R.A.P. Interview: Susan Berkley

JV: Do I have to have an agent?
Susan: Absolutely not. I don’t have one. Only had one for two years out of a very long successful career. However, what agents do do for us is they get the casting breakdown, and this is especially important in the major markets. I won’t know about some of the bigger auditions for ad agencies unless I have an agent or a really close relationship with a casting director. So that in a sense is a liability. But there’s so much other work out there that is cast that is not union. So it doesn’t mean you won’t work; it’s just a different kind of work.

Being in the whole agency thing does have its down side. I made a distinct choice in my own business. My office here in New Jersey is twenty minutes from Madison Avenue, but I know if I got an agent and started playing that game, I’d be running around New York City everyday going on auditions, having to park the car and all that. And just because of the sheer numbers of people that are doing that, my hit ratio wouldn’t be as high. I prefer playing a game that I know I can win where they’re not looking at fifty other people in addition to me. I’m finding niches where it’s only me, where somehow I’m able to present myself uniquely and I’m even able to reach the decision maker. So we need to get very creative with our marketing. I believe in trying to sell from the top down, making relationships within organizations and trying to strengthen those relationships so when they have a casting, it’s no question that they’re going to call you.

JV: You mentioned non-broadcast work. What’s the industrial film narration market like?
Susan: I do a lot of industrials as well. Corporate narrations is a huge market. Billions of dollars are spent on audio/visual productions. It’s just a matter of getting to know the production companies and who’s casting that stuff. And so you go on line. You frequent websites like mandy.com and other resources I outline in my boot camp. You locate the producers. They’re casting everyday.

One of the guests I had at my boot camp is an independent producer, and she’s looking for people to grow her business with. She does a lot of demos. She does a lot of spec stuff. She’s interested in people who are willing to do something for like $100 or $200. Then later, as the stuff gets bigger and she grows, you grow along with her. I have a lot of customers that I’ve had since 1987 when I first started with voiceover, and when I started with them they were small. My company was small and I just stayed with them over the years and reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars from those relationships over the years. And as their companies grew, I started to work with other people within those companies.

People need to be patient and let the business grow but keep marketing; you must do something everyday. It’s like taking a blood pressure medicine or doing a diet or an exercise program. You have to stay on top of your marketing everyday. I think a lot of talent have a complex about marketing themselves and they get lazy. They think selling is beneath them. What is selling except making good relationships, making friends and trying to help people to grow? And if they’ve got a good relationship with a voice talent, that helps them grow. They can count on you. They know that you can convey the message the way that they intended it. And it’s not because you’re some prima donna. It’s a very different mindset.

JV: The delivery for corporate narrations is generally different than what you hear on commercials. What’s the desired mindset when doing narrations?
Susan: The imagery for the industrial stuff is what I call teaching mode, and it depends on the technical nature of the copy. If you have a lot of very technical, dry stuff to get across, number one, we need to understand what we’re reading about even at a very lay level. So if I have something in a technical area I’m not familiar with, I’ll have them explain it to me in layman’s terms as closely as they can, kind of give me an overview of the script. What exactly does this drug do? What’s the purpose of this computer technology piece here? Help me understand this. Then I get a general understanding. I’ll look up all the words before I go in. I’ll get the script in advance. I need to know how to pronounce everything properly, and there are some wonderful resources online. There’s websites like m-w.com where you can hear words pronounced. It’s an online dictionary. The other day I had a job where I had to read lots of foreign currency names like from the country of Ghana and places like that where you would never come across these words, and bartleby.com had the pronunciations for me. Usually the client also will have somebody at the session who can help you with the pronunciation, but I think it really speaks to your professionalism if you come in and you’re prepared with all the technical terminology, you’ve read through the script, and you can read it smoothly. And once you have an understanding of what you’re trying to talk about and what items are going to be bulleted in the video, you can indicate that with your voice.

So it is a different kind of delivery. They tend to be a bit slower than commercials because you’re usually not running a clock for industrials. It’s kind of an even delivery that’s warm, yet authoritative depending on the style they want, whereas commercials are obviously all over the place.

JV: The cost of VO talents these days… has that gone down because of the supply of talent out there?
Susan: You know, I was very dismayed yesterday. I went online and was looking at some of the new talent sites out there. On this one particular site they had several levels of talent. You can get the ($) single dollar sign talent to the ($$$$$$) six dollar sign talent. The little one dollar sign is $25.00 a spot and the six dollar sign talents start at $300 a spot. And then there’s the people with the little star, and they have they give you a quote. And I’m like, come on! I think the talent themselves trying to be bargain basement does them a huge disservice. Are we like tires? We’re not tires. We’re not like some commodity.

You need to, number one, start turning down work, but also help people to understand that in a sense they’re going to get what they paid for, but also that we’re worth something. We need to have the self-respect to value our own talent, and we also have to help the client understand that we’re not a commodity. And never forget that the voice talent is part of a larger production budget. Say they’ve got $10,000 to work on this project. Most of that will go for the video and the location and the spot buy or whatever it is they’re doing. And they have a range within which they can pay the voice talent. It’s a game. Our job is to try to find out where the top of the range is and not be afraid for what we want. I think most producers know that if you’re good you’re going to ultimately save them money, make them look good as well, and that we should be fairly paid.

For non-union work, try to use the union scale as a guideline. You can find that at aftra.org or sag.org. It’s up there for everybody to see. Even if you’re working non-union, try not to undercut what union talent is making. And try to get what you’re worth. Negotiate. Take a course in negotiation and you’d be surprised on how much money you can make from this. A lot of voice talent way undersell themselves.

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