Mary Collins, The Collins Communications Group, Morrisville, Vermont

204-Mary-CollinsBy Jerry Vigil

This month’s RAP Interview checks in with another veteran in the business, ten years after visiting with her in 1994. Mary Collins, as you may recall from the June 1994 interview, had established a successful and profitable “in-house ad agency” at the Knight Group of stations in Burlington, Vermont. Since then, she has gone out on her own to form the Collins Communication Group where she has successfully utilized her keen business and marketing skills to make money both for herself and her clients. In this month’s interview, Mary shares the secrets to her success and offers suggestions for radio stations to help improve the quality of in-house produced commercials and the bottom line. Her demo on this month’s RAP CD offers a great example of the caliber of work coming from Mary Collins today.

JV: How did things progress at the Knight group of stations after we last spoke with you in ’94?
Mary: I stayed with Norman Knight and their sons and their group of stations until 1997. He’s a terrific, terrific man, and I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for what he did in this industry – just a wonderful, wonderful role model. I was very fortunate to have worked for them as long as I did. They went through a couple of different owners, and now Clear Channel owns their stations. But I left before that transition occurred. It was in the works, and I knew about it about a year ahead. We didn’t know the specifics, but I knew something was up and I knew that my position there was probably not going to continue because of the consolidation of their properties and the sale.

JV: But you had an in-house ad agency there that was making money for the stations. Why would they eliminate the position?
Mary: Good question. I can’t even answer that question. I think what they were trying to do was to consolidate and reduce costs and make it look tidy and neat for the new owners – and this is just all speculation on my part. Perhaps I was something that was kind of an arm of the company that they felt they didn’t have to transition over. I really don’t know. And I don’t know that this is true of them particularly, but there are trends and fads in this industry, and one of the big fads that was coming around at that point was the non-traditional revenue resources. That became a really big focal point for a lot of radio stations to my great dismay because I felt they were taking their eyes off the prize to a certain degree and not looking at broadcasting anymore as much as looking at retail marketing, which is not what most of the people that worked there were really trained or well suited for; and it kind of dismissed the production end of the business. Some people have done extremely well with that, and I know that the RAB is way behind it and certain markets have made some great, great money with it. But to me, that’s great, but don’t neglect the production end of the business because that’s kind of like you’re anchor. So that was new at that point. It was like the shining new thing and I was the steady old sedan.

JV: Over the last ten years had you heard of other radio station groups that sprouted their own little creative services department like yours?
Mary: No, which I find fascinating. I heard many people change their title from Production Director to Creative Director or Creative Services Director. But that’s basically a Production Director with a new name. So, no. But what has happened since then is a lot of independent production companies have sprouted up from people who have radio backgrounds and have decided that they know the technology, they have some creative talent and they’re going to go out and do it on their own. And they’ve done it. But why the radio stations don’t get behind it is beyond me, especially considering how many major groups there are and how much money they have behind them.

JV: Maybe they see an in-house agency as a competitor to the agencies who are their current or potential customers.
Mary: Again I have to speak from the markets that I work in, which are not metropolitan markets at all, but I would think there is plenty of room for the stations to create their own production facility that doesn’t compete with, but is a compliment to the agencies and supports the agencies and is the production house for those agencies. Those agencies have to go somewhere to produce. They don’t have in-house production facilities. And the outside producers are selling, for the most part, their own personal style more than they’re selling a facility. People come to me because of who I am and my styles and what my track record is and what my sound is and because of my reputation. So those factors are going to be true for any market and any producer regardless of whose name is on the door and who pays the bills.

JV: How did the Collins Communications Group evolve?
Mary: From desperation. I was working at different radio stations. I worked for another radio group when I left Knight and two TV stations for a short period of time. I just found that that was not where my heart was. I was a local Sales Manager at two TV stations. It just wasn’t me. I had a couple of clients who wanted me to continue to do creative for them, and so I was always doing that on the side. Then I spent a couple of years at a radio station group in a market with like the lone holdout gentleman who grew up in the business, Ken Squier. Ken owns Radio Vermont Group, which includes WDEV, the flagship station which has been in the market since the 1930s. His father started the station with a couple of partners, and it’s this little old AM station in Waterbury, Vermont. Ken has created a network, if you will. He’s got stations in several markets, so he had a little group there. I worked for him a few years, and it was a wonderful, wonderful company to work for. Excellent people. Real broadcasters. I worked there for a few years and then left because I felt it was time for me to leave and go back out. I wanted to do my own thing again. I was doing sales for them, but I knew I could make more money and be more in charge of my own future if I went back out and did my own company again. That was about three years ago, and it’s been great.

