R.A.P. Interview: Earl Pilkington

Earl Pilkington, Senior Creative Copywriter, West Coast Radio, Mandurah, Western Australia

Earl Pilkington webby Jerry Vigil

Earl Pilkington started getting paid for writing commercial copy when he was 11 years old. He’s still getting paid for his commercial scripts 35 years later, and did much more in the years between, including television, film, newspaper and radio. He’s currently the Creative Copywriter at West Coast Radio in Australia, cranking out the copy for an AM/FM combo in Mandurah – Coast FM & 6MM. He has contributed several articles to RAP in the past year and most recently uploaded over 100 of his more recent scripts to RAP’s new Copy Bank for all to use. This is a special kind of guy nestled away in the town of Mandurah in a rather isolated part of the world in Western Australia, and it was time to find out a little bit more about him.

JV: What was your first job in the industry and how did you get it?
Earl: My first job was actually writing ad copy for newspapers when I was 11 years old. I won a poster competition and then started to do newspaper copy, and basically that put me through high school and through my education, doing newspaper stuff and writing editorials, which got me into writing and then doing other bits and pieces. I've sort of been involved in it since a very, very young age.

And I was really, really into radio because we had a next door neighbor who actually had his own home recording studio. I used to go in there and learn from him, watch him edit commercials and such, and that got me interested in radio.

JV: When you say doing newspaper copy put you through school, were you already getting paid at 11 years of age?
Earl: Yes. I started from age 11 getting paid every week to do print ads for our local car yard. There was only one car yard ad, and it was per week. They basically dropped all the details off to me, and I'd sit there and write it all up, mock it up on the computer, then take it in to the newspaper, and then they'd talk me through and explain how page layout and everything worked. I learned all that stuff with newspaper and how to design an ad that would get people's attention, using the right words and using the right fonts and all that. And that has sort of carried over to today. Even now when I look at stuff, I go, what's my tagline? What's going to grab people's attention? So from a very early age, I was being taught all the basics, and I still use them to this day.

JV: You really got some training in advertising and learned what makes it tick way, way early in your career.
Earl: It's probably the reason why I got so into media at an early age, because from that point onwards, I was constantly looking at things differently, at how media was actually produced and how I would listen to a news broadcast. I’d watch TV news and say, well the camera is pointing that way to give that person a bit of authority or whatever. I've picked up on all the subtle signs and languages that media has.

I taught myself all those things and then when I finally got to go to university, they're trying to tell me how a newspaper works and how a radio station works. I'm going, no, it doesn't work like that. You've got no idea. You've never worked in the field. You know the theory, but you don't know the practicalities of it. And so it brought me to a lot of conflict with the people at university. [Laughs]

JV: What made you decide to settle into commercial writing and production?
Earl: I had left radio for a long time, and I was working in PR for a local performing arts center, dealing with all the international acts that were coming through. I was doing all the podcasts and everything for them. While I was on holiday, I got a call from the station manager here, who knew that I had been producing all the ads for the performing arts center myself -- I wouldn't leave it for the radio station to write the ad. I knew exactly what I wanted. So I'd write them myself, produce them myself, get someone to voice them, edit them all together and then send them back to the station. While I was on holidays they said, we've just had someone leave. Are you interested in coming back to radio? I thought about it for a good 30 seconds and went, "Yes."

I didn't realize how much I actually had missed it, but doing all that stuff had sort of scratched that itch again to get back into radio and get back into production. While I was doing that, I was still doing freelance work for other people, writing ads for them, for clients all around the world, which is the best thing about the Internet. Then they finally caught on here that I was actually writing stuff for other people and they said, would you like to switch from production to doing copy? I said yes, and that's what I've been doing for the last eight years... writing commercials.

JV: Do you do any production of them at all?
Earl:
I do produce them when we've got people away. We've got a producer that's here at the moment. He's really, really good. His name is Carl Darby, and he's from the UK, born and bred, and absolutely fantastic at his job. Just cannot believe how good he is. I've thoroughly enjoyed working with Carl. He's been absolutely brilliant. And because I've worked in that department, I know what music we have, what sound effects we have and everything like that, so I know how that department works and what we've got available to us. So writing for that makes it a lot easier. I sort of know, yes, we can have that particular sound effect, or no, we'll have to try and source that one, or what type of music, what type of voices we have available. Actually when I'm writing, I know what the voices of the station sound like, so I can write particularly to them. I really try and keep in mind who is reading what, and write accordingly.

