R.A.P. Interview: Mark Margulies

Mark Margulies, President, BENMARadio, Greenwood Village, CO

By Jerry Vigil

BENMARadiologo122607We last checked in with Mark Margulies and BENMARadio 22 years ago this month, in August of 1992. Mark later became a regular contributor to Radio And Production with his “Way Off the Mark!” column which ran throughout the ‘90s. Today, Mark’s company BENMARadio is still going strong after 27 years. Focusing primarily on providing a copywriting service to stations, BENMARadio’s script database now contains over 105,000 pieces of copy, most of which Mark wrote. Needless to say, Mark knows a few things about copywriting and about holding down a business for decades despite the changing industry and economy, and he’s managed to find the time in there somewhere to write a novel. We get the latest on BENMARadio and hunt down some copywriting tips and more in this month’s interview. Be sure to check out the R.A.P. CD for a sample of some of Mark’s favorite spots.

JV:Let’s pick up where we left off 22 years ago.
Mark:Huh? Were we that young once? [Laughter]

JV:You started BenMar Productions in ’87 with your partner, Greg Bennett, who you had actually partnered with as early as ’81. Then you changed the name to BENMARadio in ’91 to accommodate your growth in other areas. Is Greg still involved today?
Mark:No. Greg went into the sales training aspect of things. He does consultations for sports teams and some for radio stations, but he’s mostly talking to businesses now, talking about motivating employees and getting sales teams more motivated and getting them to do the things that they need to do. It’s been interesting for him.

JV:So tell us about the company and its services today.
Mark:Well, BENMARadio, like radio itself, has morphed quite a bit. What we do now is utilize different kinds of packages for more of what radio stations are looking for individually. Some stations are looking for spec programs and spec promotions, so we provide that. Others are more interested in building business immediately. Our custom division is much more attuned to that. We’ve also been able to kind of lock in on the immediacy of radio by doing spots within 30 minutes, and we can actually do spots live on site with the client if necessary as well.

We have different kinds of products now that work for different aspects of what the stations are trying to do and where they’re really trying to take their sales process. The one that we’re really pushing right now is the “24 in 24” package. Knowing budgets and knowing what’s going on in the business, it’s so difficult now, and the pressure is so great from corporate to make budget and to keep the numbers up. So what we built was a program called 24 in 24, and that allows us to send out 24 spec scripts to a radio station in 24 hours. Literally, a radio station can have their people out on the street in two days selling spec spots and putting spots on their books easily within 15 to 30 days, boosting their budget lines tremendously, especially with our 40 percent success rate with spec spots.

JV:So they pick 24 clients they want to pitch and you provide 24 scripts from your database? How does it work?
Mark:They can pick the categories. We have 31 categories to choose from, and then they can pick from those categories. Then we provide them with spots that are already successful from our database. Or they could just say, “Look, just send us 24 copies of what you consider to be the most popular or what you feel will best cover our needs,” and then we go ahead and kind of randomly put a package together and send it out to them, and then they take those and go out there.

So we can do it either way. We can also customize the package for them. That’s still going to stay within the 24 in 24 range, but obviously, we would need to get the clients’ names and a little bit of information in-house before we can start to actually process it. So, when we say 24 in 24 and we’re doing a custom version of it, it’s based on the station getting us all the information. Once we get the 24 clients and associated info, we can turn all 24 in a 24 hour period.

JV:And the 24 in 24, as I recall, has a pretty nice price tag on it.
Mark:Yeah, it’s $399, which is amazing, considering what you get. The return on investment is absolutely astronomical. If you have a spot rate that’s even just $25-30 a spot, you’re going to turn a 2000 to 4000 percent return on your investment in just 30 to 45 days. You can go up higher, depending upon what kind of customization you want. The base price starts at $399, and that just basically kills it for any radio station who wants to go out there and boost their budget line.

