But the one morning Mickenberg accidentally planted herself beneath one of the ads bearing her mug, she found herself literally squished in anonymity, surrounded by passengers who didn't bother to give her a second look.
The experience definitely flattened her ego, but not her desire to continue expanding her professional horizons. Mickenberg, like peers at K&B and other agencies, are part of a growing number of creatives who are doing the latest crossover craze, from behind the scenes to oncamera roles or, more prevalently, into the studio to do voiceovers.
While many agencies employ the time-honored "we don't have any money" rationale for casting their own staffers in their ads, the trend these days is just as often a matter of creative expression. Mickenberg, for example, explains that her 15 minutes of fame for Thom McAn was done "to help out the agency, not me," a frequent occurrence at K&B, where clients lean toward "more-homemade campaigns." Art director Brian Hughes, for example, appeared in both a Thom McAn poster and a commercial, where he played a purse snatcher. But Mickenberg also says of the agency, "there's a big talent pool here. Most of us are in our 20s, reasonably funny and outgoing. We're all familiar with what each other can do, and in my case, I guess I'm a bit of an actress."
She's not alone. Take former Chiat/Day copywriter Bob Rice, who perhaps got a taste of the glamorous life while appearing on a special report that ABC's "20/20" did on twentysomethings a few years back. More recently, he's appeared in both a Pioneer car stereo commercial and print ad currently running in Rolling Stone; he can also be seen in a new Rock the Vote spot for Ayer. Rice, who now freelances in Los Angeles, hopes to supplement his full-time work with acting assignments and may even parlay his Minnesota accent into some character voice work, noting that many of his peers have found the sideline "addicting."
Seems there are more and more opportunities today for Rice and similar junkies to feed their habits. The nonprofessional anti-announcer trend, started by Hal Riney nearly a decade ago and carried on since then by heavyweights like Andy Berlin (whose dulcet tones have graced spots for the Mill Valley Film Festival and Isuzu) seems to have accelerated in recent years. Berlin, for one, has gone from Isuzu to Volkswagen and Phillips Petroleum (the latter gig at the request of David Fowler, former CD of Tracy Locke/Dallas and a onetime Goodby staffer) to even more obscure regional work for Glendale Federal Bank via BBDO/Los Angeles.
Along with Fowler, whose voice can still be heard in an Aetna insurance spot that he narrated at Ammirati & Puris nearly five years ago, there are plenty of creatives hitting the airwaves. Fallon McElligott president and CD Bill Westbrook, who VO'd spots for Wrangler and Virginia Tourism while at The Martin Agency, has also narrated a spot for Purina at Fallon. (The photogenic Westbrook also appeared in a Hartford insurance spot while at Earle Palmer Brown.) Paul Mimiaga, a copywriter at Hal Riney & Partners/San Francisco and a pal of Jeff Goodby, has VO'd spots for both Chevy's Mexican restaurants and Saturn.
He's rivaled by Matt Walsh, a senior copywriter at Ketchum/San Francisco, who has done VO work for Sega, PacTel, Nissan and Foster Farms. In New York, former DDB/Needham and Berlin Wright Cameron copywriter Paul Spencer, now working freelance, has been an extra in a New York Lottery spot and VO'd a K&B Phoenix House PSA as well as radio spots for The Washington Post. In Los Angeles, Chiat/Day copywriter Dick Sittig just finished a series of PacTel radio spots. (Sittig got his VO start yelling "Stop the bunny!" in an early Energizer spot.) To the north, and perhaps lesser known in the U.S., is Andrew Anthony, a copywriter at McCann-Erickson/Toronto who's been the voice of Chiat/Day/Toronto's Nissan Canada campaign for the past three years.
On the oncamera front, copywriter Don Austen was twice cast by Crossroads Films' Mark Story for Little Caesars spots and again by Story for a Cub Foods commercial while at Cliff Freeman & Partners. In all three occasions, Austen, now at FCB/Leber Katz in New York, says he filled in for absent actors in geeky nonspeaking roles. Similarly, he modestly claims that any future oncamera work will be limited to either "playing low achievers or providing a funny face."
