LBB speaks with Jungle Studios, London Voice Boutique, Sue Terry Voices, Girl&Bear and McCann London to open up the discussion on diversity within voice casting
It is widely acknowledged that consumers are more likely to be influenced by marketing that they relate to. It is natural to be able to connect with something more when we look and sound like the people in the ad. Yet for so many years, the vast majority of voices we hear in the media have been extremely similar.
After the boom of celebrity, the voice casting industry diversified a little but there is still a long way to go with the demand for more diverse voices in the media higher than ever - especially now that audio-only experiences are fast rising, leading to the need for more voice actors.
But it’s just a simple case of ensuring that there are a range of voices in your marketing - the voices must be represented in an authentic way in order to truly connect with audiences and avoid falling into the trap of sonic racism.
LBB speaks to sound designer Chris Turner and director Allan Johnston from Jungle Studios, founder/agent Stephanie Thompson from London Voice Boutique, managing director Sue Terry from Sue Terry Voices, senior integrated creative producer Doris Tydeman from Girl&Bear (a creative studio from VCCP), and creative directors Rob Webster and Alexei Berwitz from McCann London, about the state of voice casting today.
LBB> In your experience, what are the biggest issues in voice casting at the moment?
Chris Turner, sound designer, Jungle Studios> I think a common issue is that people often use voice talent they already know and have used before. The closest some come to risk taking with new voice actors, is working their way through the credit list of their new favourite TV programme.
Allan Johnston, director, Jungle Studios> My biggest problem is budgetary. Production budgets are either being cut, or are not rising in proportion, and as a result there is an ongoing and increasing tension when discussing fees with agents.
Also, there are ongoing ‘availability’ issues within the working-class cohort, meaning that all socio-economic groups are not featured - but this is an industry-wide problem.
Stephanie Thompson, founder/agent, London Voice Boutique> Interestingly there has been a fantastic shift to a more open approach to casting briefs in the past six months with requests for a much more diverse range of artists. However there is always more that can be done to ensure that the ‘voice over world’ reflects the real world.
Sue Terry, managing director, Sue Terry Voices> Voice casting is much more diverse these days in terms of race and gender and background. We still don’t get a lot of work for older voices but it is better than it was.
Doris Tydeman, senior integrated creative producer, Girl&Bear> It’s hard to pin-point exactly what the main issue in voice casting is at the moment, when there are so many underrepresented voices. In my personal experience, we’re still significantly lacking representation of those who live with disabilities, and the LGBTQIA+ communities.
It’s important to look at the setting in which the voices appear, and not focus solely on the voice itself. Advertising can often be guilty of reinforcing stereotypes and conventional ways of living, which can mean that those who don’t follow a perceived “traditional” path, can be unrepresented.
Rob Webster and Alexei Berwitz, creative directors, McCann London> One of the biggest issues is that our industry has historically had the tendency to approach casting in general without taking the deliberate steps to seek out - or push for - the broadest mix of diverse representation in the work we create. This is certainly not a new issue. But, it’s undeniable that we’ve been doing more to hold ourselves accountable to mitigate any bias in the casting process and ensure that the talent we hire, for both visual and audio productions, reflect the diverse culture we serve.
LBB> And why do you think this is still a problem today?
Chris, Jungle Studios> There’s no lack of talent, quite the opposite. Agencies have so many people on their books that finding the right voice can be very time-consuming. The best approach is to give your brief directly to the voice agents and trust them to give you a considered shortlist.
Stephanie, London Voice Boutique> On the casting side there has been a real drive to increase diversity in all sorts of areas from commercials to animation to computer games, and this has meant that agents like me have felt more confident to put forward a wider range of artists for these briefs. I’m also really pleased that in the past year I have been approached by a wider variety of actors that better represent the community we live in.
Doris, Girl&Bear> I think if we were to look at it simply, people can often be denied opportunities because they haven’t done it before, or because they haven’t typically been seen on screen. We have to make an extremely conscious effort to move away from that.
If we take Nationwide’s Holly McNish advert as an example, she was a new mum, speaking openly and frankly about motherhood. It wasn’t glossy, it wasn’t all smiley, ‘happy moving-in’ day, it spoke truly to a lot of people’s realities. It wasn’t a voice or narrative you would typically expect to hear in advertising, and it was through looking outside of the typical talent pool, and applying a new way of casting, that we found it.