JV:For small market stations, maybe that’s not such a little drop in the bucket, but when you look at the success rate that you’ve had, it becomes a no-brainer to give it a shot. And for medium or larger market stations, forget about it. They spend that much at lunch, right? [Laughter]
Mark:Exactly, and something that has always been baffling to me about creative -- and it’s not just us; I’m sure that other creative people and businesses have run into this in the radio industry -- they always look at us as a cost. Everybody. Whenever I talk to a general manager, “How much is it going to cost me?” Well, there are a lot of things that you do at a radio station every day that cost you money. You buy office supplies. That costs. You go out and you hire sales trainers. That costs money. We don’t cost money, because what we’re doing is creating a product that you’re going to use for resale value. It enhances that product, and the money you get back is going to be enhanced by what we do. I realize it may be semantics, but when you invest in a product and you get back the return, it’s the return you should be evaluating, not the cost. That’s something that’s always baffled me, especially now that the budgets have become so completely indexed to getting them down and squeezing every nickel out. The one place you don’t want to be squeezing down is on what the audience is hearing and what they’re responding to and what your clients are getting in the spot.

I realize there are other dynamics at play in radio these days, especially with new media involved and many other aspects, but you can’t ever really look at copy as a cost, and you can’t look at production as a cost, because it’s not. You’re paying for an investment in your own product and your own ability to succeed. I know that small market, medium market stations are probably going to be looking at this in a little more aggressive tone than a large market. But when you talk about, “What am I going to write a check for, and what am I going to get back?” that’s what you have to be looking at, not, “I’m writing a check for $400 worth of paper clips and I’m never going to see it again.” Of course you’re going to see it again, and you’re going to see it again in spades.

JV:I’m guessing that the majority of your business is with the smaller and the medium market stations. Is that correct?
Mark:It varies wildly. We have affiliates in Chicago and we have affiliates in St. George, Utah. It’s all based on what kind of an investment that radio station is willing to make in itself, and what kind of an investment it’s willing to make in its clients. There are a lot of stations, now that there are corporations, that have all of this done in house. To a certain extent, they feel they’re saving money by coordinating all of their efforts through one major clearing house. I can’t argue with the dollar figure as far as what are they getting back, and what are they putting on the air? You and I could sit here and talk for hours on that.

Mostly, we deal in medium market, medium to larger market stations that are in a competitive situation, stations that understand the value of what their sound is and understand the value of what their clients are looking for and realize how competitive they have to be for the client dollar these days. That’s really where we’re flourishing. It’s a competitive issue, and we provide another piece to that competitive edge they’re looking for.

JV:I’m just guessing, but I’d say the top 20 stations in a large market are pretty much dealing with maybe less than 10 percent local direct business. Are most of your clients dealing with 30 percent local direct and higher?
Mark:We have a smattering of the high agency yielding stations, not as many as there used to be 15 years ago. But I would ballpark 40 percent or higher local direct are the ones that are looking to us for the meat and potatoes of what they’re doing. Those are the ones that are really dependent upon it. Consequently, a lot of times it’s also stations that are really budget-conscious and have to be careful about how they’re spending their money.

It kind of winds together, depending upon the market, but we flourish in the areas where direct business and direct retail makes up not a majority of the station, but certainly a large degree of what the station’s emphasis is.

JV:How has your business changed over these past two decades? You’ve gone through deregulation, the Internet, major technology shifts… what are some of the big things that have happened there?
Mark:You know, the funny thing is, and I hate to sound like an old fogey, but my buddy Greg and I will sit down and we’ll talk, and I still remember the days when we started out, when to do a spot and to get it edited, you had 16 pieces of tape, literally Scotch taped all over the production room. If you didn’t put it in the right order, in the right way, you risked putting in some tapes backwards, some conversations out of order. There were times when you had to start a cart machine, a four-track, and a stereo unit at the same time, so your toe was on the stereo unit and your finger was over here… I mean, it’s changed completely to where you’re doing everything in code and you’re doing everything with waveforms.

It’s a remarkable place to be. The technology makes this job such a real wonder, because there are so many more things you can do, and you can do them quickly and effectively and efficiently at a cost that’s ridiculously less than what we were doing years ago. But by the same token, radio has become much more corporate, and on the business side of it, that’s really not been a very positive aspect, because it’s become very homogeneous, and you don’t have broadcasters that are willing to take chances. You don’t have broadcasters that are aggressive who are getting out into the community. Formats… if it hadn’t been for Sirius and Pandora and some of the actual off brand satellite products that have come up, you would’ve been listening to the same seven songs since 1985 over and over again. There’s very, very little that changes because of the corporate structure and because everything is tied to the bottom line and to stockholders.