JV: Some months ago you pointed me to a blog you have for small businesses to access for helpful information about their marketing. Are you still doing that?
Earl: Yes, the blog for clients is still going. We actually had our latest blog post go up yesterday, which was about using body language in radio commercials when you're in the booth recording -- where you have your hands up, hands down, whether you're talking with a smile, hunching your body over, and how it sounds and how it can make all the difference in a radio commercial, as well as making all the difference when you're actually talking to people in your business.

Take hands for example… If you've got a palm up or palm down or palm closed, it makes all the difference. Palm up leads to a request or an open ended question. Palm down means that you're authoritative, “don't question me; I know what I'm talking about”. And palm closed or if you're pointing a finger, that’s very aggressive -- and that also comes across when people are doing voiceover in booths.

So when I get them to voice something, I'll give them directions -- smile, take a deep breath here, make an open ended question here, sound quite authoritative there, really demanding at this particular point in the ad and so on. I give them a lot of direction. Some people like it, some people don't like it. But that's sort of just me, the way I do things. I like to have a bit more control in the booth and make sure people do it as I imagine it's going to sound.

JV: The blog sounds quite helpful to clients as well as producers. How did it get started?
Earl: Many years ago, when I was working in television -- I worked in TV for 12 years -- I was constantly talking to clients who had no idea about how the industry worked and how media worked. So I proposed to my bosses that I'd like to do an instructional video to help people figure out how they can actually use commercials properly, how to make them work. They said, sure, if you want to do it, go for it. So I started there, and then when I came to radio, I wanted to continue that and actually make it more about educating clients so they can actually understand everything from the opening line of a commercial, through to designing their ad, the sound of their ad, what details they need to have, one idea to pull through the commercial. I wanted to educate people so they knew what they were talking about and could take advantage of what radio can do over other media.

That's the big thing that I discovered, that radio can actually work more effectively than newspapers, and I worked in newspapers for eight years, in TV for 12. TV can work well if you've got something really visual to sell, but nowhere near as good as what radio can do, because you can be anything on the radio. You can be a car talking to a client. You can be a roof talking to a client. It can do everything, whereas TV is very restrictive with what it can do with the budgets people have.

JV: Is this blog available to anyone?
Earl: Yes. It's on our radio station’s website at coastlive.com.au, in the Info menu drop down tab labeled Blog for Clients. We've actually got people from all the around the world who read it and download stuff from it.

Every e-mail we send out to a client, when I'm writing the ads for them, mentions the blog and that they can go there and find all this information available for them. And people ask questions quite often. They'll e-mail me and say, I need to understand about this or that particular thing. So I'll put that up as a blog post and answer their questions. We've gotten a lot of feedback from local people as well as people from around the world who look at it.

JV: I understand you're also writing a book for small business marketing?
Earl: Yes, that's been on the go for quite a while now. Every time I think I've got a handle on it, something changes, the technology changes, and it's like, well, I have to throw that out and start again. The whole thing with Facebook totally threw me for a blinder. I didn't think Facebook would take off -- I personally don't like Facebook, but everyone who is in business should have a Facebook page. But the book was actually all about how to market your business without spending too much money, how to actually capitalize on using word of mouth advertising, which sort of tied in very nicely to using radio advertising. Even when I was working in TV, I was sort of like, TV is great, but it's not really getting the results people need. Radio sort of works for everything, no matter what your business is. That's where I wanted to concentrate what the book was all about, using radio more effectively. I’ve been working on the book for nearly 10 years now, working on it off and on, but other little projects keep on popping up.

JV: Why the dislike for Facebook?
Earl: I like my private life private. The other thing is the amount of time people tend to spend on it. I don't have that time to spend on stuff like that. I spend all my time outside of work writing or doing other little projects, so I really wouldn't have time to even spend on social media. In fact, I've stopped using my Twitter account for the last year and a half now because I just did not have time to use it anymore. I'm dropping all social media off because I just don't have the time -- too many projects. I bought a website for myself to set up about four years ago, and I still have not put a single post up on it. I just own the domain.

JV: Another thing you’re into is data mining. That's a different path for a radio production guy…
Earl: I used to do focus groups when I was working in TV. We used to get people in and ask them different questions about the different type of programs they wanted to see and other things. I used to really enjoy getting all that information together and putting it together as a report. I never really thought much about it, and then one of the managers here asked me if I had ever thought about doing data mining. I had never heard of it. So I went off and did a bit of research, which is typical for me, and I came back about a week later and said, yeah, I can do that.