Former Chiat/Day-er Chris Hooper, who VO'd commercials for the agency's offbeat TV Guide spots last year, says he would have pursued an acting career if he "hadn't been afraid of being destitute and starving." Instead, Hooper, now an art director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, has already had his voice categorized as "Christian Slaterlike" by voiceover agents in Hollywood. For him-as it was for many other creatives, including The Bomb Fac
tory's Mark Fenske, who is perhaps the top former creative guy working in the booth-the initial crossover was brought on at a client's request. Hooper narrated the rough versions of the commercials, and TV Guide execs thought his voice "sounded just like a TV," he says. They held a casting session anyway, in the end choosing Hooper's demo over several, including those of David Spade and Kevin Nealon of "Saturday Night Live." Though he's since added spots for IBM, Coke and Pacific Bell to his VO reel-and has also added a beeper to his belt so his agent can stay in touch-Hooper claims the sideline "occupies so little of my time that I'm amazed when I actually get a check."
Ah, yes, the check-by many accounts the most obvious and most discreetly discussed reason creatives get involved in voiceover and oncamera work. Rice, for example, won't reveal how much he made saying one word (a sheepishly delivered "Sorry") in the Pioneer spot, though he does acknowledge that he's "always getting these checks." He notes that at Chiat/Day, creatives who VO'd their commercials were supposed to donate the money to their favorite charity, but his favorite charity was himself.
At Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, the unwritten policy between the agency and at least some of its clients is that creatives who narrate commercials receive only a one-time session fee, as was the case with copywriter Mark Abellera, who made just $300 for a radio campaign for Naya bottled water-just enough, he jokes, "to bribe my landlord to fix the toilet."
At the other end of the scale, Dan Aaron, president and creative director at New York's No Soap Productions, estimates that creatives can make as much as $15,000 to $20,000 per 13-week cycle on a three-to-four spot national campaign, and with a long-running campaign can easily make more than their full-time annual salaries.
Of course, there's the conflict of interest issue, which most creatives have managed to avoid by staying away from products in direct competition with their own agency's clients. However, this doesn't mean that their participation, as well as many advertisers' current love affair with offhand, guy-next-door deliveries, hasn't irritated some within the professional voiceover community.
Bob Lloyd, owner of the Los Angeles-based Voicecasters, grumbles that most creatives doing voiceovers "aren't innovators" but merely imitators of people like Fenske, Riney, and celebrities like John Corbett of "Northern Exposure." "I'm not sure that rapping along in a hip way sells products," he says. "But I also think it's just a phase we're going through."
April Winchell, former Chiat/Day/L.A. copywriter and current owner of a radio production company called Radio Savant, further grumbles that creatives should have to pay their dues like other voice actors, many of whom have spent years going to classes, auditioning and taking low-paying jobs to pay the rent while waiting to land a lucrative client that a creative might be lucky enough to have on its agency roster. "I feel like it's a privilege and not a right just because a client doesn't have the imagination or time to cast," says Winchell, a professional VO actor whose voice can be heard on "The Simpsons" and Comedy Central.
Maybe so, but the argument most often made in support of creatives, especially copywriters, doing voiceovers is that they inherently understand the material because they wrote it. And while some agency creatives find doing VO work a breeze (says Ketchum's Walsh, "you just go in and repeat a line 20 times; how hard is that?"), others recognize the discipline it requires. Says Spencer, who's taken voice lessons to hone his skills, "Real voiceover talent, who make a living doing this, can do a lot of different things. It involves acting. People like us, we're just doing ourselves."
Gary Gusick, who runs The Freelance Network in Chicago, points to the talent borders breaking down and agencies redefining themselves to be more like Hollywood. "In Hollywood, actors become producers and directors, and playwrights appear in their own work," Gusick notes. "On our end, some agencies are deciding they want to become more like production companies. So it makes sense this is happening."
For those who think the glamour of beepers and agents is enough of a lure to give up the rush of a Gold Pencil, think again. Not when, as Abellera points out, "big guys like Fenske haven't quit writing." And considering that the notoriously choosy Fenske claims that "doing a voiceover well gives me the same satisfaction as when I cleaned sewers after school in junior high-only it pays more and I smell better," it's probably a safe bet that he won't quit anytime soon. Then there's Westbrook, who, unsurprisingly, doesn't find the VO and oncamera sidelines "intellectually arresting as a steady diet." And the take-charge Berlin still feels awkward when people want to pay for his voice (he usually donates his fee to the client's favorite charity).
Others, like Hooper, take a more practical stance regarding their professional sidelines. "At first I thought I'd be picky like Fenske, but I just don't have the cachet," he says. "Besides, doing voiceovers is very transient. If someone someday spreads the rumor that I'm a closet vivisectionist, then I'll be out of luck."