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Warning Lights: What To Do When Clients
Present You With Onerous Terms Or Copy
September 22, 2014

By Dan Hurst
Voice Actor

Have you ever been driving along, enjoying the ride when all of a sudden a warning light on the dashboard flashes on and shatters the calm?

It's scary because you usually don't know what caused it.

What you do know is that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.

In the voice over business there are also warning lights that need to be heeded. Just like with your car, if you don't heed those warnings, it could cost you money! Maybe a lot of money!

Now, I want to be very clear that what I'm writing about here does not relate to the vast majority of your clients and/or potential clients. And NONE of this applies to any of my clients.

I have great clients and a great working relationship with them. One reason for that is transparency and understanding. I know what they want and need from me, and they know what I want and need from them.

The truth is, my clients know these things, and none of them would disagree with any of this. So take these warnings as cautions.
This article is meant for educational purposes only. Contents under pressure. Use only as directed. Apply only to affected area. Keep cool; process promptly. Not responsible for direct, indirect, incidental or consequential damages resulting from any defect, error or failure to perform. Not delivered by a voice coach or a business consultant, just an incredible simulation. Slightly higher in Colorado. No alcohol, dogs, or horses. Well, maybe horses. First pull up, then pull down. This is not a competition, it is only an exhibition. Published simultaneously in Canada. This information is subject to change without notice.

Here are the five warning signs, not in order of priority, that voice talent need to watch for:

1. One Year to Perpetual Buyouts (for the price of a 13-week run, or less)

Yes, this is a dangerous one. Buyouts are not uncommon. Especially in non-union jobs. The problem with a buyout is that it may control what you can and cannot do during the length of the buyout.

Example: A local bank wants you to voice their commercial. Since it is a local bank in a small town, and the spot will run only on the local radio station, they are only paying $125. However, they want a complete buyout in perpetuity. Why? Because if they want to use the spot again in a couple of years they don't want to have to pay additionally for it.

The problem is that two or three years later a larger financial institution wants to use you but their requirement of no conflicts has you in a pickle.

Legally, the first bank could run their spot again, and that jeopardizes your agreement with the second bank. If not handled properly, it could even land you in court.

How can you avoid this? If a client asks for a buyout, suggest that instead they accept an exclusive for whatever period of time you are comfortable. If they insist on the buyout on terms that handcuff you, don't do it. It's simply not worth it.

I have actually told a potential client that insisted on a cock-eyed buyout that I would agree to it if they would be willing to sign an agreement that they wouldn't ever use any other voice talent for their commercials. No, we didn't come to an agreement.

2. No-Charge Revisions

This is a goofy one. If I hire a painter to paint a room in my house, and then after the job is done I ask him to come back and repaint one of the walls ā€“ at no charge ā€“ because we've decided to change the color, what do you think he'll say to me?

I've never understood clients that feel they have the right to expect you to do revisions at no charge.

Now, if you factor those revisions into your price with the client, no problem. But chances are, in order to stay price competitive, you have not done that.

How can you avoid this? You need to be upfront with what revisions will cost. Plain and simple.

In fact, what I usually do when I submit my quote for a new job is to add a sentence that indicates that any revisions after the project has been delivered will incur an additional fee. That fee is based on time increments in the studio, and I spell out those costs.

3. Inadequate Copy

This isn't about an occasionally misspelled word or grammatical gaffe. I'm talking about significant problems with:

Spelling. A significant number of misspelled words is a warning sign that you are not dealing with a client that has a command of the English language. That could be a problem.

Bad Grammar. The problem with bad grammar is that the project will more than likely come back. But if you take the time to correct it, then that is more time that you are giving up that you are not getting paid for (unless you have such an arrangement with the client).

Bad Translation. As a bilingual voice talent I deal with this all the time. I consider myself a professional, who has his client's best interests at heart, so I feel I have the responsibility to let my client know there may be a problem with the translation. Now, mind you, I do so discreetly and cautiously. But if I don't protect my client, I haven't acted professionally.

A bad translation takes time and money to fix. A client who isn't willing to make sure the translation is right, is a client that is not worth having.

