By Don Elliot
Much has been said in articles, even in RAP, about how we should all do more theatre of the mind production, tell stories, go the extra mile.... But what about when you just don’t have the time or other resources to churn out award winning spots every day? Where’s the middle ground for the guys spitting out 15 spots a day on their own? If you have no choice but to do another price/item commercial, what can you do “quickly” to make it good?
Here is a meat-and-potatoes, “top 10 timesaving tips” for the guys cranking out the spots like crazy in those small and medium markets — commercial factories.
But first, a message from our sponsor, er, our Elliot: I want you to get an attitude about Production, a whole way of thinking so you will challenge existing ways. It is, perhaps, a realization of that old expression that nothing is certain but change itself. “When there is more change going on outside your organization than there is INSIDE, then the end is near!” (Motivational speaker Tom Peters in a lecture to a Dale Carnegie Convention.)
So, that brings us to another principal. If ya always do what ya always did, you’ll always get what ya always got.
I told my boss about these one day, and that I wanted to apply these principals in the station. He told me he didn’t like change and that my remarks were a little ominous. The next month, Clear Channel took over the station!
When the static element in a society takes over, the dynamic goes away and the ability to solve problems is lost. This has its application in creativity. The word “creative” for our purposes means something different which is useful. There are creative ways to do mundane things. And that can make the mundane more pleasurable a task to complete.
Notice that I’m going to start out here with the subject of copy. If you don’t do that right, you have to start all over — like building on a sandy foundation. Andy Grove of Intel had a concept called The Egg Factory*. It was a time line, showing how the project gained value as it moved along the assembly line toward completion, achieving full value as it finally dropped off the belt and was “hatched” at the end. Any CHANGE ALONG THE WAY has its effects that are usually detrimental. I visually imagine a complete video on this subject of how a commercial gets hatched, starting from the salesperson picking up the phone and an initial contact, all the way through the creation and dubbing of the spot to the final moment when the jock pushes the “start” button or the computer fires it off and it airs!
#1 - Copywriting Do’s and Don’ts*: Carefully determine the target audience to make sure your creative approach matches the demographic, i.e., don’t do something esoteric and old sounding for the teenage audience. Use sound effects and music if appropriate. These enhance the production value of the spot and makes more creative use of the “theater of the mind” medium of Radio. If the spot is direct response, make sure that the client has a memorable toll-free number, like using acronyms to help with recall. Try to avoid impressions. They’re old and not very funny. Find out if your client has a sense of humor before submitting a funny spot. Find out what the competition is broadcasting before you submit your creative. You don’t want to unwittingly copy your client’s competitor. Produce an inexpensive presentation demo to give the client a rough idea of what you have in mind. Most clients can’t make the leap off of a script. When you write, take the listener from where they are to where you want them to be, i.e., identify the potential customer’s plight and walk them through the problem to your solution. Listen to award-winning spots from the Clios, RAP, and the Radio Mercury Awards to make sure your writing’s up to snuff. Keep your copy points (benefits) to a minimum. Too much information crammed into a spot goes in one ear and out the other. Try not to slam the competition. Raise your client above the fray, holding them up as a great example of a terrific product or service. Make conversations as real as possible, not contrived and stupid. Grab the listener’s attention within the first ten seconds or you’ve lost them. Don’t just inform the listener, entertain them! Don’t write announcements. They’re boooorrrrrinnnnggggg!
#2 - “Attention WXXX Listeners!” Uh, I’m only one person. Radio IS one-to-one. We are not a group gathered around the fireplace waiting with the rest of the family for “The Lone Ranger” to begin, nor are we listening to the radio in a crowd. “Folks” follows in the same footsteps! When you do this, it makes me feel like I’m being in fact LEFT OUT, because you are talking to the rest of the group! Communicate! Relate! It’s a lot like walking up to me in a group and looking over my shoulder, past me, and speaking to someone else. I’m not going to care about what you say, even if I happen to hear you. But tell the competition to do it, if you are in a mean mood.
