Dennis Daniel, Senior Broadcast Creative Director, Walter F. Cameron Advertising, New York
By Jerry Vigil
Long-time members of Radio And Production will recall the monthly contributions from Dennis Daniel and his ever interesting, informative, and oftentimes controversial column, “Tales of the Tape.” For most of the decade of the ‘90s, Dennis shared the tales from his production studios at WBAB and WDRE in New York. In December of 1997, Dennis “signed off” from his regular column to pursue other writing ventures. The subsequent years took Dennis on quite a ride, with many ups and downs. Eventually, Dennis got out of radio and ended up where it all started for him, in the advertising agency side of things. Dennis is now the Senior Broadcast Creative Director for Walter F. Cameron Advertising in New York. In this month’s RAP Interview, Dennis takes us on his journey of the past fifteen years since we last heard from him, and gives us an inside look at life at an ad agency. Creativity has always been a hallmark of Dennis’ work, and that’s still true today, as you can hear on this month’s RAP CD.
JV: Let’s pick it up where we left off some fifteen years ago. How did you get your first advertising agency gig after WDRE?
Dennis: I was working at WDRE as the Production Director, and I was also the voice for the station. I was having a ball. I was doing all kinds of wonderful stuff, had tremendous freedom to do just about anything. They had hired me away from WBAB, and I had a full-time writer with me who was a partner of mine at the time. His name is Steve Morrison. He’s now a really big star in Philly radio. I forget the station, but it’s the big rock station in Philly [WMMR]. He’s been there for years doing the morning show. He’s huge there. He’s a very talented guy.
So when I came over they let me have him and they also gave me a full-time assistant as well. They built me a new studio. It was a wonderful situation and it was great for a few years. But when deregulation came along and anybody could own as many radio stations as they wanted in a market, unless somebody challenged it as a monopoly… well, anybody that was in radio in the ‘80s and early ‘90s knows what happened when deregulation came along. The entire face of radio changed forever.
All of a sudden they were no longer interested in having creative production people. They thought it was an expense that was not necessary. The salespeople should be going out and getting business from the ad agencies and bringing that in; they shouldn’t have people just going out in the street and bringing in advertisers from the street, which was what a Production Director dealt with. You were the in-house ad agency for the radio station.
At the time, I think I was one of the highest paid production people in the business. I was making pretty good money and I was doing a lot.
So everything is going along swimmingly and I’m having a great time, and all this creative freedom and everything is just peachy. Then all of a sudden WDRE bought a radio station in Philadelphia. So I had to start doing all of the work for the Philadelphia station, too. That kind of seemed weird to me because I was only hired to work for one radio station.
To make a long story short, they eventually started the “WDRE Network”. We started making deals with radio stations across the country. I’d be in my office and all of a sudden I’d get a call from Kansas and they would say, “We’re waiting for 50 promos.” “Who are you?” I didn’t even know who these people were and they were asking for work from me. It was just bizarre. Instead of working for one radio station, all of a sudden I was working for ten radio stations.
It didn’t make any sense to me and I went and I talked to the owner. I said, “We’ve got to do something here. We have to change the title. I would imagine that the title would now be Network Production Director. And we need to do something monetarily because of the tremendous overload of work.” They didn’t do anything.
I talked about it with them and nothing happened, and it kept getting worse and worse and worse, and I couldn’t really abide by it any longer. It didn’t seem fair to me. I had friends in the advertising business. There was this one agency called TopLine that actually was the agency that gave me my start.
JV: That’s right. You had agency experience prior to your radio career. How did that gig come about back then?
Dennis: I was discovered by the owner of TopLine when I was 18 years old. I was working at a Taco Bell and doing my crazy voices and impressions and stuff, and this district manager came in and I put on a little show for him. He said, “You ought to talk to my wife. She owns an ad agency.”
So I went over there and I basically put on a show for her. I was going to college and doing radio in college. I had a nice resume of stuff that I had done. She thought I was great and she hired me on the spot. I worked there for a couple of years while I was still going to college.
They used to do all their recordings at WBAB, because in those days an ad agency would go into a radio station, if they had a client, and the radio station would provide the studio time so that the agency could get the deal and so could the station. So that’s how I hooked up with WBAB. One thing led to another and I started making friends with everyone there, and that’s how I eventually ended up being the Production Director there.
