7 DOs and DON’Ts of working with agencies

7 DOs and DON’Ts of working with agencies

Just in case you missed it, Voquent are a multilingual audio-visual production company specialising in voice over.

We’re one of a number of voice over agencies and production companies that work in this industry. We’ve spoken to several of them over the years and have a good understanding of the way we all see project work and most importantly, how to make them go smoothly.

We love our job, and when we contact a professional voice actor with an opportunity, we’re full of genuine excitement. We’re eager to get the best voice over for the project!

We provide lots of opportunities to voices all over the world, every single day. It’s great for voices because they don’t have to pay any subscription fees (like some of the other voice over casting sites) and in most cases, the voice has not even had to audition to get the opportunity. They’ve just uploaded awesome voice samples to their profile! And it’s great for us, because we have a huge pool of professionals to work with. Everyone’s a winner!

Most of the time, it’s happy days. A pleasurable experience for everyone involved. A walk in the park. And we love it. The voice actors do an amazing job, and our customers are extremely happy.

However, very occasionally some voice actors make working with them unnecessarily difficult.

Rather than helping to get things done, they put up roadblocks, and this isn’t always intentional. It’s often driven by a lack of understanding of how production companies and agencies work.

This article aims to provide voice actors a bit of insight into what voice over agencies and audio-visual production companies like and don’t like. The aim is to improve the chances of building productive working relationships and to increase opportunities for everyone involved, ultimately producing successful projects.

Here’s the do’s and don’t for working with a voice over agency or production company.

 

DO: Respond quickly and personably to emails about being shortlisted

These points might all seem obvious, but you would be surprised how often this doesn’t happen! Whenever you get an e-mail from a voice over agency, particularly one like Voquent, then you are often on a very short shortlist and are in realistic consideration for the job.

Sometimes you might get open casting calls that are sent to everyone, but the way we work makes those situations rare.

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Responding to e-mail promptly makes the job of the agency much quicker and easier. There is often immense pressure from the client to provide information quickly, and many of them seem to think agencies all just have a little cupboard full of voice actors they can access at any time!

Being friendly and personable in those e-mails, even if the job isn’t something you are interested in, or if you think the rate is too low, makes the whole experience much better for everyone! I know I will personally always have a better experience with a friendly voice actor, even if there are some unforeseeable problems with the project, than a grumpy and rude person on a smoothly running project.

 

DON’T: Get offended about being shortlisted for a job, even if you think it’s “beneath” you (seriously)

This might sound unbelievable, but it is something we have heard many times before from other agencies.

It is a standard process for a client to pick multiple voice options and shortlist a variety of people. So, when we contact you about a project that may not match your personal taste, you are not directly picked for first time, or is below your usual working rates, please cut us some slack, don’t be offended.

It’s not our fault the customer wanted a couple of options to show their client; or wanted a couple of ‘backup’ options in-case their first choice wasn’t available. This is just how it works and we’re only doing our job.

 

DO: Be clear and up front about what you expect to be paid for a job, and how you will get paid for it

We work with customers all over the world and what is considered a fair or ‘industry’ rate for a project may be quite different from one country to the next.

In general, there is a lot of fear surrounding rates. We hear this again and again from voices actors worried that rates are being eroded. But this erosion isn’t coming from studios and agencies like us, it’s coming from the freelance platforms flooding the market. Prior to the existence of P2P sites, budgets were higher for all creative project work but now everyone is competing in a global marketplace.

There’s a long discussion to be had about the “pivot to video”, largely led by Facebook, and how that has changed (many would say damaged) the entire media production industry, but there’s no space for that here. Suffice it to say, the industry is much bigger than any one sector of it, and a flooding of the industry in one area (video producers to begin with) ultimately leads to a flooding of the industry in every other area (including voice artists).

Your rates are exactly that – your own.

