“How do you create a Mercury-winning spot?”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard this question when I was a full-time Creative Director at a radio network.
That question is part of what comes with winning two Mercury awards, not to mention some R.A.P. Awards (truly the most notable of the bunch), several Silver Microphones, an ADDY and a bunch of other stuff.
Here’s the short answer on how to win: don’t try.
It will lead only to disappointment.
You’ll drink heavily. (Or continue to drink heavily.)
You’ll curse the world that doesn’t understand your genius.
You’ll kick the dog.
That’s not enough to dissuade you from trying?
Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I certainly can’t tell you how other people have done it. I can tell you only how I did it. And based on what I know of ad agency creatives in specific and the creative process in general, I can also tell you that whatever anyone else does, there will be some commonalities. In my personal process, there are seven basic steps. Ready? The 7 Steps To Mercury include:
1) A Knowledge of What Wins
2) The Right Client
3) Entering With No Hope of Winning
4) Creative Persistence
5) Perfect Writing (Pursued With the Knowledge Perfection Is Unattainable)
6) A Damn Good Read
7) Fanatical Attention to Detail
Before hitting the list, let’s talk about me. Not that I enjoy talking about me. But knowing a little about my background might give more context for the 7 Steps.
FIRST AND FOREMOST, I AM A WRITER
I love radio, but I am not a radio guy per se. That’s a whole other breed of cat. I have written books. All kinds of advertising, from national radio to door hangers. Satire for free local papers. Articles for glossy national magazines. Standup comedy material. Screenplays -- even sold a few. Like most Hollywood screenplays, none have been made. But I once did some uncredited writing on a romantic comedy by the Oscar-winning Pamela Wallace of Witness fame. Every Christmas, my work airs nationally in a Roma Downey TV movie. (My mother would be very proud. If I had a credit. She doesn’t know. But I got paid, and I remain on good terms with Ms. Wallace. Credit enough.)
Anyway, credit aside, here’s something you need to know: if you want to win, the writing must deliver.
Like they say in Hollywood, if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the screen. And the writing doesn’t require being some kind of creative genius. It merely requires tenacity.
As noted suffragette journalist Mary Heaton Vorse once said, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
I NOW LIVE ON TOP OF THE WORLD
I now operate from The Mountaintop Marketing Fortress, perched at 8,002 feet atop a defensible ridge outside beautiful Park City, Utah. The air up here is thin and dry. I run a global ad agency with my wife, The Fabulous Honey Parker. Her title is President For Life.
And yes, our agency is indeed global. We have clients across the US and Canada, with one in the Philippines.
I also do VO. I rarely audition. There is no time. But they keep finding me. At this writing, wherever you are in the US, you’re probably sick of hearing me coming out of your TV, pitching all-you-can-eat barbecued beef ribs at Sizzler. My voice is a staple on NBC TV’s O&O stations. I am also the national voice of Papa John’s Pizza in the UK. (They do not make me say “toe-mah-toe,” “baa-zil” or “or-eh-gah-no,” for which I am ever thankful.)
I have spent a lot of money on VO training, mostly with Nancy Wolfson. Yes, she’s expensive. And what I’ve spent with her has easily come back to me 10,000%.
So, here’s something else you need to know: if you want to win, the VO must deliver. That doesn’t mean you need to train with Nancy. You might not even need to train at all. But you do need to be able to hear the difference and deliver the goods.
THE PATH TO MERCURY
Once upon a time, I was an intern at the fabled WBCN in Boston. It was a station that cranked out some excellent creative, back before radio became…well, you know. (WBCN was also a stepping stone for Eddie Gorodetsky. You’ve seen his name on your TV screen at the beginning of shows like Two and a Half Men and Mike & Molly. Gorodetsky has one Emmy from six nominations. He is a powerhouse sitcom producer in Hollywood—proving once again that good writing can be carried across to other media.)
About the same time, I worked for Jay Rose/Sound. I am an enormous fan of Jay’s particular wit and genius. The radio commercials he produced were a reflection of that genius. They were also a reflection of the deep well of ad agency creative talent that surrounded his Boylston Street studio.
After maybe a year there, I walked out of Jay’s studio and didn’t go back near radio for almost 15 years. I was a yacht bum, worked in the film business, screenwriting, sales, and small business advertising. (SIDEBAR: being a good writer requires getting out. Spending life inside a building where the only windows look into other rooms is no help. Get outside.)
One day, I created a writing and VO demo. Soon after, it landed me a Creative Director gig at the Salem network’s flagship in Los Angeles. And that is when the Radio Mercury Awards came onto my radar. What? Cash prizes? I’m in! I need me one of these! Immediately, winning a Mercury was on the to-do list.
Here now, an explanation of the steps that have taken me from being a nobody to being a National Award-Winning nobody.
1) A KNOWLEDGE OF WHAT WINS: I spent a lot of time listening to the winners and runners up. You have to understand what qualifies. It’s like any other championship sport. You have to study what champions actually do. And occasionally, I’ve heard things come out of the Radio Mercury Awards that have blown me away. They may not have won. But they’ve been excellent examples of the craft. What most have in common is this: they evoke an emotional reaction. They make you feel something. And, at their best, they do it on a level that transcends mere commerce.
