Melsie Bourne’s industry experience stretches back decades. She founded Rabbit Vocal Management in 1996, which quickly became the UK’s largest voiceover agency. In 2014, Melsie founded The Bourne Consultancy – an independent global talent consultancy working with the world’s biggest brands and agencies, and connecting them with the best talent, voices and celebrities working today. Melsie is joined by managing director Issy Wedlake, talent and brand partnerships manager Laura Townson, and talent coordinator Isabella Grönevik.
Together, their decades of combined experience work seamlessly across the gamut of intricacies involved in making the right partnerships happen between talent and brands. To date, The Bourne Consultancy has worked with agencies like New Commercial Arts, VCCP, McCann, AMV BBDO, Droga5, and Saatchi & Saatchi (to name but a few) and countless global brands: MoneySuperMarket, Airbnb, Expedia, Samsung, and Paramount+. Always personal and never corporate, The Bourne Consultancy loves nothing more than getting on the phone and seeing how they can help.
With credentials like these, it’s safe to say that The Bourne Consultancy is a bona fide expert when it comes to the voiceover and celebrity space, and uniquely positioned to comment on its evolution from past to present and beyond.
The celebrity boom
“It was a very, very different world of voiceovers back in the ‘90s,” Melsie recalls. “Celebrities weren’t the main draw. It was brilliant for jobbing actors because they were still getting booked to voice TV commercials. Radio was popular and there was a lot of promos, idents and continuity work available too. Generally, there was a lot more work to go around and budgets were healthy.” Then the recession hit and the landscape began to change; slowly at first, then at breakneck speed.
The celebrity boom which was fuelled by the arrival of the reality TV star and a public lust for fame, supported by a rampant tabloid culture that turned the lens not just on A-listers but all calibres of talent. The changing appetite for celebrity led more brands to want to use recognisable voices. That period marked the beginning of where we are right now, a “voice versus name” tension that sees brands and agencies deliberate about the best strategy. “It’s not unusual to receive a brief that seems to be all about the voice with the subtext that it’s really about the name,” Issy confirms. Of course, the impact of the internet is another factor. The talent’s social media following can play a role in who the brand or the agency might want to book since, often, a celebrity voice is only really recognisable because of their image.
Over the years, a number of successful and interesting celebrity voiceover partnerships have been established, with many of those led by The Bourne Consultancy. In 2023, Bourne worked on a campaign for the British boiler company, BOXT. “We were asked to find a recognisable voice that resonated with people. Someone with gravitas and a reassuring quality to their voice, who could in a sense be ‘the voice of the people’, given the current sensitivities surrounding energy bills,” Melsie says. The voice Bourne secured was none other than HBO’s ‘Succession’ star Brian Cox. “Brian is someone who has an incredibly recognisable voice, especially following his leading role as Logan Roy in ‘Succession’. The unique and trustworthy quality of his voice ticked all the boxes and perfectly aligned with the message and visuals of the campaign. The partnership was a huge success for the brand and they brought him on for a second year.”
When it comes to a voiceover brief, most agencies and brands are looking for a distinctive stop-in-your-tracks quality. A voice that will become synonymous with their brand, like Garrison Keiler’s voice for Honda and Rutger Hauer’s iconic Lurpak spots. The ‘distinctive voice brief’ regularly lands in Bourne’s hands. To help find more of these voices, the team ran a competition in lockdown to find more talent to represent this category. ‘Voiceover Scout’ was judged by industry experts, including Jim Thornton, Trevor Robinson, and Idris Elba. Of the thousand entrants, only four made the cut; all now have agents and a better chance at a voiceover career. “It was really exciting to do this during the pandemic and we really did find distinctive voices, helping them fast-track a career in a very closed industry,” Melsie adds. Having listened to thousands, if not millions, of voices and guiding clients to fulfil exactly that brief, Melsie knows how ineffable the ‘distinctive’ quality is to find.
An authentic voice
As brands have had to work to redefine what aspiration looks like and start catering to younger and more diverse audiences, the voice industry shape-shifted in step. “When I first started in the industry,” says Melsie, “it was always about RP (received pronunciation), definitely not too posh or BBC but still well spoken – that’s what passed for ‘neutral’ then.” Laura adds that audiences today have different expectations. “If a brand used an inaccessible voice to represent their product, in some cases I think it could lead to backlash because it doesn’t align with what’s happening in society. Audiences want to relate to the voice they’re hearing,” she says, whether that voice is a celebrity’s or not.
In the quest for relatability and authenticity, The Bourne Consultancy casts its net wide when looking for those perfect voices, whether it be via voice agents or their own research. One example is a brief the team worked on for Airbnb. “The UK film had already been shot using a travel journalist on camera and as the voiceover. We were tasked with the challenge of finding voices in each locality (France, Italy, French Canada and Spain) that matched the tonality and delivery of the journalist. This was a challenging yet rewarding brief, and a great example of how you listen to the tone of the voice, rather than the words. We don’t speak any of those languages but can still cast a voice that’s on brief by listening to the sound!”
Change is par for the course in the industry and the Bourne team is ready for what’s likely to come next. Of course they’re discussing AI and how it may impact talent, brands and briefs. “Whatever industry you’re in, you have to complement what’s happening with technology. Right now, artists and actors need to be advised properly. For us, it’s about finding the ways that it can benefit everyone. We’re asking, how can everyone win in this situation? It’s not about fear but exploring the options and possibilities at hand, seizing opportunities when they arise,” Issy explains.
Whatever happens, the Bourne team is sure that “the power of a good voice will never go away.” The team adds: “When you hear an incredible voice, it brings out all the emotions and feelings. That’s here to stay.” For Melsie, it’s even simpler than that; as she puts it, “There’s a lot of incredible voice talent that really deserves to be heard.”