If we offer you a project and you don’t accept the rate – that is totally cool with us. We appreciate everyone has their own individual value, intrinsic to them, but please understand we aren’t always able to offer the budget you may expect or are used to from your own customers.

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There is tremendous pressure on rates. We turn down projects every day and we only ever offer projects to voices that we believe are a fair value of their time and effort.

If you don’t believe they are a fair rate for you – turn it down.

All we ask is that you tell us politely what you would accept. Then when we give the final voice over options to our customer, they may decide to push their boss to pay a bit more and you get the gig anyway!

If not, we’ll know what you expect the next time a client shortlists your samples. It’s a learning process – let’s make it as fun and friendly as possible.

Another thing to bear in mind is to ensure that your invoices contain all relevant information (name, address, e-mail, telephone number, bank details) to act as professional financial documents. Voice agencies and production companies deal with thousands of invoices a year and having to chase down a voice artist because they haven’t provided the right information can both make it harder for you to be paid, and cause issues when the company is audited in the future.

Providing the correct information at the start is better for everybody. This also extends to ensuring you have an industry standard banking merchant with an IBAN for wire transfers, or failing that, having a PayPal account.

 

DON’T: Increase rates for random reasons after already agreeing to a rate

As a busy voice actor, you may have your own logic for calculating your VO rates. You may subscribe to a rate card published by a third-party. Remember, many of the third-party rate cards can be self-serving. The companies that offer them do so to bolster their own position and accrue subscription fees. It’s in their own interest to make the rate cards attractive to voice actors – it’s essentially marketing.

Rate-cards can serve as a guide or a talking point but they are not representative of actual rates that customers are willing or able to pay. Nor are they reflective of the rates that a voice actor will get when working with an agent or intermediary. At best, they may represent what you could get working with a client directly, but even then, they are in some cases just guessed or made up entirely.

None of the unions use these third-party rate cards, because the formal process for creating a real rate card is to get a collective agreement between the workers and the employers. A rate card without that collective agreement backing it is nothing but a series of guidelines and in some cases aspirations. We ALL want to work with strong, generous budgets. A union is the only way to effectively and collectively set rates across any industry.

Nevertheless, if you do have a strict rate card you subscribe to or have created for yourself, please share it with our producer at the start of the conversation. Sometimes the scope of projects change and we go to great lengths to protect the voice actors we work with from unreasonable requests, but you shouldn’t assume that you can increase your rates arbitrarily, otherwise you will put an agency in a very bad spot with their customer.

Of course, we would wholly expect clients to pay more if the usage of the audio changes from public to boosted or the already high word count doubles.

Attempting to charge large additional fees for small changes, such as: the 250-word script being 300 words; or the corporate customer wanting to also put the video on their unloved social channels (non-boosted) as well as their website, can come across badly to customers who may already have paid the equivalent rate for the entire creative work on the video.

We’ve known some voice actors try to put up rates mid-project for no reason. Or agree to a rate when shortlisted and then put it up when they’re finally selected, which is even worse! Even suddenly tell us their rate for a live directed recording is 3 times their normal rate. Not cool.

If an agency can’t trust you to stick to your word about rates when agreeing them prior to quoting their client, how can they feel confident working with you again in the future? 

  

DO: Be honest about the quality of your home studio

This is basically the same as “don’t lie on your CV”.

The one simple reason is that you’ll be found out very quickly and it immediately raises the question, ‘what else aren’t you being honest about?’.

Yes, it might make you feel better to say you record with a Neumann U87 and hope nobody can tell the difference, but any audio professional will likely spot this, and it will be too late. It could sour the relationship completely.

That’s not to say you can’t talk lovingly about your professionally sound-proofed studio (which is covered wall to wall in duvets) because frankly you probably can get away with this if you set it up correctly.

Being upfront about your microphone model, pre-amp model and recording software is important to some customers and for good reason.

Any agency will always be happy to book you into an external studio if necessary, so just be up front about it.

