The Next Step

By Steve McKenzie

Why do some faces enthrall us, while others are overlooked? Why are we captivated at the sound of one voice, yet ignore another? Humans are drawn to beauty. We stare at sunsets, stars, oceans, and art because we enjoy the performance. These things feed us, uplift us, inspire us. It is the reason we enjoy music, movies, and art. In the same way, our commercials also must climb this media food chain and achieve a higher level of acceptance and response.

Beauty rules. In the commercial realm it means: a) is your commercial well-written, and b) is it well-executed? If not, it will be forgotten, trampled on, and thrown into a landfill. Obviously, not everything you create can be outstanding (from the sheer volume of work on your plate), but it should be the goal you’re shooting for.

How impressive are your commercials? What kind of impact do they have? Are they unique? Are they powerful? Are they compelling? These few things can make the difference between a client praising you or booing you. Salespeople know this axiom better than production folks, because when a client doesn’t get results, he gets burned directly (in the pocketbook), whereas the production person might just get blamed for a poor piece of production. Quality commercials directly affect sales!

Note: maybe if Production Directors made a salary plus commission on the work they create, advertisers in general might get better results (and in turn spend more with radio)! Can I get an “Amen!”?

It seems foolish for a client to spend thousands on a “killer campaign” if the commercial is poor. In this scenario, they may as well throw their money to the wind, because without good writing and production, you won’t get a spot that works. This is what we devote ourselves to as sales and production staff: to write commercials that will accomplish the client’s goal of informing and selling, along with the programming department’s goal of entertainment and excellence.

How do you satisfy the needs of both? What I suggest is stretching exercises.

Write a killer commercial. Then, take your final draft and take it one step further. As impossible as it sounds, finesse your final draft even more. Run it through the wringer, ask a bunch of “what if?” questions, e.g. What if I used two voices rather than one? What if the pacing was faster/slower? What if the emphasis was here rather than here? What if poetic meter was the backbone of the copy? What if I used a child rather than an announcer to deliver the message? What if I made it serious rather than comical? What if it incorporated shorter sentences or a run-on sentence? How could this be performed to gain the most attention? What other elements could be added or subtracted for maximum impact?

What makes this a good exercise is that although we think our commercials are novel and unique, more than likely they are not. This is not because they are written poorly, but because our brains are programmed (even in the creative vein) to be “creative” in the same way every time. You know it when you listen to a commercial and know how it’s going to end before it gets there. It may be unique in music and vocals, but the recipe has been used before. A lot of it has to do with associations. Since we share a lot of the same cultural things, we respond similarly to them, e.g. jokes, idioms, phrases, quotes—we know what’s coming next. The secret is to go beyond “creative” to “innovative”—training our brains to take one more step beyond what we think is the “perfect” commercial and then create it.

To get there will require some serious origami and head-butting of furniture. If you like, get in your car and go for a drive. I find it a great way to unplug and let my mind wander. As you’re driving, think about the ways you could modify your commercial to attract more attention/get more results. The challenge for all of us is the generation we live in. We are a bunch of over-stimulated, over-caffeinated, MTV-programmed beings. Now more than ever, it’s harder to break through that wall—it’s like a callus, really. People have hardened themselves to traditional types of radio commercials: “Attention homeowners!” “The lowest price ever!” Yeah. Whatever. Like it or not, people have pretty much heard it all and seen it all.

Tangent: The reason for these average-sounding commercials is the lack of attention toward production. It’s an old-school mentality that believes “as long as we make the sale, we can just throw a piece of copy together and get it on the air.” That works for the sales team, but the next step is creating a commercial that works, that’s powerful, and most importantly—gets results.

An interesting way of looking at the role spots play is from a programming standpoint. Many radio stations play 12 or more minutes of commercials per hour—that’s a lot of programming! Since the goal is carrying listeners through quarter hours, wouldn’t it be wise to focus a bit more on this program material we call commercials? Better commercials and better promos WILL make for better ratings. To settle for average makes your advertisers look bad, your station look bad, and is the reason some advertisers refuse to advertise on radio (because it “didn’t work for them”).

My biggest complaint with commercials I hear are the straight read spots with a bed of music behind them that you know were written by a sales rep. They might be voiced by a station personality to “spruce them up” (for which the client pays a fee), but they are still boring and bland. I have a better idea: offer the client the “ordinary” production, or offer the client premium production and they pay you. That would yield a commercial that the producer and the client are excited about. This would seem to be the best option, because given the sheer volume of work you push out in a day, you don’t have time to devote hours of time to just one client. Being paid to create a more highly produced piece makes more sense. And, in light of the dollars spent on the total schedule, paying a bit more for better production is well worth it in the total impact of the campaign. (End of tangent)

Okay…where was I? People have pretty much heard everything there is to hear. True, but not true. Your job is to prove to the world that indeed they haven’t heard it all. Your job is to create what has never (or rarely) been heard before. That’s where your wackiness and innovation comes into play. As you’re tweaking your commercial in the car or over a cup of coffee, get wacky: sing, hum, chant, drone, wax poetic, or listen to a musical genre you hate for ideas on how to make your commercial better. You might be surprised what you come up with. I firmly believe that the farther you can distance your commercials from the competition’s, the better chance you have of kicking your message past the gatekeeper.