#3 - Be Centered! Use a central, networked hard-drive or server to store music and SFX so that from any of your machines in any studio, you will have access to your resources. This is also convenient if you must start a project in one studio and because of time or studio availability must move down the hall to another room to complete your work! Also, it is wise to use a “D” or other additional drive on a prod machine to put your data on. DON’T keep it on the “C” drive with your programs! As an alternative, look into monster-sized portable, hot-swappable drives that you can move between machines. Networking or Wi-Fi-ing your system gives you incredible flexibility and speed advantages! The best way to utilize this tool is to transfer your sound effects and production music libraries to a drive set up like this for extremely fast drag-and-drop access and fast previewing of material! Lacking this, most libraries out there now have web-access preview and immediate purchase/use available options for this purpose. Firstcom* in Dallas particularly shines in this area. Sounddogs.com is great for music and effects as well.*
#4 - Be Accurate! This doesn’t go without saying! In the agency business, there are many hours dedicated to playing the “make-good” game. Some of it is fraudulent, other times, it’s just the little guy wondering why the station “just can’t get it right.” Take special care with time in the final stages of production in transferring the spot to whatever playback media that is going to air it. Let’s say a spot costs $100 to air one time. If you dub that new spot into position #123 when it was supposed to go into #132, suddenly you cost the company not $100, but $200 for this error, because now the spot you displaced isn’t going to run properly either! Then, factor in the time for make-goods and the labor time to fix it, plus reassurances to the client, phone calls, dialogue among sales, continuity, maybe engineering, your supervisor and other management, even billing/accounting may become involved!
#5 - Use PROTECTION: Use a compressor AHEAD of the DAW so that you don’t fry a peak on the input of your computer and destroy a potentially good take. If you just barely get into the knee or threshold of your limiter so that you have no compression at all audible when you get to the full level your computer will take (full bit-set), you will achieve the protection you are looking for without pumping-artifacts. Use a compression ratio of maybe 8:1, but don’t do more than just barely touch the threshold so you aren’t really into the knee of the limiter. Anything 8:1 or higher is really limiting and protecting you like a brick wall, and that’s what you want. Now that you are “protected,” you can feel a little looser and free to be able to use your computer like it was a multi-track in a recording studio and do some production “full-forward” instead of dragging a lot of pieces together that never really happened in real time. Take a piece of music and talk over it. Do a dialogue with BOTH people acting at the same time — gee what a concept! — instead of a leftover voice track from a jock on the night shift or from across the country! It will let you adjust levels from the music source in the live read and feel the dynamics of the liveness in the session! You’ll get a brush-painted picture this way instead of a “paint-by-numbers” piece of junk to hang on your wall. The difference in technique results in the restoration to your soul of a true “Production Feel” in the flow of the spot. Everything is not 1 and a 2 and a…. Instead, it makes you think like syncopation — think jazz, improv, loose. Full forward segues into a track. Live mix into the DAW, like a performance. Readjust levels in post instead of making the spot in post. It’s more intelligent use of the digital process instead of the process itself dictating the technique! You don’t have to accept a formula answer from a machine when what you are trying to achieve is something that’s a feel. Both techniques net a product: one just plays, the other grabs... soul. Which one do you want on your station? They are like the differences between hearing a player piano and an improv jazz performance. The best use I have ever seen of using digital equipment in a “feely” analog way to get that live feel was in a session with a Korg Grand Piano with a digital disc – floppy backup in MIDI — played live onto the disc. Then it could be adjusted digitally for errors or to smooth out any performance glitches, but THEN, played back acoustically into a room and recorded on condenser microphones! This, to me, was the ultimate. How does this relate to what we do in a station? Somewhere in the process, it gave me the idea to suggest that if you want that “phat” analog sound in your productions, try recording your voice on TAPE and then transferring it into your DAW! This utilizes gear you already have without the expense of trying to synthesize the tube sound with a plug-in or computer add-ons.
