also shared offices with recording studios. Therefore, I am pretty familiar with what an excellent facility and audio engineer are capable of accomplishing. I also know the hours needed to produce a demo from scratch and what demos should and should not cost.

Here’s where my point of view may get unpopular…

Did you know 95% of all demo makers are only capable of producing one subset of voice demos, usually commercial, and there is still a great possibility of incredibly varied results?

For instance, let’s look at commercials. The majority of really good commercial engineers are the following:

  1. Regional and 85% are based in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago
  2. Focus primarily on TV or radio, but not usually both
  3. Routinely charge $200 to $600 (USD) per hour
  4. As a result will cost $2000K (USD) at the bare minimum for a one minute demo.

So, who is producing commercial demos costing somewhere in the $1000-1500 range? I am not sure. I do know that the producer doesn’t have a lot of relevant engineering experience unless that experience is producing demos.

“It’s complicated”

Promos and trailers get even more complicated, so let’s start with trailers. Let’s start with the fact that very few people have actual experience mixing trailers. I am guessing maybe about 100 people nationally are skilled at mixing trailers, and 95 of them are in Los Angeles. While promos have significantly more experienced mixers, 99% of the production is based in five cities NY, LA, Washington, Atlanta and Denver.

What does this mean? Unless your trailer mixer is based in Los Angeles and/or your promo mixer is from one of the five above-mentioned cities, your demo is likely going to be substandard by comparison.

Talking costs

Given those facts, here are my guidelines to what a “real” demo should cost factoring in the following assumptions:

  1. You want the demo to sound national in nature
  2. You are producing the spots from scratch
  3. Each demo is roughly a minute
  4. You are not recording from home
  5. You are not getting a favor from the engineer.

Also, I’m not including animation on this list as effective animation demos can vary wildly and may or may not need significant production.

  1. Commercial: $1500-$3000
  2. Promos: $1500-$2500
  3. Trailers: $2500-$5000
  4. TV narration: $1500-$2500
  5. Imaging: $1000-$1500
  6. Political: $1000-$2000

Now, I know there are exceptions to every rule, but the exception is not the rule. I have often taken advantage of some of these resources throughout my career. However, the fact is the costs above are what the majority will likely cost given the five assumptions I made. Are those costs daunting? Of course and they should be because time and energy have real costs.

For everyone buying demos for significantly cheaper than that I say, “Buyer Beware”. My advice, instead, is to save up your money and do it right the first time.

A Guide for Choosing a Voice-Over Coach

I just finished voice talent Marc Scott’s excellent review of voice-over coaches (, but realized there were several dynamics that were not discussed and need to be reviewed before hiring any coach, and especially before producing demos. Although I am familiar with the work and reputations of almost everyone out there, I am not going to name any names myself. Coaches and subsequent demos are a highly personal decision and depend on various factors including:

  1. Budgets
  2. Your personality in combination with the coach
  3. Your experience
  4. Who’s producing the demo

Google Searches and Phonecalls Do Not Solve the Problem

Googling “voice over coach” and starting to make calls is not the first step either. Instead, do real research on your own, such as checking out coaches’ websites, Wikipedia pages and LinkedIn profiles. Are there any holes in the bios or inconsistencies? There are always reasons and some are good and some less so.

If I had to choose the type of teacher I would recommend, I would personally prefer someone with experience in casting either from the talent, talent agency, or production side, but finding these people can be difficult. If I had to prioritize based on one specialty I would do so in this order:

  1. Casting director (currently casting better than a former casting director)
  2. Former agent with extensive booth experience at their agency
  3. Actor with significant experience in their specialty
  4. Everyone else

Asking for Coach Recommendations

If I had to ask someone for a recommendation I would ask agents first. After all, the majority of demos are geared towards getting their attention anyway, and actors secondarily. If you do ask other actors for recommendations, listen to actors’ demos prior to calling, and evaluate the demo yourself. If you think the demo is strong then their recommendation carries much more weight.

But enough about that

Let me get to the questions, the very same questions I would ask if I needed coaching and a demo. I explain the motivations in italics for each question below:

My first set is geared towards a Casting Director (referred to below as ‘CD’)

  1. How long have you been casting voice-overs? Experience matters.
  2. Do you work union/non-union or both? Most likely he/she will answer both, but the best case is he/she has significant union experience as it begets more big brand experience.
  3. Do you have a specialty or specialties? Almost all will have a specialty in commercials or sometimes animation, but see if they have broader experience
  4. Do you have experience at a talent agency or in production? You should likely have an idea with your homework prior to calling, but let them explain regardless.
  5. Do you have a facility? A facility isnt necessary and, in fact, working over the phone, Skype or FaceTime can often be more productive, but generally if the CD has a facility, they are doing some relatively significant work.
  6. Do you limit the number of students you take at one time? The best case answer is yes, but the honest answer is usually they take as many students as they can fit around their casting.
  7. Who does your demos? As soon as they answer, write down the name(s) and Google them later.
  8. Do you produce your demos or does someone else? Often times the CD will direct the tracks and a producer will put together any music, SFX etc.. Regardless, you want to know.
  9. How many coaching sessions will be necessary prior to embarking on the demo? There is no right answer here but the honest answer should be, I dont know. Why? Because they likely have no idea how talented you are or what types of spots you will need for your demo.
  10. Can I get a best case and worst case in terms of how much this will cost? Almost always their estimate will be inaccurate. Everyone tends to underestimate, but see what they say, then add about 25% and see if it fits within your overall budget.
  11. Do you ever recommend students to agents or producers? The answer should almost universally be yes as CDs make recommendations all the time, but see what they say, first.
  12. Do you have any references? This question ranks as the #1 Hated Question, and a performer who did the research and hard work would hate the question, too. My advice is to gauge if the question changes the tone of the conversation for the worse. If it does, more than likely that coach will not be the right fit for you.