I found probably 10 books on the subject and started to work at it. Three months later, I produced about four reports for us. We've got one that went out to the public so that people can actually see what the radio station is all about. Another one, which is all about our listeners, is used here in the station, so we know who our listeners are. That's one of the things we've never had access to. We're a provincial station here at Coast FM and 6MM, and we don't actually do surveys. So it's hard for us to know who is actually listening unless we do our own thing or rely on someone else to do it.

So this data mining was based on bureau statistics information, surveys that were done by the city of Mandurah, and a lot of other information we could find online and in local publications. I put it all together in these different reports, just so we could have some information about our listeners. I really enjoyed doing it. It was quite fascinating. I sent it off to quite a few people that looked at it and said, yes, that's brilliant, we want you to do it for us. I said no. That's two months' worth of work that I could not possibly spare from my work to do.

But I really enjoyed it. That's surprising. I never thought someone like me, who was a math-phobic person in high school, would actually enjoy doing math and database interrogation and finding out information. Now it's really kicked off a hunt for mathematics information. My daughter is a real math nut, so it's been interesting to talk to her about statistics and such. I thoroughly enjoy it.

JV: Tell us a bit about Mandurah.
Earl: The population is about 80,000 and it’s actually quite varied and spread. We're on the coast in Western Australia, so we're about an hour out of the city of Perth, which is one of the most isolated cities in the world. We've got a vast desert between us and the rest of the country.

JV: Your two stations, do they only serve Mandurah, or do they get out far enough to reach Perth?
Earl: We get out quite a way. We actually get right up to Perth and the other side of Perth itself. So people can pick us up as far away as nearly 200 kilometers. Our broadcast footprint depends on the weather conditions here, because we're right on the coast. Our signal will actually bounce across the water quite well, so people as far away as the other side of the city or even way down south can actually pick us up. So we do get quite a few people listening that way, but we've also got our app, which people use a lot. We have people listening as far away as Canada, the UK, Oslo, Christchurch in New Zealand, and lots of people in America listen to us on both TuneIn Radio and on our app as well.

JV: Are there other duties that you have with the stations aside from writing copy and data mining?
Earl: Yes, unfortunately. [Laughs] I do the video for the screens at the front. Because of my background being in TV, it's easy enough to do, so I do the content for two great big video screens we have out in the reception area, which project up all the details about the shows and their hosts. I set up the virtual studio we have here at the station, and we now record our news broadcast every morning in our green screen room. The journo goes in and records it, and then it gets produced by our digital department, and then put on the website.

JV: What are the formats of the two stations?
Earl: The format of the AM station is '70s, '80s, '90s, and current hits, but it's more relaxed. It's very much a different target compared to the hits that we have on the FM station. We're carrying mostly females on Coast FM and mainly males on the AM station. That's because we're now going more and more into sport.

JV: When you mentioned the video newscast, I though perhaps the AM station was a news station. Why do a video newscast?
Earl: The newscast we're finding is attracting a lot of people for lots of different reasons. We cover all the local news we have here, plus also international and national news. But people are watching on Facebook more than anything else. They're not actually going to the website to watch it. It’s just another way of keeping people informed of what's actually happening. It's something that's very easy to do, and I'm surprised a lot of other stations don't do it. It's a matter of actually finding a space. I ended up taking over one of the studios.

JV: Who's the newsperson?
Earl: We've got a news journalist called Monique Passchier, two journalists who work for us actually. Monique is the senior journalist at the moment.

JV: What is one of the big things that you've learned over the years about writing copy that gets results?
Earl: When a job gets handed to me, I don't think about what I can do in order to win myself an award; I think about what's going to work for the client. I've also got a background in selling advertising and actually running businesses. I know I could write an ad that's going to win me an award, but I don't concentrate on that. I want to make them come back and spend more money with us. That puts me at odds with a lot of the other copywriters I've worked with over the years who've said to me, no, no, no, you need to concentrate on producing the best quality thing so you can submit that for an award. I don't want to do that. I want to actually get the client coming back and spending more money with us.

