Call Me Ishmael

(Originally posted on July 20, 2016)

I want to play a quick game… I’m going to pretend I’m a successful actor. During the week, I receive a call from a major agent/manager who tells me how much he/she enjoys my work. He/she praises me and I am admittedly flattered. At the end of the conversation, I’m asked… “what would it take to bring you over here and leave your current agent/manager?” Up to that moment, I hadn’t thought about it. I know I am successful, but the agent/manager was very clear that I was missing out on a lot of work and have much more to achieve. He/she really appears to know my business, so we end the conversation by agreeing to talk again in the future.

If you are the talent’s current rep your first thought is… “how could he/she ever talk to that snake after all the things I’ve done for him/her?” If you are the talent your thoughts are… “I didn’t do anything wrong”… except you unwittingly did. An agent/manager’s relationship is like any other serious relationship, so by engaging in the conversation you have automatically sewn doubt, confusion and jealousy. As a former colleague of mine used to say “perception is reality,” so the truth is the actor now has created the perception that they are not happy.

In the world of voice-overs I have been a part of two different styles of agencies: one poached almost exclusively and the other built its client base from within the company. They were both successful in their own way, but what I witnessed was that the agency focused on poaching spent more time selling talent than selling their talent to the marketplace. The primary reason why was because an agent’s financial incentives are based on who their individual clients are at the “poaching agency” so, of course, they pursued already successful talent, or what we referred to as the “whales”. What I witnessed from there was an elaborate game of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” As the poaching agency’s original clients lost work, the new clients brought in different work that replaced the money lost. On the other hand, the “non-poaching” agents’ salary was based mostly on the jobs booked, so they were always focused on getting more work and servicing the buyers.

That’s not to say I haven’t poached myself. When I finally had a chance to run my own department, I wasn’t immune from “poaching talent,” but in an 8-year period I can count on my hands who those talent were. Why so few? My poaching agenda was simple in that I either wanted to continue working with talent who I already had a prior successful relationship with or bolster a very soft spot on my list. Of course, I may be only justifying my actions, but I also know how successful I was with my “smart poaching” technique. Not only did the new talent thrive, but so did our list.

So what should a talent do if they receive one of these phone calls? The first thing you should do is set up a time in the near future to call back. Otherwise, don’t initially engage. I know you may want to hear all the wonderful things that are about to be said to you, but this is your career and you need to have the discipline to cut the conversation off until you are prepared to have a meaningful one.

After the phone call, do your research. 10 or 20 years ago you may have had the excuse that you didn’t know enough about the agency, but now you simply get on the internet and begin Googling. Search the agents’ client list, the agency’s roster of agents and their reputation to see if you are a good fit. At that point, get on the phone and, between the flattery, listen. You have one thing to gauge… do you genuinely trust this person? If so, and everything else appears positive, then it is likely the time to set up a meeting where you can begin really gauging whether a change of scenery is in your financial interests. Otherwise, if you know nothing is “broke”… don’t bother trying to “fix it.”