The Insider's Guide to Production: Finding a face that fits

There's more to casting than tracking down a pretty face and it should never be left to amateurs.

So, yet again, your budgets have been squeezed by the bean-counting suits. You have no money to cast - it's all gone on fat-cat client lunches. Right? So you try to do it on your own. You don't think you need a casting director - hey, the world is a multimedia cornucopia right now, or so everyone tells me. Plenty of wannabes on MySpace and Facebook. They'll do nicely, thank you very much.

How am I going to do it? Should I actually use MySpace? Ah, the beauty of media commoditisation ... let's take advantage ... but maybe it could be unreliable? The dangers of fan sites are well-documented. But surely there is a way to cut that corner?

The attitude described above would probably feature in Delia Smith's cookbook as "The Perfect Recipe for Casting Disaster"; unfortunately, right now, it's becoming far too prevalent within our industry.

Advertising comes in more forms then ever before. It is becoming easier and easier to overlook the casting pro-cess in production and media buying as prices audibly creak under pressure.

Because of the squeeze in budgets, many companies think the easy option is to use these free and easily accessible websites, including some that purport to be "professional casting sites". While this might give you an overview of a pretty face or two, the act of casting talent is not only about finding a look, it's also about finding a person to humanise your brand and, to do that, the person needs much more than just "a look".

We are talking about the focal point of your campaign, the person that takes a product and puts it into either everyday or aspirational context. To coin a phrase, these people are indeed crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living dolls.

In order to fulfil this brief, the casting director is as essential as the camera. Casting directors are educated in advertising as well as performance, and they incorporate the two in the course of their work. They are there to look at many aspects of the human performance: speech, movement, the ability to sweat the room and, the often forgotten, priceless quality of reliability to contribute to the production in a timely, qualitative, inexpensive and professional manner.

Above all, they're there to correlate the person to the brand, whether it be in parody, comedy or context.

So, how do you choose the juicy fruit and how do you avoid the lemon?

Casting directors are varied and many. They range from producers' wives making a bean on the side, to global operators offering a wide range of services and talent. All have various merits and impressive CVs, but when it boils down to it, it's true to say most directors get hired on relationship and personality.

However, the key to a good selection is to look at not only the directors' CVs, but to search for someone who genuinely and demonstrably knows your industry and how to deliver on time, to brief and on budget. Ask how that casting director will handle transmitting information to you, and how and where they will search for talent. Ask them for an itemised price with timings and a definition of their brief within it. Drill down into the detail because, believe me, when your budget is squeezed, you should look for value and certainty, rather than risk cutting corners.

In terms of certainty, many campaigns these days are produced on a global basis. A few years ago, the worst nightmare of a casting director was leaving tapes in the hands of DHL and our jolly friends US customs. The delay from wrapping the sessions to the creatives receiving the tapes could be days or, on occasions, weeks.

The profession has moved on since then and we, along with a couple of other companies, have pioneered the use of bespoke viewing sites. Clients' own casting sessions are uploaded almost in realtime, with the ability to e-mail, distribute and share selections within seconds in a high-resolution format. This creates efficiency (no courier or transfer costs), accuracy and engagement with many more people if needed and contributes to halving lead times for finding talent. It has become a popular innovation with our clients.

Talent search is also key; align experience with need. If you want someone to dance a hip hop commercial, find someone who has cast for Madonna. If you want to find someone to do a family ad, find someone who has cast for DFS. It's about knowing the routes to that talent and exploring a variety of avenues to provide a range of options. The best interpretation of a brief features a range of different but relevant ideas, and it's crucial to have choice. It's not unheard of for us to use sites such as MySpace and Facebook, but when we do, we know exactly where to look and we work off a network of known contacts. Then we place them in the context of your campaign, your brand and your treatment.

So, next time you think about cutting corners, consider the points above; think about what value and certainty mean to you and your team, and consider who can give you that.

Above all, never forget that you are choosing the personality that will define your brand and place it in context, and that, like every part of production, it is best left with the professionals.

- Mark Summers is the casting director at Mark Summers Casting.