Auditioning At Big-Gun Ad Agencies:
Take This Virtual Walk-Through
By Bettye Zoller
Voice Talent / Trainer / Producer
If you are a relative newcomer to the voice-over business …
If you don't have an agent (you’ll need agents in multiple cities to book you for ‘big national advertising agency spots’) …
Or if you are primarily trying to win jobs by auditioning on Internet sites …
Well, then, this article may be highly instructional because you’ve not yet gotten into the big money - the spots produced for national TV by major advertising agencies.
BIG GUNS, BIG SUMS
The ‘big gun’ ad agencies are called AAA or AAAA Advertising Agencies (agencies are rated according to dollar volume produced as “A, AA, AAA, or AAAA”).
Yes, many are in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But there are also a number all over the U.S. - for instance, in California, Dallas, many cities on the East Coast and elsewhere.
Medium-sized agencies also produce big-dollar TV campaigns, maybe not as big as the ones running on the Leno or Letterman shows or the major TV sporting events, but good money nonetheless.
The advertising agency audition - in which huge amounts of money hang in the balance - is at the same time daunting and enticing, to say the least.
Most of the big-money auditions are for union members only. But there are exceptions, particularly in right-to-work states.
Now let’s take a virtual “walk” through a big ad agency audition.
One of your booking agents phones or emails you to say that you have an audition at XYZ Agency on 5th Avenue in NYC at 2 p.m. Thursday. It’s for the new Coca Cola TV and radio campaign worldwide, including the spot that will run during the televised Super Bowl!
Your blood boils. Your heart beats faster. There are beads of sweat on your hungry lips! You don’t sleep much the night before the audition.
Your agent instructs you to arrive at least 30 minutes in advance of your audition time to sign in and get scripts. Parking may be a problem. Security in the building is tight. Don’t be late!
The big day arrives.
You drive into the city early to park and walk to the building so you won’t be frantic because you’re afraid of arriving late. Everything goes smoothly … so far.
Your agent has told you that this spot could change your life, at least while the residuals are coming in the mail.
Of course, one never knows until a spot is actually aired nationally or internationally if the voice-over you “won” will be a big money-earner for you.
For one thing, the big spots undergo extensive market testing procedures. Your voice may be replaced by another voice if someone somewhere does not like your sound or interpretation (even if you were told you won the audition).
If that happens, your spot may never see the light of day. Instead, the ad agency’s creative team is forced to go "back to the drawing board" to invent an entirely new campaign. They may now audition new people, nothing like you and others who auditioned with you, because the spots you voiced did not survive market tests.
Until the first residual check is actually in your mailbox, it’s just a dream.
Of course, you’ll be paid your session fee, which can be four figures easily, but it’s the repeated use, the residuals, you’re after. I’ve voiced spots that didn’t survive test marketing, but the session fees were $2500 or more - a nice paycheck for 90 minutes or so of work!
BACK AT THE AUDITION …
But let’s get back to the big agency audition scenario.
You navigate the building’s elevators and sign in at two or three guard’s desks, receiving badges each time. Finally you walk long halls, following instructions, to the audition rooms.
You enter to find the room populated with voice talents who are sitting quietly in chairs. Their heads are bent down, parsing scripts. Now and then, someone murmurs something softly to an acquaintance, but for the most part, very few in the room know any of the others.
The agency has asked a casting director or various agents to send certain talents to audition for this Coca Cola spot.
The talents have been chosen mostly because their demo CDs are on the advertising agency’s shelves. Many have previously voiced for the agency and are sort-of "regulars." A large ad agency might also sometimes see a voice talent recommended by a talent agent. But typically they’ll insist on hearing that talent’s CD demo before admitting him or her to the audition.
At the audition, everyone is careful not to divulge a strategy. They guards their eyes and either read silently or mumble softly, mouthing the words, so as not to give "hints" to others.
Some people walk out into the hall to practice. Others go quickly to restrooms to practice behind closed doors, telling the room ‘monitor’ before leaving, though, so as not to miss out when their name is called.