Next week: Questions for the former Agent/Booth Director Coaches

TV Network Creatives and The Case for Twitter

I will get this out of the way first…I’m a Twitter evangelist.

Social Media Platforms and Creatives

Now, I know we all understand that social media can be a profound marketing tool, but when discussing “network marketing,” I don’t think that Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and the rest come close to offering the content marketing platform that Twitter does. Every television network understands this by now with varying degrees of success, but there is one universally under-appreciated asset that TV has failed to fully utilize; their own employees within their marketing and promotion staffs.

Whether it is writers, producers, creative directors or even production assistants, TV network marketing staffs possess dozens (and sometimes significantly more) of highly educated, media savvy, dynamic men and women with remarkable peer-to-peer networks of other creatives and tastemakers. Despite these robust creative connections, television marketers tend to be rather quiet socially using LinkedIn professionally and Facebook personally with few messages intermingling between the two platforms.

Twitter, on the other hand, is relatively unexploited and given the platform’s emphasis on shared interests, marketing experts have the opportunity to engage with television fans about the shows they are actually promoting.

Twitter and Influence

By far, Twitter is also the largest platform for promoting “influencer” marketing, and creative influence is what makes a marketing staff so valuable. Keep in mind, whenever you have relatively young artistic people living, working and sharing their work within major metropolitan areas, you likely will have creative influencers. Couple that with network staffers who by definition are “experts” on their network brand and programming, and you have exactly the kinds of talent the TV networks should be exploiting.

Finally, a staff trained to promote programming, combined with the technical and social skill to engage with fans, provide the network with incredible opportunities to expand on its audiences. All a marketing staff member would need is rudimentary directives and he or she could easily be a network’s brand ambassador on Twitter.

Of course, there are lawyers and executives who cringe at the idea that their employees could potentially wield such unfettered influence. I understand their concerns to a degree, but if a media company has a social media-marketing strategist then they have to commit to being “social.” Being social isn’t just uploading video clips and stills. On Twitter, “being social” means delivering messages, engaging with an audience and having one-to-one conversations. Of course, as mentioned, there would need to be some protocols in place, but as long as individuals are expressing their own likes, dislikes and opinions without disparaging the brand, programming or employees than the company should encourage their own to be as social as possible.

Closing Argument in the Case for Twitter

One final point is in order to make this work: I firmly believe the television networks will need to incentivize this behavior and not try to make tweeting part of the job. Metrics and success will often be hard to quantify so financial bonuses may not necessarily make sense, but that doesn’t mean the company cannot offer other prizes.

There are plenty of opportunities and experiences that Disney, Viacom, NBCUniversal etc., can offer their staffs including in the very least tickets to anything from sporting events to theme parks. Social media teams can work hand-in-hand with the marketing staffs to create benchmarks for these various prizes, as staff members can all participate in the competition.

In the end, everybody wins-especially the more engaged and enthusiastic audience.

In Defense of Young “Entitled” Assistants

A Ranting in Defense of Agents’ Assistants I just returned from a small industry party where I happened to bump into a long-time industry colleague. Now, I will admit I often don’t see eye to eye with him/her but he made a comment about agency assistants and it got my skin crawling:

“I’m looking for another assistant,” she said, “do you know anybody.”

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“I know what I’m not looking for… the typical 22 year olds who think they are all so entitled.”

Without rolling my eyes I replied, “I’ll let you know if I hear of anyone,” while knowing full well that was unlikely.

Been There, Done That

What bothered me so much about the judgement of “typical 22-year olds”? It was a bunch of things but specifically the fact I’ve heard the same criticism for the last 20 years, and that includes when I was the “entitled assistant”. So what is the problem? It cannot be that assistants (and some future agents) have deteriorated every year for the last few decades. The problem has to be the perspective of the agents who rely on them.

Before I continue, I realize too that generation bashing isn’t limited to talent representation.   I’ve heard similar things from people in different industries, but I think the critique takes a unique nuance in talent representation because I think 1) there is greater vitriol and 2) due to the fact there is a rather large age gap between top agents and their associates. So, what then is the actual problem?

The first place to look is within the structure of many of the talent agencies. When I started in the voiceover business, I was still studying at Columbia to get my MFA and had worked in television for 3 years prior to grad school, where my salary peaked at roughly $45K. By the time I started as an assistant the country was in a recession and I very willingly took $18K a year for roughly 50 hours a week with no expenses paid, and no overtime despite labor laws to the contrary.

Exploitation as status quo

To say I was “exploited” is an understatement and the longer I stayed, the more I realized that “abuse” was simply the nature of the job. I soon had to begin analyzing “Is there a future in the industry?”, or should I quit and just find some other work. The majority of my peers decided on the latter. I was very fortunate in that I quickly became an agent, changed agencies and worked with much better people, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a revolving door of assistants at the new agency.   My new employers may have been “nicer” but the structure of exploitive behavior was endemic to the industry and dozens of people in a four- year period came and went to be replaced by a new batch of fresh faces.

If everyone knows that assistants are “exploited” why wouldn't agents treat them with more sympathy, rather than disdain?