So now here I am at WDRE many years later and I went back to TopLine. They wanted me to become a partner and to start a production company there, which was called One on One Productions. So I left radio and I went to TopLine as the Vice President of One on One Productions, and I also worked as a Creative Director with their radio and television and print. So I was not only doing work for the agency, but I was getting production work from other people that I had brought in from some of the outside clients that I had had.
Then you might remember that I also started lecturing at the NAB conventions, a lot thanks to the writing and my reputation that had grown because of the RAP sheet. That was when I was offered the opportunity to take all those years of columns and turn it into a book, and that’s when the NAB published Tales of the Tape in 1998, which was a compilation of about ten years’ worth of columns from RAP, which was a really exciting thing. I got to do book signings at several different NAB conventions, which was very gratifying.
One of the coolest things that happened was, at one of the lectures I had given, I met this guy from Israel, where they had just started having privately owned radio stations. All the radio stations in Israel had been government run. They got rid of that, and this very wealthy man bought five radio stations all around Israel. He saw my talk at the NAB and he invited me to come to Israel to give lectures at all of his radio stations. So I got to go to Israel for two weeks, which was pretty cool.
JV: A trip to Israel! What were some of the highlights of the trip?
Dennis: I went to Tel Aviv and Haifa. I went to Jerusalem. I saw the Gaza Strip. I was at the Dead Sea and Nazareth. It was pretty cool. Israel was beautiful, just an absolutely incredible place. Everybody was like, “Don’t go. You’ll get killed,” but that didn’t happen, thankfully. That was in 1999.
As a weird side note, I had dinner at this really beautiful steak house in Jerusalem, one of these places that had those big, giant heaters on the outside because it was cold. Jerusalem is up in the mountains, so it’s cold. But they had these big, giant heaters where you walked into this area, even though it was outside, and all of a sudden it warmed up. I know lots of places use them now -- it’s a pretty common thing -- but back then I’d never seen anything like that before and I thought that was pretty cool. I was walking all around Jerusalem.
Then maybe a couple of weeks afterwards, when I came home and was watching the news, there had been a bombing at one of the stores in Jerusalem, and here’s this person standing right where I was, with the same place I was at right behind him, talking about a bombing. I was like, “Oh my God. I was right there.” You look at something like a report from Jerusalem, and you’ve never been there, you don’t know the place, so it seems like it’s a million miles away. You don’t make any kind of connection to it viscerally or personally, except how you may feel about a terrible thing that’s happening to fellow human beings. But there I was looking at the national news, and the place where this person is standing in Jerusalem is the very same place I stood just weeks later. It was very weird.
JV: So what happened with One on One Productions and TopLine?
Dennis: I started this One on One Productions, built the studio at TopLine, and I was also the Creative Director there. I did all of the radio commercials for them there as well. I was kind of a like a jack-of-all-trades.
In the beginning it was pretty nice, but as time ran on I don’t know what happened to me. It’s kind of interesting. I just started hating doing what I was doing. I guess it’s because I had loved radio so much, and I had loved the freedom of radio because -- basically as a Production Director – you could do whatever you like because the clients, for the most part, trusted you. They were coming right off the street, and you could build a relationship with these people and do all kinds of cool stuff. Whereas working in an advertising agency, you’re dealing with a tremendous amount more money that has to do with the commercials themselves and everything tied to the client. It’s not just their radio. It’s their television. It’s their print. It’s their direct mail. It’s their whatever else they’re doing. So there’s a lot more money riding on what you’re doing.
Then because of that you’re also dealing with people who are a lot more picky about what you’re doing, and the kind of crazy stream of consciousness, whacky stuff that I was used to doing without even having to blink an eye, all of a sudden that stuff was coming under tremendous scrutiny and being whittled down and being changed. It didn’t seem to matter. Whatever I wrote someone would either have to change it or rewrite it, or they didn’t like it, or they didn’t understand it. It just started getting really, really bad.
So in order to help me get through it, I worked out this thing with the radio stations that we did for two years in October called “The Poe Project.” I got local musicians and local disc jockeys to read the works of Edgar Allan Poe and set them to music, either as songs or as stories set to music. We created a double CD and then we had a big show.
