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Career Dispatches

The Importance of Having a Friend + Guide By Your Side

The Importance of Having a Friend + Guide By Your Side
Photo Source: Photo by Joseph Pearson on Unsplash

Everyone has to start somewhere, right? For me, it was getting lost on a dirt road that finally led to finding my direction. When we drive, we rely on a GPS to guide us, saving time and frustration. On our professional journey, we also need a guide to help us navigate unfamiliar territory.

About two weeks after landing my first agent, I was visiting an old friend who owns a house a block from the ocean in Daytona Beach, Florida. I didn’t have a voiceover travel rig yet as I’d barely booked any work at that point, but I did identify the closest studios in the unlikely event an audition or job would come through while I was there. The nearest one was more than an hour away.

Thursday, nothing hit my inbox. Friday, nothing. Then, WHAM! Three o’clock on Friday afternoon, three huge auditions came in from my agent. There was no way I was going to get the kids out of the ocean, the sand out of my hair, and myself to a studio before they closed.

My coach had drilled into my head that my best chance of winning an audition was to be one of the first to submit, so I needed to get my clips in ASAP, well before the Monday morning deadline.

So I did what my mother told me never to do: I talked to a stranger.

Desperate, I hit Facebook and found a voiceover talent nearby named Zak Miller. I didn’t know him other than the fact we were in some of the same industry groups online and had some mutual friends.

“Hi, um, I know you don’t know me and it’s a weekend but I’m wondering if I can come use your studio this evening. I promise I’m not an axe murder,” I stumbled on the phone.

Zak laughed his contagious giggle and said, “Come on over.”

He lived in what my GPS classified as an “unverified area”—the middle of nowhere—and I got lost at least twice trying to navigate the dirt roads leading to his house. When I finally made it, Zak greeted me wearing a big grin and a Miami Dolphins shirt as he welcomed me into his home and studio.

Not only did Zak let me use his studio that evening, he expertly directed me through each audition. I didn’t know he had been a sound designer for more than 20 years working in the advertising and production industries. He knew the world of voiceover from all sides of the microphone.

After the files had been sent quickly enough to make my coach proud, Zak offered me a beer and shared his story. I knew he was respected in our industry as a talent but I also learned about him as a sought-after sound designer, proud dad, devoted son, avid surfer, and advocate for Surfers for Autism.

The passion he had for his chosen field was evident in every story he told and it was obvious why colleagues and clients appreciated him so much and thought the world of him. He loved his job, his family, the ocean, and helping people in any way he could.

On Friday, I entered a stranger’s house but left the studio of a man who would become my VO sensei and one of my dearest friends. The following Monday he started sending me work.

From then on, I consulted Zak about everything from gear to how to interact with clients. He was my first call when I booked my first live studio session. He pushed me in ways that grew my business, kept me from career mistakes, got me added to agency rosters, and always had an ear when I needed to vent or cry.

As my career grew, I returned his kindness, pushing him in ways that grew his business, helping with client relationship-building, getting him added to agency rosters, and always having a listening ear when he needed one.

After my second year in business, it was Zak who convinced me to make the significant investment in ISDN, a technology that allowed me to work with clients all over the world. That investment helped me almost double my income that year.

Not long afterward, I referred Zak to what became his biggest client. He’d thank me all the time, but I kept saying it was me who should be thanking him for making me a hero to a client who absolutely loved working with him. (It wasn’t just that client. All clients I sent Zak to absolutely loved working with him.)

When I decided to do something no one in our industry had ever done by launching my own full-scale marketing campaign to voice for Jeep, Zak was not only one of the loudest cheerleaders but the person who made a big part of it happen technically.  He made the impossible possible, allowing me to get decent audio driving down the road in a Jeep Wrangler with the top down. The “Jeep Hair We Care” video series earned us a Bronze Telly, something he was deeply proud of.

We even got to work together occasionally. Whether were were VO husband and wife for a radio ad or live-announcing an awards ceremony as a team, it never felt like work with Zak by my side.

We didn’t always agree, but we always had each others’ back, there for each other thick or thin. Working in voiceover is isolating both literally and figuratively.  Having someone in your life who gets what exactly it is you do is a gift.

Zak eventually moved out of the boonies and to his dream home at the beach, quickly becoming a member of the surf community there. He’d gleefully torture landlocked friends with ocean sunrise photos before his almost daily morning paddle out.

His home studio was always busy if not with his own sessions, then facilitating sessions for friends visiting the area or local VO kids who didn’t have their own studios. His door—as his heart—was always open.

On August 22, 2017, despite being in good physical health and only 49 years old, Zak’s huge heart stopped working.

The world lost not only a great talent but a great human being when we lost Zak Miller. I am more grateful than any words can say to have had him as my guide and dearest friend.

Kelley Buttrick is an award-winning voiceover talent with a reputation for professionalism, easy directability, and exceeding expectations. Her voice is heard on national advertisements, television narrations and corporate productions for clients like Disney, Michelin Tires, Country Crock, ESPN, McDonald’s, Target, IBM, Marriott, Pampers, Tennis Channel, Clinique and many others. See her full bio here!

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