Here’s a good example. A customer is recording with a variety of actors for an audio drama and the actors may ‘interact’ in the finished product but are being recorded separately. Every piece of audio gear adds ‘colour’ to the sound and for projects like this, the customer may be very prescriptive and decide which voice actors they want to use based on the performance and the equipment they have access too.

ALSO READ: Best Interfaces & Pre-amps for Voice-Over

It’s useful to have a few backup studio options too, such as a local studio or a fellow voice actor’s home studio that you can record at. Just in-case something goes wrong with your own equipment or it doesn’t match the customer requirements for the job.

 

DON’T: Hugely overcharge specifically to cover your home studio costs

As we have written about before, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to create a professional quality home studio.

However, you are naturally well within your rights, and perfectly able to, spend a King’s ransom on studio equipment!

The thing is, if you do that, that is ultimately just your choice. If you want to get fancy audio equipment because you think it will help you stand out from the crowd then you are more than welcome to take that risk, but unless you are getting very steady work that’s got consistently great usage fees attached to it, then you have to understand that it is a risk.

It’s the same as investment in any other business. You have to balance the cost against the potential returns, and there is always a chance this may not perfectly work out.

One thing to avoid, however, is to jack up your basic session fee to well above your experience levels to cover the cost of the studio and recoup it quicker.

Obviously, you are perfectly entitled to set your own rates, but no agency will spend extra on a voice just because they have a swanky home studio when they could just book a professional studio with an engineer at a lower cost. This is a key tip if you are working with agents and production companies!

 

DO: Be receptive to feedback, follow the tone brief, read the script thoroughly and be friendly

Clients often want to participate live in voice over sessions, with it generally being more common than not across the whole industry.

When the client is participating in a session, it is absolutely vital that you show yourself to be well prepared in the content and the brief, try your best to match the tone they are looking for (particularly if there is a reference sample), and take onboard any and all feedback.

If a client says, “can you do it more like this”, then just say “yes of course” and try your best to do it. It’s self-defeating and unprofessional to argue with them instead. We’ve had experiences, and so have many of our colleagues in other production companies and agencies, of voices arguing a point about technique or tone with a client, leaving the client coming away feeling like they’ve just wasted a lot of money on something they didn’t want.

If you think you can’t do a particular tone or delivery any differently, just say “I’ll give it a try!”, not “well, you see, I’m not going to copy this particular reference tone because it would sound ludicrous in my accent”. Saying this makes the agency look bad to the client and makes the voice actor look bad to the agency, which ultimately ends up losing work for everyone involved.

And of course, being friendly is always necessary. Even if you can’t do something, a client will come away from the session much happier if you were nice and tried to accommodate them however you could.

 

DON’T: Say you offer live direction in your home studio if you have never recorded with live direction before

Unfortunately, this is quite common. Imagine this. We’ve gone back and forth for days, sometimes weeks. The project has now been agreed and we’re busy sorting out the recording schedule when the voice tells us sheepishly “Uhm…so can I just put the client on speaker phone for the session?”.

Sad face.

Sad Face

See?

If you put the client on speaker phone either via Skype on your tablet or mobile, the microphone will pick up the client speech and background noise… unless you know what you’re doing. Background noise can make your audio completely unusable.

Live direction is very important for all types of projects and if you haven’t got it setup in your studio, be upfront about it. We work with voices regularly for offline sessions too, and if we do get a live requirement with that voice, we’ll simply book them into a local studio which can accommodate.

If you really aren’t sure about setting up your own studio for live sessions, we encourage you to speak to an engineer. At Voquent we offer a consultation for studio setup. Contact us if you’re interested in booking one. We do have to charge studio time for this as it takes our engineer away from project work, but it’s well worth it. He’s very clever and handsome. [ED – who put this in?]

DO: Follow the audio deliverable requirements

This is self-explanatory and linked to the previous point about following the brief, but it is always worth re-stating the need to follow the specific brief.