The first one was in a place called Five Towns College, and the second was at a place called the Vanderbilt the next year. This was a lot of fun for me because I was dealing with all my radio station friends. We were making money for charity. The agency was right behind it and backed me up and stuff like that, and I did it through them. It was very gratifying and a lot of fun because of the creative freedom once again, and it made me long for radio more.
So by the time I had done this second Poe Project I was 39 years old. I was still a disc jockey. I still jocked on WBAB on the weekends, even though I had worked originally at ‘DRE. When I went to the ad agency, I got a job back at ‘BAB on the weekends. So I was a jock on the weekends, and I was doing the ad agency stuff and this Poe Project stuff.
Then I went through absolutely the most quintessential thing you could imagine, a midlife crisis. All of a sudden I say to myself, “What am I doing with my life? Why am I doing this? I should be back in radio. I should be doing what I’m really good at. I shouldn’t be compromising everything I do. This ad agency thing is a pain in the ass.”
A lot of the clients were basically the same. It was a tremendous amount of automotive advertising. And the people I was dealing with -- most of the clients and most of the people I was dealing with just weren’t nice people. They were just really demanding and grumpy. It was like: how could you be creative for these horrible people?
They looked at advertising like you look at the exterminator. It’s like, “I really don’t want to have this exterminator come in here and spend thousands of dollars to get rid of these bugs, but I’ve got to do it. It doesn’t mean I’ve got to be happy about it.” So that’s how they felt about their advertising, most of these people. Then they expected unbelievably immediate results, and if they didn’t get them you got harassed even more.
So it just got to a point where I imploded, and I decided to just quit. I didn’t have anywhere to go or anything to do. My marriage was pretty much over. I was unhappy with that as well. So I pretty much just dumped everything.
I thought, hell, it should be rather easy for me to get a job at a radio station because I wrote the book on production, didn’t I? I thought to myself, “Everybody knows that I wrote that book,” and everybody knew who I was. Well, radio had changed. There was no need for somebody like me at these radio stations anymore, and even if they could offer me something, it was for one-tenth of what I had originally been making when I was at the height of my radio career.
So I got a lot of big fish slaps in face. First I did something stupid, which was just quit a job and not have something else to go to, assuming that it would be easy for me because everybody knew who I was. So that little bit of arrogance cost me plenty.
But then again, I’d been so – I don’t know how else to put it – loved for what I did, not only by my clients, but by my colleagues and all that stuff. I don’t know whether or not I had a tremendously swelled head about it per se, but I definitely feel that I didn’t think it out properly. I shouldn’t have quit my job before I had something else set up. I just assumed it would be easy to do, which was terribly wrong of me.
I ended up declaring bankruptcy and moving back home with my parents at 39 years old. It was scary. There’s no doubt about it, very scary.
JV: Did you continue to look for radio jobs or did you get back into an agency?
Dennis: I did all kinds of odd jobs. I did door-to-door sales. I was selling entertainment books, these big books that have coupons in them. I was selling them door-to-door. You got $8.00 a book. You would get a consignment in the morning and you would get a place where you’d go. I was going to all these different places to do it. I’d be walking outside in the freezing cold, 20 below, trying to sell these entertainment books to all these places that had signs on the door that said, “No soliciting.”
I’d be walking around the corner and the wind would whip up my butt. I would be standing there freezing my cojones off and saying, “How the hell did I get here? How did I get from being this well-known production person with a reputation, a book, all this wonderful stuff, to be standing here on a corner in Queens freezing my butt off, trying to sell entertainment books to people that have no interest in them because they’re all Indian and they all live in their own stores?”
It was a horror show. It was just a horror show, and it went on like that for about a year. Then I eventually got a job at a newspaper out here that was called Suffolk Life, which doesn’t even exist anymore. I got a territory, so that was kind of nice for me because at least I had just an area where I kept going all the time. There were some clients on the list already. It was a steady paycheck. I mean it was nothing like I was making, but at least it was better than worrying about whether I’m going to sell everything that I have on consignment for that day.
That led eventually to going to another newspaper that’s called the Long Island Business News, which paid even more. So I did sales there, but I hated sales. I absolutely, positively hated it, hated it with a passion you cannot believe, but it was all I had.
It was when I was doing sales that I came to the agency where I am right now, Walter F. Cameron Advertising. A lot of the people that I knew in the business, many of them were still working here.
