R.A.P. Interview: Langley Gerrard

Langley Gerrard, Head of Commercial Production, UKRD, Bristol, United Kingdom

Langley-Gerrard2aBy Jerry Vigil

Langley Gerrard has submitted several items for the R.A.P. CD, and back in June, his “Power of Sound” piece picked up the R.A.P. Editor’s Choice Award. (You can hear it here: http://bit.ly/1tSii7h or go to the Forum page at rapmag.com.) When the super creative work kept coming in from Langley, it was clearly time to find out what makes this out-of-the-box producer tick. With a resume of unlikely stops, including antique restoration, petrochemical engineering, opera and work on a farm, somehow he managed to land at UKRD, where creative talent is in no short supply. Just a year into his gig as Head of Commercial Production, we take a peek at the mind behind the commercial side of this great group of stations. Your ears will enjoy the audio from Langley on this month’s R.A.P. CD.

JV: How did you get your start in radio?
Langley: I’ve been working in radio for 12 years now, on and off, but radio has sort of been in my life right from the beginning, as my godfather was a fairly well-known presenter in Southern New Zealand. He was also involved in the theater quite a lot, as was my mother, and I guess that’s where it’s all come from.

As far as working in radio is concerned, I think right about age 17 or 18 my mother basically kicked my ass down the street trying to get me into a radio station to work as a copywriter, which I wasn’t really particularly interested in. In those days you had to take like a type of test; you were given a couple of briefs to see how well you could write, and I deliberately flunked it. [Laughs] I didn’t want to work in radio because to me they all looked like pretty grey old men and I wasn’t interested. I consider that my first success in radio, flunking that test. Anyway it was quite a lot later that I started working in radio.

JV: How old were you when you eventually started in radio, and what did you do in the meantime?
Langley: I was old when I started, in my mid-30s I suppose. The first job out of school I worked in a music store, and they had a recording studio upstairs. Back in those days it was tape. They had a 2-inch 8-track Otari, and that suited me well because I’d sort of been playing around with electronics and stuff and building my own effects units and bits and pieces like that. So to get into an actual studio, that was great. I worked there for a couple of years, but then I got a girlfriend and needed to move towns, so that sort of disappeared.

I went to Australia and was a ski bum for a couple of years there. Then I was stage managing for touring music acts and did some sound teching as well. I did that on and off for about six or seven years. The biggest problem with doing that for a job in Australia is the distances you have to travel. I was always traveling, and it didn’t really blow my skirt up after a while, so I went for something completely different. I got into the antique trade and ended up restoring antiques. I have always been good with my hands as well, so it was good to sort of do something a little bit different for a while.

I was in Australia for about 13 years and decided to go back to New Zealand. I hooked up with an old friend of mine and he was actually selling advertising in radio, and through him I got to know quite a few radio people. The upshot of that was that I got involved in a couple of independent stations quite out of the blue. I went in as a copywriter basically, and I’d never done that sort of thing before. It worked out all right until they got bought out by RadioWorks as it was then. It’s now called MediaWorks, and they’re one of the two big players in New Zealand. These two big outfits basically started at the top of the country and worked their way down and just bought out all the small independents.

So suddenly it all came to an end. I was retrenched and it was like, “Well, that was a pretty short radio career.” Anyway about six weeks later they called me and said, “We would like you to become a Creative Director,” so I took that position up.

That was okay for a while, but then soon after I started with them the ownership of the company changed. It was bought out by an outfit called Iron Bridge, which is an Australian investment group. They had never had anything to do with broadcasting before; they were numbers people. Consequently they wanted this business to run as efficiently as possible I suppose, and for them that meant cutting costs by getting rid of people.

JV: Sounds familiar.
Langley: Suddenly all these very talented people that have been in the business a lot longer than me started losing their jobs, and I became a bit disheartened with it. But by then I was not only a Creative Director, I was presenting and producing as well – there was a lot going on. But I got a bit disheartened by it.

