Darren Scott, Director of Creative Services, Vista Ideas Group, Vista Radio, Kelowna, BC
Vista Radio recently took a huge step in modifying the production departments throughout their entire chain of nearly 40 radio stations throughout Canada. The concept was bold: gather the producers and writers in the various markets, and put them all together in one facility. Vista Ideas was launched earlier this year, handling the large majority of commercial and imaging production for the entire chain. At the helm is Darren Scott, Director of Creative Services, who shares the story of how Vista Ideas came to be, how it’s structured, and how it’s doing in its first year. Check this month’s Soundstage for a sampling of some of the work coming from the group.
JV: How did you get your first gig in radio?
Darren: I went to broadcast school in Calgary at SAIT. I was originally going into news, and it was there where I started doing commercial writing and production, and that’s where I really found the love of the game.
Right out of school, I was very lucky and landed a job in the Okanagan region in British Columbia. I was there for a few years, then worked in Vancouver for a few years, and then I had to get back to the Okanagan. It’s such a beautiful place to live, and that’s where we wanted to start a family and everything, so that’s where I've been since. We're based in Kelowna.
JV: Tell us a bit about Vista Radio.
Darren: Our executive office is in Surrey, and Kelowna is where one of our stations is now. There are 39 radio stations in the group, and about 68 frequencies, so there are a few repeaters in there as well. When we decided to develop the new Vista Ideas, they asked me where I wanted to set up the office, and Kelowna was my natural choice. There was the possibility of creating Vista Ideas in Vancouver or Toronto, but I knew that Kelowna was where I wanted to have this set up.
JV: When did you start with Vista Radio?
Darren: That was in 2007. I was with different radio companies before Vista, and I was actually doing marketing with SunRype Beverages, at the time. I missed the radio game and when the opportunity came in ’07 to get back in, I took it to join with Vista.
JV: What kind of marketing work were you doing for SunRype?
Darren: Mostly working with the New Products Division, so I worked with the research and development team and the marketing team in helping create the messaging for new products, setting up market research and working with the advertising agencies for the packaging, and how we were going to develop the advertising. The ad agencies would develop the advertising, but I’d be working with them to create the message.
JV: When you came to Vista in 2007, what was your job?
Darren: In 2007 I was developing new campaigns for them that they could basically clone out to all their markets. Back then, Vista was maybe not quite 20 stations. They hired me just to do mainly spec work. I wasn’t even with any specific radio station when I first started with them. I was based in Kelowna with the sales team here, and that was before they actually had a radio station here -- very unique and different.
JV: It sounds like you might have been the basis for Vista Ideas from the beginning.
Darren: Well, I guess I was, but I was a one man team. After a few years, my position evolved into becoming the Director of Creative Services for the country. We decided to develop Vista Ideas about a year and a half ago. It was a collaborative effort between myself and the president of Vista Radio, Geoff Poulton. When we really looked at the operation and how things were functioning at that time, I was overseeing all of the radio stations across the country from one office here in Kelowna. We found it was just too difficult to do -- I wouldn’t know what their day to day operation was. I didn't know what was going in and out. I couldn’t troubleshoot.
So that’s where Vista Ideas really came from. It was like, okay, how do we consolidate and make it manageable so that, instead of having all these writers and producers all over the country doing different things, how do we put them all together under one roof and just have writers writing and producers producing. As it was before, we had writers that would be doing some traffic, chasing clients for script approvals and they might be helping sales out on something else. Producers could also be doing voice tracks and possibly remotes. Everybody was multi-tasking and any given writer or producer may have had 3 or 4 different people to answer to for day to day duties. The whole concept of this idea was to just get everybody doing exactly what we need them to do. We wanted to create a higher level of creative service, with writers strictly writing, and producers only producing and just focus on that.
JV: So now that the consolidation has been done, how many people are working there where you are?
Darren: Right now, there are nine writers, and then I have nine producers. And our national sales team also offices from here.
JV: I assume most of these writers and producers came from the stations, right?
Darren: Yes, that was the goal, to bring everybody that could be part of it. But we have stations across the country, so it was a big lift to have everybody joined into one building. Not everybody could make it. Not everybody wanted to do that, so we also did some hiring.
JV: Tell us a bit about the facility and studios.
Darren: That was the fun part of the build, too. We worked together to source out the office space, work on the floor plan and designs. We built from the ground up, from creating the logo, to even the artwork on the walls. And I don’t want to say that I did it all on my own at all. There was a lot of teamwork, and I was fortunate to be a part of it.
For the studios, we have a few that are full-on production studios. The original plan was to have an open concept with no studios at all, which is a little odd for me to wrap my brain around. There were actually producers in the company at the time, who were working just off of headphones and laptops, which was not something I really wanted to do.
So we kind of found a hybrid situation where we have editing suites. They are voice capable, but that’s not their primary function. I’d say maybe 20 percent of our commercial voicing is done in our building. The rest of it is all done throughout the entire country, where we will utilize software systems to be able to send out scripts and then have their voices come back to us here. So we don’t do a lot of voicing here; it’s mostly putting it all together.
All in all, I think we have about 5,000 square feet here. It’s an open floor plan. We have a music store that’s on our ground level, and there’s a huge open area kinda like a skylight in the middle of our writing area that you can look right down into the music store from.
