Recently, despite having been on countless commercial castings in my career, I left a particular audition with a sly, swagger of certainty: I was gonna book that one for sure!
… Didn’t happen! And I felt awful. A failure. “ARRRGH! What did I do wrong?! I thought I was perfect for it!! I should’ve done this —I should’ve done that!” After a few minutes of thinking this way, and a few more minutes of my mum rolling her eyes as I vented to her (the poor thing has heard it allll before) – I stopped, took a breath, and considered the broader picture of the print and advertising industry, which we actors rarely think of beyond booking the job.
Here are some facts about the professional knock-on process of a commercial casting, before the actor is even involved, that will hopefully give you some helpful perspective.
What You Should Know About Commercial Casting
Let’s start with those at the very top – The Client. We’re talking about McDonald’s, Nissan, K-Mart, Sony and all the others – The Client is referring to the product being advertised, or more specifically to those that work in the product’s marketing department. These teams are the ones in charge of maintaining the product’s often global brand representation, including what societal demographics they are going to target for their sales pitch – A.K.A. Who is our customer, and how can we appeal to them? The Client is also known to work in conjunction with the product’s legal team, cross-referencing the execution of the advertisement, DOWN TO THE SMALLEST WORD USED, to ensure that their branding endeavour is legally protected as much as possible. Honestly, legally speaking, The Client is taking into account a whole mess of other factors on every single decision.
By now you might be asking: ‘Why are these people at the top of the food chain, and why do I as the actor need to know this information?’ Because they are also the ones paying for everything – INCLUDING YOU! They are also the ones taking particular notice of your answers to the casting form questions like: ‘Have you appeared in any competitive commercials in the last 3 years?’ OR ‘Have you engaged in any personal behaviour that might reflect negatively on the product?’
Essentially, without The Client, there would be no commercial made.
Once The Client has decided it’s time to invest in some commercials, they will then seek the help of “The Agency”. These are the Don Drapers of the world – DDB, Saatchi & Saatchie, and Ogilvy, to name a few biggies, but there are plenty more. Their expertise is to take the branding needs of The Client and devise the concepts, designs and scripts that will become the product’s overall representation to consumers. They are the creators of slogans like: “Maybe she’s born with it…” “Just do it…” “It’s finger-lickin’ good!” Many Advertising Agencies are ongoing account holders. These companies often have marketing research teams whose role is to determine for The Client which demographics of society they should be targeting their sales pitch.
“But what does this have to do with the actors and when do we come into the mix?!” I hear you cry. Well, advertising is a cyclical machine, and it is The Agency who is writing the cast of commercial characters we are so eager to play!
Next, The Agency sends a call out to filmmaking companies, made up of those familiar creative’s with whom we more frequently work – e.g. directors, producers, designers etc. They are commonly referred to as the royal collective: ‘Production’
The Agency approaches several Production companies with its new concept for a campaign. Production then submits their personalised PITCH DOCUMENT for the project, and the most appropriate pitch for the concept gets the job! All of which is ultimately decided on by The Agency and The Client.
As actors, our involvement with the Production team is probably the closest conduit relationship we will have with the project itself, although it will differ from the type of bond the same people might share on a movie or TV set. It is not uncommon for the winning Pitch Documents to reach our actor hands before an audition, which will inform the intended flavours and visionary tone of the commercial. Later, in tandem with The Agency, Production are also the people who place your headshot next to others and decide things like whether you have enough of a family resemblance to the child playing your daughter; or if you’re distinctive enough in appearance by comparison to the actor portraying your best mate; or, most importantly, are you the best visual and performative ambassador for the brand they’re charged with advertising.
YES ACTORS, OUR TIME HAS COME! … Almost…
Once Production has been chosen as the best candidates to execute the vision of The Agency and the branding requirements of The Client, they will THEN approach the Casting Directors. The Casting Director’s occupational responsibility usually comes down to very narrow character flexibility, and their job is to locate the “talent” as closely befitting to the project’s overall plan.
And so their hunt begins. This is the process of writing a CASTING BRIEF, outlining the summary and description of as close to what they are employed to find as possible. **ACTOR WARNING – THE CASTING BRIEF IS NOT JUST A FANCY EMAIL SAYING HOW MUCH MONEY YOU MIGHT GET FOR THE AD! It is IMPORTANT information to better your chances at being the one they choose!
This Brief will be sent out in the form of the CASTING CALL to “Talent” Management and Agencies asking for the most appropriate submissions. Our personal Managers and/or Agents will apply with profiles they believe are suitable. If you are selected out of the myriad applications Casting is sure to receive, ONLY THEN will you be given an opportunity to ply your craft in an audition.
The Actor’s role… Finally…
WE MADE IT! You have a casting booked for tomorrow morning and you’re going to go in there and nail it!
Golly, you did nail it! You’ve got a callback! You know what that means? It means that your audition and other materials were most likely viewed and evaluated by Production and The Agency, and now they want to see more. It’s usually the call back when they want to be sure you can achieve as close to what they’ve been imaging for the greater campaign, and will often be directed directly by the Director.
Away they go again with your second audition tape, working fervently to get the entire filming of this commercial project underway, including deciding which actors they feel suit the vision the best. If in this time you’ve been put “on hold” or “on pencil”, it means they’re keeping you in the running to be approved by Production (the filmmakers), The Agency (the visionary authors), and The Client (the investors and those who’s actual product is at risk of being misrepresented if they go for the least sellable choice).
This is all happening while we are nervously waiting to be told we’ve landed the job, or we haven’t. And though it can seem overwhelming on a personal level for an actor, who castigates themselves endlessly for what they may or may not have done in the 5-15 minute timeslot of an audition – the truth is that our being cast is just one of many decisions made in the business of commercial production.
So, friends, if ever I walk out of one of these casting rooms and find myself overcome by that gnawing: ‘Ugh, why didn’t I just do this or that—you should know better by now—rookie mistakes!’; And before I spiral too much, or go searching for Mum’s supportive “here-we-go-again” sighs – I stop – I breathe – and I go over the facts for help…
If there was ever an area of the industry NOT to take personally, it’s commercial auditions. The long list of decision-makers and their long journey to settling on choices is far more influenced by details that have more to do with data and marketing minutia than acting. So, after all this is considered, we actually have a great opportunity to give ourselves a well-deserved break in these pernickety advert auditions – there is soooo much more going on then our moment in the room. Frankly, given the rigidity of their casting requirements, we’ve already done half of our job just by scoring the audition and showing up! We’re great!