The good news is that we have more power in our hands than ever before with the ability that technology brings us. I mean, I’m sitting here talking to you in Denver. If hypothetically you were a client and you had a client sitting in your office right now, and you said, “Mark, I’d like you to write the spot with Fred, my client,” I could literally get on a computer with you online, on your computer. I could write a radio commercial live, in front of you and your client. I’m going to turn the keyboard over to your client and say, “Look, will you tell him to make some changes, move a couple of pieces around that he’s not happy with, let me see what he’d like to do,” and then use professional guidance to get them a radio commercial that’s not only going to be successful and effective, but is going to make them happy as well. I mean, that’s science fiction stuff from 20 years ago.

It’s changed — the technology and the abilities have changed a lot. I don’t think that management and corporate have embraced those changes and have really gone out and been aggressive with those changes. That’s kind of a problem.

JV:I think it’s amazing that you’ve had this business going as long as you have through all the changes in the industry and the economy. What would you attribute your long term success to?
Mark:I can’t pinpoint anything except to say that we have never, ever said no to any new idea that’s been brought to us about how the industry is going and the changes in the industry. I mean, technology has made it much, much easier for us to be embraced. We’ve been able to react to the marketplace, and we’re able to present products that the radio industry needs.

I’m not alone. There are dozens of companies that do what I do. But we have 24 in 24 now. There are very, very few people in this world that can provide that kind of service that quickly to the “I need it yesterday” mentality in radio. Any sales manager who’s out there right now, who’s looking at their budget line and saying, “I’ve got to do something to get these people moving. I’ve got to do something to move this market”, you now have that tool. That’s kind of what we’ve been able to do over the course of 27 years, and 105,000 scripts has allowed us to do that. We’ve reacted to the market and the needs of the market, and we’ve been able to provide niche services that have people say, “Okay, I really want this creative team.”

Also, without sitting here and trying to pat myself too hard on the back, when we started this company, we prided ourselves on studying techniques from the giants in the industry, including Dick Orkin, Bert Berdis, Chuck Blore, Fred Arthur and guys of that stature… Stan Freberg. We tried to synthesize what they did into the “I need it yesterday” mentality of radio.

While a lot of times the creative aspect and the quality of the creative gets lost in the desire and the pursuit of a bottom line budget, I think that people have seen our work, they’ve experienced our work, and they’ve gone out and pitched our work to clients. The clients have been happy with what they’ve gotten from the station, and I think over the long term, that plays as well. I think that gives people a confidence level in you that you don’t just get by showing up and hanging a shingle out and saying, “I’ve written 1000 radio commercials. Use me.” One hundred and five thousand radio commercials is a very rarefied club to be a member of, and it shows that we’ve been able to create a lot of different and special, original ideas that people can then turn into dollars on their end. I think, in essence, that’s how it worked.

JV:So you have the 24 in 24 deal for $399 among other packages. What’s the range of prices to get your other services and packages?
Mark:If they decide to use our regular service, which is customized copy, all of their account executives using us, that is our base service and it costs on the average of $599 a month. They get copy, but they also get a scratch read with it, and here’s why. Let’s talk about the actual sales process itself -- getting the appointment, pursuing the appointment, getting in front of your client, getting your client to agree to your terms, to agree to the creative and putting that client in a position where they’re ready to go on the air. That’s a long term, linear process.

What we decided to do was try to shorten the linear side of that process by eliminating the need to go back and forth again and again and again. So, what most radio stations utilize us for is our custom program, which costs $599 a month for the year agreement. What happens is, they get their copy along with a scratch read. What’s a scratch read? The scratch read is a single voice, no sound effects, no music beds, no nothing. It’s just a voice, either reading the two or three voices, or the one announcer voice, or the imitation that has to be done, but doing the script so that the AE can not only hear what the script should sound like in a base effort, but now, when they go out to pitch it to the client, the client goes, “Oh, I don’t have to just read. Now I can hear what it’s supposed to sound like. Wow, I didn’t know it was going to sound like this.” So they start concentrating on the excitement of being on the air, not on whether you used a tomato instead of a cucumber when you were talking about the vegetable.

