R.A.P. Interview: D.J. Williams

D.J. Williams, Jetset Media Workshop, London, Ontario

D.J.-Williams-PhotoBy Jerry Vigil

Imaging being exposed to radio as a kid, or in high school and college, and instead of getting all excited about a career in radio as a disc jockey or a production pro, you gravitate to the sales department. Strange but true. That’s basically what D.J. Williams did, but he came out on the other side far more than just a super salesperson. After dabbling in concert promotion for a few years, D.J. formed a company aimed at assisting radio stations with their copy and production needs. Soon he was on staff in Atlanta at Clear Channel’s Creative Services Group. Today, he’s back in his home town of London, Ontario, where he maintains his company, Jetset Media Workshop, and has just authored his first book, SoundBAIT. This month’s RAP Interview gets an interesting story of a person literally born into radio, a Creative like us, who has carved a successful niche servicing radio stations with his passion for making better commercials.

JV: How did you get your start in the business?
D.J.: Actually it’s pretty funny. I think that the day I got into the business was the day I was born. My mom and dad actually met working at a radio station in Canada. They were working there together and had me, and ever since then it’s been sort of a journey from a little town in Canada all the way to Atlanta, Georgia with Clear Channel’s Creative Agency.

JV: So both your parents worked in radio?
D.J.: Yes they did. Both my parents worked in radio, met in radio, and both have a really amazing passion for radio to this day that’s always been inspiring to watch. My father was a disk jockey in the ‘60s. He was very famous. My father had been recognized in Canada as the first disk jockey to play the Beatles, and I’ve had an opportunity to listen to some of his shows and sound checks from back in the early ‘60s and how exciting radio was. My dad in my hometown of London, Ontario is like a huge celebrity. He was just as famous as some of the rock stars of our generation in our town. So it was kind of cool growing up and seeing the power of radio and how it can build personalities and celebrity.

JV: What’s the population of London these days?
D.J.: About 400,000. It’s a little town right in between Detroit and Toronto. It’s like two hours either way, and we’re pretty close to Buffalo and Windsor, Ontario. It’s a long sort of shipping route in Canada that has a lot of international travel between these cities.

JV: Do you have Detroit and Toronto station signals penetrating the London market?
D.J.: On some of the outskirts you can hear a little bit. It was always amazing when I was growing up in London, Ontario to drive into Detroit and hear the different types of radio stations and the different formats and the big city sounds. When I had grown up, one of the most famous stations from down in this area was CKLW in the Windsor/Detroit market, “The Big 8,” and my dad was always fascinated with that station and the live sounds. We always used to get in the car and drive down to Windsor just to listen to the radio in real time. My dad was fascinated by Detroit radio.

JV: So what was your first job? Was it in radio?
D.J.: Well it’s kind of funny. When I was a kid, oftentimes at the radio station where my dad worked, they would require a kid’s voice or something. I remember back when I was in public school, I think my first paid gig in radio was for a credit union in Canada. I got to go into the studio and get behind the microphone and put the headphones on and didn’t really know what I was doing. I was being directed, but at the same time I’ve got tons of pictures of myself when I’m a little kid hanging around the radio station playing with all the blinky buttons and all of the cool toys. So it was a pretty crazy childhood growing up.

JV: So you were what, 10, 12 years old when you did your first paid VO?
D.J.: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t do too many after that, and I don’t really think I have a great radio voice. In fact, I’m not really a performer in that way, which is very opposite from my dad. My dad’s the personality, and I’ve always been a kind of behind-the-scenes marketing guy. But even though my dad was a disk jockey, he had a pretty unique sense of marketing himself too; he used to come up with big crazy ideas to get out there and promote himself. So I think that’s where it came from.

JV: Did you do some college?
D.J.: Yes, I went to McGill University in Montreal, Quebec and studied public relations management there, and that was when I sort of in a professional way segued myself into the music and entertainment business. I did an internship right out of university with the largest promoter in Canada named Donald K Donald. It was kind of funny because I had just left college and got to work for this huge concert promoter who that summer was putting on the Rolling Stones, U2, Pink Floyd, and Genesis, and I got to work behind the scenes with all the backstage access. My role with the internship was to work on the radio commercials they would put on the air to promote the concerts. So I got a little taste of copywriting and production with all the big voices in Dallas, the monster truck voices and all of that.