I draw a parallel to doctors and interns

Despite medical evidence to the contrary, doctors continue to force medical interns to work crazy hospital hours with little or no sleep because that’s what they did when they first started. Agents, in turn, force assistants to jump through hoops as a way of proving their mettle but does it prove anything? No. It only shows they can take a bunch of s***.   The difference between a doctor and an assistant though is that doctor’s have already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into their career and have to endure while an assistant can simply walk away and likely move on to a better life. In that case, the agent inevitably pays for retraining a new assistant with time, energy and opportunity costs yet they don’t really look at it that way. Instead, they see someone who wasn’t tough enough to survive and have already moved on to the next recruit.

A forever expanding age difference may also come into play. The age difference between agents and assistants varies among different specialties, but in the world of commercials and voiceovers, the gap is especially alarming. Currently, in New York over half of the predominant agents are over 50 and only a couple may be under 30. I contrast that to my second agency, where I was the second youngest at 29 and from there the agent ages varied through the 30’s and 40’s up to the senior partners who were in their early 50’s. If 50 year old agents are consistently hiring 22 and 23 year old assistants, of course, there is a generation gap but, in reality, I think the problem is fundamental jealousy.

Why? Do these new hires have to suffer the same outrageous business and personal behavior that they and their peers did? Not in the least. Labor laws have changed for the better in the last few decades and issues such as verbal abuse, sexual harassment, gender bias, homophobia, etc. have declined dramatically, yet there is still some romance to the belief that the old “trial by ordeal” made the older agents what they are today.

To sum up

If entitlement is to be treated with dignity and respect, I am all for every potential young worker to come in with an entitled attitude.

Agencies and management groups are still fundamentally a meritocracy, so if young people cannot prove they add value, they will still be culled. This may sound harsh, but if the rules are relatively the same for everyone and everyone is treated fairly, then let those young workers who long to be in the entertainment industry prove their value.

And do so without wasting the time and energy on hazing or humiliating them.

The Ups and Downs of Too Many Voiceover Choices

Discussing today's buyer marketplace for narrators in voiceovers in anticipation of Realscreen Conference Let’s say you just finished a 10 part nature series called “The Real Basketball Wives of North Dakota and it goes to air in a month on the Nature Channel”. You have in mind a Peter Coyote/Morgan Freeman/Siquorney Weaver type except you only a have a budget up to $2000 an episode and they are not working at that rate.

You have a bunch of choices these days. You have your editor who did the scratch and sounds pretty good. You have the Internet crew of voice over talent. There was even an agent you knew several years ago who was helpful, but you can’t remember her name. What do you do? This is your baby that you have spent years crafting your series second by second and this is the culminating step.

In anticipation of Real Screen Conference next week I’m going to breakdown the process down and give you the pros and cons of each choice.

In-House: Im going to get this out of the way first.

I know it happens but my first question is why? Why would you ever consider it unless you are Morgan Spurlock or Al Roker? Now I’m sure there are a bunch of talented producers, editors and production assistants out there and some might even be former or even current actors, but you are looking for something special.

You wouldn’t hire a moonlighting DP to shoot your video/film or someone in a band to compose your soundtrack so why would consider someone with little or no experience to be the heart and soul of your work? The goal is to get someone great and that’s totally within your grasp.

Online Casting Sites

If you are unfamiliar with these sites, they are business models where voice talent pay to audition for freelance voice over work. They go by the nickname “Pay-to-Play”. All websites are different and have varying levels of talent. That is where you should immediately take heed. Anyone with a credit card can sign up, so for every very good to great talent, you will get 4 to 5 marginal if not worse talent. Talent also tends to be outside the metro areas of NY, LA and Chicago so you will get very few narrators with broad national experience.   The advantage of these sites is their ease of use. They are generally very easy to use and you will get the opportunity to have narrators read and audition your actual script.

You also can do everything on your computer so if you don’t have the time to discuss the project or are already working on your next project, you can simply begin the process and start listening to auditions as they come. P2P sites also offer dozens upon dozens of talent and this can be a blessing or a curse depending on your tolerance for sifting through narrators. Finally, P2P sites tend to be fairly inexpensive as well. Obviously, this can be a big advantage if you have already blown your budget to get that shot of the sunset over Fargo but, keep in mind, you will generally get what you pay.


There are minor differences between Voice-Over agents and Managers and to keep things simple we won’t make distinctions here. I’m also going to be biased (as I’m a manager) whether I intend to or not but here goes. The agents I’m referring to are based in NY, LA and to a degree Chicago and generally represent union voice performers from the world of Broadway, Film and Television.

The issue of union/non-union is a red flag that many companies are concerned but here’s a secret:

If your show airs on any cable network (and 95% of them do), you can hire union talent. The unions have little or no jurisdiction over cable television which means union talent is allowed to work without running afoul of their unions so you are clear to hire any union talent you can afford.   Unlike P2P sites, agents have smaller rosters of talent (hundreds versus thousands) and, like P2P sites, will also audition your scripts. The difference between a P2P and agent in the audition process is an agent will actually “cast” your voice within their talent pool based on your description and the agent’s years of experience. In the end, you will receive 25 or so auditions of narrators and can decide from their culled list versus the more extensive P2P lists.

If the process is that simple, why dont all productions use agents to cast their talent?

The answer is usually money, but there are two other common reasons as well. The first is there are definitely some agents who don’t understand the needs of productions companies. They are so used to dealing with the same advertising agents or networks that they don’t realize their demeanor and questioning is oft-putting to the producers.

