SAG-AFTRA Pressures Non-Union Agencies, Starting with Droga5

Charges Shop 'Exploits People' Who Are Not Unionized

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Credit: Nathan Skid

The tension building between the ad industry and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is thickening as the union finger-points at Droga5 and some of its own members, citing them for allegedly shooting non-union work.

Droga5, founded in 2006, has been shooting commercial productions with union performers on a "non-union basis," the union charges on its website. Droga5 is not a signatory agency, though the union said that it believes that some of its own members have been working on non-union productions done by Droga5. Because it is not a union agency, Droga5 can generally operate outside the industry's contract with the union, but SAG-AFTRA actors working a non-union job can face disciplinary charges.

"We are concerned that Droga5 has done at least some of this work by using union performers on a non-union basis and will be monitoring carefully against that possibility," said the union on its website Monday.

Droga5 explicity denied the charges, saying in a statement to Ad Age: "At Droga5 we are not signatory to the SAG commercials contract and are within our rights to engage in non-union shoots. However, we always use SAG performers in the SAG productions we manage, which include any commercial for a SAG-signatory client or feature any SAG celebrity talent. In those instances we abide by SAG rules and pay SAG wages across the board. We do not use SAG performers in non-union productions."

It's not clear what further action will be taken, if any, and it couldn't be immediately verified what specific work SAG-AFTRA is referencing. The charge did not specify what Droga paid the actors, whether it's union wages or non-union wages, which can be less than what SAG-AFTRA negotiates for its members.

It's also not clear why SAG-AFTRA is going after Droga5 specifically, but it's reasonable to assume that the union will be targeting other non-union agencies in the hopes of getting them to join.

The union is also upset because Droga5 is producing non-union work with non-union talent. As a non-signatory, the agency is within its rights to do that, but the union is looking to get more agencies into the fold so that its members can take a piece of the ever-growing digital content pie.

Droga5, interestingly, has investment from another Hollywood stalwart: William Morris Endeavor, which bought a 49% stake in the agency in 2013.

When asked why Droga5 is being singled out, along with specifics about its charges, the union responded via email: "This is an organizing effort to ensure that our members are aware of our concerns and to encourage their support. We believe the performers who work for Droga5 would benefit from union representation and want to make sure they understand their options. We are aware that Droga5 sometimes uses third-party signatories, but we also know that they often do not do so. When they don't use third-party signatories, the work is being done substantially below industry standards. They exploit people trying to get into the business and by doing so they undercut the ability of all actors to work at reasonable standards. In addition, we are also aware of circumstances where members have worked non-union on Droga5 commercials."

This move is happening in the midst of growing tension between the industry and the union: In short, the demand from marketers for digital content -- whether that's paid 30 second pre-roll spots that run on places like YouTube, or other forms of branded content like longform videos or Vine videos -- has exploded in the last few years, and yet budgets are generally low enough that agencies say they feel the need to cut corners. Often, talent cost is among the first things to be curtailed.

That demand for digital content also comes at a time when many hot shops that came of age in the last decade -- 360i, 72andSunny, R/GA, and Anomaly, just to name a few -- are increasingly sought after by advertisers and are not, and have never been, SAG-AFTRA signatories.

In fact, part of this move to call out its own actors and Droga5 is the beginning of a campaign to urge digital agencies and other non-signatory shops to join the union. Relations between the ad industry and SAG appear to be getting more strained as we move closer to February, which is when negotiations for the next three-year contract will begin. The current contract expires at the end of March.

"You may have heard that SAG-AFTRA is increasing pressure on digital advertising agencies to join the future and stop undermining the industry standards that make being a commercial performer a middle-class living," said SAG-AFTRA on its website. "Our effort to organize performers at Droga5 is the first step in that campaign."

Generally, when non-union agencies have to produce a union piece of work -- often because the client is a signatory, or the client wants quality talent for a high-profile spot -- they will use a third-party intermediary like Talent Partners, which was acquired by Extreme Reach in June.

Between now and February, SAG-AFTRA will have meetings with its members to talk about wages, among other concerns, to develop proposals for the upcoming negotiations.

Earlier this year, SAG-AFTRA launched a campaign to discourage members from performing in non-union commercial work called the Commercial Organizing & Recapture Initiative.

As for what's next, or what non-union agencies can expect in the coming months, a union spokeswoman decline to provide details. "We're not releasing information on future actions just yet."

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