That is one of the most encouraging things in this whole discussion is that there are so many average commercials out there, that anything that is even remotely exciting, different, creative, moving, dramatic, involving, and/or motivating will get noticed…and get attention.

Once you write and produce that incredible commercial, tweak some more. Take your creative efforts one step further. Eventually, like silver, all the impurities will be scraped away and just the pure silver will remain. Or you may invent a totally new “substance” to add to the periodic chart. Either way, you’ll find this “hyper-revising” to be very effective in creating a commercial that stands toes and torso above the rest.

One of the things you can start tweaking right away is length. Typically, the average spot is far too wordy and long to read comfortably in 60 seconds, especially with straight reads. Since most people write this way, it would seem that a less wordy spot would attract more attention. Compare it to an automotive ad in the newspaper. These guys have a full page to work with and they still manage to cram every offer on their lot into that small space. It ends up looking like a computer microchip. Imagine cramming a list of vehicles and prices into 60 seconds. It doesn’t work. So take the road less traveled and use fewer words. You’ll be surprised to find that using less words can actually strengthen your copy and make it more pointed and effective. Give it a try. You’ll enjoy a more relaxed announcer pace and tempo. So will your listeners.

You get a lot of good direction for your commercial by the business category your client falls into. If the client offers people speed, rather than a good price point, then focus on that. What can you do through sound or wordsmithing that will make their commercial stand out? What if the client is an old-world craftsman who specializes in quality rather than price? Take all your ideas, and take them “one step further.” Everything can be illustrated via audio and words. Is there one thing you can focus on that would make your commercial extraordinary? Does your client have an interesting phone number? Use it to your advantage! Does your client do something that no other client can claim? Use it to your advantage! Is your client’s name or store name unique, funny, or unusual? Use it to your advantage! Once you find this “vantage point,” dwell on it, dream about it, sing about it, get goofy about it; and then when you find that nugget of gold, write it down, record it, plant it in the ground and see what grows.

These “creative seeds” are the key to creating a commercial that stands out. Once you have the seed, you can grow the plant. Once you have them, build on them and see what happens. It might become a rose, it might become a weed, but you’ll never know until you plant the seed. Take a risk on creating a bad spot. If you play it safe, it’ll sound like Averageville, Mediocreopolis, and Yawntown.

What you’re really involved in is product development—creating an image for your client that you’re hoping gets a positive response and that has a long lifespan and return on investment. That being the case, you should use every tool possible for making your product better. Good companies draw from other products to see what works, what doesn’t, and to determine what features might be applied to their product to give it a competitive edge.

The best example I can think of is the computer. The machine we have today is not the brainchild of just one person, but thousands/millions of people who’ve made improvements to interfaces, hardware, software, design, and code. Without their contributions, computers and life as we know it would be much different.

You can build your production castle on what others have done in the field. If you listen to people you admire, read people you enjoy, and you eat and drink production and its related fields, you will build an empire of your own that others will build on years from now. What Radio and TV (and every other industry, for that matter) are, is a giant “coral reef” that continues to build upon itself.

Good commercial writers and producers immerse themselves in media, in life, in books, to have access to the latest tools, literary styles, culture, and fads, and draw from all of them at one time or another for use in their work. I’m not suggesting you plagiarize anything, but glean the good from these things and utilize them in your work. Many times, your finished production will be better than the thing you admired in the first place.

This is the “next step” that will make your work shine in the company of your peers and co-workers. It is this relentless pursuit of perfection that will begin to build your respect with salespeople and your clients. “Rome wasn’t changed in a day” and neither will your work. But over the course of a month, a quarter, a year, your determination will pay off in better commercials. As you listen to them a year from now, you’ll hear the difference—a difference you’ll continue to see year after year.

In the grand scheme of things, the real competition for radio stations is not other radio stations, but other media. What we do needs to give people a reason to keep on listening. If we don’t give people that reason through our commercials, then our industry will succumb to TV, the Internet, or some other media.

It would be nice to create the kind of commercials that are so good they could be sold at Best Buy on CD. Someday, that will happen and production people everywhere will rejoice! Let’s be inventors of something new. Let’s think in ways that have never been tested. Let’s visit reaches of our brains that have only been touched in sleep. Together, let’s be amazing and raise the bar of creativity and commercial effectiveness, and in so doing, raise the bar of our income! Take the next step...today!

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