Rob Webster and Alexei Berwitz, McCann London> We still have so much work to do to ensure we have the depth and breadth of diverse perspectives we can quickly tap into in the office each day, and ensure our casting is equally representative.
One of the many reasons this is still a problem is that we’ve been trying to solve an issue in a vacuum as opposed to holding both ourselves and each other accountable. We’ve begun taking a more holistic approach to shift the systemic bias that has led us to create through the lens of homogeneity. Our goal is to move from intent to action, and it’s definitely a process that requires collaboration with everyone influencing how and what we create.
LBB> Why do you feel that it is important to have more diversity in voice casting? What impact can it have?
Chris, Jungle Studios> It’s so important, we don’t need to go very far back in time to when all voices in media spoke the Queen's English or RP. Luckily time has moved on and you find a real cross-section of accents represented now. The impact of choosing the right voice is that with it, you can gain the attention of the very people you’re trying to speak to.
Stephanie, London Voice Boutique> I think it’s important to have more diversity because we need to be a more inclusive society and because what people watch and hear on their screens has a massive influence on their lives. To feel included in society, people need to see themselves represented and kids need to have role models to aspire to. If they hear voices like theirs wherever they get their content, it can boost their confidence in who they are as they grow up. The more diverse voices we hear, the more normal that variety becomes.
Doris, Girl&Bear> Diversity in voice casting is essential, because everyone’s voice is equally important. Advertising is everywhere, and even more so now than ever with social and digital ads. It is very influential, and it’s important to recognise that. Everyone consumes advertising in one way or another, so individuals should be able to see that they are represented.
The way we cast our Nationwide Voices campaign let’s people tell their own stories. They’re not edited or altered by us, and are authentic to them and their communities. This directly impacts the work, as it gives another perspective, not just that of the advertising creative.
Rob Webster and Alexei Berwitz, McCann London> Advertising and the work we produce has a huge impact on society and culture. The situations and people we portray are seen and heard by millions and as such we have a responsibility to reflect the audience and the rich diverse society we live in. We have a critical responsibility to portray stories that authentically resonate with consumers on behalf of our clients. Making sure that our work is diverse in tone, texture, imagery as well as verbal/non-verbal or auditory cues and signals that transmit messages of inclusion is the only way to deliver the most meaningful work.
LBB> What efforts do you make to help improve diversity in voice casting?
Chris, Jungle Studios> Well for a start we don’t allocate roles based on gender or ethnicity. If you’re casting someone to be, let’s say, a bank manager, we wouldn’t assume it’s going to be a middle class white man, unless the script is actually poking fun at bank managers in which case it absolutely would be.
Allan, Jungle Studios> I always have an ear out for someone that best reflects diversity. I include in this, socio-economic as well as regional and ethnic accents. And I always make sure that there is an authenticity behind the voice.
Stephanie, London Voice Boutique> We have made a conscious effort at LVB to be more inclusive by updating our website this year to be gender neutral and include preferred pronouns. Voices are cast on their tones and deliveries, rather than their gender. We are also actively increasing racial, socio-economic and regional diversity.
Sue Terry, Sue Terry Voices> We make sure we have a diverse roster of artists and always make sure that our responses to casting briefs have a wide range of ethnic backgrounds.
Doris, Girl&Bear> It’s extremely important that we ensure people from all backgrounds and groups in society are represented inclusively on screen and behind the screen.
Working hand in hand with our D&I collective, we created a pledge which is included on all casting briefs, which is a great step in ensuring that we’re casting diversely for each campaign. The pledge is an important part of our ‘Be Nice’ policy, which ensures we create in a way which places the planet and humanity first.
And, for all our internal productions that require cast, at a bare minimum, we adhere to the following:
- We celebrate all forms of diversity.
- Where specific characteristics are required for a certain role, care and consideration is taken by everyone to ensure authenticity.
- We search for authentic and realistic representation, not tokenism or stereotyping.
Rob Webster and Alexei Berwitz, McCann London> McCann London and Craft have developed a process designed to integrate DE&I principles into the work we make. The first step is to align with our clients on a standard DE&I practice, because, in order to ensure that we are creating the conditions for truly equitable and inclusive work, everyone needs to be joined up.
