Campaign Craft: The Creative Issues - Silence from the agencies as voiceovers shout to be heard

Equity and the ad industry are squaring up for a very long dispute. By John Tylee.

Equity and the ad industry are squaring up for a very long dispute.

By John Tylee.

The ad industry has always been ill at ease when confronted with

organised labour. Trade unionists demanding fair shares for all are

largely misunderstood and mistrusted by a business that is so

competitive and entrepreneurial.

This unease has become apparent again in the row between the industry -

represented by agencies, clients and production companies - and Equity,

the actors’ union, over commercial voiceover fees (Campaign, 18


Equity claims the industry has effectively locked it out of talks on a

new agreement for the employment of artists in commercials. The

employers, according to the union, are ’spoiling for a fight’.

Meanwhile, industry negotiators have accused Equity of trying to

perpetuate an outdated closed shop that runs against the tide of modern

working practices.

Both sides agree a lengthy dispute could be highly disruptive, with talk

of agencies bypassing Equity to negotiate block deals directly with

artists’ agents.

The dispute centres on whether or not voiceover artists deserve to be

rewarded in the same way as actors appearing on screen.

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the Incorporated Society

of British Advertisers and the Advertising Film and Videotape Producers

Association all say no. They want to curb what they believe is the

grossly overpaid life of what the head of TV at one agency calls the

’herd’ of voiceover artists who cream off the money for an hour’s work.

’A few earn absolute fortunes,’ he says.

Equity argues that voicover artists are as likely as featured actors to

be restricted from working on commercials for rival brands and that

voiceovers should be treated as if they were on camera.

The effect of the employers’ demands, the union claims, would be to

devalue the skill and ability of voiceover artists by cutting their

earnings by two-thirds.

No further talks are scheduled to break the deadlock. Negotiators have

told Equity that unless it accepts their revised proposals for voiceover

payments, they will not renegotiate the industry’s 1991 agreement with

the union which expired at the end of last month.

Some Equity officials believe the impasse is an excuse to do away with

Equity agreements altogether. Christine Payne, the head of Equity’s

film, TV and radio department, who heads the union’s negotiating team,

claims there is no intention of stopping commercials production. She

will not say if the heat will be turned up should the industry stand its


Bob Wootton, ISBA’s director of media services, says: ’At the moment

both sides are keen to talk and we’re of the view that we shouldn’t be

seen to be negotiating in public.’ Wootton would not comment any further

on the issue.

Privately, industry negotiators curse themselves for allowing voiceovers

and on-screen actors to be rewarded equally. ’We’re to blame for much of

what’s happened,’ one industry source says.

The agreement recognised that with the proliferation of channels, the

old system, under which actors received cash on the basis of the number

of times ads were on air, had to be scrapped. Pay is now calculated

using audience ratings.

Paying similiar amounts to actors, whether working on or off screen, was

meant to stop them being ripped off. Agencies complain the result has

been an expensive and inflexible system that fails to respond to supply

and demand and blocks fresh talent. ’Why use an anonymous voiceover when

you can get Harry Enfield?’ Paul Cardwell, the Doner Cardwell Hawkins

creative director, asks. ’He isn’t any dearer but new people aren’t

getting the breaks.’

Tim Ashton, the Bates Dorland executive creative director, cites

campaigns that were stillborn because voiceover fees ate up the budgets.

’With repeat fees a voiceover can earn pounds 7,000 for an hour’s work,’

he says.

At Leo Burnett, Gerard Stamp, the creative director, may talent-spot for

voiceovers among his staff if the dispute drags on. ’The industry has to

stand firm,’ he says.

Under industry proposals rejected by Equity, the basic session fee for a

voiceover would go up from pounds 79.90 to pounds 125 but would reduce

by two-thirds the percentage paid per TVR by way of repeat fees.

Equity claims a voiceover being paid a pounds 125 basic fee for a

campaign achieving 675 TVRs would earn pounds 3,604 under current rates

but only pounds 1,192 under the revised proposals.

Payne accuses the employers of trying to get Equity to do its dirty work

for them by increasing artificially the minimum fee to what they already

pay while pruning use fees. ’They claim voiceovers have been paid too

much for too long but fees have never reflected what they actually pay,’

she says.

This may yet provoke a dispute. The employers may prolong it in the hope

that Equity will be put under pressure by its members to settle as their

cheques dry up.

Meanwhile, Cardwell warns, the spat threatens to play havoc with

clients’ budget forecasts because of difficulties in negotiating repeat

fees - and viewers and listeners may find the faces and voiceovers for

the latest commercials become boringly familiar.