So what we do for most stations is in that vein, producing customized copy, getting the scratch reads out there, shortening the sales cycle down so that it takes less time to get into the client, to get the client to approve, and get the client on the air.

JV:That’s $599 a month for unlimited commercials?
Mark:Unlimited copy, unlimited number of scratch reads.

JV:You’re also doing production. You’re not doing it all there, are you?
Mark:Production has been something that, unfortunately, guys like me, we’ve always prided ourselves on getting quality people to do. Quality costs money. You can’t do dollar a holler radio with national voices. So the production aspect of our business is really something we’ve de-emphasized over the years because the radio stations, frankly, they come to you and say, “Okay, you wrote a great spot for us, you’ve got four different voices, and I have Bette Midler and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I also have a rap artist in the middle of this. It’s a great spot, and we want you to produce it. My client has a budget of $25.” [Laughter]You know what I mean? There’s a reality to the business, and that is, radio stations have never been very comfortable with pitching the client the idea that, hey, this is going to cost you money. It’s not going to cost you what an agency would cost you, but it’s going to cost you a little bit of money, but you’re going to get something amazing.

JV:So the stations do charge the clients a production fee?
Mark:With us involved, they would. I don’t know how they handle it in-house, but I know that when we go in to produce, and we go in to actually offer a full production piece, there’s going to be production, but it’s not going to be what an agency would charge. You’re not talking about a $10,000 spot. You go to Dick Orkin and it’s a $15,000-$20,000 ticket. It’s not like that here. We’re going to be more in the high hundreds, low thousands range, but it’s still going to be agency-quality voice work. And that’s where that divorce is kind of coming in -- you have a lot of people out there who are willing to do voice work for $10 or $15 a throw, and who’s going to go out and try to compete with that? You can’t really compete with that kind of a marketplace, so we’ve kind of de-emphasized the production aspect.

JV:So if they want it produced, they can either do it themselves, outsource it themselves or you’ll do it for the production fees…
Mark:Correct, and one thing to understand about that is, we’re going to write the spots so that they can be produced well by their production team. We don’t give them something that’s just wildly creative, and then they have to start drafting secretaries and people off the street to be able to provide the different voices. When we go into our entry interview with a radio station, we ask them what their strengths and weaknesses are. We talk with the production director. We do not write radio commercials that they can’t be produced well, because there’s nothing more destructive than a stopset. So if they want us to do the spot, that’s great, or if they have it outsourced, maybe locally or maybe nationally, they can go ahead and do that, but the spots are always going to be written with the idea that they can’t do that for monetary reasons or whatever, and that the production is being done in-house by people in-house.

JV:So the emphasis of your company is on the copy these days, not so much the production.
Mark:That is the essence of it, with an asterisk, and that is, we use a $20 title and call ourselves creative consultants, because after 27 years, we have a little bit of mileage on our odometer, and we understand how copy is supposed to interact with your audience, and how it’s supposed to interact with sales.

So we’re not just wild, crazy guys sitting in a room somewhere writing copy; we are professionals who understand that copy has to be created in a way that brings out what your client wants to do. So we sit down with an AE. If an AE doesn’t understand why something has been written or they want to talk to us about a client, we’ll talk to them about. We’ll talk with the client and go through a consultation period and explain to them, “This is why we’re doing it this way. This is why it’s being done. There’s a reason for this.” It’s not because we thought it was funny and it sounds good on the air; it’s because we know that it will draw people.

You know, nobody’s going to sit here and say they have a formula for 100 percent success, because that doesn’t exist, but we get pretty darn close with what we do to being as successful as anybody can be with regard to writing and creating radio promotions. Yeah, we are copywriters at our essence, but it goes a lot deeper.

