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Ms. Donna Lynn Newton

You’re in Show Biz Now: Lessons Learned From a Casting Director

During the last 4A's New Business Committee meeting, we discussed generating ideas to improve the agency review process overall for all participants--marketers, agencies and search consultants--not just those of us in business development.
The discussion started me thinking about lessons I learned several careers ago during my decade spent as a casting director for film, television and theatre. Yes, it was a lot of fun, but not necessarily lucrative for those of you wondering why I segued into advertising! (In a later post I’ll broach what I know about casting a new business pitch from my entertainment experience.)
There are a lot of similarities across the marketing and entertainment industries, as we all know; both have primary goals to engage and entertain our target audiences and make them part with their dollars for our products. Looking closely at the process a creative team in film or theatre goes through to make sure they assemble the right performers to tell the story can yield nuggets applicable to agency New Business.
Let’s imagine the participants in a review roughly as:
  • Marketer Company as Director
  • Search Consultant as Casting Director
  • Agency as Actor
  • New Business Director as actor’s Agent

And what we create together--collaboratively--is the script, screenplay, and ultimately the finished piece that will captivate the audience’s imagination and allow them to identify and engage with our story. Over the next several posts, I’ll analyze each participant’s role in the selection process through the lens of an analogous film casting situation, with the goal of hopefully generating discussion around applying learnings from other businesses and industries.  So please chime in!

We’ll start with the role of the actor--the agency--since the majority of you are in business development at an agency. 

Actors have the least amount of power in a casting situation (sound familiar?). Many actors are auditioning for the same part; only one will be chosen. How can they tip the balance of power toward the goal of winning the role?

The best actors approach any new role by bringing everything they have to the table. So what exactly is that?

The single overriding factor is: they are themselves.

This has never been more true than in today’s cult of celebrity culture (we all know this from experience.  Chemistry almost always emerges as the trump card in a review “tie”).

In my experience, the very best actors--those most likely to get the role--brought way more than themselves to the table. They were always fully prepared for the experience of the audition, convinced that they could play the hell out of the part, and completely charged up to demonstrate that to the people on the other side of the casting table.

They had read the entire script and thought deeply about their character’s story arc, movitations and relationships in the script. They imagined the character’s life before the inception of the script, and what might be the future for this character beyond the story’s ending. They’d made some strong choices about how to embody that character fully and bring a real person to life onscreen or stage.

Yet they were flexible enough to listen to new or more detailed information given by the director or casting director, take that into their heads with everything else they’d prepared and make the appropriate adjustments to their interpretation--often after only thinking about it for a minute or three. In extraordinary cases, those of us at that table--the director, writer, and casting team--would see two very different, completely valid, captivating approaches to a key scene in our piece, played by the same actor, in the span of ten minutes. I witnessed many of today’s gifted actors – Calista Flockhart, Chris Cooper, Joe Morton, Willem Dafoe, Angela Bassett, Robert Downey Jr. and countless more – do exactly that early in their careers. And be good enough that if the camera was rolling, the director would have called “print!”

Probably the most important takeaways for agencies in this analogy are:

  1. Be who you are. Having a strong agency culture--one that can align with the client company culture--is critical. We must connect with our potential client--be certain we are “right” for them--or our relationship may be doomed to go nowhere or fade out after an initial infatuation.
  2. Be prepared. Be way prepared--we can never be over-prepared. Imagine the future of the brand.  Know the past history of the client. Understand their competitive situation. Dig for insights like a truffle pig.
  3. Be FLEXIBLE. Accept that there can be more than one correct approach to a client’s marketing situation. Listen carefully to everything your potential client and/or search consultant tells you. Demonstrate your ability in incorporate new ideas and information quickly. (Just to be clear, I am NOT advocating that we ask “how high?” when a marketer or consultant suggests that we jump into an impossible task).
Sidebar bonus:
A couple weeks ago I watched Tommy Boy--a very funny movie I’ve seen bits and pieces of dozens of times, as it shows up in rotation nearly as often as Seinfeld reruns--with my 12-year-old son. There’s a scene when Chris Farley explains to “Helen,” a waitress at roadside diner on a shift in between lunch and dinner, why he’s no good at sales and in the process manages to back-door convince her to get the kitchen to turn on the grills early.
The whole movie is a neat lesson in closing a sale, wrapped up in a shiny, relatively timeless fluffy piece of film. Take another look at it (savor the scene where Farley and David Spade drive down a highway singing the 70’s pop hit Eres Tu at the top of their lungs) and share some of your favorite “selling” characters and films on this blog.

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Nicely said

Posted by Ms. Mary Lorson (Thursday, January 15, 2009 12:06 PM)

Point 4 in your audition

And a 4th point to add to Donna's excellent advice: learn how to make your "auditions" truly interactive. There is both science and art to turning a pitch into an interactive discussion early in the meeting - by asking the right questions and bonding with your client prospect around their business issues. These skills, coupled with Donna's advice on preparation can really help your team connect with the client and stand out from your competition.
Posted by Mr. Stephen Boehler (Sunday, January 18, 2009 2:47 PM)

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