R.A.P. Interview: Harvey Atkin

R.A.P.: Radio Production Directors constantly work with ad agencies, producing their copy, sometimes writing it. I think it's safe to say we have a lot of gripes about ad agencies and how they operate. What's your perspective of them, being a voice talent who works with them regularly?
Harvey: One of the big arguments that I've had with a lot of the advertising agencies is, they don't understand the importance of the voice guy. They'll work on a campaign with the advertiser for months and months and months and get this thing all ready to go. Everybody's crossed every T and dotted every I, and they know exactly every nuance that they want to get across on this thing. When do they give the script to the voice guy? The day before. They walk into the studio and say, "Here, make this sucker sing!" And they look at you and say, "You're very close. Try it one more time." And then after you leave they say, "You know, it took the guy ten times to do the damn thing right!" They've been working on it for four bloody months, and I took forty five minutes to do it! I'm sorry it took me so long!

Many times you hear about a voice guy who comes into the studio, and the producer will say, "What do you think?" You do the read, then you say, "Excuse me, could we just take this word out of here and put it over here, and put a comma here instead of a period, so I can take a breath here, so it will flow a little bit easier?" "Oh, sure. Let me hear what it sounds like...Thank you. That was great!"

Because they're not actors, they hear this thing in their head. They write it and say, "This is a perfect thirty second spot." I come in and do this thing in 21 seconds -- they call me "motor-mouth" in Toronto. He says, "Did you say all of it?" "Yeah" "Well, it timed out good when I did it back at the agency." Then they say, "Can you slow it down?" So I slow it down, and it comes out to 24 seconds. You can drive a truck through the hole there! "What do you want me to do guys?" "Wait just a minute, let me call the client." Here it comes...rewrite time. I mean, how many times has it happened?

R.A.P.: Do you ever run into situations where the spot gets the blame for an advertising campaign not working?
Harvey: I've always said, not one car, not one deodorant, no one box of cereal has been sold over the television or the radio. The awareness of that product possibly has been created, but if we're talking cars, it's the salesman on the floor that has to sell that car. We deliver them to the front door; you take it from there, fellas. And innumerable times people will do a tremendous campaign. Then people will walk into their showroom, and they don't even have salesmen there to grab the guy who comes through the door. Who gets blamed! "Oh, that advertising sucked! It was terrible!"

The other thing that people have to understand is that there is a conditioning process, and advertisers have to understand that in order for radio to be effective, in my estimation, you've got to have a six week run. You must! A newspaper comes to the door. You pick it up; you put it down. You pick it up; you put it down. It's still there. You can read it. With radio/TV voice-over it's GONE! And if you don't happen to catch the guy at the right time when he's thinking about buying widgets and your spot for widgets comes on, he isn't going to pay you any mind. They don't realize that it takes a run longer than a couple of days. They say, "Hey, we tried it on the weekend, all day Saturday and Sunday!" Could it be, if that weekend was a long weekend, that everybody went out to the country? That doesn't matter; it's the agency's fault.

R.A.P.: I get the feeling you've worked with some big agencies and seen some pretty amateurish stuff. How do they get away with this?
Harvey: The agencies have big names. Take a guy who's trying television or radio for the first time, and he's got an advertising budget of $50,000 for the year. To him, that's a whole lot of money. He's not going to come up to the people at this big name agency and tell them they don't know what they're doing with his advertising. Would you go to the doctor for an examination and tell him what to do? These are the gods; these are the experts. But the agency is only as good as the Account Execs and the writers they've got working on that account.

The funniest thing I see happens sometimes when I'm doing a read. Let's say it's take five or six. Sometimes you'll just want to get on the talkback and say, "Jeez, that was a really bad read. Can I do it again?" But right before you say a word, the talkback comes on and says, "Hey, that was terrific! We're going to do a playback." Ninety percent of the time, that happens when the client is sitting in the control room. You get an advertiser who is spending two million dollars a year with the agency, and the client's Advertising Vice President is in the studio while recording. Then he says, "Hey, I like that take!" How many agency guys have got the balls to stand up and say, "You know what, sir? I think he can do better than that. Can we try it again?" Hey, the boss likes it; let's be quiet. Let's not rock the boat.

R.A.P.: Let's talk about talent agents. Do you think they're necessary?
Harvey: They're necessary in that, for some reason or another, and justly or unjustly deserved, "talent" are regarded as flakes, and they don't know anything about business. So, if I find myself in a situation where I know it's going to get a little rough negotiating, I say to the people, "Hey guys, I'm just talent. I'd love to work for you. I wanna do this account. I wanna do these spots. But please, don't clutter my feeble little mind with numbers. Speak to my agent. Whatever he tells me to do, I do."

A guy might come up and say, "Look, we wanna do ten spots here. Can you get us a little bit of a deal because union rate is X, and we can't really afford to do it for X, but we can offer you Y...." "Hey, hey, hey, don't get me mixed up in that. I don't know anything. Talk to my agent!" You do have to have an agent.

Here's something that's happening with agents right now. You can call some agencies and production houses in Los Angeles, send your script down there, and for X dollars they will get a "professional" announcer to voice your spot. This is an underground market.

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