Forgive me if this has been your experience but I promise there are many more helpful agents than seemingly arrogant ones.

The other is simply inexperience. They have never dealt with agents and only know the big Hollywood agents who they assume don’t care about their products. In fact, there are plenty of agents (even some from the big Hollywood agencies) who are willing to help. A little research, a quick Google search and you will soon be on your way.

Not only will you resource but likely a future ally on your next pieces in the future.

The Case for Content Marketing

Voice-Over has some very unique problems with sales and marketing because the industry is so fractured and targeting is so difficult. In fact, I heard a great analogy of the voice market just the other day… voice-overs are like a giant broken mirror and the cracks are opportunities that extend all the way from the middle to the very edges (thanks Valerie Smaldone!) So beyond email blasts and an occasional phone call… what is an effective way to market voice talent beyond your representation? I’ve lauded social media in the past and I want to focus very specifically on a marketing niche in which I see the most promise; Content Marketing. What exactly is Content Marketing? Instead of selling, content marketing is communication that delivers informative (and sometime transformative) messages that your audience values, enhances the value of your expertise and encourages them to communicate with you and your brand. What are some examples of content marketing? For myself, this blog is a form of Content marketing. I am expressing opinions on an industry in which I have twenty years of experience with and offering them to an audience of voice-over performers and producers who hopefully value my point of view.

For a voice-over performers and performers in general, content marketing can encompass anything from links to your work to daily tips on how to follow in your footsteps to a podcast with your fellow performers.

How does a Voice-Over performer go about Content Marketing? The first step is to make a clear assessment of what you have to offer an audience and begin thinking like an editor and chief for your own past, present and future content. The first step is to look at your past work. Do you have any audio, video and pictures from your old sessions?   Categorize anything you believe would be remotely interesting and begin curating your old media.   Next, check YouTube for any old work as well. You’d be shocked at what work may be there so go through old bookings and see if there’s anything you are forgetting.

Next, think about any present and future messaging you can create. With your old spots, try to be topical and post any work to hopefully coincide with current work or events. For example, if you had spot that appeared on a Super Bowl… the week of the Super Bowl is a great time to post it.   Next, think about simple day-to-day messaging and remember the first rule of social media is to “be social.” Often performers feel like posting details of where and what they are working on is in poor taste but these details are perfectly acceptable to post to your audience within reason (and I don’t need detail what is and isn’t acceptable). Finally, share your thoughts as well as the thoughts of others with favoriting, liking, retweeting etc. but try to maintain your niche within entertainment and voice-over. Why? Your audience likely already knows your profession and you are trying to provide them with content they are interesting in so don’t feel like you need to reach out to a “mass audience.” Your focus is on your own audience.

A final point about Content Marketing is you have to work at it consistently. For instance, you will need to post and post a lot. What is right amount? No one has a real answer but you will need to find time throughout the day and hopefully you can regiment your posting to specific times of day. In addition, if you decide to provide some value added content such as a blog, podcast or vlog in addition to your posting, you will need to provide consistent material. Nothing will annoy your audience more than providing inconsistent material, so figure out what you want to provide and enjoy the process as well as the results.

Social Platforms - Voice-over Pros and Cons

Last year, I mentioned that I thought the days of using a website as a primary marketing tool were over and speculated that social media would assume the mantle of being the best way to promote voice-overs. All social media platforms are not equal though, especially in the world of voice. Below are my top choices for social media from a talent perspective with various pros/cons and comments. LinkedIn: Not just voice talent, but every professional should be on LinkedIn as the platform has become the most comprehensive workplace data tool in the world. Linking-In to contacts is also an excellent way to get attention from former and sometimes potential buyers. With all that said, what could possibly be the cons? I strongly feel that LinkedIn is too professional and is geared more to executives and salespeople. Voice talent and the majority of people who hire them view themselves as artists and I don’t think LinkedIn allows enough artistic expression between their lines. I also don’t believe their data tools are that easy to work with and often scroll through pages of contacts to remember a contacts current employment or to find a new email.

Facebook: Whereby I think LinkedIn is too professional… I don’t think Facebook is professional enough. While I too believe almost every talent should be on Facebook, I also feel Voice talent should only promote or professionally communicate on Facebook with real friends and relatively close acquaintances. For instance, if your brother-in-law has hired you and you have a relatively professional inquiry with him, I think Facebook (if not email) is the appropriate way to reach out versus LinkedIn. I also think it’s appropriate to post work on Facebook but as an exercise, I don’t think you should expect anything out of it except to share your life with others.

Youtube: It’s very easy to forget that Youtube is social because it’s so passively entertaining but I don’t think Youtube’s value is in garnering comments and conversations. I think it’s a great free repository for all your video work and an easy way to send links to buyers.

Instagram: Due to the nature of voice, Instagram doesn’t make much sense if you are working a ton at home but where it is great is for sharing encounters with buyers or other talent. In New York, for instance, if you are going to a casting session, it’s a great idea to take pictures of other talent/the casting director(s) and the environs as well anything else you may want to share. More specifically, it’s great to post pictures at jobs. For instance, if you working in animation, there a thousands of interested people in seeing cast mates or the director or even the inside of a studio. The same can be said of virtually any other job in which you are working away from home.

Tumblr: I have to admit I’ve never looked at it comprehensively enough but I hear great things about the interface and I think it’s worth more exploration. In fact, I have that on my personal list of to-do’s.

Google Plus: Realistically, I don't know anybody in the Voice Biz really using it.

