Actors are a sensitive bunch. Landing an agent is priceless validation for us. Being dropped by one is a monumental blow. Aside from wanting our agents to provide us with opportunity (and lots of it) we want our agents to like us. Really, really like us. We want them to have lunch with us and take our phone calls and consider us friends. I’ll never forget years ago the first time I visited my agents at Atlas Talent in their New York offices. I popped my head in to Jonn Wasser’s office and said, “Hi Jonn! 'Don’t mean to interrupt! 'Would love to have lunch sometime this week while I’m here!” Without skipping a beat Jonn said “Well, we could spend two hours having lunch and that would be nice. Or I could spend two hours securing more opportunities for you. Which do you prefer?” Quintessential Jonn Wasser. In that one exchange, our business relationship was crystalized. I'm lucky he's my agent.
We want a personal relationship with our agents and, in a sense, having a personal relationship with them is a good thing. If the relationship works favorably and is stable, we may be with our agents for a decade or two or four. We may, in that time, get married and have children, lose a parent, perhaps divorce and marry yet again. Our agents will stand by us through crises of health, both emotional and physical, and we will see them through monumental life events as well. Agents are human beings with families and relationships and struggles and triumphs too. A prosperous and mutually respectful agent relationship can’t help but be personal, and we can’t help but form attachments. Over the course of the last 35 years, I have been represented at a few agencies by wonderful, generous, talented people, all of whom, without exception, believed in my abilities and represented me well.
And yet. And yet…
Just as in marriage, for better or worse, sometimes the agent/talent relationship hits a wall. Sometimes we stop communicating. Sometimes what attracted us in the first place never comes to fruition. Sometimes our eyes wander and we perceive a need for something new, something different, another approach, a different strategy. Sometimes those perceptions are accurate. Sometimes they’re not.
Some agents have stronger relationships with more powerful buyers. Some have exclusive access to particular ad agencies or affiliate stations or cable networks. Some agents are favorites among casting directors, and some have protocols in place that put their talent in front of buyers faster. Sometimes in order for you to advance your career, you need to part ways with good people who cannot provide you with the greater opportunities you seek. And sometimes in hindsight you recognize you had a great thing going and should never have left. The grass is often greener, my friends.
Leaving an agent you admire and respect who has represented you well is brutal and can leave you with lingering regret. I speak from experience. I’ve titled this post in such a way as to attract you to it, but its meaning is genuine: don't get too attached or invest yourself so personally that you might not be able to emotionally extract yourself from the relationship should it become necessary. But even as these words hit the page, I know their folly. Of course you should invest. Of course you should attach. And you should do it with eyes wide open and the noblest intent. I want to encourage agent fidelity – as long as there is reciprocal respect, clear communication, and mutual understanding between you. There are peaks and valleys in everyone’s career, to be sure, and a good agent knows this. It’s a scary thing to be in a drought of work, and our tendency as actors is to either blame our agents for not doing this or that, or blame ourselves for not being talented enough. The latter folly has the added disadvantage of leading us to distrust our agents even as they reiterate their faith in us in times of drought. It’s a conundrum.
The long and short of it is to keep a good head on your shoulders when considering your agent relationship, and to remember they are human, not super human. Do they recognize and believe in your strengths? Are they providing copy in the areas that best suit your gifts? Are you booking work in those areas, or at least generating avails? Are you communicating with your agents about your plans, goals, and aspirations? Are you taking responsibility for your part in bringing those goals to fruition? You’ve heard it before, but it’s true. You pay your agent 10% of your earnings (that’s the union standard, anyway.) This means 90% of the responsibility for your career belongs to you. Your agents are not in the business of doing your marketing. They cannot cultivate the relationship you’ve begun to develop with the producer you worked with last week. That’s your job. Don’t leave a perfectly good agent for not doing your job. I grew up in a voiceover universe that was much smaller than the one we live in now. If you were good at what you did, plentiful work was a given. That’s not the case these days. The market is deluged with talented people, and the ones who work consistently are not only talented, they are adept at marketing and have a savvy understanding of the role agents play in their careers.
This was a tough lesson for me earlier in my career. When the vo universe began to shift at the turn of the 21st century and work as I knew it began to drop off, I panicked and cut bait from one of the best agencies in the business, fearing the problem was with them. Over time I realized I’d been short-sighted, and ultimately had failed to communicate and really work WITH them to right the ship of my then flailing career. Looking forward, if I was going to survive this brave new world, I was going to need to change my strategy, dig deeper to understand what the agent/talent relationship is all about, and then get about the business of developing that relationship. This shift brought about a much healthier and more prosperous relationship - both creatively and financially - with my new agents, with whom I’ve been for over ten years now.
If you don’t have a sense of mutual respect with your agents, or if you’re not making headway after a reasonable period of time (remember headway includes positive feedback from your agents and/or avails/shortlists, not just bookings) you likely need to move on. What’s a reasonable period of time, you ask? Well, that’s a good question to ask your agents. I imagine the answer varies from one to another, but all good agents understand the marketplace and know how saturated it is. Talk to them. Get their perspective. Receive their wisdom. Don’t mistake a lull in the business or your own insecurity as reason to depart. I’ve made this mistake a time or two as well, the details of which I’ll spare you unless you corner me in the dark recesses of a cool speakeasy and buy me a margarita.
The flip side, of course, is that your agents may very well decide to drop you from their roster if you are not producing auditions or work to their standards. Agencies need to cull their rosters now and again to keep things growing and prospering. Being dropped is mighty painful and feels so very personal, I know. But in the end, it is business, and business must be mutually beneficial. Don't beat yourself up too badly if you've been dropped. Sometimes it's just not a good fit and you need to get dropped in order to make way for the agent relationship that is right for you.
Whether you move a time or two over the course of your career or stay where you are for 40+ years, be consistent in expressing your gratitude and keep your bridges intact. I don’t have an ill word to say about any agent I’ve worked with, because I’m genuinely grateful for their efforts on my behalf and their belief in me, even when the relationship did not ultimately work. And remember: it IS a small world after all. Agents move around, too. You never know when you’ll run into one you worked with previously at the new agency you just signed with. It’s always a bad idea to burn bridges, anyway - in life and in business. Whether you choose to leave an agency or they choose for you, don’t let an emotional response to the loss be a cursory excuse to speak ill of them. You’ll always regret it.
There are many of you who successfully pursue a career in voiceover without agents, either because you’ve not reached that particular milestone or you’ve consciously chosen not to. I commend you. Seriously. I’m not sure I have the chops to do it. You possess extraordinary self-motivation, tenacity, and business skills. Many of you combine approaches to your career, utilizing the agent/manager relationship along with seeking clients on your own. Again, truly remarkable. I admire you, too. Whomever you pull into your circle of business over the years and whatever approach you take, remember; you hold the reins of your career.
Trust and Be Brave,