I don’t have a studio. Don’t feel the need to. There are different engineers and musicians that I work with and hire on a case by case basis. One person that I work with very, very closely, and have for a long time, is Peter Wilder who has a studio in his home, and he’s an Emmy award-winning musician. He has done work for Disney and has been my composer for most of the things that I have done in the last fifteen years. He’s not the only person I work with, but he’s the person I work with the most, and we have just developed a really great working relationship. I don’t feel like I need to have a studio. I decided that I could focus on becoming the world’s best engineer, or I could focus on becoming the best producer and writer and the best listener and marketing consultant, which is what I’ve done. You need to go out there and talk to clients, and a lot of the engineer people don’t do that. They want to be in the studio, and they’re just not as comfortable out in the market. I am. I think those parts are equally as important and they need time and attention, so I let the engineer be the engineer, and I’m the writer and producer and Creative Director so to speak, and talent sometimes.

JV: What services does your company offer specifically?
Mary: Most of what I do is broadcast and a good portion of that is radio — jingles, campaign development, media buying, voice-over services, audio for television, and lots of copywriting. I also just do consulting for various businesses. I do a lot of special events marketing. I work with the state’s business magazine. We re-created a web site for them so that their database could be included. I became sort of the project manager for them on that, and I handle all of their special events as well as do their radio and help them with their marketing.

JV: That sounds like a full plate.
Mary: It is a full plate. And it’s fun. I really like it. I’m having a ball, have great clients, and work with really, really talented people.

JV: Are you able to do all this without a staff? I mean you obviously have the engineers and producers and other talent you hire, but have you grown to the point that you had to get office space, a secretary and that kind of thing?
Mary: You know, that’s an excellent question and it’s one I ask myself on an every other day basis. It’s just me. When people hire me they get me, but that often comes with a team. If I’m doing print work I have a graphic designer that I work with. I do have a team of people that I hire, but that team will change depending on the project. But what they’re always going to get is me and my experience and my sensibilities – take ‘em or leave ‘em.

It has come up: Would I, should I, could I expand and grow the business to hire other people and grow it? It comes up a lot and it’s something I’m still considering, but I’ve not done that yet. What happened when I had my production company fifteen years ago was I became more of the administrator and less of the hands on creative, and I didn’t like that.

The other part of it is I’m ambitious enough to know what I need to do to keep my business growing, and it is growing every year. It’s been growing and it’s great. But I also have a family and I have a life, and I don’t let my business become who I am. So to keep it more modest has really worked for me — modest in the sense I don’t need to have a big sign on a door. I have a nice little office in my home. But most of the time I’m out on the road talking and visiting and meeting with clients. They’re not going to come to my office. I go to them. So why do I need a big fancy office? But there are times it would be nice to have a boardroom where you can sit and meet and discuss and strategize. And it would be nice to have a few other people working for me because there’s a synergy that comes from the interaction that you have with other people, and I love that.

JV: What have you learned in the past ten years about producing commercials that work?
Mary: I think the thing that I’ve learned the most is to check your ego at the door. It’s most important to be a good listener and listen to who your clients really are and what their needs and demands really are rather than what you think they are. What happens sometimes with people who are creative is that it’s very easy for us to imagine and take the seed of an idea and have it flourish and grow and be something fun and interesting. But is that really in the best interest of the clients? Because sometimes what we might want to do — you know, to showcase our own talents and abilities and cleverness — isn’t really necessarily the best thing for the client. I don’t mean that you need to be boring; I just mean the producers and writers and musicians have to really understand, not only who the client is but who is the customer of that client and what matters to them.

For example, humor in advertising. I sat in on a seminar — and I won’t say the person’s name but this was about six months ago, somebody who’s a fairly big name producer in the industry — and I was bored to tears. I thought, oh my God this person really thinks they’re wonderful. And they didn’t offer anything that was really very new, different, or imaginative. It was just, hey, I’ve got a reputation and boy I’ve milked this reputation for a long time.

So what I’m saying is to check your ego at the door, listen to what people are really asking from you. And also be confident in your own knowledge and experience to be able to say to them, I hear you, I appreciate what you’re saying, I think this is what you’re trying to accomplish, and here’s what I would recommend based upon my experience and my knowledge. And be confident in your experience and knowledge so you don’t just placate a client because they’re afraid to push the envelope open a little bit further. That’s what they hired you to do. But don’t push that envelope so far open that you’re leaving listeners scratching their heads going, “What was that?”