2) THE RIGHT CLIENT: The reality: this is still commerce. And it’s unlikely any of the direct response advertising that’s the lifeblood of local radio is going to let one pursue the winner’s circle. Mortgage advertising. Supplements. Attorneys. Financial advisors. (They do, however, present excellent opportunities for working one’s DR chops -- which is a highly salable skill in the real world.)
But once in a while, a gem lands on your desk in the form of a production order. For my own two Mercury winners, they were (a) a transmission repair service operated by a true transmission obsessive, and (b) a national brand of bloody Mary mix.
For the purpose of this exercise, we will look at the bloody Mary mix. It was our first winner. And as soon as it hit my desk, it was recognizable as an incredibly lucky accident. There was a new weekend food show. The account rep (who also hosted) had a connection. As a sponsor, he brought aboard a nationally-available product with no radio advertising. The spot would air something like six times. We were left to our own devices. I said, “Whoa! Nationally available packaged good? This is our Sea Biscuit. Let’s ride it to victory.”
Know and understand what and/or whom you’re advertising and how it fits the big picture.
3) ENTERING WITH NO HOPE OF WINNING: Sound odd? Nobody wins the first time out. You gotta play on the PGA tour before you actually win the PGA tour. Same with Mercury. I probably sent in a half dozen entries before ever winning anything.
But here’s what happens when you do send them in: you become psychically invested in the process. A switch in your brain flips. When the finalists are announced and you’re not among them, you get to obsess. What made those spots better than mine? What do I have to do to better to get there? You listen to the contenders and better analyze your own work.
I’ve spent probably over a grand on entry fees. It was worth every penny.
4) CREATIVE PERSISTENCE: This is the part you’re going to hate. Ready? Max Ernst once said, “All good ideas arrive by chance.” Orson Scott Card once said, “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” Linus Pauling once said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” Roald Dahl once said, “Good writing is essentially rewriting.” Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” Elmore Leonard once said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Vladimir Nabakov once said, “My pencils outlast their erasers.” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings.” Stephen King once said, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
You get the drift.
This is about (a) generating ideas, (b) rewriting doggedly, and (c) trashing that “clever” idea you love so much.
The difference between big-agency-produced radio commercials and station-produced radio commercials is the difference between surgery at the Mayo Clinic and in a MASH unit. At a radio station, we are typically producing the meatball surgery of radio advertising. And that’s often how things get written: in a hurry. Often, it’s an emergency. There’s attention to craft but typically very little attention to art.
Wanna win? Ya gotta have art.
If a new client offers the potential for creating an award-winning message (without sacrificing salience, by the way), here’s the first thing that happens: lots and lots of writing. Once we understand exactly what the sales message is, I start writing down ideas. This is key. Most people stop at their first idea and think it’s good enough. It rarely is.
Be open. Let ideas come. Operate in what John Cleese refers to as the Open Mode. Do not shut anything out. (Cleese says that he could never figure out why one of his Python mates who was more creative than he never produced better work. He finally realized that as soon as the man reached an acceptable solution, he quit thinking. Cleese, on the other hand, never stopped at the first solution. He kept looking for more solutions -- which eventually led to better solutions.)
For my own writing, each idea is essentially a rough script. It might be a monologue. It might be a dialogue. It might be something completely unclassifiable. But I write ‘em all down.
It happens alone in a room. I write one story. Then another. And another. As many as it takes until (a) I’m played out or (b) I Know I Have It. (You will know. It feels much different than anything else you’ve ever written.)
5) PERFECT WRITING (PURSUED WITH THE KNOWLEDGE PERFECTION IS UNATTAINABLE): There’s an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations where he visits Hong Kong. There, he meets a master noodle maker. The man practices a dying art. He makes soba noodles by hand, alone, in a tiny, cramped upstairs apartment. His goal is to achieve perfection -- knowing that perfection is unattainable.
A tiny, cramped room. A dying art. Perfection is unattainable. Sound like radio?
Once the I Know I Have It idea is in hand, then comes the rewriting. Try to make it perfect, knowing perfection is unattainable.
Returning to Mr. Cleese, this is where you shift from the Open Mode to the Closed Mode. Now that you have a solution, it’s time to stop welcoming new ideas. Instead, you become left-brain about it and start shaping the idea you’ve chosen.
Back when I was sailing for a living, I once worked aboard a work of art. It was a stunning, 81-foot luxury sloop built by the Royal Huisman yacht yard in the Netherlands. These are some anal retentive folks with an excruciating passion for detail. If you pulled up a piece of floorboard, and looked at all the screws underneath that floorboard, know what? Every single screw head was turned precisely so all the slots were aligned. If you pulled away a piece of paneling and looked at the wiring behind it, there were wire ties at precisely two-inch intervals along the entire run.