A production company like Voquent will always provide professional, broadcast quality audio editing services before sending them along to the client. Ensuring you follow the brief and send the files correctly split into takes, named, recorded and the right bit depth and sample rate, exported with the right number of channels (i.e. mono or stereo) and recorded cleanly without background noise, will speed up the whole process.

Any production company or agency will have multiple projects on at the same time, and the less time they must request changes or spend fixing files, the more pleasant the memory of the experience of working with you will be!

Following the brief goes a long, long way.

 

DON’T: Send the audio directly to the client and cut out the agency, or watermark your recordings

If you’re asked to deliver the audio to the agency for cleaning and editing, then don’t send it to the client. We’re being contracted by the client for the job and we’re your client.

Always deliver the work to who is paying you for the work, unless you’ve got explicit instructions to the contrary.

If you deliver the audio to the client directly this immediately takes the agency out of the equation. A good agency like Voquent will ensure the audio is fully cleaned and edited to broadcast standards. Your audio may be getting mixed with a soundtrack or other voices before delivery. The client is relying on us to do this work. Even if the client asks you to deliver to them, the short answer is to apologise and tell them you need to send the audio to the agency contracting you. They will understand. This keeps the supply chain in the correct order and means we’re not dealing with customer complaints about ‘how the audio isn’t in the requested format’ because the voice talent jumped the gun and sent an mp3 instead of a wav. Many customers don’t understand the process.

Another thing to avoid is “watermarking” your recordings (i.e. saying something before or after the recording that is not explicitly in the script).

This requires longer audio editing and is generally just a pain for everyone, so don’t do it!

 

DO: Ask the agency or the production company if you have any questions or concerns about the project/client

We’re here to help! We want to get the best quality project delivered for everyone, and that means also keeping everyone happy.

If you have any concerns about the project, whether it’s the content, the usage, the rates, the client, or anything else. Ask the producer who booked you. There’s no such thing as a stupid question, so always ask the producer for clarity where needed.

 

DON’T: Attempt to bypass the agency to work with the customer directly

Whoever pays you for the work is your customer. They are the ones that have given you the opportunity and you owe them your loyalty. Attempting to bypass the agency by forging a direct connection with the end client is a betrayal of trust and completely unprofessional.

We’re in the same boat. Our primary customer-base can often be other media agencies. Translation agencies, creative agencies, production companies, freelancers etc. And we value each of them because they have invested a lot of time and money in developing relationships with their customers. These relationships are valuable, and we would never attempt to circumvent our customer to approach their client directly.

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It’s counterproductive anyway. It would kill our chances of ever working with the agency on other client’s projects and it wouldn’t take long for word to spread. If you start down this road you may gain in the short term, but you will likely lose a lot more in opportunities that weren’t even offered to you because of your unprofessionalism.

As a working voice actor, you need to keep this firmly in mind! Appreciate the customers who are bringing you the work.  This is another reason to stick with the delivery instructions agreed.

 

DO: Appreciate that there is a lot of work before and after a voice over recording that goes into every project.

Voice actors often ask us the question “what’s your percentage?”, which is a clear indication they’ve misunderstood our role.

We must use the term ‘voice over agency’ for the SERPs (search engines), but operationally, we’re an audio-visual production company. A production company specialising in the delivery of complex, multilingual voice overs and translations. We do a LOT more than just cast and supply voice actors for solo recordings.

We don’t ‘represent’ voice actors like an agent, and we don’t make a flat percentage on their rates. If we had this business model, we’d have to get every voice actor to sign a contract with us and we’d also expect a cut of ALL their work. This isn’t how we’re set up: we simply agree a budget for all of the production work with our customers which will often include voice over services.

 

ALSO READ: Alex’s Top Tips To Get More Voice Over Gigs With Voquent

 

Here’s a quick case-study to show how we all fit into the bigger picture.