 So it just kept spiraling from there; I was getting more and more into the radio and sound and entertainment business through public relations and marketing. There was a really amazing program that they had at McGill at the time. It taught you, from a public relations standpoint and promotions standpoint, how to execute responsible campaigns and come up with press releases. What I really learned from that -- which I tried to parlay into radio as I moved forward -- was the importance of coming up with an offer, the importance of coming up with a strategy when you’re writing campaigns to promote events, because you need to make it exciting, and that’s what I’ve always believed in.

JV: Where did you go after school?
D.J.: After school I sort of spun off from my internship and opened a concert production company myself where I became a specialist in Canada for helping break some young undiscovered talents. Very early in my career I hooked up with two of my roommates from college, who I spent a lot of time with, and they had formed a band called Our Lady Peace. I was their first concert promoter, taking them on tours through a lot of the French speaking parts of Quebec trying to break an English band. We went on the road and did all kinds of shows, and needless to say, several years later, that band’s gone on to sell over 6 million records. It’s been an amazing journey to watch them, and that was a big part of my life.

JV: How long did you maintain your concert production company?
D.J.: I did it for a few years and have actually gotten back into it a little bit over the last little while. One of the guys in Our Lady Peace and I just started a brand new record label in Toronto and signed our first artist named Frankie Whyte and the Dead Idols, and it’s kind of back to those old basics again of helping break a band. What was amazing this year was that just after we signed Frankie and did her first EP that just got released, she got picked up to open for KISS, and so I’ve spent part of the summer this year on the road with KISS. She wound up getting four dates with them. She’s a 21 year old rocker from Toronto, and it’s just so fun to get a little taste of that action again.

JV: Where did you go after your initial round with the concert company?
D.J.: I actually wound up back in my hometown of London, Ontario and had an opportunity to join a radio station in London called CFPL. That is the station where my father had been a disk jockey for years and made his career. So after I completed school and had my fun with the concert production industry, I wound up back in my hometown and got to try out sales. I was the typical case study of the salesperson that gets handed the Yellow Pages and told, “Good luck to you, just go out on your own and find some business to come in here and spend money with us.” I had no clue what I was doing and had to kind of learn everything myself. But the one thing I think always stood out for me was that I was always leading with creative. And although the process takes a lot longer, I had a real specialty of taking out spec spots to clients and helping with their creative, and I found that they were a lot more interested in talking about ideas rather than talking about rates, ratings, charts, graphs, and packages. It’s a lot easier to engage them that way, and I think you can move the process along a lot faster if you’re talking about ideas and not trying to sell them something.

JV: So how long did you do sales for this radio station?
D.J.: I worked actually in the London market for two different radio companies. I was in sales for probably about three years, and I left sales because I really just became fascinated with helping other salespeople come up with campaigns and ideas and spec spots. Then in 2001 I started a brand new creative agency in Canada called the Jetset Media Workshop, and that’s where and when the most recent journey starts because that’s when I started to market my services in the United States to radio stations who were looking for someone to come in and help them do what I do with their sales team in their markets. I started kind of an online creative agency that’s especially for radio stations.

JV: You were trying to get stations as customers as opposed to advertisers?
D.J.: Yes, only stations. What I was trying to do was market a service to the radio stations where they would be able to reach out to me and say, “Hey D.J., we have a car dealership here in Kokomo, Indiana that we just can’t seem to make happy. We’ve tried everything internally with our production department. The voices all sound the same. The production all sounds the same, the same background music. We just really need something fresh to get their attention,” and that’s where I would come in and would be able to take advantage of my whole collection of creative writers, voice talent, actors, singers and songwriters from all across North America and outside North America internationally as well. I would say, this writer would be perfect for this project, and it wasn’t the same old people all the time. So radio stations could just fall into this whole new pool of talent and be able to do it all online and not have to spend a lot of money bringing in consultants. It was a pretty simple process: fill out this CNA, give it to my team, we’ll come up with a great idea, and we’ll have it back to you in a matter of days. It worked really, really well, and quite frankly, even during this recession, we haven’t lost one client.