Writing award-winning copy can be like that. It’s about getting every single slot aligned and having every wire tie exactly where it needs to be. (Even if you’re doing radio vérité, and you’re working from a raw recording of a real person, it has to be edited to exactitude. Working with those actualities is still a form of writing.)
For the bloody Mary mix, I wrote easily five drafts. I couldn’t tell you how long it took, because it was an in-the-zone experience. Be that focused, and the clock goes away.
I finally reached the point where I believed I had the script. I then took it to my Production Director, the inimitable Bob Holiday. I don’t remember exactly what I said. It may have been, “Want to win a Mercury?” He was on board immediately. We talked about direction.We agreed on the style of voice. We began recording it. And once we had it down, we began rewriting it.
Despite my best efforts at timing out a :60, it was too long. There were lines that obviously weren’t quite right. There was my darling, a joke which I shot in the head and left slumped against the studio door. Much better there than in the middle of the commercial screaming, “Look how clever I am!”
We sliced and diced and spent easily an hour and a half further tweaking the copy. It was near perfect.
6) A DAMN GOOD READ: Win an awards competition, and you are invariably asked to judge awards competitions. I can’t tell you how many awards entries I’ve judged where this has probably happened: an unwitting receptionist has been thrust in front of a mic. She doesn’t want to be there. She doesn’t know how to do it. But somebody has decided she’s good enough merely because she’s the right sex. And then decided the spot is good enough to enter in a top-tier competition like Radio Mercury.
Not going to fly. (Of course, you already knew that. That’s why you’re here.)
The performance must be stellar. And not just “for a radio station produced spot.” The Mercury’s “Station Produced” category is not a training wheels category. If the contenders aren’t good enough, they simply won’t present an award.
The performance must be good enough to sound as if it came out of a good ad agency.
In the case of Bob Holiday, he happens to be a phenomenal voice performer. He has a good ear, but I hesitate to call him a mimic. He doesn’t do impressions. He does types. He demonstrates all the earmarks of a man who, as a child, spent entirely too much time locked alone in a room with a TV.
When I handed him the copy and told him what it was supposed to be, he knew exactly where I was going. He jumped on board.
I wanted a serious, low-key, Will Lyman/Frontline kind of read -- deep, profound, emotionally detached. He didn’t know who Will Lyman is and has never seen Frontline. But he understood. “It’s like one of those nature documentaries!” He whipped up a sentence that helped him slip into character. His voice dropped half an octave. It became subdued with all sorts of unusual inflections as he said: “The lion takes down the gazelle on the plains of the Serengeti.” A scene of blood and terror with which the narrator has no emotional engagement. (Much like what you’ve witnessed in your radio Sales Managers.)
He reads the script. I direct. I have him re-read it. We work on individual words, syllables and notes. All while continuing to edit the copy, tweaking words and even throwing out an entire line. (See step 5, above.)
Step 6a): Do not underestimate the value of a good collaborator.
7) FANATICAL ATTENTION TO DETAIL: Seems as if we’ve covered this? After you think you’re done, you revisit.
When Holiday and I thought we’d completed the spot, I went looking for a new set of ears. And not inside the station. I wanted a neutral sounding board. Someone for whom it would neither be about professional jealousy or making me feel good. Someone willing to be candid and ruthless.
I called my wife.
The Fabulous Honey Parker has won so many advertising awards, she doesn’t even know what she’s won. Previously a VP Creative at Grey Advertising in New York, she left the corporate hierarchy to become a gun-for-hire. She was often called in to create the crazy, out-of-the-box campaign idea that the client would love but be too afraid to actually buy. It would help the agency sell the client the less adventurous campaign they really wanted to sell.
I no longer remember exactly what Honey said. What I do remember is she had suggestions for tweaks. We made further edits. And when we were finally done, the spot made us nervous.
We put it away for a while. Then came back to it. And decided there was nothing further we could do. It wasn’t perfect. But it was beyond “good enough.” It was either exceptional, or we were deluded.
Did we know it would win?
We hoped. It was now in the hands of Mercury, Mount Olympus’ patron god of cash prizes for radio advertising.
Ultimately, the confirmation that we’d done the right thing was not just that we won the award. Several people at the RAB told me that for weeks, all over the office, they kept hearing our commercial. People kept playing it for their friends.
It was never perfect. But it went far enough.
Sadly, I can’t establish that it also sold product. Six spots isn’t enough to make a mark for a packaged good on the shelf at Ralph’s. Our other champion, the transmission repair guy, his phone did ring like crazy. So, despite what people will tell you, it is possible to win with an effective message. Ultimately, I like to believe we bring championship thinking to our everyday work. Anything worth doing is worth doing like a champion. Even with the idea that the championship is unattainable.
FOOTNOTE: The bloody Mary spot did not win the R.A.P. Awards. It was a runner up. The trophy in Major Market Commercials went to a different spot featuring the dulcet tones of The Fabulous Honey Parker. Seems you, as a R.A.P. reader, are more discerning than a Radio Mercury judge. Listen to both spots here: Mercury Award Winner - Brazos Red Eye, R.A.P. Awards Winner - Marriage Confession