This one gentleman whose name is Andy Kline, he was somebody that had actually worked at TopLine at one time, and he knew who I was. I actually went in to pitch him on something for this Long Island Business News. Andy said, “What the hell are you doing? What are you doing? You’re Dennis Daniel. What the hell are you doing? This is stupid.”
I explained to him what happened and one thing led to another. I started doing some freelance work for Cameron, and they eventually hired me as the Creative Director. This is in 2000. So I came here and I worked here, and all of a sudden, I wasn’t making as much as I was in radio, but it was pretty good. It was definitely better than it was. I still had to live at home because I had alimony, child support and all that other stuff, but at least I was now making the money that I could live on.
I worked here for about two years, and then I met up with a friend of mine that I had known for many years that had a production company, and he offered me something even more exciting. So I went and worked for him for three years. I wrote and produced radio and TV commercials for all kinds of clients, and at the same time still kept my friendship with everybody here at Cameron, and still did freelance work for them.
Then after three years they made me an offer to come back here that, as the Godfather used to say, I could not refuse. So I came back to Cameron and I’ve been here now for over eight years.
JV: And now you are the Senior Broadcasting Creative Director.
Dennis: Yes. When I came back eight years ago that was the title they gave me. Basically my job is to write everything for radio and television for the automotive section of the business here. So I write radio and TV commercials for car dealers. That’s basically what I’m doing. Occasionally I do something for a different line of work, but for the most part it’s the car dealers, and I do all kinds of stuff.
The thing that’s so wonderful is that my background actually was film. That’s what I studied in college. I’m very visual, and I had written a book about horror movies, so I’m a pretty visual guy, and I had no trouble adapting to doing a lot of television. I had done television at TopLine obviously, but the thing that’s pretty neat about here is that now in this 21st century world that we live in, I can conceive of just about anything and they can do it.
I used to always say the thing that was great about radio was it was stream of consciousness, and if you wanted to do a commercial about a Tyrannosaurus Rex running through the Lincoln Tunnel you could do it. You can create a visual and people can see it. Now, with all the 3D technology and the animation and everything that’s at everybody’s fingertips, if I wanted to do a television commercial about a Tyrannosaurus Rex running through the Lincoln Tunnel, I could do it, and relatively cheaply. It’s incredible. It really is incredible.
JV: But are you able to get creative when you’re dealing mostly with car dealers? I mean, it seems most of them just want to list all the cars on the lot and give away free hotdogs.
Dennis: Well, here’s where God was very good to me, and here’s where fate plays an interesting role in this life. I’m a very firm believer in the yin and yang of life. I definitely believe that you can’t know the light if you haven’t known the darkness, and it gives you a greater appreciation for the light.
What was really wonderful was that my sensibilities, my creative way of doing things fits perfectly with automotive because they want something different. They don’t want just the same old yelling, screaming, here’s a list of cars, here’s a list of prices kind of thing.
To be sure, there are some that are like that because that’s the nature of a lot of it, but I would say that I hardly ever do that. Most of the work that I do has some kind of creative element to it, and it’s very gratifying because I get to do a lot of really cool things, and I have a lot of clients that love the way I think, and it’s tremendously beneficial to me.
I’ll give you a quick example. I just did a spot for a place called Gateway Kia. Their big thing is that they guarantee that you’ll save $5,000 off the dealer posted price on a new Kia or you’ll get $5,000 over book for your trade, or they’ll give you a check for $5,000 when you buy or lease a Kia there.
Their message is always the same. It’s the same thing over and over, but it’s the intros, the way I intro into that information that changes all the time. They said, “Why don’t we do something political since it’s political season?” So I thought, well, instead of doing something with Obama and Mitt and all that, Clint Eastwood was a really huge part of the Republican convention and Bill Clinton was a really big part of the Democratic convention.
So I’m sitting down with my boss, Joe Cameron, and we’re talking about it. He’s the one that said to me, “Dennis, you do a good Clint. You do a good Clinton. Why don’t you do those two instead of trying to do Obama and all that stuff? That would be pretty cool.” So that’s what I did.
What I wrote was… I’ll just read you the beginning of it. In Clint Eastwood’s voice it’s, “If you vote Republican, you’ll make my day.” Then Clinton says, “And if you vote Democratic, I’ll let you sit on my staff.” Then Clint says, “We may not agree with each other politically,” then Clinton says, “But we both agree that saving five grand on a new Kia at Gateway Kia rules.” Then Clint goes, “Yee haw.” Then it goes into the spot.
