Dave Calvert, Creative Manager, Rogers Media, Toronto, ON
In our annual Radio And Production Awards, rarely do we see someone win two first place trophies. Dave Calvert did so this year as copywriter on the winning entry for Best Commercial/Large Markets and Best Promo/Large Markets. After a lengthy period as an agency copywriter, Dave brought his skills to radio, crafting clever copy for imaging as well as commercial ads. He’s currently the Creative Manager for Rogers’ Toronto outlets, a cluster of four stations supported by five copywriters and six producers – many whose names you’re probably familiar with from current and previous RAP Awards. Lots of audio to enjoy in the interview! Look for the links.
JV: How did it all begin, what were some of the big moves you made along the way, and how did you wind up as Creative Manager for Rogers Toronto?
Dave: I’ve been in lust with radio since I was knee-high to an amoeba. My father, a science teacher, had a bunch of old World War II-surplus airplane radios in his workshop. My brother and I would plug ‘em in, speak into invisible mics and pretend to have our own station. “I’m Jockey Dave, and I’m with Jockey Jim!” And every night I fell asleep listening to the local Top 40 stations -- CHUM-AM and CFTR -- from the transistor radio under my pillow. That probably explains the dent in my skull.
It makes sense, then, that when I saw an ad for a national Imaging Writer at Rogers Radio in 2004, I felt like I was coming home. I’d spent half a dozen years striving for mediocrity at a large Canadian-owned agency - Vickers & Benson - and another nine writing freelance. Those were tough years; back then, agencies had a high ratio of sphincters-per-square-inch.
I scored a gig under National Imaging Director Greg Stevens, working for over 50 radio stations across Canada. Pretty soon I was writing on-air imaging and promotions and was heavily involved in advertising in other media, helping with all aspects of TV commercial production as well as outdoor and print executions. Greg was instrumental in making me a better radio writer - thanks in part to his infinite capacity for mockery. And he teamed me with an even better writer named John Willis so we could feed off each other. John is impossible to beat for talent and work ethic.
Alas, I couldn’t rise any higher in that position despite trying to adjust Greg’s brake linings, so I moved over to the Rogers Toronto Creative Department – Canada’s busiest radio station cluster. I’d never worked in a radio creative department before. Crazy deadlines! Mounds of paperwork! Rapid cirrhosis! Surprise!
Four years ago they made me the Creative Manager. The fools.
JV: So you spent 15 years basically writing copy for an agency and freelance before you got into radio! What were the top three most important things you learned in those 15 years about writing radio advertising copy?
Dave: First, create dialogue that sounds like humans. Actual, real-live folks don't robotically spew interest rates and intersections and fifty percent blah blah blah.
Second, if you think you have an idea, write it down and come up with another one. And another. And ANOTHER. Here's a true story: for every print ad he needed to create, my mentor and hall of famer Terry O'Malley forced himself to come up with at least one hundred headlines. A hundred! Try that sometime. I did 70 once. I could do a hundred excuses, maybe.
And third, limericks aren't the best option for a funeral spot.
JV: You not only write commercials, but have spent many years writing imaging copy. If my count is correct, there are four RAP Award Best Promo Trophies with your name on them as the copywriter, including one from this year for Best Promo, Large Markets. What’s the difference between writing copy for promos rather than commercials? Obviously, the client is the station and you often have more creative freedom, but do different “rules of advertising copy” apply to promos? How does the approach to the script differ, if at all?
Dave: I rarely write promos these days. In this building, they’re created by an amazing lunatic named Kris Ferguson. Man, I miss that stuff.
Many of the “rules of advertising copy” still apply to promos. You still need to be single-minded, memorable and provocative with your message, and you still need to deliver that message with the language and sound that’s appropriate for the brand. But the handcuffs get removed from a timing perspective. You don’t have to wedge everything into 29.5 seconds.
Of the stuff I’ve been involved with, time is all over the place. The first Springsteen in Hamilton promo was something like 50 seconds. Fair Air was around 45. Guy’s Night In was over a minute. You sit with the producer – Chris Pottage, in the case of the three promos I mentioned – and you make it as long as it takes to be great… unless the PD has a brevity fetish.
But now that I say that, it can’t sound long, you know? We’ve all listened to two-minute promos that were so great they flew by… and we’ve all heard 15-second pieces that could be used at Guantanamo Bay.
So not many promos these days. What are your responsibilities as Creative Manager? Mostly commercials? What’s the typical day like?
Dave: My typical day? Wow. This place is a high-speed carousel of crazy -- you never know what’s gonna fly at you and clank you in the noggin.