And be tasteful. I think being tasteful has a lot of value. There’s a lot of tasteless stuff that is put out there. And you can still be clever. Some of the cleverest, funniest, most imaginative things I’ve ever heard or read or seen are also tasteful. Look at a classic film like 12 Angry Men. I just saw that the other day. Or old Marx Brothers; they’re funny but they’re tasteful. Sid Caesar. They were tasteful. They didn’t have to be gross.

The other thing is sincerity. I think the message has got to be sincere. In radio or television, I hear ads or see ads that come across as condescending. The writer is trying to be too clever and it comes off as condescending. You have to remember: what is it that I want that audience to feel? Do I want them to feel condescended to? I hope not. Do I want to show them how clever I am? No. You want them to feel that they’re clever. It’s kind of like when you first fall in love with someone; you’re just so full and so happy and feeling so good about who you are because of the love that that person has shown for you, and everything that you do is touched by the impression that they left with you, so to speak. So if you have an advertisement that can create and be bigger than itself and let each person feel that they have some ownership in it, then you’ve done your job.

JV: The average radio listener is constantly changing. It’s been said that the male 18-24 year old demo is one of the hardest ones to reach with advertising because they think everything is just a bunch hype. Do you agree?
Mary: I do. Plus I think they’re not listening to radio. They have their iPods and they download everything they want to hear. They don’t listen to what we listen to. And again, the whole thing with radio is that radio, particularly to that demo, is so cynical. There’s this intentional cynicism that I think makes that audience and everyone else go, “Yeah, right. Why are you being so cynical to me?” There’s this chip on the shoulder kind of approach with radio, from the music to the sweepers and all that stuff. Any television show that you watch or movie, anything that appeals to that audience has a certain kind of cynicism and chip on its shoulder. They think that that’s what that audience is about, and so if you’re talking that way then you’re hip too. And I think that they see through it. I have a twenty-one and a twenty-year-old nephew, and they’re just really kind of grossed out by that. They don’t really pay attention to that. They’re both certainly not into the pop scene at all. As alternative as they can possibly get and not seeming to conform to any kind of groupthink is what they’re really all about.

JV: How would you try to reach that demo on radio? If you don’t take the cynical approach, what do you do?
Mary: I really try to stay away from things that are cynical because I think that the world is too cynical, and we don’t need me to fuel that fire anymore. I think that any message, as long as it’s done sincerely and honestly, any person who hears it will get that. It doesn’t matter how old they are or what their mindset is if the message is presented with credibility and authenticity and sincerity. It doesn’t mean necessarily they’re going to go buy that product or use that service, but they’re not going to go, oh, that was gross or that was stupid or who do they think they are. It’s when you try too hard to appeal to the audience by thinking that you’re going to speak their language or be as cool as they are, then they go, “Who are you trying to kid?” So don’t try. My thing is, don’t try to fake your way in because it will be so transparent and your audience will see that.

JV: What kinds of commercials do you find most effective for your clients? Is it the jingles, the stories, campaigns? Is there one that stands out?
Mary: I think all of those examples are good examples. I don’t do as many jingles as I used to do. I was doing like four jingles a week for a while and it was jingle heaven; but I do a lot of campaign development now. I think everything requires a campaign. I think the producers forget the goal sometimes when they do a jingle. They write the jingle but they don’t have any sense of continuity with the message that is going to be embedded within that jingle. Or the clients themselves say, okay, write me a jingle, and then they have it produced five different ways by five different producers with different copy styles, different voice approaches, different production techniques, and there’s no continuity. Continuity is really, really important. So if a person wants a jingle, what I say to them is don’t have me write a jingle for you if you’re not going to also follow through with creating a campaign that will support that jingle and vice versa because it won’t work. And it doesn’t. It doesn’t work as well.

JV: How do you keep yourself in the creative mode?
Mary: I write a lot for myself. I write a lot of poetry that has nothing to do with work, and I work with a group of friends who are on-line. I have these people are all over the country and think of them as my dearest and closest friends. We write and share each other’s work, and I try to stay out of being so immersed in advertising 24/7 that I become dull. So I do a lot of my own writing. And I read a lot. I don’t think you can be a good producer if you’re not literate, if you’re not reading good literature and news and you’re not paying attention to the world around you in that way. And I don’t mean what’s in Ad Age this week. I just mean paying attention to the world – your world, whatever it might be. So, reading and having a life outside of my work; that’s what I do… and skiing when it’s not 50 below.