So I get to have fun. There’s a spot that they’re running right now that they’ve been running forever that they love, and it’s an idea that I’ve done many times in my radio career, but it’s fun because I get to reuse it again. It runs on a radio station called WFAN. It’s like the number one station in the country. It’s a sports station in New York, and everybody hears this darn thing.
I used Beethoven’s 5th symphony. In the beginning you hear this whole chorus of people going, “5,000 off, 5,000 off,” and then I sing, and I get to sing operatically, which I kind of knew when I was a kid because my father was an amateur opera singer. So I kind of know how to hit the notes and stuff.
Everybody loves the spot. People come to me all the time and say, “Are you that guy that’s singing the Beethoven thing?” “Yeah.” “That’s great.” So it’s kind of cool. I’m still hearing that kind of commentary.
Another spot I do for them is for All American Ford where I’m imitating Patton. It’s heard all the time, and I do all kinds of jokey, crazy things with that. So I get a real nice opportunity to do some whacky things. I’ll give you a couple of these spots so you can put it on your CD.
I’ve also had the opportunity to do some wonderful jingle work, both with me singing and also having other people do it. So that’s kind of cool.
JV: The way you describe these spots, I can see a guy at a radio station telling me the same story. How is it different for you in the agency business, creating a spot like that versus what somebody at a radio station might go through?
Dennis: Unfortunately for me, I never ever really got into the digital age of production. When I left WDRE, I was still producing pretty much with eight-track analog, even though we did have a Korg digital recorder. I knew how to use it, but I still liked doing things analog.
All my life I produced my own work, so it was kind of strange to be in a situation where I was no longer producing, but what I was able to do was to find some really amazing production people out there. These are people that, for the most, started themselves in radio and started their own production business.
There are these two people specifically I deal with. One is a gentleman whose name is Mark McKay, McKay Productions in Arizona. And there’s another gentleman I deal with. His name is Dominic Zunino. He’s in Florida and his company is called Adapt Creative Services, and he’s an old radio guy, too. They’re very much like my brethren, so to speak. They understand me. They understand my thoughts and how I want things to be. So I can write pretty much anything and they make it happen as if I produced it myself.
Then I have a setup here where I can do my voiceovers. I don’t do any mixing, but I do digital reads and then I send them to them, if indeed I’m in the spot. If I’m doing multiple characters, then I just do multiple reads and send them all those and they mix them.
JV: In a radio station, a car dealer comes and wants to do a spot and the guy might have to turn it around in a day or two. How much time do you take for something like this?
Dennis: Well, the speed aspect of it is still there. The spot, for example, that I wrote with the Clint Eastwood thing is something I needed to get done in one day. So I sent everything to the production company and they got it done for me in a day. There aren’t too many instances where I have more than a day, because sometimes those things really do come right to the very edge.
When it comes to radio, I try to have at least a day or two lead time, but that doesn’t always happen. So when I do get it, it’s wonderful.
JV: That’s interesting because so many times, we’ve had articles come through the magazine where guys are referencing the agencies and talking about all the time the agencies get to do this stuff. But your experience is nothing like that.
Dennis: No, there’s no time at all. I think that the distinction there, is that automotive, at least in my particular instance, is retail, and we all know what retail is. Retail is now, now, now, now, now.
Sometimes I get some time to think about things, and then sometimes I don’t. I’m so used to certain clients and how much lead time I do have that when I finish, I start working on the next month. It’s like every month it’s going to be something new, so I try to be ahead of myself with the ideas so that I can present them, and depending upon the complex nature of the idea, give myself enough time to make it happen because there has to be a correlation between the television spot and the radio spot, so I have to give myself enough time.
For example, I just recently did a commercial for one of our clients in Florida called Arrigo Jeep Chrysler Dodge Ram. These guys do their own spots and they’re very talented. They’re very good. They’re not like most of these older people that get in front of a camera and you’re like, “What the hell are they doing there?” These guys are great. They’re very natural in front of the camera.