JV: So you started out from the beginning gathering a team of writers and producers rather than trying to do it yourself.
D.J.: Yes. I actually worked with a couple guys in Canada that have a company called Overnight Radio Productions, and they’ve kind of served as my Creative Directors for years and helped me on the majority of my projects. I really take advantage of their team and their network and their expertise. They sort of coordinate all of my projects for me, and that’s just an amazing partnership that’s been in place since 2001 as well.

JV: It sounds like Jetset Media is doing well. It’s eight years old and moving right along.
D.J.: Yes, we’re actually having the best year we’ve ever had right now because what we’ve found is with the radio stations out there -- and by no means is this a slam against any station; it’s just the reality with all of the cost cutting and layoffs that have happened in the last few years, not even this year or last year, but in the last five years, the last ten years -- I think that you’ve seen a lot of radio stations downsize their production, creative, and traffic departments to the point where the salespeople that are out on the street selling in many markets are really on their own to come up with creative. What I think is a big misconception is that these people may have been hired because they’re good salespeople, but they don’t have any training or specialty in creative writing or any knowledge of what makes a good commercial, and those are the people that are basically responsible for the placing and the executing of these expensive advertising campaigns people have purchased. And if the ads aren’t working, it doesn’t matter how many of them you run. You can say reach, frequency and creative all you want, but if you run a whole ton of ads that don’t have a good offer or anything relative to the listener, then it’s not going to work and you’ll just have another client out there saying, “I tried radio once and it didn’t work.”

JV: You apparently learned quite a bit your first few years in sales there in London. You worked around a lot of salespeople between those two stations, and have worked with even more salespeople as you acquired radio station clients over the years in North America. What have you learned about radio sales in general? What seems to be a big problem in sales departments?
D.J.: Well I think that when salespeople are introduced to the creative approach they love it. They get really excited about it. But the reality of it is sometimes it takes too long. It requires a consultation with the client, a presentation to a client, revisions, changes. It really can be a long process, and the reality is that managers need the dollars and the contracts being signed right now and it’s just go, go, go, reports, meetings, projections. Everyone is spending so much time these days having to do all this stuff that it’s taking away from their ability to be able to go out and present ideas instead of advertising. It’s no secret that there continues to be one day sales all across the industry, not just radio, other types of media as well; and for me, what I find is these advertisers, if you’ve got a big idea, they’re happy to sit down with you and hear you out. Everyone needs that right now, and the salespeople just don’t have as much time available to them during the day to do this. They’ve got families, they’ve got commutes, and it really becomes a pressure cooker, and the end result is you’re just out there selling spots and dots.

JV: At some point you went to Atlanta. How did the gig at Clear Channel Creative Services Group come about?
D.J.: What was interesting was back in 2004, I was doing so much work with Cumulus in a multiple number of their markets, especially in the Southeast -- places like Mobile, Alabama, Montgomery, Alabama, Melbourne, Florida, Florence, South Carolina, Macon, Georgia, and places like that. I was going into these markets with Cumulus and was always having to fly through Atlanta every time. I used to sit there on the tarmac and think, wouldn’t it be great if I could just go home here in Atlanta tonight? And sure enough, in January 2004, my wife and I packed up our car and our cats in Canada and we drove right down 75 to Atlanta. We were living there a few months. I was doing some consulting work with Clear Channel as well, in Los Angeles at the time, with the KISS FM team, and right around that time Clear Channel decided to open up their Creative Services Group and headquarter it in Atlanta, Georgia.

So over time I built a relationship with Bob Case and Jim Cook at Clear Channel Creative Services Group, and once they opened up their facility in Atlanta they invited me to come in and work with them in a very special role, which is probably one of the most interesting and exciting opportunities that ever happened there because Clear Channel put together this dream team of creative writers and voice talent and producers, and they housed it all in one shop in Atlanta. It was really amazing.

But what they needed was somebody who knew how to talk to the AEs and understood what the salespeople go through on a day to day basis so that they could design and customize new tools for the salespeople within Clear Channel to be able to roll out in the individual markets. I went from being sort of an independent contractor with radio stations in the largest, medium, and smallest markets to being in one chair; and at one point while I was there, we were a sales resource to a few thousand salespeople at over 1,100 radio stations in 250 markets. One thing I learned really quickly when I was there was you just can’t make everyone happy, whether it be the listener, the advertiser, or the salespeople at the radio station. Creative is so subjective that when you’re trying to please that many people in the kitchen, it’s a very difficult task.