Then the names are called.
READY TO RECORD
One by one, the talents disappear down the hall to enter a closed room where the ad agency creatives - the decision makers - pass judgment on the talents as they audition.
The auditions are recorded. All agencies of any good size or importance have professional recording studios manned by audio engineers. Voice-over auditions (and video auditions) always are recorded. The auditions are played at later dates not only for casting a spot, but to keep on-file for future reference.
The ad agency reps direct the voice talents in various ways. Sometimes it seems as if a “committee” is directing the read.
On occasion, the direction is confusing. So it’s important to ask questions if you don’t understand something. Don’t be shy. Speak up! Don’t be intimidated by the process.
You are spending your valuable time and money (parking, gasoline, lost wages, etc.) on this audition. Under AFTRA/SAG audition rules, talents should be paid the prescribed audition fee if kept at an audition longer than 90 minutes.
This is seldom enforced. But several times, I have reported dubious audition procedures to my agent or left an audition before reading because my time period simply was up. I had to go.
In the audition, you may hear words of praise, but they’re usually meaningless. The compliments are mostly politeness such as, “Good job. Thank you,” or “That was fine. You’ll hear from us.” Don’t bank on those compliments. It’s not until your agent calls to say you’ve won the job that you know the job is yours!
MAYBE A CALL-BACK
Often for the big-money jobs, there will be “call-backs.” Fewer people will be reading this time, but the process is the same.
Being called back to read does not mean you are “favored,” however. Perhaps the ad agency audition team simply wants to hear and record you again and to direct you differently.
It also can mean that there have been script changes since the first audition.
NEED AGENTS TO BOOK
Remember: You will not be included in these big-money ad agency auditions (or seldom be included) unless you have agents with access to advertising agency work.
Although we sometimes see big-money jobs posted on Internet sites where many people audition, these are few and far between. The big money does not come from Internet casting.
I hope everyone gets at least a few chances to experience what it’s like to audition for huge voice jobs that pay huge sums. What’s more, I hope you win some of these big money jobs and earn residuals every 13 weeks, or get a one-year buyout now and then.
I’ve had a goodly number of these over the years. And it’s always a rush, a thrill - but also a bitter disappointment when I don’t win a big-money audition because in my mind’s eye, I pictured myself buying that new car, taking that dream trip, building that extra bedroom on my home with the money.
Yet that’s the thrill of this business - the ‘big one’ is always just a phone call away!
I love this business and keep remembering that dear old Clara Peller got the “Where’s the Beef?” voice-over gig - which made her and her family millionaires - when she was in her eighties!
One of my students voiced a Maybelline TV spot and bought a Mercedes with her first round of residuals. She took me for a ride that day and we celebrated!
We took our two boys on a family vacation for three weeks one summer on my residuals from a MasterCard spot. And residuals have made home improvement a reality on many occasions. One of my commercials paid residuals for 17 years, another for six years, and on and on.
Yes, there are years without residual payments. So I’m always happy when I win a new spot that will pay ‘installments.’ Of course, I’m also sad when that “pie in the sky spot” (my term for the good-money ones) stops running on TV and radio. Once, I voiced a spot that ran on Jay Leno, David Letterman, The Days of Our Lives, and The Price is Right! That was a VERY GOOD YEAR!
Bettye Zoller is one of the U.S.'s best-known voice, speech, acting, and voice-over coaches, and is a winner of ADDY, Clio, Golden Radio and Audie Awards. She holds advanced degrees from three universities, has served on university faculties for 30 years, and currently is the Feagin Artist Guest Professor at Tulsa University, presenting workshops in Houston sponsored by Women in Film and Television. In June 2008, she will be a keynote workshop presenter in Nashville at the international conference of the National Teachers of Singing. Her home is Dallas but she teaches, by invitation, worldwide. She is a professional audio engineer producer, owns a recording studio in Dallas, and is a Simon & Schuster audiobook author and reader.