AN ACTOR’S VIEW OF ADLAND - Actors and agencies have fallen out over fees and voiceovers. It’s hardly surprising, Damian Lanigan says

The ad industry is being forced to draw up contingency plans to cope with the effects of the Equity strike. The union is sacrificing the short-term ability of actors to make an honest dollar in commercials in order to pressurise the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers into backing down over its attack on artists’ voiceover rates.

The ad industry is being forced to draw up contingency plans to

cope with the effects of the Equity strike. The union is sacrificing the

short-term ability of actors to make an honest dollar in commercials in

order to pressurise the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers into

backing down over its attack on artists’ voiceover rates.

The actors’ union is regarded by many as the last bastion of the Old

Labour-style closed shop, and many people in advertising might feel

justified in finding Equity’s intransigence on the voiceover issue

tiresome. After all, the impression of most advertising people is that

actors in commercials get tens of thousands of pounds for just a couple

of days’ work, which chiefly involves sitting around at Shepperton

gorging on vol au vents.

Do these people need defending at all?

Moreover, there is a privileged band of celebrities out there who make

massive sums out of commercials, as voiceovers or featured artists. As

Adam Kean, executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, explains:

’It’s a seller’s market for these people. They get what they ask for,

which is how much they feel they can get away with.’

Many ISBA members feel that Equity should allow the same principle to

apply further down the scale, and let the market set the price. If

acting talent is no longer volunteering itself for voiceover work

because the money isn’t good enough, agencies and clients will be the

first to complain as the quality of the advertising takes a dive. The

question is, will it be possible to detect any downturn in the quality

of commercials?

The jobbing actor, whose livelihood depends on getting one or two

commercials a year, takes exception to the caricature of a bleating

luvvie and feels a definite need for Equity’s protection. Not only do

they feel undervalued and underpaid, many find the entire process of

being in ads depressing and hostile, and feel that their contribution to

a successful commercial is undervalued by agencies and clients


The first source of alienation is at the very heart of the relationship

between art and commerce. As one veteran of several recent ads explains:

’On the one hand, there’s the money, which provides security in an

overcrowded profession. On the other, there’s that ’selling your soul’

feeling. You don’t do ads for love.’

Jaspar Shelbourne, executive creative director of J. Walter Thompson,

holds a different view. ’The nice thing about this country compared with

the US, for instance, is that appearing in ads is not a poor-relation

thing to do. This is why a multi-millionaire like Stephen Fry is still

keen to play Mr Squidgy in a radio commercial.’

Leon Jaume, creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, loses patience with

actors who feel that working in commercials is a sordid necessity: ’If

these actors regard doing commercials as some minor form of

prostitution, why do they do it? There’s no obligation. In fact, I think

it’s hypocritical of people like Angus Deayton and Paul Merton to

disparage their work in commercials on Have I Got News For You, or

whatever. They get very well paid for it.’

It’s been suggested in the Equity dispute debate that ads don’t require

much acting ability, so why use actors at all? Some production companies

are already casting on the streets or in comedy clubs to get around the


Peter Harrison is managing director of BFCS, whose directors include

Alan Parker, Derek Coutts and Michael Seresin. ’You can still go to

Ireland to cast, or to the regional agents,’ he says. ’But there is a

limit to the amount such people can be used.

Parker may be able to get great performances out of unknowns in the

Commitments and so on, but the pool is finite.’

Sue, an actress in her forties who has made a successful career in ads

in the UK and Europe, puts forward a strong case in defence of the

acting profession. ’Actors are trained to be natural in unnatural


Being in front of a camera surrounded by technicians and a huge set is

unnatural. Having a child you’ve never met before the day of shooting is

also unnatural. As an actress, I am able to behave as if the camera is

not there, and that this really is my daughter and my kitchen. If the

viewer doesn’t believe these things, they certainly won’t believe I use

the product,’ she says.

So the message is this: use amateurs if you like, but don’t forget the

words of the film director, John Ford: ’It’s easier to get an actor to

be a cowboy than to get a cowboy to be an actor.’

Along with the indignity of using one’s art to sell someone else’s

toilet cleaner, there is a distinct feeling that the auditions process

is badly managed. The feeling you get when you walk into a room and are

asked to dance like a chicken in front of ranks of po-faced creatives

and clients is difficult for most agency people to understand. The

frosty glances and studious note-taking that accompany your efforts are

not likely to create a sense of ease.

Jaume agrees: ’I always feel like a voyeur at castings, even if it’s

just for a bloke in a pub, never mind women’s swimsuits. I understand if

actors find it intimidating seeing agency people in the shadows.