I then hit the great fortune to meet the love of my life. She’s a Brit and it was like, “Well, maybe I should come to Britain and see how it works over there,” so that’s what I did. About two years after meeting her in New Zealand, I came out to Britain. Before I left I’d obviously tested the waters for work, and there was a lot of interest. I thought, “Everything’s sorted, I’ll just get out there, have a few meetings and the career will carry on.”

The unfortunate thing about that was that was in 2007, and Britain and a few other places on the planet were hitting into a fairly substantial economic slump. And because the jobs I’d been looking at were with fairly major companies over here, by the time I got here they had decided they were going to downsize, so suddenly all of these work offers disappeared.

So I found myself in the United Kingdom wondering, “What the hell am I going to do now?” I did a few different things. I sort of pride myself on being able to turn my hand to most things, and I got into petrochemical engineering for a while – that was another curve ball. I worked on a farm for a while. And then I thought, “Okay, enough of this. I need to start looking again for work back in radio.”

I started looking and got the call from UKRD that I was on a short list. I went and met up with the head of production, Colin McGinness, and the head of creative, Mike Bersin. We talked about a lot of things: creative process, where they were heading creatively within their group of 16 stations, the ethos of the whole group, and I liked a lot of what I heard, I really did. Mike Bersin is a big fan of the creative led sell. So it rang all the right bells for me, and I was thrilled when they got back to me and said that I was going to head their commercial production department for them.

JV: What do your responsibilities as a head of commercial production include?
Langley: Making sure the pool table is functioning. [Laughs] I’m allocating jobs to myself and two other producers I currently have working with me. The first guy to start a couple months after me was a guy called Tom Ellis. And then a while back a guy called Luke McPeake started with us. I’m also sort of doing a bit of coaching but also I do a lot of thinking -- how are we going to drive this bus? Where are we going to take it? What are we going to do?

I think I spend quite a bit of time trying to impress upon, not only my producers but the writers within the group, that we need to look a bit further into the way we’re doing the business. The thing is, here as opposed to the States, 95 percent of the commercials we make are only 30-second duration, and that poses a lot of problems when you’re trying to get a sound message across as opposed to a word message. With the guys I’m working with it’s a matter of saying, “Okay, think of great ways of using the sound as well as the word.” As my colleague Mike Bersin often says, “Radio is a sound medium, it’s not a word medium.” So we work pretty hard at that. You’ve heard obviously some of the stuff I do, and to me it should all be little bits of theater really -- conjuring up images in the listener’s mind. It’s that sort of thing where you would have heard loads of people who have gone to see a movie based on a book, and they’ll go, “Well, the book was way better.” The reason that I think they do that is because when you sit down and read a book, you create the vision in your mind. Whereas the movie is very directive; it’s one person’s vision of how the book should relate to reality I suppose.

So that’s what I like to bring into the commercials that I produce -- let the listener have a better freedom to conjure up images in their mind, and with doing that they sort of take possession of it a little bit. And you know the old adage “every picture paints a thousand words”;  I think you can do a similar thing with a soundscape. You can get a lot more information across with sound than we can with just words. That’s sort of where we’re aiming at.

JV: The “Power of Sound” piece you sent that we put on the CD a few months ago, that was pretty amazing. You had done this for a seminar for clients, as you put it, “To push them towards more creative commercials by showing them how sound can be used to get the listener’s attention.” What was the process of creating that piece like? How much time did you spend on it?
Langley: The initial part of it was pretty harrowing for me really. Once I’d been asked to come up with something and there was a deadline, I sat on it for a long time with just nothing. I had heard a piece that had been used previously for those sorts of seminars and it didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t want to go down that track – it was just basically a collection of hokey effects and it had a real over-the-top voiceover artist. I just thought, this just is not going to work. We need to take people somewhere else.

So I guess I sat on it for probably a month before I kicked into it. As often happens with me, the concept of it came together pretty quickly. Initially I probably spent about four hours putting it together – the bones of it. Then I decided that I wanted to do a bit that I was voicing, the Nigel the cat scene, and that took a little bit longer. Then there was a lot of tweaking – a lot of leaving it, coming back to it, listening to it. I must have listened to it through 100 times.