JV:How much help do you have writing copy?
Mark:Well, we have a system, and what happens is, we’re slaves to the system. But over the years, it has varied. We’ve had writers work with us. A lot of stuff Greg and I generated when we first started, and over the years I’ve depended upon a core of people who have been very, very good. But the way that our system works is, we have people out there, and I just tell them, “Look, here’s what we’re trying to accomplish, here. Even if you can’t come up with the copy itself, just come up with an idea. Get us an idea and get us a couple of pieces of dialogue rolling. Or get me the first line, or get me the hook line. Get something in my hands that we can take and then format to the BENMAR format.” Because we do have a format; we do have a way of delivering copy in a way that makes it as powerful and successful as can be.

The answer to your question is, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been very blessed to work with a lot of very talented, gifted people. But in essence it comes down to me. I have to format everything. I have to write everything, I have to make sure it goes out in the BENMAR style. To that extent, I’ve probably written about 75 percent of everything that’s gone out.

JV: That’s over 75,000 scripts you’ve written! How about a tip for station copywriters reading this, something they can use right now to make their next piece of copy better.
Mark:Here’s the thing that serves us the best, and it’s one of the hallmarks of formatting copy in the BENMAR way. The first line has to have a hook. It doesn’t matter if it has anything to do with the client or with what’s going to be said, or with the product or with the sale or anything. The first line has to grab the audience in a manner that makes them either shake their head, peer in closer, listen, say, “What?” or in a manner of speaking, just slap them in the face and grab their attention. That first line is key to anything you’re going to do from that point on. Then you have the next 10 seconds in which to make sure that you frame your copy in a way that makes them want to hook into the last 15 seconds, 30 seconds, whatever you’ve got to work with. Of course, you obviously ameliorate your times based on how much time you have to work with, but that first line is absolutely essential, and it has to have some kind of value.

Gene Amole of blessed memory was a great writer here in Denver many, many years ago. He worked for the Rocky Mountain News, and probably for many other newspapers before I got here. Amole was a columnist, and he’d just talk about anything that came to his mind. Sometimes he’d talk about local politics, and sometimes he’d talk about people; but he always started his column off with one word, and that one word didn’t have to have anything to do with his column. It just was a word. Eventually, he would monkey mind his way back to it and tie it in by the time he got finished writing.

But it made an impression on me that I talked about with Greg, and we decided to use it as one of the principles of the BENMAR system. So not necessarily one word, but we always started with a two word, three word sentence. The first thought that comes out of our radio commercials has to have an impact with the audience. If you don’t, then you’re just sitting there. The rest of the time is going to go away, and you’re not going to be able to influence who you’re trying to influence.

So for anybody who’s sitting down to a blank word processor in the morning and who’s having their cup of coffee and something to eat, and they’re really not sure how they want to start or where they want to start, or maybe they do, but they want a new idea, always make sure that your first line is a powerful statement of some kind. Again, it can be funny, it could be harsh, or it can be bawdy if your station allows for that kind of a format. It can be anything you want it to be. It doesn’t have to do anything with the commercial, but eventually they have to tie it into the commercial, and you use it to tie your commercial together. That will help get your audience into the groove, whether you’re fourth in the stopset, first in the stopset, or heaven forbid, even sixth in the stopset.

JV:You’re a novelist! When did you decide you wanted to write a novel?
Mark:I think I was seven.

JV:You know, there are a lot of radio people out there that have always wanted to write a book.
Mark:It’s funny. In talking to the people I talk to in this industry, I always look to them and say, “Why don’t you write that? Why don’t you take the stories, the war stories that you’ve gone through, and put that in a book? This is priceless stuff!” The funny thing is, I didn’t write about radio. The novel that I wrote is something that I’ve had in the churner for about six years. I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan, but I took a different kind of approach. I took the son of Dr. Watson and made him a Scotland Yard inspector during World War II. There’s a serial killer loose during the war, while London is in the middle of a blitz. In all of this, Watson’s son is trying to actually find what he thinks is the child of Sherlock Holmes because he needs the help of a Holmes kind of a mind.