Twitter: I’m leaving Twitter for last because I think it’s the best and still has the most potential. Here are some of my reasons: 1) It’s truly social in the ways Facebook and Instagram can be versus the impersonal way of LinkedIn. 2) The brevity forces me to communicate and/or market myself easily and concisely which I believe my followers want. 3) It is the easiest way to share links of my work and pictures (including those from Facebook and Instagram) with my audience. 4) In my opinion, it is socially oriented more in the world of entertainment than the other platforms. 5) The app is excellent and I actually prefer it over the web version. So do I have gripes? Sure… I wish I had about 20 more characters as I admit I’m little longer winded than most. More importantly, despite Twitter being the twelfth most active website in the world, there are still so many people who either are not on it or barely use it.   Regardless, it has an incredibly enthusiastic daily audience that is constantly sharing and communicating and that makes it my platform of choice.

Given all that… please follow me @philsutfin or ACM @acmtalent as we are relatively active and I look forward to hearing other people’s experiences and even whether anyone can trace new work or better yet, an account, to social media.

Re-Imagining SAG/AFTRA

As 2015 begins, I’m already working on a possibly yearlong concept for which I encourage any thoughts via the blog or twitter (@philsutfin).   The concept is… if we blew up the voice-over world today and started from scratch… what would it look like and how would it be better (if at all)?  I have several ideas but, I admit, I’m so firmly entrenched in the agency/management mindset that it is often difficult to see beyond established models so… what I’m really saying is…  I’m open to any new concepts if I think it can make sense. Today’s installment is: Re-Imagining SAG/AFTRA

Let me start by saying that I think SAG/AFTRA is great in theory for every actor.  I’m admittedly biased for a few reasons: 1) I live in NY where I have seen the union be effective, 2) my wife has been a board member for several years and I know how hard and thoughtfully the board works for the members, and 3) I’ve been on the SAG/AFTRA health plan for several years and I’m thankful for the coverage.  More importantly, I have always felt that SAG/AFTRA has been part of an excellent balance of power with Production (Ad Agencies, Studios, Networks, et al) and Talent Agents.

So why should the current system be blown up?  Because non-union voice work especially in commercials is greater than at any point in history and there are no actions in sight to curb the non-union work.  In fact, non-union work would encompass even a greater percentage of the dollars if not for all of the celebrity voices skewing the numbers in favor of SAG/AFTRA.

How did this happen?  There are several factors but three primary ones led us to the current circumstances.  1) SAG/AFTRA engaged in at least a decade and a half of disastrous in-fighting where politics trumped any contract negotiations and also led to 2) the strike of 2000 which forced major advertisers to rely on non-union talent for the first time and 3) a contract impasse (since 2002) with former SAG/AFTRA franchised agents.  The balance of power I spoke of only a couple of paragraphs ago was essentially ripped apart and the primary winner was easily advertisers.  Add internet technology and the rise of PTP sites (which also favored production) and voiceover Talent Agencies should have been crippled but non-jurisdictional promos, narrations, TV affiliates and radio imaging in conjunction with celebrity work, trailers, political ads and animation allowed the talent agencies to at least diversify and maintain revenue.  The loser?  The rank-in-file union scale commercial actors who watched their day-to-day work dwindle in some markets by over 75%.

So what is a solution?  A SAG/AFTRA PTP site modeled as a combination of and  Now I understand that Realtime Casting is attempting to do the same thing (at least from the PTP end) and, in fact, I would encourage SAG/AFTRA to look at Realtime as a possible solution.  After all, they needn’t spend a ton of money when they can simply license what already exists and Realtime has always acted in concert with the union’s interest.  As I see it, the site would work with two options and send projects to either 1) individually listed talent whereby the service would act very much like or Voice123 does currently or 2) send projects to specific agencies like Voicebank whereby the agents would cast among their own stables.

Now that’s not necessarily a novel idea and this is where I get specific with how to pay for it.  Talent will need to pay a yearly service fee (somewhere between $200-500) despite the union’s sometimes-strident position against PTPs.  That money will pay for building a site (or licensing one like Realtime) as well as significant marketing.  Currently, the other PTP sites are paying somewhere between 5-10K a month in marketing and SAG/AFTRA would have to match that kind of budget.   The second component consisting of agents would be free but based on a very big contingent.  Talent agencies would need to sign a new jointly negotiated SAG/AFTRA franchise agreement.  The talent agencies therefore have an incentive to sign on, as they would hope to profit from the new and fee free technology.  On the other hand, if the talent agencies don’t sign, their talent would be denied listing their agency as their representative and all negotiations would be handled independently minus their input (and possibly their commission).   SAG/AFTRA would therefore have a great carrot and stick to get the talent agencies back to the table and negotiate a fair agreement.

Another component to the new site would be incentivizing smaller advertisers to take advantage of the system.  I see two easy ways to make things simple for the buyer… 1) creating electronic one-time contracts for jobs.  For instance, if I’m a small ad agency who does mostly print and I’m asked to do a radio spot, I likely would be intimidated if I was asked to become a Union Signatory.  The one time contract allows me to sign off (or check) a single form (I imagine something akin to the typical software license which no one ever reads) to create a union job.    2) Talent payment would also be crucial especially for the individuals listed on the service without representation and SAG/AFTRA could seek out 3rd Party bids among Talent Partners, ART, etc. to handle all of the sites payments.  As soon as the agency filled out the one time contract, a talent payment rep would call and provide the service with a total estimate for the job as well as one single bill including all the performers, their union pension and health and all associated taxes.