JV: How long were you at the Creative Services Group?
D.J.: I was there just under three years. I left in January and that was when I decided to write my book.

Williams Soundbait frontcoverJV: Tell us about SoundBAIT.
D.J.: SoundBAIT is a book that I wrote that’s sort of a tribute, and at the same time a kick in the ass to the radio business with some very proactive suggestions as to how we can make it fun again and bring radio back to the glory that it had. I’m not stupid. I realize that even though radio was as powerful as it was in the ‘50s and ‘60’s and ‘70s and whatever that there’s way more competition now. There’s the internet. There’s cable television, newspapers, direct mail, everything that’s out there, and people have choices now. People have the ability to get their news, information, and entertainment from a multitude of places now, and if radio wants to stay relevant, I really believe that SoundBAIT is something that some of those salespeople that I was talking to you about earlier can use. Instead of handing the Yellow Pages to a new salesperson, I wish every sales manager or general manager in the radio business would give this book to one of their new salespeople to help them frame what it is that they really are selling.

JV: So this is a book for the salespeople.
D.J.: Yes, the book was originally written for salespeople. It was written as something that I was looking at from the perspective of a radio salesperson. But as I wrote it and discussed it with my publisher, it became obvious to me that this wasn’t just for salespeople. This book is for radio advertisers who don’t know the difference between a good commercial and a bad commercial, and this gave them a platform to be able to read my book and ask themselves some questions about what it is that they’re really looking to offer. This wasn’t a book of, here’s how to go sell radio ads. This was a book about, here’s how to come up with a campaign that will deliver results, and if you follow these steps, your chances of succeeding on the radio will be that much better.

JV: Tell us a bit more about the contents of the book.
D.J.: I’ve always been fascinated with sound, as we talked about, and I did some history or some research on the phrase sound bite, like when you watch the news for instance, you get a lot of sound bites. You get a lot of quotes, statements. You don’t necessarily get the full story, but you get enough of a message that you understand what it is that they’re trying to say. When I was playing around with the words sound bite, I was also playing around with the idea of fishing with the sound bait. What I was thinking about was just like when you run a commercial on the radio; it’s an offer. It’s like putting bait on a hook for the consumer when you’re advertising something. I thought it was kind of like going shark fishing, that if you go out with the right type of bait, the sharks are going to bite it. And if you go out with the type of bait that you would use to catch bass, it requires a different type of bait. So what I tried to do with the book was frame it to the salesperson, to the advertiser, and to the consumer; this is like an ecosystem where there are three players that need to live cohesively together in order to keep the system running, and the book covers the parameters of what everybody needs to know.

JV: What are advergames, a chapter in your book?
D.J.: They’re not necessarily a brand new concept, but advergames are kind of like an online video game that I’m starting to see more and more of, hosted on radio station websites, newspaper websites, television station websites. Radio station websites get so many hits from consumers and clubs that they often have station incentive clubs. The stations generally get a lot of website traffic, and because there’s such a push in radio for the salespeople to have online as an element of every sale that they make so that they’re going beyond just selling commercials and maximizing revenue from the website, advergames can be a sales tool that radio stations can use where they can actually brand a client’s product, service or offer into an online advergame with their logos and run it as an ongoing contest on their radio station, and use the commercials that they’re buying on the radio station to direct the consumer to go to the station website to play this game for a chance to win a big insured prize.

I recently became an independent contractor for Tribune Interactive in Chicago, and we’ve done a partnership with Million Dollar Media, which insures station contests and promotions, and we’ve linked the three together where these advergames can be hosted on a station website, promoted on the air by the station, and it’s like a partnership with the client. And because of the insurance that’s involved with this contest, clients can give consumers a chance to win any number of prizes, whether it be a $5,000 prize or up to $1 million prize.