But from getting the brief to having it go out was probably about nine weeks. The hours spent actually manipulating it… maybe 12-plus hours, all in little bits.

I think it’s too easy to sit there with something for hours and hours and hours. Your ears get a bit soft and then you can get off beam a little bit, a little off focus. So I spent a lot of time just loading up the session and spending half-an-hour on it, tweak this, tweak that, leave it, go back to it a day or two later, listen to it, ‘Okay, that didn’t work,’ and getting a little bit of separation from the piece.

The piece that you received for the CD was a four-minute edit, and the original piece is like eight minutes long, but that included a big walk-in piece for the people who are going to listen to it. I suggested that perhaps to get a little bit more impact that the prospective clients should be assembled while the piece is starting to play. They should be seated and then the room should be slowly dimmed into darkness so that you can take full advantage of their listening ability – fewer distractions visually. Let’s make it as consuming as we can. The four minutes that were trimmed off were essentially those pieces, which was more about affecting the people in the room.

Of course if you’re trying to talk to a person in an office – in their own office – which is what this piece is used for – eight minutes is going to be way too long. They’re not going to fully understand it, so cut to the chase. That’s how it ended up being four-minutes.

To be honest, there are a few segments that I would rather have not had in there, but that was a compromise between my own personal belief and the belief of the person who had supplied me the brief. So there were a few additions in there that weren’t necessarily what I would have put in there, but that was all done in the first few months I was with UKRD, so I guess I wasn’t quite as confident with saying, “There’s no way I’m going to do that.” But anyway, the outcome seems okay.

JV: I thought it was brilliant. I could not find any flaws in it. Does the station do seminars like this for clients on a regular basis?
Langley: Yes and no. I mean there is an inherent problem I think with the seminar sale in that you’re getting a whole lot of people in a room who may not have used radio advertising before, and you’re trying to convince them to use radio advertising. And these seminar deals that they propose… “Well, you’ve got to get 70 spots, da, ta, da, ta, da, and this is what it’s going to cost…” Because they try to keep the cost to the client as low as possible, the budget available to create the commercials is diminished. So they may end up with something that is not going to work for them as well as it should. There is a potential there for it not to work for them, and if it doesn’t work for them you’ve lost them. So even though the seminar thing seems like a good idea, ultimately it’s probably not. I don’t know how often they do them now. I think they’re quite rare.

I would prefer that clients were dealt with more one-on-one and got to see the full potential of the creative side, shown that things could be done a little bit differently, rather than sitting in a room with a whole lot of other people presenting them with a bit of a showcase and then go, “Okay, who’s in?” That seems a little impersonal, and I’m not entirely convinced that it’s the best thing for the client.

So again, this is why the Power of Sound piece was edited to four minutes, and then it’s more just about taking that along to your individual client meetings. If somebody’s not quite getting what you’re driving at with the creative led sell, and what we can do with the power of sound, the sales executive can play that for them and go, “This is what we’re driving at.”

I think it’s much better to deal with them one-on-one because then you get to listen to the client more, what their expectations are, and in the long term I think you’re more likely to get return business doing it that way.

JV: We’ve featured several of your commercials and such on the CD already -- very creative material. When did you realize you had this creative knack for something like this?
Langley: I think it’s all been born out of time I spent in theaters really because that’s where the drama in me comes from I suppose. When I first started hanging out with those radio people when I got back to New Zealand, one of the first things I did was make little production pieces, little segments for the Friday night show. They were quite hurriedly thrown together. I was doing them in three to four hours on a Friday afternoon just before the show went out, and I was just messing about. I barely knew how to use a digital editing suite in those days.