A successful technology company is commissioning a creative agency to promote its new software product. The marketing director, responsible for high-level strategies; is accountable for choosing the best agency for the job.  A lot of money is involved at this level and their job is on the line if they fail to meet the business objectives.

They invite an array of creative agencies to pitch for the work some of which they’ve worked with previously. For the agencies, this is already a win. For some they might have invested months, or even years, nurturing the relationship to get the invite.

Now the creative agencies must prepare for the pitch. They’ll have been provided with a brief which covers the budget available and the objectives of the campaign.  How the objectives are met is often complex and the creative agencies will need a highly experienced team of creatives to break down where the budget should be spent and why.

A small part of the campaign may include an online video or social ads. They may have to spend thousands to create the pitch itself. This is part of their ‘cost of sale’ but the biggest cost is the cost of the staff involved in the pitch.

And this is still just a pitch. They’ve probably got a 10-20% chance of winning the contract!

The creative agency itself may have had to field pitches from myriad designers and creative agencies to help them craft the ultimate winning creative. Some agencies even put together a full video mock-up with a voice over they got recorded on the cheap.

Let’s say they win the pitch, and video content represents £10k of the overall budget agreed. The video content will include voice over.

This work is then sub-contracted by the creative agency to a video production company for £5k. This is already two steps removed from the big technology company making the actual product. The £5k profit the agency makes here helps them to cover all the resources required to win the pitch.

£5k represents an O.K budget for a short corporate video. Many customers spend less than a tenth of this on quick social videos, but it doesn’t stretch very far. Possibly a 1-day shoot with a small crew and a couple of days video edit. How much do you think will be left? It’s not a lot.

Let’s say they’ve allowed a few hundred pounds in the budget for voice over, but they’re up against it and don’t have time to reach out to voices themselves so they contact a voice over agency like Voquent for help.

This is a common scenario, and in this scenario, we’re already removed three times from the end client. The total budget for the project will never reflect the amount after it has trickled through these various necessary parties who are all collectively involved in the production.

 

The normal production process for a video project with voice over.

We’re given a vague brief about the usage and a similarly vague brief about the required voice. “American Adult male or female voices please”.

I think we’ll need to narrow that down…

It gets uncomfortable when the client tells us they’ve got a set budget and  ‘according to this third-party rate card X’ that’s a fair rate to pay.

Well, it might be a fair rate to pay a freelance voice actor directly, but it’s not a fair rate to pay a production company like Voquent.

We’ve got overheads too. A lot of overheads. It costs us hundreds in Marketing spend just to generate one enquiry. Of course, we hope to build a long-lasting relationship and do repeat work with the video production company. But we also need to cover our studio and production time.

As quick as the Voquent sample card system is, it still takes time to shortlist the right voices, make contact to check availability and then produce and deliver the audio to a professional standard, particularly when it’s for a video that needs to be translated, transcribed and voiced in twenty or more languages.

So now we’re contacting voices, and they have questions (which we encourage, as mentioned above!). The voice artist wants a usage fee because it’s “online”. We try to explain to the customer what this means, but their confused expression with the statement “isn’t everything online?” quickly tells us they don’t really understand, and we’re starting to irritate them with the questions. Voquent takes a great deal of time to educate people about this subject, but it’s not always the easiest thing to do when they’re up against hard deadlines.

This is one reason why many customers resort to posting the project on a P2P job board. It keeps the cost down but allows for the promotion of work at less than union rates whilst simultaneously sacrificing the agency benefits of a curated casting service and audio quality assurance.

These P2P sites, with all the info in the open, also make it easier for a voice actor to undercut the rates of another and ensure they get the job over someone else. An agency will offer a fair and equal rate to all the voices based on the value of the project.

And this is where it gets tricky for us. As we explain the job and usage to the voice actor, we’ll often get responses like this:

“According to this third-party rate card I should get an additional usage fee of 400% of my session fee because it’s online. They are a big company, so they can afford it.”