Yeah, it’s mostly commercials these days. And most of that is dealing with supplied stuff. Making sure we have the spots on hand, and making sure they play on the right stations, in the right rotations. Putting up a flag to the PDs if there’s a tire screech or a scream or anything else that might distract a driver who’s listening to us. Checking in with our legal folks when an account rep wants to put a gambling web site or a bong shop on the air. Helping the reps and the writers with spec stuff. Fortunately, I work with a team of six cool, smart people – five of them are writers. They ask me questions. I pretend to have answers.
Occasionally I have time to write a spot. Very occasionally, it’s a decent spot.
JV: Tell us about your team of six. Five are writers; what’s that sixth person? How many producers on staff? How many stations are they writing and producing for?
Dave: The sixth is a "continuity coordinator" who helps us with supplied accounts and material instructions in Wide Orbit. They're all glorious idiots and I love them.
We work for four wacky-busy stations. There's 680 News, which is the biggest station in the country. Then there's our heritage AC behemoth CHFI. We have Sportsnet 590 The FAN, which is the biggest sports station in Canada. And we have KISS, a Top 40 format.
The six-person production team is managed by Chris Pottage, who's the Regional Creative Director and my boss. They do a ton of the Rogers imaging across the country. Hi Chris! Please don't fire me.
JV: Back in your peak writing days, what did you do to spark creative ideas? Where did you go for inspiration?
Dave: I found inspiration - and still find it - by immersing myself in award-winning ads. Back in the day, it'd be in the pages of the Communication Arts advertising annual, the One Show and Obie Awards collections, anywhere I could find brilliant thinking.
And it shouldn't matter about the medium. You can look at a billboard or a print ad that wows you and then walk away. Or, you can try to figure out the thinking they used to get to such a wonderful place, and apply it to your creative challenge. That's what I've always done. I find killer robots and take 'em apart.
These days, with the help of Gary Google and the interwebs, it's way easier to find brilliant stuff for inspiration.
JV: It seems the copywriter, more often than not, might be the individual who has the best idea of how the copy should be read by the VO talent. Would you agree? Do you ever venture out of your world of copywriting and voice some of your own spots?
Dave: For sure, as a copywriter you need to have voices in mind while you’re creating – especially when you’re working at a radio station. Do you have somebody in the building who can do justice to that character, that style? It’s not like you have the budget for a talent agency cattle call or fancy-pants Hollywood actors. But there have been a zillion times when I’ve gone to a producer with a script, and they have a different voice in mind. And gosh-darn it, they’re usually right. The best idea wins.
They don’t get me to voice many spots. I don’t have the movie-trailer testicular oomph to carry a regular 30. But if they want a character voice or a doofus, I’m okay at that. We have a long-running campaign for a kids’ school called UCMAS Mental Math. The school brings in students, I ask each of them a series of math questions, and then I act like an idiot and see how the kids react. It’s all genuine -- they don’t know what I’m gonna say. And most of the time, neither do I. Stuff happens. [Link to spot 1 – Link to spot 2]
JV: Your entry titled “Happy Turkey String Soprano” took the trophy for Best Promo in this year’s RAP Awards. The promo is basically aimed at getting local businesses to advertise on your stations. The whole approach to this promo was amazing. Tell us the story of this promo, from concept to results.
Dave: Ahh yes, The String! That was a wacky ride.
Last Spring, we sat down with Mike Viner and our National Sales team and asked them about their challenges with the agency world. They said they often hear stuff like “Radio’s old-school”, “It doesn’t build your brand”, “It’s not measurable”, “It doesn’t drive people to your web site”. It was all garbage. We needed to prove that radio is as impactful as any medium on the planet. So we decided to create ads about a fictional product. We’d use unsold summer airtime to air the spots. And we’d drive people to a web site where we could measure the number of hits. At first, the web site would have nothing on it other than a goofy logo and a headline – “under construction”. Just a big tease.
For the first spot, Kris Ferguson suggested that we do something like “Log” from Ren and Stimpy. That led to “Happy Turkey Jingle”, produced by my spectacular co-conspirator Chris Shapcotte and sung by Shem Parkinson, one of the jocks on KISS. It ran on a bunch of Rogers stations across Canada for a week. It didn’t take long before the stations were getting phone calls and tweets, and there was a crazy buzz on social media. But people at the stations had no idea what it was, so they could only direct people to the site. We needed to keep it secret so the project would keep gaining traction.
To reward listeners who went to the site, we added a link to a K-Pop version voiced by Nadia Shaikh, and then a rap version with an animated video, created and voiced by Andrew Mallon. Andrew also took care of the web site for us – he was a huge contributor throughout the whole thing. Those versions eventually went to air, too. And then I found out that one of our part-time promo people, Laura D’Angelo, had just graduated from an opera program at university. So I wrote stupid lyrics to an aria from Carmen, and Laura walked into our sound booth and absolutely NAILED it.