It’s a very interesting, intricate murder mystery that takes place during World War II. I call it The Case of the Hidden Legacy. It is available on Amazon, you can get it on Kindle, and you can buy it in hardcover. I really enjoyed writing it, but more than anything, it’s a different way of writing. Anybody who’s in radio, any creative people, producers or writers and those of us who get into the everyday routine of hacking it out in 30 and 60 second increments… this is just a whole different way, guys. I mean, if you’ve got stories to tell in your head, start writing them down. But you’ve got to get out of that 30 to 60 second mode that we all seem to be drawn into because that’s our job and that’s what we have to do.

That was the hardest part of getting the novel out there. Actually, the hardest part was publishing it, but thank goodness again for technology, because now you don’t have to sit in a rejection pile for 15 years. You finish it, and there are tools out there that allow you to publish it. I just went ahead and became an independent publisher. Anybody can do that, and I encourage those of you who have some history in radio, even those of you getting started in radio, to do it. I always believe everybody’s got a story to tell, and the way you tell your story will impact whether or not you become the next Tom Clancy or you don’t.

The bottom line is, we work in 30 and 60 second increments. That helped me hugely in terms of learning how to write dialogue and write tightly and crisply. I’ll let everybody who reads the book be the judge of whether I accomplished that goal. The bottom line to it is that I think if you have a story to tell, you can tell it because you’ve had this training. Now all you have to do is learn how to take that training and expand it out so that you can build more depth and more color to your characters and to your scenes. I think creative radio people would make great, great novelists, if they have a story to tell.

JV:You’ve also done seminars over the years. Are you still doing them?
Mark:We’re not doing as many as we used to, and the reason being, anybody who flies today knows it’s not fun. This is no knock on the people who do the job. Each time I’ve flown I’ve greatly appreciated the help of the people in security and the people on the airplane. They really do the best they can to make an unworkable situation workable, but it is a Greyhound bus with waits now, and it’s very difficult. You used to be able to leave in the morning, fly somewhere, do a seminar, and come home at night -- very difficult to do that now with all of the traffic, all of the restrictions, a lot of the waiting and the security lines. And then there’s the issue of once you get on the plane, are you going to get off on time.

I prefer to do my seminars in a virtual state. I like GoToMeeting to give you that kind of ability to work with 10, 15 people at a time. But we still go into a radio station for a day and give them a three hour seminar on how to teach the salespeople to write copy. If you’re going to have your salespeople or you’re going to have some intern in the radio station writing copy, at least do it right. If you’re not going to spend the money to get somebody in-house to do it, or you’re not going to spend the money for a company like myself or any of the others that will do what we do, do it right. Understand what you have to do. Teach your salespeople methods that will make them more successful, give them more reason to want to stick around, and give you a better chance of making money on the bottom line. We do still do that.

JV:Are you still doing the webinars?
Mark:When we get an idea that we think is important, we will put the word out. And these webinars are free. You get in, you give your e-mail address and you just join right in. It’s amazing. The technology is really incredible.

A webinar is limiting, because I like to do a lot more personality type issues when I’m in person. I like to use a lot more audio cues, I like to use a lot of the stage work that we do. I like to get more involved in that, because I think it helps enhance the experience and gives people a better way of remembering what it is we’re talking about. The webinars are good at delivering base information. You get information out, you get people to be able to ask questions and be able to answer those questions, and we do those maybe four times a year. If people are interested in learning more about them, they can reach me at BenMar1987@aol.com, and we’ll be happy to put them on a mailing list and keep them informed as to when we do them.

JV:Okay, and there’s a website that they can go for more information?
Mark:BENMARadio.net, and BENMARadio is spelled with one R, gang. Twenty seven years ago, we thought we were really cool in doing it with one R, and it’s been a real pain, but we have branding, and we have all the info about what we do there. Take a look around and kick the tires a little bit, see if there’s anything that interests you.

JV:Any final thoughts for our readers?
Mark: It’s been great hooking up with you. You do such a great service for the guys who slug it out every day behind the keyboards. We really appreciate everything that you do. I’m glad you’re still around and glad that we can still talk horse sense about radio and talk about what’s going on in the industry. We’re very grateful for the platform you provide for us and for the information you provide. I hope I’ve given over some things for people in the industry to be able to think about and put to use as well. Thank you, Jerry. Thank you very much. 

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