Unfortunately, as an agency, we’re now put in the position of being the bad guy to either the customer or to the voice actor, and in some cases both. If the budget isn’t meeting aspirational and desirable rates, do we risk alienating our potential customer further by making excessive demands on the rate? If the rate is fair and the customer isn’t willing to book a specific voice at any cost, it really is easier for everyone to just reach out to other voice actors.

From the video production companies’ point of view, their margins are miniscule and the voice over represents a huge portion of the budget.

Usually they try to insist that we find a voice that will agree to the budget.

So now an ideally suited voice actor has probably lost the job because a third-party rate card told them they should be getting this specific rate – otherwise they are being exploited. Even so much as £50 less than that is unacceptable. And this is because the voice actor often hasn’t considered the other parties involved in the production process. The value they’ve placed on their own voice over becomes inflated to a point where it’s above the actual market value, and ultimately ends up perpetuating the exploitation of other workers and creatives at other stages of the project’s chain – including the people who work for the agency.

Think about this. The whole industry would collapse overnight if the basic fee for an audio engineer to record a VO was the same as a voice talent (without usage), and

the average engineer will have just as much skill and experience as the average voice artist!

Sure, the end customer, way down the line might have had the budget to pay the higher fee directly to the voice, but the agencies in between are the ones that have provided the voice with the opportunity, and they’ve worked hard on the project too. They all need to be paid fairly as well. It’s highly unlikely you’d have got that opportunity without them. Corporations rarely contract creatives directly unless they have their own internal agency and even if they do, their procurement processes can make it very difficult to setup individual jobs with freelancers and they can end up delaying payments for months.

Many voice actors also don’t appreciate that when they’re recording, they are often the most expensive sub-contractor in the entire process.

An audio engineer typically makes the equivalent in a DAY what a voice actor makes in an HOUR. And a video producer’s DAY rate is often equivalent to 2 HOURS of voice over work.

We know that a voice actor’s value represents much more than just their time spent to record the voice over. The fee represents their experience, years of training and the value their voice adds to the product. But this also needs to apply for every other creative contractor or agency in the process.

This is why collectively and formally negotiated and agreed rates are so important. As we mentioned above, a third-party rate card can’t serve as a good guide without a collective agreement underpinning it, or it is nothing more than a suggestion. And obviously, if it’s generated by a separate private company, rather than a democratically controlled body, there is no oversight and they could have all sorts of nefarious reasons for arbitrarily setting rates to a certain level.

Working with other trade unions worldwide, and even other sectors of the same unions, can be a great way to ensure rates are fair and balanced to ensure the industry works for everyone. Most voice actors in North America are in SAG-AFTRA and the UK in Equity. Most of the other freelancers, subcontractors, and even many of the staff in the industry in the UK, are represented by Equity’s sister union, BECTU, or IATSE in the USA.

It can sometimes be a struggle to ensure rates remain fair across the industry. Working together is always going to be the best way to achieve that, as has been the case throughout history.

Voquent will always pay fairly. This includes all the other contractors at the other stages, before and after the voice over recording. We will always push back against a client who is trying to exploit us and the voice artist, but that’s not because we’re adhering to an arbitrary number set by different agencies or private companies seeking to become an authority on the subject.

So what to DO in this situation is just bear in mind that you are a link in the chain, and it is not always the link directly next to you that is responsible for setting the rates as they are!


In summary

The voice over industry is saturated with talent and agencies and production companies exist as a necessary resource and filter. There are always going to be exceptions but the majority of these companies, including Voquent, actually ensure that rates and terms always remain fair.

Working together is more successful than working alone.

These points will aid you well if you’re seeking regular, repeat work with multiple agencies and over time, you will hopefully be able to build up and sustain your own pool of direct clients that offer consistent work at generous rates and pay quickly.

 

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