Finally, do I anticipate this actually happening whether in the form I outlined or some other variation?  In fact, no.  Why? Because the service would need to charge a yearly fee to exist (as well as to improve over time) and SAG/AFTRA has a strong ethos about paying for services in advance. This mindset has to change to be competitive.   I understand the foundational principle of not exploiting actors with advance fees but subscription models are one of the reasons why the internet has thrived and we have seen such phenomenal advancements in technology.   SAG/AFTRA can thumb up their noses at all the PTPer’s but they do so at their peril. Every moment their noses are in the air, innovation and technology moves away from them and their members are left asking how they were left behind.

I’m gong to end this with a commercial… what else?  It is a Nike ad about golf, which like SAG/AFTRA has incredibly strong traditions, and comically addresses how technological adaptation has advanced the game over hundreds of years.  The title of the spot is “Play in the Now” and I implore SAG/AFTRA do the same.

A Holiday Bounty: 5 Growth Markets in Voice-Overs

With the Holidays and New Year upon us, I’ve decided to go out of 2014 with a great big positive “bang” and present what I see as the more bountiful trends of the voiceover industry.  I’m going to specifically breakdown some individual genres of the VO biz and project where I see markets growing.  Are there things I’m missing?  Of course, but I’m focusing mostly on big ticket items. 1) Political Advertising: In 2014 more money was spent on political advertising than at any point in history and we are still almost two years from the next Presidential election.  The Supreme Court’s decision on Citizen’s United was the catalyst and by the time 2020 rolls around, there is an excellent chance that the political money spent in the 2010’s will surpass all the combined spending (over 200 years) prior to 2010.  The biggest difference now isn’t just the money spent on candidates but also the insane amounts of cash that PAC’s (fronted by everyone from the Koch Brothers to George Soros) pump into the system.  Whereby 10 years ago, a voice hoped to get a on major senate or governors race… today, a PAC can be worth significantly more and there is no end in sight.

2) Commercials: there are also more commercials being produced than any time in history yet there is tremendous vitriol and pessimism by the majority of successful voice-overs.  Why?  The majority of the growth has been in the non-union world to the detriment of union work.  PTP sites and even sites as diverse as Studio Center, Craig’s List and Fiverr have flattened the former hierarchy of union workers whereby most buyers don’t understand the talent differential or simply don’t care.  As long as media platforms continue to emerge and improve, there will continue to be ads so don’t expect growth to subside for non-union work but, all is not lost for union work either.  The celebrities in VO trend has likely reached it’s peak and given the constant downward pressures for ad agencies to curb spending, I predict that scale union commercial work will improve in 2015 (and beyond)  I also believe a technological solution for union actors (as PTP sites did for non-union) is around the corner and technology not talent will restore more of the pie back to scale actors.

3) Promos: Talk to any of the agents about on-air promotion and almost all of them will give a laundry list of negatives; 1) the networks aren’t producing as many spots, 2) no one wants to hire women, 3) everyone is cutting their rates etc..  For the most part, the pessimism is warranted for on-air work but there is a likely looming counter; social media.   Why?  Networks are learning that while broadcasting on-air may work on their own networks, social media is more about narrow casting and targeting.  For instance, if NBC knows that I am passionate about Showtime’s Dexter, they can narrow cast targeted ads to me and similar viewers about Hannibal or the Black List.   Better yet, if they know I’m often swayed by critical opinion they can send me critics’ spots lauding the acclaim of both programs.  More specific targeting will lead to more ads and thus more work and I am openly predicting that 2015 will be the year that the network’s on-air and marketing departments will begin to openly assimilate demographic data and analytics into their daily production.

4) Animation: Of all the voice-over work in the industry, animation work has been the work I’ve been least likely to do based on being in New York but, regardless, of my physical location, there is no question that animation is exploding whether in film, television or streaming subscription services.  The reason for all the work is very simple; animation is the most international of all entertainment.  The new streaming platforms (Netflix, Hulu etc.) have all committed to additional animated programming and couple that fact with English being the international language of entertainment as well as recent economies of scale dramatically decreasing costs and we may be seeing the the golden age of animation employment.

5) Reality TV (including Documentary):  Twenty or so years after MTV’s “the Real World” broke the boundaries of documentary story telling and created Reality tv, there is still no slowing down the industry.  We, at ACM, attend the Real Screen conferences every year and the size and scope of the conference is astounding and confirms that Reality tv is still growing.  The fact is that reality programming is too cheap for media companies to ignore and the networks are always looking for the next big thing in reality.  Where does voice fit into all of this?  Most shows naturally need narrators of some sort whether they be episode long storytellers or a voice only doing bumpers. Voice is often the glue that fixes the glitches in editing or storytelling and where there is more volume and necessity… there is more opportunity.

To wrap up, thanks to everyone who has been following the blog in 2014.  As 2015 begins, I’m already working on a concept for which I encourage any thoughts via the blog or twitter (@philsutfin).   The concept is… if we blew up the voice-over world today and started from scratch… what would it look like and how would it be better (if at all)?

Happy Holidays!

Phil Sutfin

The Trailer Voice Paradox: Why Do They Hire a Commercial Guy When They Want a Trailer Voice?