The reaction got bigger and crazier. According to Google Analytics we had visitors from 21 different countries – including Turkey. Tons of folks were reposting the link to the site on their Facebook pages. [Screenshot of website.] And tons more were losing their minds with curiosity. For the last few days of the campaign, we revealed the truth online.
In the end, we had numbers we could take to build a case study to present to media buyers and planners. And we gave listeners a bit of fun.
JV: And on the subject of driving listeners to a website, your other trophy winner was for the Best Commercial Large Markets category, a spot titled “HIFX - Yul Yablonski in Yakima”. What’s the story behind that one?
Dave: Hahaha - yeah, there are a few web site mentions in that one!
HIFX is a multinational corporation listed on the NASDAQ. They wanted to promote their online foreign exchange brand, called xe.com.
So, how do you get people to remember the name of a foreign exchange web site without boring or annoying the crap out of them?
I started thinking about a commercial director way back when, a guy named Joe Sedelmaier. He was famous in the ‘70s for casting quirky, unpretty people in TV spots, and those people became famous themselves. Remember Clara Peller and "Where's the beef?" Or the fast-talking FedEx guy? That was Joe's work.
Anyway, with the help of my co-writer Rebecca Milloy and the wily Mr. Shapcotte, we created a high-speed stream of monotonal dialogue and it turned out funny. But we borrowed big from Mr. Sedelmaier - in fact, the original name of this spot was "Ode to Joe".
JV: You have a writing team of 5 persons and a team of six producers to handle their scripts. That’s a lot of teamwork between writers and producers. What are those working relationships like? What makes those relationships between writers and producers most effective?
Dave: We hate each other. There's a fair bit of spitting but not much biting - except for Fridays at log-closing time, of course.
Actually we're surprisingly good with each other. As in any large group, there's a range of personalities and a variety of talents that get brought to the table. And all too often we're under levels of pressure that would splinter tectonic plates. Stupid-fast timelines, impossible client demands, you know the drill. But somehow we get it done together.
If I could wave my magic wand, I'd give us all more opportunities to actually collaborate rather than writers forwarding a script and producers sending back the mp3 for approval. That's a fundamentally flawed model.
Like I said, I came from the agency world. I had the same art director for six years - the mighty Margrie Wallace. We were Siamese twins. We received the brief together, we brainstormed together, and then I went home and watched TV while she drew layouts and storyboards until she passed out at her drafting table at 4 a.m. Okay, maybe it wasn't equitable but you know what I mean; it was a team.
So then I moved to radio. One of my first eye-openers was going to a veteran producer with my music bed suggestion for a Masters golf tournament promo. He pulled out his business card, pointed to the print and bellowed, "You see what it says here? PRODUCER. Yours says WRITER. It's ME who decides the music." The product's better when we work together. If we're both involved from the outset, and if the producer has the big idea for the script and I come up with the sound design treatment, who cares who does what?
More than anything, I love that electric feeling when I'm with a creative partner and we stumble on a never-before idea and the back of my neck tingles and I know it's gonna be scary good.
And wow, I've been with scary-good people... world class. If I just talk about the people I've won RAP Awards with, it's a heck of a list. Justin Dove - that guy has a one-in-a-billion talent to immerse you in his creations. We did a campaign for Sobieski Vodka with a voice and classical piano, nothing more, but Justin made it jump with his brain-jolting gear changes. Ron Tarrant takes his musical chops and rocks it wherever he goes... including the Stern show. He’s also great with coaching dialogue from everyday folks. When we did a campaign for The Humber School of Business, one of the voices was a sales rep who’d never been on a spot before. And Shappy can flat-out make me cry. But that's because he says horrible, hurtful things.
Good Lord, I almost forgot Chris Pottage! Chris and I have filled shelves with shiny hardware together. That man would spend a month in his studio, working on just one promo to make it absolutely perfect. Part of that timeline was the narcolepsy, of course. Hi Chris! Please don't fire me.
JV: What advice would you give a broadcast student who would like to pursue a career in writing radio advertising copy?
Dave: First, learn how to come up with ideas. A great concept transcends all forms of media. And with the rapid transformation of media in The Age of The Holy Interwebs, you’d better figure out how to do more than just radio.
Second, read everything you can get your hands on – and not just the stuff you like. If you’re a sci-fi freak, challenge yourself with classic literature or a gooey romance. Put more arrows in your quiver. Do the same with movies and music.
And third, if you’re going into radio, you’d better learn how to live on a tiny budget.
JV: You’ve had so many spots that have won not only RAP Awards, but many others. What do you consider your very best radio spot?
Dave: The one I’m going to write tomorrow.