Client Voiced Commercials: A Time Wasting Chore, or Your Opportunity to Shine?

One part of radio production that I’ve had success with over the years is client voiced spots. Everybody has to do these, but not all of them sound like there was the same amount of effort involved. In fact, I would venture that most client voiced commercials sound like crap. Clients who want to voice their own spots generally fall into 2 categories: those who want to stroke their own ego, and those who feel that only they can truly represent their business. I really don’t care which category they fall into, it’s our job to make them sound believable.

“Believable” is my key to any client voice-over session. It doesn’t matter if they have a great offer, although that certainly helps. If someone is taking the time to voice their own radio and sounds like the usual polyester hack, nobody will hear the spot, and it will not get the results your client is looking for. Your client has to sound passionate about their business. I mean if they don’t, who will?

I have one lady that comes in to do spots that run on other stations in our group for her seniors’ retirement home. Through just a little patience, I’ve gotten her to really bring to the spot what makes her place different from every other place that you shove Grandma and Grandpa into. It starts with the script she brings in or gets one of our writers to bang off. I take the time to go through the script with her before we start. I ask a lot of questions, really forcing her to focus on what is different and unique about what she’s talking about. Once the script has been rewritten to the point where the message comes across clearly, I then take the time to go through it word by word with her to show her what phrases to emphasize to bring that sparkle and passion to the finished read. You have to coach your client through the entire read. Make them as comfortable and relaxed as you can. It’s not like getting the drive guy in to do half a dozen spots in the 10 minutes before the shift starts; these people are likely to be nervous (first couple of times) or pompous twits who think they know more than you (which they may, to be honest). With the first group, I always have a tape running in case there are lines they do that sound great as I’m coaching them over the headphones. I also mentally book extra time to spend editing their tracks together. With the second group, I’m brutally honest, if not verging on rude. The cliché to think of is car dealers. They generally have one read in them, and can’t really be bothered to try and do anything more than they’ve ever done. My response to them is that if I’m the client, and I don’t believe what they just said, why would I buy the car from them? This will usually start a decent argument. Once they get a little angry and tell me the reasons why I should, I hold up the script and tell them to put that same passion into what they want to say on the radio. They get the idea pretty quickly, and with few exceptions, hard feelings are forgiven, particularly if the spot gets results. Compared to what usually happens with clients, the Christmas kiss I got from my retirement home lady was a pleasant surprise.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, there is absolutely nothing that will make the client sound believable. Some people, particularly their first handful of times in the studio, just freeze up and – sound – like – they – are – reading – every – individual – word – on – the - (sfx: paper turn over) – page. Here’s a trick that I got from Rick Allen out of RAP years ago; have them mimic you! Get them to put the script away and just listen. Feed them the first line, and keep feeding them until they get it right. Then go to the next line. Repeat as needed through the script. It makes more work doing the edits, but there comes a time when you just can’t get the right read, and they’re only going to get worse the more they try. The first time I did this was after trying to get the right read for 45 minutes, I switched to the mimic technique and got what I wanted in under 5 minutes, then spent 5 minutes putting all the tape together. The client was amazed and quite grateful at that point for easing the stress.

Another great technique you can use is what I call free reads. This is very time consuming, but it works amazingly well. You sit your client in your voice booth with headphones and no script. You basically interview the client with tape running, editing together the best bits into a form that makes sense. If the client comes out with something that really sounds interesting, delve into it deeper. I try to have notes going as we talk, trying to tie things together on the go. I also feed the clients lines (just like the mimic technique above) to aid in getting lines that flow one section into the next. You have to have an idea of the client’s needs in their commercial flight, and you have to have an idea of what the client’s business is about. You need to plan time to sit down and do a little research for this, and the rep can be a great help here as well. The first time I tried it, it took an entire day to record and cut three people’s voice tracks into six 60 second spots. The client loved them and ran them in moderately heavy rotation for 9 months. This was from a long-standing client who we had done some really creative spots for over the years. These were the first commercials he said that he loved from the start, and they helped him have one of the best years he’s ever had in his business. This kind of production gives that “jump edit” documentary video feel to your commercials. They just scream honest and believable because they are just edits of two people talking completely unscripted.

Having the client in the studio also lets the two of you find appropriate backgrounds for their spots. Some clients will have a jingle package at your disposal. Unfortunately, not all clients have realized that they don’t have to use their jingle every single time they do radio. If your client is doing something out of the ordinary, then maybe – just maybe – they shouldn’t use the same old ordinary jingle that they’ve used for years. I’ve found it valuable to have the client there to approve beds and sfx. It gives me a clearer view of the sound that they have in their heads, and the next time they come back (after all, their first flight was successful wasn’t it?) we have a base to work from. Now, you don’t want to sit there for a couple of hours listening to 70 tracks on 20 different CDs. Again, ask some questions, like what do they want in terms of tempo or instrumentation (wailing guitars are usually the bone of contention). Since you know what you have in your music arsenal, you should be able to pull out a couple of things that will elicit more than the “I don’t like it” response. Take what the client says and go from there. Be prepared to loop and edit parts of a bed the client likes well and delete the parts they don’t. In the competitive business environment that radio has become, anything you can do to better serve the client’s needs is going to help.

Some clients even want to be involved in the details of the mix. Remember that they are likely hung up on the words and may not be thinking of the total package fitting into the rest of your on-air sound, particularly if they wrote it. Try doing the mix for them on the cue speaker to show them how it will sound in the context of a lesser listening environment. Try using a touch more EQ on both backgrounds and voice to separate them in the spectrum more so that your background doesn’t get lost. I like to make sure the first thing that gets run off when the mix is finalized is the cassette dub for the client. They can walk out of the building knowing what is going to air, and that they are sold and satisfied.

Client voiced spots are either going to be a chore or an opportunity to shine as you super-serve a client who is paying your station a ton of money. If they like you, and like the results of their spots, they are more likely to become a repeat customer. Do you think your GM is going to like repeat customers? Oh yeah! Plus, as the relationship develops between you and the client, the sales rep becomes just and order taker. Do you think they’re going to appreciate that and make your life better? Well, let's be realistic—“maybe” to the first part and “no” to the second. Some of my reps notice; some don’t. Whaddya gonna do??? The good news is that the more your client does their own reads, the better they’re going to get. One ski/bike retailer that used to take two hours to do a couple of reads now whips them off in 20 minutes. He has narrowed his radio buy to only a couple of stations, but will only work with me. He trusts my opinion, and he trusts me.

It’s really quite simple. This kind of session is going to happen in any market and any station you work at. You can make them boring, insignificant, and stressful, or an opportunity to make sure that you are putting your best possible product on the air. If you are into doing free-lance, it’s a great opportunity to plant some word of mouth seeds about you and your skills. If you are looking at life after radio, this is how the big bad world of advertising works anyway, with the client always looking over your shoulder and offering up their opinion at every turn. It really is up to you to make the most of the situation.

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