But people just seemed to like what I was doing, and to be honest I didn’t have a huge amount of confidence in what I was doing. I listen back to some of that stuff now and I go, “Oh my God, it seems so naïve.” But I don’t know… I guess it’s sort of the worst thing about being creative – and I think it’s universally shared with creative people – you’re never 100 percent confident in what you’re doing, you know? I think in general, creative people sometimes don’t have as much confidence in what they’re doing as they should have. They’re always sort of doubting their abilities or questioning what they’re doing. I think that’s because it’s such a personal thing. I don’t know… People hear my show reel and go, “That’s amazing.” People I work with on a day-to-day basis overhear voiceovers, and I always get a lot of feedback from them, which is all positive and it’s all great. And sometimes I just sit there in my studio, kick back and just go, “How the hell did I get here?”

I don’t know. It seemed to come pretty naturally to me. I never thought I’d be doing this to be honest.

JV: So no exercises or tricks to conjure up the creativity. It just kind of flows naturally as you need it?
Langley: Day to day I feel I’m still learning about it, but the ideas are always there, and it’s certainly an aspiration to do stuff differently or uniquely. And not only for myself, but I’m also coaching the other producers to sort of look at things a little bit differently. Like very recently we’ve been discussing special effects that we’re using. We’re using a lot of stock stuff here and stuff is being reused. Perhaps we should we be making our own because we’re spending a lot of time creating stuff using other people’s work, and it would be far better if we could just do our own. For example, I’m all about the soundstage, right? I’m all about creating a room atmosphere. Say we’re sitting in a room and there’s a cat in the corner and there’s a TV on the other corner. In the past, what was done is we’d take individual sound effects and lay them out to create that atmosphere. Now I think we’re more about creating that atmosphere in the real world and recording that. That takes a lot more time, but it’s a lot more rewarding, and ultimately the outcome is more believable. And I’m about believable.

Getting back to the theater thing where I come from, I think I’m probably a bit more Stanislavski than Brecht. I like to create a degree of realism – and again, that’s in order to grab the attention of the listener. You can put them in the room with the cat and the TV, but I want them to be thinking about what color the walls are, just give them some head space to create their own little scenario. I think that’s where you can get traction on people’s attention.

Let’s think about ad breaks; what are they? Sometimes they can just be freight trains. It’s just one boxcar after another, and they all look the same, they all sound the same and nobody’s listening. We have a boxcar go past that doesn’t have a container on it, it’s like “What the hell was that?” How do we grab their attention? People have used lots of stunts before like silence or jingles… I dislike jingles a lot. To me they’re so 1980s, and I don’t think they serve anybody well. If it’s a really well-done jingle maybe, but so many of them aren’t, and when you get a whole string of them…. I just don’t see the point in those. Everybody just sounds the same. To me it reeks a bit of vanity advertising. It’s not about what the client has to offer, service- or goods-wise, it’s more about the client’s ego, and I don’t think those work very well.

JV: Your time in the theater, you were acting?
Langley: I did a bit of acting – mostly musical theater. I studied opera for five years somewhere amongst all the other stuff I’ve done. I don’t know how that happened but that was mostly the teen years.

JV: You sang opera?
Langley: Yeah, I was a bass baritone. I got a scholarship to do that which I did for a couple of years but I sort of fell out of love with it really. I love the theater but sometimes the people that are in it aren’t so great.

JV: I think that’s where a lot of your skills that you’re using in radio commercial production are coming from, your theatre background.
Langley: Yeah, I think you’re right. I still have in the back of my mind this sort of dream that one day I’d like to own a little theater. One thing that I haven’t done a lot of that I’d like to do more of is sound design in theater. That’s something I’ve thought about a lot.

JV: Do you find that deadlines get in the way of your creativity with commercials, or are you given time to do the kind of stuff that you can do, or are you really fast?
Langley: Well I don’t think I’m that fast, and I wouldn’t like to be that fast because I think the process would be compromised. One thing that Mike Bersin, Colin McGinness and I spoke about when I first was interviewed by them way back was, what sort of workload are we looking at for a producer within UKRD. It became clear very quickly that we were not interested in having commercial producers sitting in studios turning out 20 commercials a day. I don’t know if you use the phrase in the US but over here we call that a sausage factory. We wanted to avoid that sausage factory environment for a number of reasons. One, I don’t think people are very happy working in that environment. Two, the work that comes out of it is compromised. I think the writing becomes compromised in order to accommodate that as well. So the whole creative process just gets messed up real bad. You get commercials that sound pretty average, they don’t work for the client, you don’t have any pride in them, and it’s just no good for anybody.