Improperly Timed Copy.
This is one issue that pretty much every voice talent deals with.

There's a running joke in the business about a client submitting 45 seconds of copy for a 30 second commercial. But it is no joke that if you deliver that VO as originally written, it is most likely coming back. It's also no joke that a client who consistently sends you copy that is too long is eating up your time, and his, because the copy is going to have to be re-written at some point.

It really is amazing that so many copy writers don't understand that a :60 spot delivered at a comfortable, connecting pace is around 150 words. A :30 is around 75 words.

And don't forget that each number is a word. A telephone number is seven to 10 words! $150 is four or five words, depending on how you say it.

How can you avoid letting these inadequate copy issues eat up your time? You need to be professional and friendly while handling these things.

Sometimes the problem comes from the producer, sometimes from the client, and sometimes a third party. Be very sensitive and kind in broaching the subject, but let the client know that there are some issues that are going to affect the effectiveness of the product.

It's important to have these matters settled before you go into the booth. Hopefully these sort of jobs are minimal for you, but until you have a plan to handle them, they will haunt you over and over. In any case, be proactive in making your client look good!

4. The Promise Of Possible Future Business

We've all heard it before. "Please do this one at this low rate, and if it all goes well then there will be more work at a better rate."

I would bet a bag of donuts that less that 1% of us have ever gotten more work at a better rate because we succumbed to this gimmick.

While your client is telling you that they are hoping the project will work into additional work, what they also may be saying is that they don't have the job locked in.

Doing a job that isn't locked in is asking for a high maintenance project! It means that the producer isn't real sure what the client wants. It is also saying that your client underbid the job.

Translation: there will be changes. In fact, there might be an outright rejection by the client. So, use caution when this warning light comes on.

If it involves a client that you already have a working relationship with, you know if you can or cannot trust the client's promise. If it is a new client, treat it as a warning light.

5. Jobs That Don't Meet the Criteria Of The Quote

This is a touchy subject. A client submits a request for a quote on a project. Let's say they tell you it's a 2:30 video, straight narration.

You return your audition and a quote, and a few days later you get an email indicating that the client has chosen you for the project, and the final version of the copy and instructions are attached.

As soon as you open the attachment you realize that the client has submitted copy for a 4-minute video, and it involves you primarily doing the straight narration, but they have also added in a character voice that they want you to do.

What now? Well, avoid a "what now?" by being up front that your quote is based on a 2:30 -minute video of the copy submitted for the audition. I would even include a statement (and I do) that any changes to the submitted copy and elements of the project are subject to a change in your rate.


There are obviously more than five warning lights that you need to be aware of. But these five are critical to running your voice over business in a more productive and stress-free manner.

Will you lose some business when heeding these warnings? A small "maybe," but you will also be building a healthier work environment.

And healthier work environments lead to greater success!
Dan (Daniel Eduardo) Hurst is an experienced bilingual (English and Spanish) voice talent operating out of the Kansas City area. His business now extends internationally, with clients including Maserati, Boehringer Ingelheim, British Petroleum, Kimberly-Clark, McDonalds, Volkswagen, Telemundo International, Shell, Hallmark, TransCanada, Walmart and many more. When he's not working, he spends his time cheering for losing sports teams and getting kicked off of golf courses.


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Comments (15)
Lee Garza
1/16/2022 at 11:07 PM
Iā€™m the VO on 1987 Busch beer commercial. I only said BUSCH. It was a buy out as my first job. Now 2022 It is in reuse on Tv. Do I have any considered royalty?
Thank you,
Liz Harris
9/26/2014 at 10:26 AM
A brilliant article, Dan. Thank you to both you and John Florian! I have come up against all of these issues in the past month alone, particularly voice-seekers' assumptions of the perpetual buyout. I fully agree that transparency is desperately needed. And as of today, I'll be making some changes to my terms in order to better protect my business.
Dan Hurst
9/25/2014 at 11:36 AM
Thanks for your comments, y'all. And thanks John Florian for posting the article.