I’ve worked on thousands of commercial castings in my career, perhaps even tens of thousands, and one of the greatest paradoxes in the biz has been the commercial breakdown for a “trailer” voice. Several hundred times, I’ve seen the trailer breakdown but, in my entire career I may be able to count on my fingers the times an ad agency has actually hired someone who is universally known to work in trailers. Why? I can’t venture a universal answer as I’m referring to ad agencies and creatives spread throughout the United States but I’m going to try regardless of ruffled feathers. Everyone is always quick to proclaim that only 5 or 10 guys (sorry gals) do every trailer and that’s been an interesting myth for several years. What the myth suggests above and beyond everything else is that the movie going public recognizes and accepts a very small group of voices (and their “sound”) as being legitimate. Now 5 to 10 may be more prototypical than the 25-30 but overall that group voices roughly 98% (in terms of total voice budgets) of all union trailers, home video spots and TV spots for motion pictures. Over my twenty-year career, I’ve represented a handful myself and generally every rep knows these voices in the business. In fact, they universally go by first names like Don, Hal, Ashton, Miguel, Howard, George etc. so finding a trailer voice is not a difficult process yet, for a commercial, suddenly the search becomes complicated.

Another point I need to make clear and, it is an obvious one, is that perhaps 80% of the movie going population knows what a movie trailer sounds like. That doesn’t mean they intellectually understand the beats and the formatting of a spot but viscerally they know what feels real. The reason why “In a World…” (the phrase not the film) remains such an inside movie joke is because so many movie fans have heard variations of that phrase for years and years and there are so few ways to avoid it. That’s why “the Comedian” trailer is still so funny. ( and likely will remain funny for years and years.

So how do we explain this trailer voice paradox? I can’t.   Yes, I admit I have no real theories because as you will see every theory has an obvious counter. For instance

1) Trailer voices are too expensive… in fact, almost any of them will work on a commercial @ scale with the exception of certain conflicts.

2) The majority of commercials are produced in Chicago and NY so LA trailer voices are not included in the search… since the advent of Voicebank has nationalized a significant portion of the voice-over market whereby New York and Chicago agencies often include Los Angeles.

3) Commercial producers think more highly of prized commercial voices versus trailer voices… then why ask for a trailer read to begin with?

4) Commercial producers are unfamiliar with actual trailer voices… I just commented that the general public is fairly aware of the sound if not the actual voices. I can’t imagine writers and producers are unaware.

That brings me to my only explanation. For years and years, I’ve made the claim that commercial auditions can’t quite be a finished product. The point of the audition is for the talent to follow the road map of the script (ie understand the message) but also give the creative enough room to believe a talent is “directable.”   Trailer auditions and scratches are the opposite. The point of a trailer audition is to deliver a finished product.   In fact, trailer auditions are often lifted and put directly into spots. Somehow when commercial creatives hear finished/polished reads, they interpret that the performer as not directable even when the read may be exactly as written on the page. The only answer for an agency creative is to counter by hiring an actor instead of a trailer voice with a typically deep and resonant voice. That doesn't necessarily mean the actor even approximate the skills of a trailer voice yet, in the end, the creatives believe they got what they intended.

Does any of this make logical sense? Of course not but, as we know, when it comes to creativity, it is not a matter of what’s best. It’s only what is perceived as best.

I Have a Great New Website...Now The Bad News

Steven Lowell of Realtime Casting just wrote an excellent blog piece on "Why Voice Actors Should Use Google Analytics," ( and it really got me thinking about VO and websites in general.  For roughly the last 10 years, everyone who has marketed voice talent, including myself, has advocated that voice talent put together personal websites. Our reasoning was/is much as Steven describes; to create a "storefront" to complement our agent/manager’s own websites. Today the majority of top-tier talents have websites and they range from excellent to bare bones.   In the past, I would have advocated those with a spare site to upgrade and everyone else without one to get up to speed ASAP. Now, I have second thoughts. Why?  Google analytics. As always, I need to first provide some backstory.  In 2005, I began my prior management company, Flatirons Creative, and one of my first tasks was to create a company website as well as individual sites for my clients.   My philosophy was to create "storefronts" for all of us and, in the end, I spent considerable money... somewhere around $6,000 total, and the aesthetic results were excellent.  I thought the design was superb, the feel was elegant and I even may have had the first voice site to feature video demos in addition to audio.  Best of all, I had great content as my clients' body of work ranged from very good to great. So… what were the financial results of my state of art websites?  At best, the returns were middling.

Now here is where hindsight is 20/20.   My philosophy at the time was sound.  If I was going to compete in my market, I knew the web was where commerce was turning.  I saw my competitors-Jason Marks, Paul Wintner and Debbie Cope-and they all had excellent sites themselves. So if was going to compete, I'd have to do something similar or better.  Finally, I recognized if someone was searching for "voice-overs", I needed some search optimization and my designer had experience driving searches.

So what went wrong?  Several things, but the gist of my thinking was based on Internet 1.0 and market forces were moving to 2.0.  For instance, I wasn't remotely prepared for social media nor was there anyway to look constructively at the analytics of who or how often our site was used.   Another variable was the rise of the PTP sites. I was incredibly fortunate to be working within the upper echelon of the voice business as I started Flatirons but I wasn’t remotely aware of how the PTP services would “flatten” the talent market. In fact, the PTP sites by creating a massive indexing system for talent blew away the search optimization for my site (as well as all other talent agencies and managers). By 2006, any savvy web searcher would be under the impression that Voice123 was significantly more important in voice-overs than ICM in Los Angeles when, in fact, ICM/LA was the largest grossing voice department in the world. That was how dominant the PTP sites were within search engines.