So today, on a real busy day, one of our producers might have to do 8 to 12 commercials. And if something comes in that needs a bit more time spent on it, that’s what happens. We’ll rally around and everybody will take workload to give one of the producers the time and space to be able to do that.

It’s important that that process is embarked upon. One thing I often say to my producers and something I do a lot myself is, when I get that script in front of me, I want to look through it, look beyond it. We have a requirement really for there to be an open two-way flow of creativity between the writers and the producers. So it’s not just a matter of a script turning up and you making a commercial that fits what’s on the page, particularly if you can see a better way of doing it. What happens next if you feel that way, is you get a hold of the writer and you say, “Well, I think there’s a better way to do it.” There will be some to-ing and fro-ing and hopefully it ends up with the right outcome. The objective is to make great-sounding commercials at the end of the day, and you have to allow the producers the space and the time to be creative. Creativity needs that breathing space. I don’t think it’s something that you can put a stopwatch on too much.

So we could give somebody here two, three, four days to keep coming back with something, but they wouldn’t be spending all their time on that. As I said earlier, these are mostly 30-second commercials, so there’s only so much you can do. It’s more about cementing an idea in your mind I suppose. There’s looking at that script and visualizing where it exists in space and time, and how do we bring it into a kind of reality, that reality being a radio commercial.

JV: What do you look for in a producer when you’re hiring? What catches your eye on a resume or your ears on the demo?
Langley: One thing I spot pretty quickly is tunnel vision. As a producer, I’ve come through a lot of different facets, like the theater and just life experience I suppose; whereas today more and more there are guys who have degrees and stuff like that, and it’s how they use that information that’s important. I think a lot of guys get a little tunnel vision and get a little bit desensitized to the advantages of looking a little bit off beam. Is there a different way we can do that?

The two guys we’ve got working with me at the moment come from different backgrounds producer-wise. Tom is in his early 20s. He does not have a degree or anything like that, but he’s had his own production company for a number of years. He’s a very highly-motivated young man. Most of the work he’s done has been in the imaging sector, but he’s brought his own particular style to the commercials that we produce, and he has a willingness to learn more and more and wants to develop more and more. At the moment, he wants to be more involved in writing because he thinks that’s something that will give him a better ability to process the production aspect of his work.

Luke on the other hand went to university. He has a degree in production. And whenever I hear that I’m a bit worried that there’s going to be that tunnel vision. Outside the box... are they going to be able to do that? But his show reel busted that for me immediately. There were these great soundscapes and the utilization of sound was really well done -- highly technical and quality work, yet it still has those quirky aspects of stuff that pricks the ear.

So that’s what we look for. There are so many people that have show reels where it might be ten 30-second commercials but they all just sort of sound the same. There’s no dynamic. I don’t feel there’s any risk-taking. And voiceover artists do it a lot as well. You get a three-and-a-half minute show reel and it could be them doing the same thing to a different music bed or whatever. I want to hear something that grabs my attention, and being slightly off the run-of-the-mill style is certainly something that grabs my attention.

JV: Any final thoughts before we wrap it up?
Langley: I think the bottom line for me is radio advertising needs to grab people’s attention and it’s all about how creatively we do that. And I think the creative led sell performs well for everybody – the client in particular. If we’re looking to get return business – and I think that’s pretty much what it’s all about over in this part of the world anyway – you’ve got to offer something a little bit different.

As far as convincing clients that that’s the way to go, it can be hard initially, but pretty much they see results right away. So I think it’s all about the creative led sell and making advertisements that people take notice of.

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