JV: Are you still doing a lot of spec spots for the salespeople?
Darren: I’d say we probably do maybe 20 percent spec work, but that operates a little differently than the norm. We also wanted to make Vista Ideas more of a profit center. So instead of having sales directing the spec work and asking for specs, we actually create the specs and give it to sales. We'll figure out what categories we want to work on in any particular month. We'll develop the specs, and then give it to them to go out and pitch.
But we'll do both. We'll of course take spec requests from the reps, but we also want to do it the other way, so we can start generating revenue and proving that creative services is a profit center. I wanted to be able to track this. For example, this week we're working on winter tires. We'll create five or six winter tire campaigns and then send that out to the company via our internal website. All of the sales reps will get these specs, take them to their clients, and if they pitch them and sell them, then we track the success rate on that.
JV: The work environment has to be different compared to a radio station. What’s it like?
Darren: It’s a very different kind of thing to take people that have worked in radio stations all their careers, and then all of a sudden take them out of a radio station and put them in this kind of environment.
Because we are a small and medium market radio company, a lot of these guys only had themselves in these markets, a writer writing or a producer producing inside a bubble. Now, all of a sudden, he or she’s with eight or nine other similar roles, and it’s a very different kind of environment.
JV: What were some of the bigger challenges you came across when you were putting this thing together?
Darren: I think the biggest one was just, how do you communicate with all of the different departments? The workflow was a challenge. How does sales communicate with the creative writer, and how does the creative writer work back to the producer, and the producer to the voice? There were a lot of connections that had to be made that way. So now we utilize vCreative’s PPO system. There were a few different systems I was looking at, and after going through them all, vCreative was the choice. We've been working with them for the last year now, and it’s definitely been a primary tool for us. We have smaller markets that are three or four people operations -- even that tiny -- but they have to be connected somehow, and we've done it through vCreative.
JV: Is Vista Ideas doing all of the production for all of those stations?
Darren: I would say 90 to 95 percent. Obviously, when I did this, I didn't want to shut down any production studios at all in the stations, and they still have capabilities to do local production when they need. There are clients that have to come in there, if they have to do some voicing, or if there’s anything with an emergency, like a flood or something else that happens. They still need to be able to produce. So all of our stations still have operational production abilities, but they don’t need to do any of their commercial or even promo production there; it’s all done through here.
JV: Imaging as well! Do you have specialized producers for that, or do all nine producers share the imaging and the commercial work?
Darren: In the count of the producers here, one of them is Mark Tucker, who’s our Imaging Production Director. He oversees pretty much all the imaging. He doesn’t necessarily do all the imaging, but he’s the guy that will take it in and coordinate it -- amazing producer. He may give out projects to a couple of the other producers, but he does most of the work. Altogether, Vista has six or seven brands, and we work hard to be consistent on the brand sound and imaging based on the needs.
JV: For just having launched this earlier in the year, it sounds like things are running pretty well.
Darren: Things are going good. It’s been such an experiment -- and that’s what I've explained to a lot of people when they first started here: “We’re gonna try this out, and we're gonna change if we need to change.” But it’s been going really well, better than I thought it was going to go. I was expecting more challenges, and there are challenges, of course, but nothing that we haven’t been able to overcome and fix. This thing was all based on theory and paperwork and, “Can we do this?” and it’s going smoothly.
JV: Small markets here in the U.S. tend to do a ton of commercials in-house, written and produced in-house, as opposed to the national stuff that comes in from the agencies. Is that pretty much the same there, given all the small and medium market stations that Vista Radio has? Is the majority of the commercials local vs. national?
Darren: Yeah, totally. Like you say, it’s the nature of the small to medium market. Eighty percent of our commercials would be local retail. On a daily basis, we go through quite a bit. But we're also trying to work on a model where we can clone the ideas, too. The car dealership ad that works really well in one market; we take that idea and we work it into another market so that we're not constantly reinventing wheels. We're using similar ideas all across the country. Even though we're dealing with 40 different markets, it doesn’t have to always be 40 different commercials.
JV: Any exciting plans for the near future?
Darren: Well, we've all done creative sessions with clients in the past where we’ll meet with clients. The difficulty now, of course, is you're not with the client any more. So we're setting up virtual creative meetings where we'll do either Skype or FaceTime. We’ll gather in a creative session room where we'll have a video camera and do a virtual creative meeting with a client and sales rep that could be across the country. There’s that face-to-face eye contact connection you lose when you're doing this stuff from another side of the country. We wanted to fix that and have a face-to-face with them. So we'll do those on a pretty regular basis, for the right client.
JV: What kind of feedback have you gotten from sales about the effectiveness of Vista Ideas?
Darren: It’s been good. I think it’s made their jobs quite a bit easier, just because we're more efficient, and they like the quality of the product.
JV: Any advice for someone in a similar situation who might want to try and launch a production hub for a small group of stations?
Darren: It’s not an easy task, and there’s a lot of homework that has to go in it. You can’t just dive into it. And I don't think the goal can be to save on manpower. That is a result, and you can be more efficient, but that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal is supposed to be the quality of the product, not the number of people doing it.
Darren welcomes your correspondence at