I had them going up in a blimp. I had the blimp flying through the air through Florida, and I have all these big, giant signs being pulled through the water and all this really cool stuff that all had to be done with 3D animation. All of these things had to be built from scratch. It wasn’t like you purchased something from one of those 3D houses, an already made piece. I knew that I had to get all that done, so naturally I made sure that I gave myself enough time to make sure that that happened. So in terms of how much time I have, it kind of depends on the client.
Then of course there are always emergencies. There’s always, “We’ve got to get something on right away.” That happens all the time. Something changes, a piece of inventory comes in, something they just don’t feel is working, they want to get it altered. That happens all the time.
So there’s a tremendous amount of pressure. Once again, the pressure is multiplied by the fact that it’s all encompassed in a particular creative campaign that covers everything -- print, radio, television, Internet, and everything else in between that you have these days.
JV: What’s the competition like in the agency business? Are there other agencies constantly trying to take your clients?
Dennis: It’s interesting you should ask that, because at Cameron we’ve got a pretty good hold on the automotive aspect of advertising. We’re one of the largest agencies that does that, even though most of the clients that I deal with aren’t even in New York. They’re in New Jersey. They’re in Connecticut. They’re in Massachusetts.
That’s just because in those states they have different sorts of rules and regulations about size of dealerships. And these dealerships that are in New Jersey and Connecticut and what have you, these things are monolithic. They’re the size of two or three football stadiums. It’s absolutely incredible, two or three floors filled with cars. These are really big, giant places. So we’re doing work for these real powerhouse people that have the money to really get it done right, and I don’t even get much of an opportunity to think about competition. I’m too busy. But I would say that the situation with that is that there are just so many fish in the sea. There are so many auto dealers that there is not this kind of competition. Everybody finds their niche and who they work with and who they like and what have you, and we have our niche and we’ve got a pretty big niche. So no, it’s not like that at all.
When the economic bubble hit it was a horror show of epic proportions. I mean automotive was our bread and butter, and you know what happened to the automotive industry when the bubble hit. And in 2008, in the fourth quarter when I usually can hardly breathe, I was just sitting here twiddling my thumbs. It was scary beyond belief, especially because most of the dealers that we deal with are Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge dealers because they’re the ones that have the money and they’re the ones that have the inventory and they’re the ones that have the backing, and they were one of the first ones that had major problems. They closed down some dealerships, and some of our clients were among those people that were getting closed down. So it was very, very scary.
I can’t speak for the entire economy and what’s happening now, but I do know that as far as the auto industry is concerned, thankfully, things are doing very well. We’re back to being quite busy indeed.
JV: Having spent all the time that you have on the agency side of things, would you have done anything differently as a Production Director in a radio station, if you could go back and do it again?
Dennis: I wouldn’t do anything differently because I was doing everything exactly as I’m doing it now. The only difference is that a) I’m not producing them, but I’m working with people that might as well be me with the way that they produce, and b) I’ve always said that it really doesn’t make any difference whatsoever what the product is. You need the idea first. You need the idea to plug it into.
A lot of people have said to me that one of the niches – I keep using that word, but I guess it works – that I have sort of developed for myself within this agency and within the industry as a whole is that I really can do a lot of different ideas, even though in essence it’s the same thing. I mean, what do dealers want to do? They want to sell a vehicle. They want to sell at a low price. They’ll give you credit. They have financing. They’ll give you big rebates on your vehicle, on your trade-in.
They may want to talk about how wonderful the location is or talk about some kind of special program that they have, that when you buy the car you get free oil changes for two years, this, that or the other. They may call the program a VIP program, a Platinum program, a Gold Plus program. It’s all the same thing. All these things are exactly the same. It actually kind of reminded me of what we used to always joke about way back when with the club spots. Remember how we used to always say, “How many ways can you describe this big box with lights, where people go to listen to loud music, drink and hopefully get laid?” How many different ways can you describe two-fers on Buds and bar drinks?
That’s the gift that God’s given me. That’s the gift that I have, that I can find a lot of different ways to talk about the same darn thing. I think that’s why I’m successful, because I can do that.
The other thing that I think is important is great client relations. I build warm relationships with the people that I’m working with because I consider every idea and every thought that I come up with to be a child that’s being given birth to, and I hate giving my children to people that don’t appreciate it. But you’re always going to run into clients that don’t appreciate it. It would be unrealistic to think that you’re not going to have a lousy client or just some guy or girl that’s not a pleasant person to deal with, but for the most part, knock wood, 90 percent of just about everybody that I’m dealing with are nice people, who appreciate the creative. And the creative is working for them. That of course is the bottom line. They can love everything that you’re doing, but if it isn’t working it’s not going to mean anything.