We’re also piloting an 8-point plan that’s being rolled out at a global level, that outlines the key tenets for a truly inclusive casting brief. We are constantly reviewing how we can be more inclusive in the work we do and all featured talent including for VO, in addition to all talent we engage for production and agency roles. We have recently declared our support for the APA x BECTU Commercials Production Diversity Action Plan which aims to build a more inclusive environment on commercial sets. All of this sets us on the right path to move from intent to action.
LBB> Can you give us any examples of work you have done that included diverse voices? What was that process like and how did you ensure you chose someone authentic to the role?
Chris, Jungle Studios> Some advertisers are really leading the way in diversity, and I’d say that all the people I work with take a very considered approach to the work they’re creating, and who that work is aimed at. TFL and the Government are leading the way with their casting from all groups of society and for how they work up many versions to encompass regional accents and languages.
I’m currently engaged on a project where authenticity is so important that the net for casting is small, remote and very challenging, but I know it will make the finished work so much better.
Allan, Jungle Studios> I recently worked on a children’s TV animation series and suggested to the production that I would like to include regional accents - to be fair I was pushing against an open door. I was able to source most regional accents locally, which obviously helped with licensing, availability and cost. However, a N. W. of England accent was proving problematic. As a result I had to venture to Liverpool to source an 11 year old child with an authentic accent. This made the scheduling trickier, the cost went up, and my workload increased. But in the end, I was very happy with the results, as I’m sure the audience in Liverpool were.
Stephanie, London Voice Boutique> To be honest we find that most of the briefs that we receive are asking for more diverse voices and we find it exciting when some of our actors that may not have had much work before are getting booked for these jobs. We’ve got a range of voices working on Student Rail Card, RAF and Nicorette, to name a few, using voices that would not necessarily have been chosen in previous years.
Doris, Girl&Bear> Whilst there were a lot of things which united people during lockdown, people were also experiencing a huge variety of adjustments to their lives, and our Nationwide “message to myself” campaign looked to showcase that.
By casting not only poets, but also comedians, from all over the UK and from different backgrounds, we received a diverse range of responses, which allowed us to produce a beautiful and representative set of films.
When casting for the Nationwide Voices campaign, we always look at a broad pool of people, and like the Holly McNish example, want to hear experiences which aren’t always shown on screen.
Rob Webster and Alexei Berwitz, McCann London> This year we created a campaign to promote Just Eat’s sponsorship of Love Island. The TV idents saw little animated lovebirds and geckos commenting on the goings on within the show. As a mass brand with a broad and universal customer base it was essential to make the voice casting appeal to everyone around the UK and also to represent the multiplicity of society. We were looking for comedy actors with regional accents that could bring the characters to life. We cast the net wide to make sure we found distinct and diverse regional accents but also comic talent that could elevate the humour with perfect delivery and timing.
The lovebirds were played by British female rap artist Lady Leshurr and comic actor Inel Tomlinson, while the geckos were played by Jamali Maddix and Tez Ilyas. All incredibly talented actors who brought a huge amount of improvisational skill to their parts.
LBB> Stephanie and Sue, how do you tend to approach voice casting in general, what things do you take into consideration and how do you source diverse talent?
Stephanie, London Voice Boutique> We pride ourselves on putting the right voices forward for the briefs sent to us. When I was an ad agency producer it was very frustrating if the wrong voices were submitted for consideration. Therefore, my guiding principle as an agent is to put the right voices forward first time.
We get approached daily by actors wanting representation and agents asking us if we would like to meet some of their clients. We don’t want to become a large agency so we only meet with actors that we think fill a gap in the agency. We actively identify gaps and look to fill them with exceptional talent from a wide range of backgrounds.
Sue Terry, Sue Terry Voices> We follow the brief but we ensure a range of diverse voices are suggested. We source all our talent by going to the theatre and seeing live comedy and through our existing talent.
LBB> And when it comes to the actual recording, how do you work with voice artists to encourage them to speak as naturally as possible in terms of their language and tone in order to portray their culture and background in an authentic way?