JV: What books about the business would you recommend?
Mary: None. I know that’s a bad answer and I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody who has read the books. Or maybe I shouldn’t say that. I taught media writing at a local college and the textbooks are good for giving the people a foundation. I guess if you’ve never done this before, yeah, read a couple of the classic books on advertising or pay attention to the trades for a little while. But frankly I think a lot of it is just self-fulfilling bonk, and the best research you’re going to do is to sit down across the table from your client and say, “Okay, tell me your story. Tell me what works for you and tell me what doesn’t work and why, and why you think it doesn’t work.” And then figure out from that conversation and that relationship that you build, based upon your previous history and examples and experience, what you can do to help solve their problem. You’re not going to read that in a book. Everyone will tell you to do a client need analysis and do this and do that. Yeah, maybe… but maybe you’re not going to get that much time with somebody. And if you just sit down and straight-forwardly say, tell me about yourself and what matters to you, the most important, most necessary information that they can provide will bubble to the surface pretty darn quickly. And I think businesses change, so you’re going to re-visit them with that question over the course of time as you build a relationship.

JV: I think that’s where a lot of radio stations miss out with their clients. They have salesperson that’s the only one really in contact with the client. And they come back with the Yellow Pages ad or whatever and then it goes to production or even to a copywriter that maybe doubles as a Continuity Director or a traffic person who somehow finds time to deal with the client briefly. Maybe they fax copy to a client for approval, but actually taking the time to go and talk to the client is a role I’m assuming most radio stations still do not have an individual to fill.
Mary: Right. If each station or each group invested $75,000 – which may sound like a lot until you put it in the context of the revenue that you would generate — let’s just say $75,000 because that’s a good amount of money, and I think you could hire a really good person for that, and maybe an assistant to that person. But put that money into a person who you have as a Creative Director, call them what you want, but that person is the liaison between the sales department and the internal staff. That person can be a writer and a producer and a marketing consultant or what have you. And make that position have some integrity and some value. I think the stations would be so much further ahead. Look at radio revenue generally; they lag so far behind television and print it’s not funny. But where are we putting our focus? If we’re not putting our focus into the product that we’re selling, what do we expect?

Most radio stations — and I don’t mean this is in any disrespect — but they don’t spend any time at all on the creative part of what they do. And the salesperson’s job is not to be creative. The salesperson’s job is to do whatever he or she can to generate new revenue. And yes they all say, “I want to help you do a better job and get more business, and I’ll help you with your creative stuff.” Well, yeah, but you try to do that fifteen times a day, five days a week. You’re not going to be as fresh and creative; you’re not going to have time to develop a campaign in a credible way with a client if you have to do it with a hundred different clients. It’s just not possible.

And the producer internally, you’re right, is somebody who doesn’t get out of the building, maybe takes a fifteen-minute lunch and is in the studio all the time turning out production. And they may be really, really good as a technician and a really, really good producer and also a very creative and clever person, but they’re not out in the field. They’re not sitting in front of that client in their office and seeing customers come through the door and seeing the interaction or understanding how the staff feels about what they do and who they work with. And the only way you do that is to be in the field wearing their boots.

JV: Fortunately, as is evidenced on the monthly RAP CD, there are stations out there that do the right thing for their clients and have personnel on staff to do the job right. But for those who have no hope of hiring a $75,000 a year marketing person, what’s the next best thing they can do?
Mary: First of all I think radio stations should not expect or want their sales reps to be copywriters. I think that’s really important. Writing I take very seriously, and I have a lot of respect for writing. I think that we disrespect the craft of writing when we just assume that everybody can write because not everybody can. And it doesn’t represent the station well to have stuff on the air that isn’t well written. Invest in a copywriter at least. Invest in somebody who understands how to craft language and how to make language work to make a point, to create an emotion to sell a product.

Secondly I would say, if there isn’t a person that can go out in the field all the time, make a point — this is to the salespeople now — for the salesperson to take a client a month or two clients a month and bring them into the station. Get them lunch. Have them meet with your production person or bring your production person out once a month to meet with one new client a month. You’re not going to change everything, but you’ll get them energized and enthusiastic about somebody because they will have built a relationship with that person and they will feel a little bit of what that business feels. So either take the production person out with you occasionally or bring a client in occasionally to have a tour, have lunch, to meet with the producers, to meet with the DJs and understand the station. I know is tough and you can’t do it with everybody, but do it with the ones that you can.

JV: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Mary: The people. I have wonderful clients and they’re friends. They’re really nice, hard-working great people, and I love doing work for them that will make their businesses better and draw more people to what they already do so well. If I can do that, I’m happy.