That’s the other thing I’ve got going for me is that the stuff is working and they love it. It’s very gratifying to me to have a good relationship with these guys, especially because these guys are heavy hitters. They spend a lot of money. I couldn’t even tell you how much money they spend because I’m not involved in the budgeting, but I know it’s got to be tremendous because they’re doing television. They’re doing radio. They’re doing print. It’s crazy.
So that’s something that I really don’t see any difference in, except the fact that I myself am not doing it, and that I went from doing a lot of club spots to doing a lot of auto spots. But it’s all the same thing. You’ve got to have an idea. We’ve got a have a beginning, a middle and an end, and you just plug in whatever you want to plug in.
JV: Did you ever give thought to starting your own agency or production house?
Dennis: This is something that I thought about many, many times and I’m very grateful that I didn’t, because one of the other things that has happened with this whole modern world that we live in with the Internet and all, is that anybody can be a radio producer just with their laptop. I mean what does it take? A lot of people I know that had production companies didn’t really latch onto maybe more agencies or just didn’t create something that had more legs, because they have long since gone by the wayside.
JV: What about starting your own ad agency?
Dennis: No. I’m not interested in running a business. I like working for somebody else. Joe Cameron is an absolutely wonderful person. He’s a dear friend to me and he’s a great guy, and he’s an honest guy. If he thinks I wrote something that sucks he’s going to say, “Dennis, that sucks.” If he loves it, he’ll say he loves it. I know I’m always going to get an honest answer from him.
I don’t know. If I had to be him and go through what we went through with this economic thing, I don’t know. The agency dwindled by half; half the people were let go. There were about 50 people here and it went down to 25. Everybody had to take 20 percent pay cuts because of what happened. It was common all over the place, I would imagine.
JV: Has it built back up since?
Dennis: Slowly but surely it has, yes. But the thing that I think saved the agency here was that they had reserves, so they were able to cruise on the reserves. Now what they’re doing is they’re building up the reserves again because you never know what’s going to happen. Just because things are going great doesn’t mean that now you’ve just got to spend, spend, spend.
So he’s a very smart businessman and I’ve never been that. I have never been a businessman. I guess you could say I ran my own production company when I was doing freelance work for everybody, but that was just really working at the radio station and billing somebody for something that ran on another station. It wasn’t trying to run a business, so to speak.
I don’t know. I just feel much more comfortable working for someone than if I had to work for myself.
JV: Many people in radio have probably thought of the ad agency end of things as a possible place to go should their radio gig go by the wayside. What advice would you give them about working for an ad agency?
Dennis: My advice is, number one, you have to be a writer. You have to write. Writing is probably the hardest part of this job. You have to be a writer, and it has to be something that comes from the very depths of your soul. You’ve got to be a writer, and writing is not easy. It’s one of the hardest things you could possibly do. There are days when I’m just tearing out my hair because I can’t come up with anything, and then there are other days where it flows out of me like wine. So being a writer is the first thing that you have to have.
Again, for me I was lucky because I wrote all my own stuff all my radio career, and also as a writer for RAP and other books and things that I did in the ’80s and early ’90s. I also was doing a lot of horror journalism, writing a lot of stuff. Like I said, I wrote a book about horror films.
I was very involved, actively involved in the process of writing, and you have to write and you have to read, and you have to have a very good knowledge of all that has passed. You have to have a good knowledge of broadcasting, everything from Bob Hope to Amos and Andy, or just understanding theater of the mind, Monty Python, a very big influence on the way that I think, Bob and Ray, a very big influence. Some of the great comedians like George Carlin and Robert Klein and people like that have helped me think of things a little bit differently, to skew me towards finding my own voice.
You have to write and you have to have your own voice. That is the thing that I’d even put on my grave, “He had his own voice.” People know it’s my stuff. You have to develop a style and a way of looking at things that’s unique and not like anyone else’s, because everybody on earth could have a production company if they want to.