Ideally, the casting is best handled by a director, with the agency left

to watch the tapes at the office.’

Of course, agencies don’t audition the big celebrities, they get

auditioned by them. Atkinson, Fry et al, whose fax machines are fizzing

with scripts, can choose which client they feel it is worth losing their

dignity for. Ordinary actors aren’t so privileged.

Once cast for a commercial, actors believe that their ability to make

creative contributions to a script is overlooked. One comments: ’People

forget that when you’re up for lots of commercials you get to see

different ideas from the big agencies. This gives you a unique insight

into what works and what doesn’t.’

With celebrities, agency creatives are only too keen to solicit creative

input, in the hope that a Dee or a Connolly will sprinkle some magic

dust over the dubious scenario in which they are cast.

But the essence of the Equity dispute is hard cash, not creative


ISBA’s first offer on the voiceover deal, a two-thirds cut, was always

unlikely to win friends in the acting community. ’There was no common

sense to that at all,’ Harrison says. But there are broader issues on

actors’ remuneration that even an eventual settlement to the voiceover

dispute won’t solve.

On a practical level, the perceived tendency of agencies and clients to

penny pinch when it comes to the actors is felt to be short-sighted. The

car to pick the actor up and deliver her or him to the location is

viewed as vital. ’It’s not about conferring star status, it’s about

ensuring that the talent doesn’t get held up by a nasty signalling

problem outside Slough,’ one actress says.

But on another level, there is a paradox: production companies and

agencies complain bitterly about the pressure applied to budgets by

client cost controllers, but the pounds 500,000 to pounds 1 million film

is still very much with us, and highly-paid celebrities an

ever-increasing phenomenon in adbreaks in the UK.

There is also very little apparent desire in agencies to change the


Kean says: ’If the use of a celebrity is integral to the idea, and as

long as the star doesn’t swamp the message, they will continue to be

used.’ Jaume concurs: ’It is difficult to put a price on the

contribution that stars make, but Jack Dee must be doing the business

for John Smith’s, no matter what they’re paying him, or they wouldn’t

keep using him.’

In this somewhat confused context, less exalted acting talent remains

adamant about the scale of their contribution. One actor comments: ’At

the end of the day, the price of actors is a small percentage of the

total budget, and it’s the actor’s face up there night after night

selling the product. If you want to employ someone who can look real yet

professional in front of the camera, that’s a skill only an actor has,

and it’s worth paying for.’

Shelbourne agrees: ’The right actor is crucial. It is impossible to

imagine BT’s ’Beattie’ campaign without the top-class ensemble of

professional actors it involved.’ But he also puts the case for the ad

industry as career-makers. ’Today’s anonymous actor in a commercial is

tomorrow’s star. The two actors in the Nissan Professionals parody were

unknown until that ad. In a country where the audience enjoys ads, it

can be a fantastic opportunity for an actor to get a role in a big


The most worrying aspect of the Equity dispute for actors is that

agencies and clients may realise that they can get by without UK

performers. There is already a well-documented tendency towards visual

advertising ideas intended for international use, or to cater for the

increasingly image-literate public at home. The ability to deliver

dialogue convincingly is a skill that will no longer be necessary in the


It is also worth observing that French or Italian actors are not

noticeably worse than their English counterparts at dancing like a

chicken or being chased by a plastic banana. Equity be warned.


Mel Smith - Visa Delta

Smith on stage in a catsuit might have been funny on a storyboard. On

screen it was unforgivable. The script was somewhat lacking in verve as

well. Memorable line about this debit card: ’It’s a debit card!’

Nigel Mansell - bus driver recruitment

A gem from the archives, Nige trying to persuade people to consider a

career on the buses. Flinging a Routemaster round a skid pan on one

wheel was not the best way of reassuring passengers on safety standards.

Mansell’s performance? Missable.

Nick Berry - BT

The one featuring a lobster and shot in the supermarket. Berry is one of

the most popular actors in the country. BT is one of the richest

companies in the country. They needed what he’s got, and he liked what

they offered.

Waddle, Pearce, Southgate - Pizza Hut

Southgate (complete with a bag on his head) was poor, Pearce was

agonising but even so, they didn’t give Waddle a word to utter. Just how

bad must he have been?

Also, what the hell was the ad about?

Dawn French - anything she’s in

The problem for advertisers when casting Dawn French is that she’s made

her entire career out of doing things extremely badly on purpose. Sadly,

Vodafone and the Cable Communications Association learned this fact much

too late.

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