So that gets us back to individual sites and here is the very unpopular truth… there is virtually no traffic to individual sites. Google analytics as well as other popular analytical tools prove it.   In fact, it’s even a greater rarity if a buyer is on a site. I’m going out on a limb but I would guess that the best (and I mean the 99% and above) individual sites do not drive buyers to their sites more that a couple of times a month. That needs to be coupled that with the idea that it’s even more rare for individual sites to appear in web searches. In a nutshell, imagine buying real estate to set up a storefront and finding out that not only is your location terrible but there are almost no maps on how to get there.

So after this incredibly pessimistic view of websites… how do you market talent if a website isn’t really effective?   The answer has to be social but what platform is best is a serious debate. I know ACM’s focus has been on LinkedIn but there too, we have seen very uneven results.   Why? I think it’s because LinkedIn isn’t really social. Facebook has some great features but Facebook is also incredibly casual and while they keep improving the interface, I just don’t think it is appropriate for business. That leaves Twitter and Instagram (unless Google+ or another site creates a better platform) and we have seen some very good marketing for voice-overs specifically on Twitter.

Finally, if social is the future, there still has to be data and analytics to support any marketing efforts. Twitter already has analytics and it is fairly robust but I have a feeling the analytics answer will likely arise from a third party.   Regardless, the concept of everyone just opening a store front and hoping people will stop by should be buried and gone and instead, careful and tactical marketing efforts need to replace the status quo.

Celebs in Voice-Overs Part III — The Movie Stars

At the end of Part I, I detailed how the first celebs in commercials were Broadway actors and in Part II, I examined how young TV stars like John Corbett, Rob Morrow and Kelsey Grammar changed the perception that working in commercials was not the end of a career. By 2000, the commercial world changed when movie stars too recognized that voice-overs were fairly simple and incredibly lucrative. How did the entrance of movie stars into voice-over begin? Actresses, not actors, created the real entry point for movie stars. Unlike their male counterparts, a significant group of actresses including Academy Awards winners were very interested in pursuing voice-overs once they reached a certain age and had life commitments such as raising families. Around 2000, Kathleen Turner (Burger King), Susan Sarandon (Lean Cuisine & Stouffers) and Sigourney Weaver (John Hancock) all reached their forties and saw voice-over as an opportunity to work when demand for their work in movies waned and the roles they were being offered were mediocre. Lauren Bacall had been doing voice for several years as had Christine Lahti so why shouldn’t they? Couple their enthusiasm with unprecedented demand for female voiceovers overall and overnight they gained traction with advertisers. Also, keep in mind, advertisers were still wary of offering Rob Morrow money (see Part II) but incredibly enthusiastic about having real star power on their campaign. The female stars alleviated this financial fear by offering quotes that were substantially less than their male peers.

In 2004, a quantum leap in celeb voiceovers occurred when Julia Roberts took the baton from her other female peers and signed on to voice a new AOL campaign. First a little backstory… In 2000, AOL merged with Time Warner and immediately the marriage looked like a disaster. BBDO Advertising, which had a long and great history with brands such as Pepsi, Visa, AT&T and HBO (another Time Warner company) took the reins of AOL’s advertising in 2003 and went to work. Keep in mind BBDO had a long history and a reputation for hiring celebs from musicians to models to comedians and TV stars. BBDO came up with the concept “want a better internet” and needed a voice and somehow Julia Roberts’s name came up. Julia was only 3 years removed from the Academy Award and her movie quote was roughly 20 million a film so in many respects, it didn’t appear that she would be interested. But what BBDO and AOL didn’t know was she was trying to have children (she would have twins later that November) and she knew it was going to be very difficult to work during pregnancy. AOL approved a staggering seven-figure sum and soon the nation would hear “want a better internet” all over the airwaves.

Now is when I really begin to speculate so stay with me. Julia Roberts also happened to star in Ocean’s Twelve in 2004, which adjusted her role when she revealed she was having twins. Also starring in Ocean’s Twelve were two other crucial stars and Academy Award winners who would play a part in the A-list jumping into voice-overs; George Clooney and Matt Damon. By the time, filming commenced, everyone on the set realized that Julia was not only pregnant but making a small fortune voicing the AOL ads. George and Matt both had a very unique relationship to voice-over from two different vantage points. George Clooney’s cousins Miguel Ferrer and Rafael Ferrer were both well known for voicing movie trailers and commercials and George was not only aware of their success but he also did some small campaigns for Aquafina, Arthur Anderson and AT&T while he was still on ER. The following year after Ocean’s Twelve and at the height of his fame, George lent his voice to a Budweiser campaign but instead of receiving TV star money, it’s safe to say he was paid like an A-lister. Matt Damon took awhile longer but he was also very aware of the voice-over world after coming down from Boston as a teenager and auditioning in New York City. As the decade waned, Matt voiced his first major campaign for United Airlines. Very soon afterwards, he also voiced a multi million-dollar campaign for TD Waterhouse replacing TV star Sam Waterston that runs today. Finally, Julia Roberts didn’t stop her voice-over career with America Online. In 2011, she became the voice of Nationwide Insurance and continues on the campaign today.

When stars of the caliber of George Clooney, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts all voicing commercials, any residual belief that working in commercials is death to a career completely died itself by 2012. In a twenty-year span, great Broadway actors begat television stars who begat movie stars into the voice-over world. Now stars of all types perform voice-overs and on-camera and the only obstacle to hiring stars today is money. In the meantime, as long as there are six or seven figures guarantees available, there is a line of stars willing to lend their talents to the next commercials.