#5 – Organize: Organize your computer in such a way that there is a separate folder for each individual salesperson, another one for nationals, and one for house accounts. If a salesperson leaves, it’s a simple matter then to move the contents in whole or in part to wherever the accounts get re-assigned, by merely a drag-and-drop.
#6 - Copy Form: Sixteen lines of 13 point upper and lower case copy equals approximately :60 seconds. Chuck Blore once told me that he “never wrote a commercial over :55 seconds.” As the words got half way out of my mouth inquiring as to why, the realization hit me. Of course, you then have some flexibility for interpretation of the copy. Newspaper-experienced advertisers often want to see the copy for approval before it is recorded and will sometimes comment about how there is a lot of white on the page. Remind them that the listener isn’t getting a copy of this; they are getting :60 of a message on the radio!
#7 - Re-do’s! Tired of re-doing copy before it gets on the air? Secure copy approval for accountability before you crack the mic! The client and the salesperson must sign off on it before it is sent through traffic and continuity over to Production. And get management backing on salespeople not playing that game of approving copy that is 70 seconds long at 5pm on a Friday and then pulling a disappearing act after it gets dropped into the stack! Communication, Communication, Communication! BE very close to your continuity and traffic people. They are your best allies to being your “gatekeeper.” And keep the salespeople out of your studio. Nobody can follow two directors in a session. How can you take orders from two or three different people in the process? And when there is an error, where is the accountability? Not to mention the ability for the blame-game. The result? More time lost and hard feelings.
#8 - Multi-Task! The computer is capable; why not take advantage of it? If at all possible, hook up a second monitor to give you more screen-space “real estate.” You can leave your email or FTP up on one screen all the time that way, so that when you have to upload or download audio from spots that have to come and go from here to there, etc., you don’t have to tear other things down that you are working on!
#9 - Do Pick-ups! When you are reading copy, do “pickups” instead of starting all over from the top of the spot. Just be sure that when you edit them all together, you respect the space for the breathing. Nothing sounds more unnatural on the air than a spot with all the breathing edited out of it, and even worse if the editor doesn’t have an ear for preserving the space where the breath naturally occurs. Often, there is a technique in production of overlaps, where every line is intentionally overlapped to create a non-stop flow throughout the entire section or even the whole spot.
#10 – Brainstorming: It is a fundamental tenet of proper brainstorming method to not prejudge or criticize ideas in the early stages. It just clamps a lid on the willingness of others to participate in the process, like a slap in the face. The follow-up article here in RAP will explore brainstorming methods learned from the Osborne-Parnes Method. (Osborne was the “O” in BBD&O Advertising for many years and a pioneer in brainstorming method, ultimately going on to become a principal in CPSI, The Creative Problem Solving Institute, whose intense annual week-long training seminars I have been a frequent attendee of and contributor to. They teach a high think-tank, Einsteinian method of brainstorming that has fabulous results in applications for broadcasting!)
Conclusion: Figuratively speaking in all this, I’m having you walk into a room where everything is the epitome of “painted-by-numbers-symmetrical,” like in Monk’s house. Like a mischievous playful child, you are going to walk up to those walls and make all the pictures tilt just a little bit. If you adopt a mindset like this, it will give you an attitude of creativity in problem solving, which will make your life better by finding solutions to clients’ needs and problems, while not being afraid to try new ways of doing old things.
* Firstcom, Dallas. 800-858-8880
* Sound Dogs Inc. is a Hollywood feature film sound editorial company, founded in 1995. Sound Dogs has provided outstanding sound for such feature films as Michael Mann’s Ali, The Insider, The Road to Eldorado, Slackers, Turbulence and many more Hollywood blockbusters. For questions concerning Sounddogs.com: 15213 Burbank Blvd, Van Nuys, CA, 91411, (877) 315-DOGS (3647),
* Mark Cashman is a boutique agency in Los Angeles, writing, production copy and music. “Copywriting Do’s and Don’t’s” are a real shortcut to getting competitive spots cut in a minimum of time. Reach him at
* The Egg Factory, was a concept discussed in the writings of Andrew Grove, chief of Intel Corporation.