JV: Did I read something that indicated you were using an advergame to promote the book?
D.J.: Yes. When I launch my book on September 23, I’m going to do something unique to help launch the book and generate some excitement and buzz, and on top of that put my money where my mouth is. I’m going to be launching a game on September 23 at 4:00 p.m. called Cash, Cars, and Superstars, and it’s going to be hosted at www.soundbait.com. What I’m going to do is give every radio station account executive, every creative agency, and every business owner out there a chance to win $1 million for going to my website, trying out the advergame, and registering their information for a chance to win $1 million. I just bought an insurance policy to cover the million dollars, and I don’t see why anyone has anything to lose. It’s worth coming to my website, looking at a fun exiting advergame, and having a chance to win $1 million in real time. We’re going to give the one qualifier fifteen envelopes, and they need to pick three, and there’s a winning combination guaranteed in those fifteen envelopes. You just have to pick the three that have the winning combination in it, and you’ll win $1 million right there and then.

JV: In a busy production environment, spec spots sometimes take a backseat, and sometimes they serve as nothing more than something for a lazy sales rep to take to a client in lieu of a good sales pitch. What’s your take on spec spots? When and how should they be used?
D.J.: Well I see them get used in a lot of different ways. Personally, I think that in the day to day responsibilities of a Production Director or producer at a radio station, it really is hard for them to be able to put everything on hold and get into a creative mode and come up with an amazing brand new original strategic idea with all of the bells and whistles on it. That’s just not what’s going on in production departments. I think that a lot of the major radio companies do have internal programs or resources where they have access to commercials that have been done either on spec or have been successful in a market, and they make those available for account executives to go out and present.

One thing I did learn at Clear Channel’s Creative Services Group is that if you actually were calling on a plumber, for instance, and you had five great different plumbing commercials that had worked well, sounded great, were on strategy, and you took them out to a plumber and played all five of them for that plumber, I think that there’s a really good chance that they’re going to love one of them and maybe hate four others. But you can use the one that they love as a stepping stone to say, “Okay, so if you like that one, if that was your commercial, what would you say in that commercial? What would you do differently? What’s your offer?”

And I think spec spots are great for breaking the ice, opening the door into a whole different discussion, and I don’t always think that they have to be customized for every single client that you pitch them to, although if you could have one customized that’s great. But I really believe that there are so many resources out there where you can get samples of specific category focused commercials, that as long as you’re going out there and being proactive, I don’t think you need a custom one every time.

JV: How should advertisers today look at radio?
D.J.: I think radio should still be on their radar screen as one of the best places to place their hard earned advertising dollars, but what they need to do is do it with caution and do it with a real focused strategy, instead of just running a bunch of spots and just throwing them out there. I think there are so many great formats out there that are specifically targeted to very particular demographics, and I think a lot of advertisers use the whole spray and pray technique where they try to do a little bit here, a little bit there. They want to buy the top five, six stations in a market, even if it’s just because of the number of listeners. If you’re speaking to an audience that isn’t in the market for what you do, or they have different tastes and needs and desires, it’s a waste. I hear a lot of campaigns run on stations where it’s like, why are they advertising here?

So I think radio has to do a better job of steering their clients in the right direction and not letting them buy stations that won’t work. I realize that budgets need to be met, but there are smarter ways of doing it, and I think advertisers need to take radio more seriously and take advantage of the new ways that they can place and integrate their message with the radio station.

JV: The book has a lot of great information for salespeople. What about our readers. What might they be able to get from the book?
D.J.: You know, when I go through to different radio stations across the country, I do see your magazine in a lot of places, and I’ve seen people read it and what they take away from it, and I know who these types of people are. In my mind, SoundBAIT was really dedicated in a lot of ways to producers and writers and even the traffic people at the radio stations that work crazy hours, constantly getting handed rush jobs and most of the time very overwhelmed with what they’re having to do. There are so many great people out there that I know wish they could say what I had to say in my book to the salespeople that come banging on their door at 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday with a spot that needs to start Monday morning. I’ve seen it happen so many times, and at the end of the day, when the campaign doesn’t work, I often see the finger get pointed at the production department. It’s like their fault that it didn’t happen or the spot wasn’t good enough, and I just think it’s time that a lot of managers and clients and everyone just sort of take a deep breath and realize, if you try and rush these commercials and rush these producers, you’re not going to get a good product. I’m just hoping that this book will raise the bar and raise the awareness that we’re all in this together. More often than not I see these battles going on at radio stations between the sales department and the production department. They hate each other. They resent each other, and both of them oftentimes have reason to feel that way. So I was trying to think of producers when I wrote this book because my goal and my mission is to make life easier for these people, and hopefully let the salespeople understand how important of a role that the producers really have to play in their day to day life.

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