Your Brand Is You

When I was a lad coming out of theater school way back in the last century, I thought I was prepped for anything from Shakespeare to Neil Simon. The belief that I could play any role thrown my way was supported by the wide range of characters I'd played in school—from the male ingénue to the cranky grandpa to a lovely Player Queen in drag. But, as I was to find out, that's academia; it doesn't reflect life as a successful actor in the real world. (Okay, show business is hardly the "real" world, but allow me to wax poetic to make my point.)

When I finally moved to the big city, it took me a few years to figure out that my theater training was not useful for acting in commercials. In fact, it was exactly the wrong kind of training, since booking a commercial often depends on playing yourself, not a character.

"When I'm teaching, I always say you're never a character in a commercial; you're always yourself," says David Cady, a commercial acting teacher in New York and a casting director with Donna DeSeta's office. In fact, when actors come in, Cady says, he's looking for them to be themselves. That's your brand. "The brand is you, and that's what makes you different from everybody else."

Cady adds, "The most successful commercial actors are very comfortable with themselves. They know what makes them different from other people. They're in touch with their sense of humor, their own sensibility."

In commercials, both the casting director and his or her clients (producers, directors, et al.) are looking for that quick read—or, as Cady describes it, a gut reaction, an instant moment of recognition. A commercial may be 30 seconds long, but an actor may appear in it for only five seconds. That means there's no time to create a character, as you would in a play. You simply have to "be."

But how do you know what your brand is?

One way to figure it out, Cady says, is to pay close attention to the kinds of roles that agents are sending you out for and that casting directors are calling you back and booking you for. "They're picking up on an essence, something you're projecting," he explains. Once you understand this, it will be apparent to agents you meet; it will help them submit you for the roles you're most likely to book. "When you're meeting new agents or CDs," Cady says, "you have to be able to say, in effect, 'This is what I can do.' "

When I first started acting and got a meeting with an agent, she asked me what kind of roles I saw myself playing. My answer—"Well, anything!"—was not helpful to her. I now understand, with the wisdom of hindsight, why she didn't return my phone calls. She could tell I wasn't yet in touch with my essence. Cut to 20 years later and another agent meeting where I was greeted with the same question. This time I had an answer at my fingertips: "I typically play overeducated boobs, neurotic and uptight suits, and men in white lab coats who just love crunching numbers." This time my answer was greeted with a nod and a chuckle, as the agent instantly recognized the truth of what I was projecting. The agent took me on.

Part of finding your niche involves being brutally honest in your self-assessment. Cady offers the example of a pretty, but not gorgeous, 5-foot-2-inch woman telling a prospective agent that she sees herself in Pantene commercials—beauty spots. Presented with this, the agent has a problem, because there's a disconnect between how the actor sees herself and how the agent sees her. Hopefully, an agent would be candid enough to say, "Look, I can't get you a Pantene commercial, but I can get you a mom in a Swiffer commercial." Then, says Cady, "As an actor you've got to be able to say, 'Okay, I'm going to be the best mom out there.' You might secretly believe you can do Revlon or Victoria's Secret, but your brand is something else."

So, once you know your "brand," will you be stuck in that niche forever? Will you always be cast as the ditzy mom? Not necessarily, Cady says. "Once a director gets to know you from multiple jobs, once you develop a relationship with an agent and audiences get to know you, you can spread out and do other things."

But first get your foot in the door with your brand. You can show them your range down the road. After, that is, you've helped sell a few million Swiffers.

David Cady teaches commercial acting workshops in New York. For more information, go to