Stephanie, London Voice Boutique> Although I have a background in producing, we generally aren’t involved in the voice recordings at the studio. We have had to help out on some projects in the past when clients couldn’t attend, and in those cases we would always take direction from a client regarding the delivery of that recording.
I think in recent years there has become a genuine trend for more ‘real’ and authentic voices which we are now hearing on the screen or radio.
Chris, Jungle Studios> I’ve been in many sessions where a voice has been cast because an ethnic or regional accent is desired and what often happens is that the talent chosen doesn’t naturally have the accent the client thought they would have and either the accent they do have is too neutral to distinguish or they fear too strong for most listeners to comprehend. With ethnic voices, clients often say it’s too ‘street’ or too colloquial. They then try to direct the VO to soften things or push things, both these approaches make me cringe.
Personally I like to be very direct with the artist and explain why an ethnic or regional voice has been chosen and work with them so they can best deliver an authentic read that isn’t too neutral, too colloquial or worse – phoney. I’m from Sheffield and many times someone has said I can do a Northern accent and many times I’ve laughed in my chair at the result.
Allan, Jungle Studios> Working with children has its own set of challenges. Importantly, you want them to stay focused, while being relaxed and comfortable. Asking them to use their natural voice goes some way in helping them achieve this. So, if you have a desire to include a range of voices and accents, then making sure their voice is authentic will make your job, and in the end theirs, much easier.
LBB> How have you seen diversity in voice casting develop over the years?
Allan, Jungle Studios> I have definitely seen a big improvement in diversity from when I first started in 1990 - but it should always be seen as work in progress - especially when it comes to the socio-economic challenges.
Stephanie, London Voice Boutique> When I launched LVB seven years ago there was a much higher demand for ‘30-something’ men and ‘older northern’ ladies voices. Now we get briefs describing a real range of tones and deliveries from the client. This is real progress, and we are excited by the way the industry is moving forward.
Sue Terry, Sue Terry Voices> In the last twenty-two years, briefs have changed a lot. More women get work now and much more ethnically diverse talent.
Rob Webster and Alexei Berwitz, McCann London> Diversity in voice casting, like all areas of advertising, is evolving. Our level of consciousness has become far more elevated, and more recently we are seeing a big shift in the culture and attitude as clients and agencies not only recognise our responsibility to take DE&I casting seriously but take intentional, deliberate action to place it at the top of our agendas and accelerate progress in this area.
LBB> What steps and action do you feel needs to be taken in the coming year to address the issue better and improve diversity in voice casting?
Chris, Jungle Studios> There are still many groups in society who are unrepresented in advertising and diversity needs to get a bit more, you know, diverse.
Allan, Jungle Studios> It needs the ‘will’ from everyone involved in the process to play their part to promote diversity and help ensure that true representation exists – with those at the top making the loudest noise and driving it. Success might require more time, more money, a willingness to take risks with new talent – but in the end the outcomes far outweigh the risks.
Stephanie, London Voice Boutique> Personally, as an agent, I wish to continue to find talented voices that are missing from my roster and that would represent an even greater range on our screens or radios.
Sue Terry, Sue Terry Voices> This is already happening and is much fairer and has been gradually changing for the better over the last five years or so.
Doris, Girl&Bear> I think we need to continue to make a conscious effort to improve, and not to ever feel like the work is done. Agencies and clients need to continue to push for diversity, and educate their employees on the importance of it. I also think advertising needs to continue to push for a broader diversity of talent from within, to create a truly diverse output.
We recently announced the launch of the VCCP Stoke Academy, which is our most recent initiative to ensure we are making meaningful and measurable difference in tackling the lack of social diversity in our industry.
At Girl&Bear, our D&I collective runs a brilliant programme of educational talks, workshops and events, and it’s important for individuals to find out what their agency may be offering, and become active participants in whichever way they can.
It’s up to everyone to take responsibility to ensure that they are challenging stereotypes and pushing for broader representation.
Rob Webster and Alexei Berwitz, McCann London> It would be great for the industry as a whole to take every opportunity to be as intentional as possible in our casting, and hold each other accountable. If the ecosystem of casting agents, production companies, creatives and agencies embrace the behaviour changes as a collective, hopefully we will get to a point soon where diversity is the norm in our work – because it already is in the world.