It is one of the hardest things to try and get your head around, what the client wants, because the rep has been out and talked to the client and written down a whole heap of notes for you. You go, okay, that's your interpretation of it, but what is it the client actually wants? They want people to come in the store and spend money, so I have to consider that. Once I get a clear idea of that in my mind, then I'll try and think of the first line of an ad that's going to really attract attention. And then what's the one bit of detail that's going to make them stop what they're doing and go into the store to actually buy something?

It's very, very hard. Sometimes you can get clients who just go, no, no, I just want this, so you have to do it. Other times, you can come up with a creative idea and think, oh yeah, this is actually going to work. We've got some clients who want creative ads, and I'm really happy to work with those because they'll let you do whatever you want. Other times we've got clients who say, no, I want straight down the line. This is us, this is our address, this is what we're selling, this is our address, come and see us, and that's what you have to write.

So it's a matter of trying to get into the client's head and figure out what's going on, and it is a very, very hard thing to do, and that's where my mentors have come into play with me. They've taught me really well over the years. I fall back on what they've taught me, and it's been constantly a thing of going back to what I've been taught by the newspaper, TV, radio, and even film to catch up with what they've done and go, okay, that's how they saw it. It will work in this circumstance, and then try and be creative. But sometimes it's very much of a guessing game, when you think about it.

JV: Have you ever tried to estimate the number of scripts that you think you've written over your career?
Earl: Yes I have, actually. About six months ago, I think I worked it out. I had at that point around three and a half thousand scripts I’d written. I also had several TV specials and other things I've worked on over the years, copies of those scripts. And now probably I'm popping out around 200 scripts a month, both for here and also freelance stuff, and that sort of brings the total up quite a bit every single month. But that's only in the last couple years that I've started doing twice the amount of stuff I'm actually producing out of hours. I've actually decided as of last month that I'm not doing anymore freelance stuff. I just do not have the time right now.

JV: What do you enjoy most about creating commercials? Results you get for the client, or just the creation of it itself?
Earl: The actual process of creation is what I actually enjoy. If I can hear or get an idea or one line in my mind, or one word even that sticks in my mind that goes, yes, this is what I can hang the whole commercial on, I thoroughly enjoy that process of writing something to it. I'll give you an example. Yesterday, I had a client who had an ad which utilized the word “focus”. I went, wow, that's great, I can use that because every single part of the commercial was all about focusing. That was enough to hang a whole commercial on, just that one word. I sat down and bashed out the ad in probably five to 10 minutes then tweaked it a little bit more, and then I was happy to send that on to the client. They got back to me within 10 minutes and said, yep, go ahead, do it.

And normally, when I write ads, I don't write just one ad. I write three ads that I send to clients. This is what one of my mentors taught me. He said, always do a straight ad, do a creative ad, and do one in between. Give them the choice, because they're the ones paying for it.

JV: You are a fan of paying it forward, not only with something like the Copy Bank, but you're into mentoring as well. You've written some articles on that. How can you tell when you have a sharp student on your hands? What tells you that they're gonna make it in the industry?
Earl: When they get passionate about something. There are some people who are very withdrawn into themselves, and it takes a lot to get them out. But once you get them talking about a particular subject or a particular part of their work, they get really excited and that in turn excites me -- yes, yes, you can this, you can do that, this is how you can do that a little bit better. Just finding that one thing that they're passionate about is enough to go, yes, this is the type of person I want to work with. Other times, I've dealt with people who aren't. They're basically just doing it so they can get a paycheck, and you can really tell that. They just really don't care.

Passion is the one thing. It doesn't matter what it is. You can have someone who is really passionate about words or someone who is really passionate about talking. Some people who are the best jocks I've ever come across in the world are so passionate about communicating whatever it is they're talking about. You can see they're excited about it, but they sometimes just lack that confidence, and you have to build them up. I thoroughly enjoy the process of actually training someone, to get them to the point where they don't need you anymore, and then they pass it on to someone else.

That's the thing about mentoring that I always tell people -- it's not just about doing our relationship here, it's other relationships down the road that I want you to do. I don't want this to be a one off thing just with me talking to you. You have to then pass it on to someone else.

I really would love to spend more time mentoring people, but there's so many other things I'm working on at the moment. I've got 10 to 15 projects I'm working on on the side. In six months' time, things may change, and I'll have all the time in the world. We'll just wait and see.

♦ 

Earl welcomes your correspondence at earlp@coastradio.com.au and invites you to visit him on LinkedIn.

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