And speaking of voice… one of the things that came along with the Internet was vocal auditioning. There is one company in particular. I’m not going to mention its name, but the idea is that you submit a script for an audition, and you say what you’re looking for, and you say what your budget is, and you say the kind of style you want, and blah, blah, blah. Then this audition goes out to people who pay this company to be on that site to receive this information.
Then they will do an audition, and then you get an e-mail and you have 100 different auditions from people for the script that you gave. Some people do the actual script. Others just put their demo up or whatever. And 99.9 percent of everything that you hear is crap. It’s crap beyond crap, because it’s just people that don’t have any experience, but they have a microphone and a computer and they say, “I want to make voiceover as my career.”
You get these horrible auditions. It’s laughable. There are times when it’s like, “Wait a minute. I said this is specifically what I’m looking for. I want this,” and you get somebody that doesn’t sound anything like that? And you have to listen to a hundred of them. You listen to a hundred and maybe you might hear one that’s halfway decent.
That, unfortunately, is part of what this is all about. Everybody out there that’s either a musician or has any way of recording or any way of doing music or voice tracks thinks that they’re up there with anybody else. I don’t want to deny anybody a living or anything like that, but geez, I’m doing this now 30-plus years. I’m sorry to say, but there are things you learn and things you know.
JV: But if you can write, you would say that radio people might have a shot at the agency side?
Dennis: You have to be able to write, and you have to be able to have a way of looking at things that’s utterly unique to you, so that you can stand out, or else they could use just anybody. That’s number one.
If you are working in a radio station and you have a bunch of examples of your work, it would be a really great idea to contact advertising agencies, not just in your own state, but anywhere. Create some kind of website or something where you can show these ad agencies what you can do, because ad agencies are always looking for creative people and are always looking to pay a decent number, nothing that’s crazy.
I’ll give you a perfect example. The amount of money that we’ll spend on a radio commercial, the announcer will get anywhere from $175 to $250, depending on who they are. The producer gets about $150. So to produce a radio commercial with just an announcer, some sound effects and a music bed or whatever costs about $300, give or take.
So you can imagine if you can latch onto a whole bunch of things like that daily you’d be doing okay, but you have to let yourself be known. You’ve got to be out there. Every single town in every single state, in every single place in this country there’s got to be some kind of listings. Here we have something called the Long Island Business News that lists every ad agency on Long Island on it. That should be a simple thing to find on the Internet. Then you just send the stuff.
You might think, well, a lot of unsolicited stuff is just going to end up in the can, but you have to be persistent. I get calls all the time from people. It’s just that a lot of the stuff that I hear doesn’t make me say, “I want to use this guy more than the guy that I’m already using.” But that is something that you could do. Even if you just wanted to build a relationship with local agencies around you, you could do pretty well if they all of a sudden decide that you’re their man or woman, as it were.
And the other thing that was very, very helpful for me was that even though I was out of the radio station production thing, I still stayed on the air. I was a disc jockey up until recently. The last show I did, I did for two years on a station out here called 98.5, The BONE, which is a rock station that since has changed the format. That’s the only reason I stopped. But I did a show for two years called “The Album Rock Show,” with my son, which was from the time he was 15 to 17.
I did this show, and it was because it was a locally owned radio station, and the guy who owned it was someone that I had worked with for many years and he trusted me. I got to program the show myself. I didn’t have to worry about hitting a button on a computer and letting the computer play everything, which is just about as lame as it gets.
That’s the other thing, unfortunately, that’s happened. I think that radio has lost its creativity. For the most part, it’s just become so compartmentalized and overly researched and big business that nothing is coming from the gut anymore. Everything is from research and stuff.
When I was at WBAB, the last time I was there, I literally would go in there and press a button and for half an hour I didn’t even have to do anything. I just was like, “What the hell?” So an outlet for creativity in radio the way I experienced it was very helpful. I don’t know whether it exists or not anymore, at least in the larger markets. It might in smaller markets and I would be very happy to hear that.
But in terms of trying to adapt, there’s always going to be a need for radio commercials, and there’s always going to be a need for television commercials, it would seem, and if you’re creative enough and you’ve got enough chutzpah, and you’ve got enough intestinal fortitude to go out and try to do something with it -- without giving up what you’re doing at the present time, like I did which was stupid -- go out there and see what’s going on. There are so many agencies out there and a lot of them I am sure are looking for good production people that could do their spots for them.