BTW, a little follow-up to the buyout point. Now when clients ask for a perpetual buyout, I offer them a renewable buyout. It's a fair way for both parties to deal with that issue. Just put the renewable date on your calendar and pop them a note to see if they want to renew, and if they do...send them an invoice for the agreed rate.
Nicola Redman
9/24/2014 at 9:39 AM
A good reminder of how important it is to be clear and concise when you are quoting, and perhaps to read the small print. Maybe even make your own small print!
Debbie Grattan
9/23/2014 at 4:56 PM
Dan, this is a terrific article! Thank you for spelling these signals out not only for VO talent, but producers as well. It's not uncommon for me to be waiting for a final script right up until our scheduled record time. And sometimes, the end client may be a part of the session, as well as the ad agency or production team, so it's not appropriate to discuss terms on the call. But if the script has turned out to be much longer than what was discussed, you can bet I'll be chatting up the production team after the session.
J. Christopher Dunn
9/23/2014 at 4:25 PM
Hey Dan-

Your point about reduced rates is spot on. In addition to what you wrote, I've received requests to do free work with the promise that it'll be great exposure for me. Hmm... don't people die from exposure?

Thanks for sharing!
Lindsay Abbott
9/23/2014 at 3:26 PM
Great tip on perpetual buyouts and the potential impact on future business for thought there. Yes, I'm like you, I always mention up front about what the quote includes, usually with a max word count if they've said it's a '2 minute video' for example, as sometimes these things get underestimated, or last-minute additions occur anyway.Like you say, transparency is key. Good post Dan!
Ed (Ed-VO) Waldorph
9/23/2014 at 3:20 PM
Good stuff Dan. Worth reading again. (If you want to get Dan's pearls hot off the griddle, read his blog.)

Aside to Gary Terzza: thanks for the vocabulary lesson ;)
Christian Rosselli
9/23/2014 at 2:28 PM
An incredible and well-written article, Dan! Advice every voice talent should heed and incorporate into their business practice. #5 happened to me earlier this year. Agreed to do 8 videos at 2 min each. Copy arrived clocking in at 4-5 minutes per video. I stood my ground and spoke up. In the end, we renegotiated a better rate.
Mike Harrison
9/23/2014 at 11:22 AM
Superb piece, Dan! I cheered with every point.

If I may make an observation on word counts for commercials: while no one has probably ever calculated it (including myself), it really comes down to the number of syllables that can be spoken within a given time frame. Many words have several syllables (some considerably more) and, thus, do eat up more time to speak than monosyllabic words. When time is short, every syllable counts.

Continuing on the subject of red flags for inadequate copy, but for non-commercial projects, there are those calling themselves writers who may well have an excellent grasp of a given subject, however they tend to use far too many words to get to the point. This is especially critical in instruction. Trying to train someone on procedure or on the use of a machine by having them listen to what equates to a legal contract is a sure-fire way to wind up with the learner(s) saying, "WHAT?" Instruction using the fewest words possible is best because the narrator can grasp the subject more easily and, therefore, convey it much more effectively to the learner. In perhaps most cases, though, by the time a narrator receives the script, it has been approved and no changes can be made. But it's not a bad idea to provide an alternate read of a sentence or paragraph so that the client can decide later which works better.

Thanks again, Dan!
Dan Harder
9/23/2014 at 10:33 AM
Part of the problem is that newbies don't know what CAN be. Making industry norms for pay more widely known instead of obscure might be a start to quell the "lowball snowball" that the pay2plays seem to encourage.
Gary Terzza
9/23/2014 at 10:33 AM
Some salutary advice there, Dan. The tell tale signs are there to be seen and a warning to all voice over artists to read between the lines before signing on the dotted line.
Fred Humberstone
9/22/2014 at 7:18 PM
Great job, Dan. We have all now been warned.
Jim Conlan
9/22/2014 at 8:35 AM
These tips are spot on, concise, universal, and way overdue. Newbies in particular are nervous about being this frank, but they need to set the tone from the start. People respect pros who respect themselves. Oh... Maybe one more trap: doing it cheap or free for a so-called not-for-profit. This common scam never leads to a profitable relationship.
Debby Barnes
9/22/2014 at 6:08 AM
Dan...this was an article that needed to be written. Fab. Cheers! :)
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