Getting Desperate

By Steve McKenzie

There’s something about hunger, and desperation, that brings out the best in us. When you don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills, when you don’t know how you’re going to make it, you start thinking: “What now? What can I do to improve my situation, improve my skills, improve my career, improve my life?”

Pressure brings out the best in us. It’s not fun, it’s not something we look forward to, but it can make us better people professionally and personally. The past few months I’ve been thinking about where I am financially, and I haven’t been too happy. I need a change. I need to make a difference in my career and my financial picture.

Okay, so what do I have control of? First and foremost, your skills. If you are good at what you do, you have value. Focus on your abilities, ask questions, work on improving your existing skills, so that, even if your current employer doesn’t notice, some other company will, and you’ll be better off for it.

Invest in yourself. No one will do this for you. Determine what it is you love and pursue it. Read books. Read books. Read books. Books are to the mind what software is to computers. They give you leverage to do things you couldn’t do otherwise. Listen to music and good production. Immerse yourself in your passion, and you’ll always see a return on your investment. On your journey, it helps if you always have the goal in mind. If you’re not happy with where you are, tape your destination to the front of your mind and look at it regularly. It’s okay to dream. Every inventor who ever lived, every poet who ever wrote, every musician who ever composed, first dreamed. Dream first, then do.

Like so many things, in radio, there are a handful of positions that offer real financial rewards. This being the case, you need to be the kind of production person that merits those dollars. In order to do this, you need to be marketable. So take a look at your skills, and if you’re not proficient in one area, maybe you can develop it. Or if your voice could use some help, practice reading copy, or talk with an established voice talent for their suggestions. These are the kinds of things that you’ll do when you’re hungry.

You and I both know plenty of folks who are going through the motions. This is simply a job for them, and they have no desire of making it any more than that. You, however, want more. Your desire is to go beyond the dull, rote aspects of radio production and make it something incredible. To do this, you start asking questions. You start asking “Why?” and “What?” and “Who?” You begin experimenting (even if you fail from time to time), because the goal is to innovate, to create, to be the best. If this is your goal, you’ll eventually hit the mark, and in so doing, be where you want to be financially.

Become a production “groupie.” (Reading this magazine is a good start.) You’ll learn a lot and become better for it. Heck, in January's RAP, I was reading John Pellegrini’s article, and he mentioned the book, The Shipping News. As a result, I bought the book, and I’m sure it’ll improve my writing skills. It’s my job as a hungry person to do whatever it takes to make my life better. I don’t have a choice. I’m hungry! So how’s your appetite? Are you sick of where you are? Is it time to make some changes?

In order to be the best, you have to create the best product. Here are few ideas for getting there:

If you listen to most of the in-house commercials on your station, you’ll notice a similarity. The majority of these are probably straight reads with some malnourished music behind it. This is a totally valid style. However, when everyone does it, these kinds of commercials lose their punch. Humans are drawn to things that get attention, i.e. a deer running across an open field, a shooting star, an explosion, or an intriguing piece of art. These examples are much more interesting than merely an open field, blank sky, silence, or a white wall. This is where brainstorming comes into play. If your commercial is more interesting, engaging, or intriguing than your competition’s, you win!

The challenge is coming up with the “seed.” Think of a client you want to create an ad for. Once you have that in your mind, start asking questions…start thinking. What angle will make this ad really come alive? What voice would best deliver the copy? What kind of music and sound effects should you use? Who should you target the spot toward? Who are you trying to reach? Children? Seniors? Generation X? Knowing these details will clarify your approach, since older demographics tend to be more conservative in nature.

These are just a few questions. There are infinitely more questions that can be asked too:

What if you changed the delivery of the ad (the way the announcer/actor speaks)? Make it slower, faster, erratic, rushed, whispered, yelled, dramatic, humorous, or use a combination of these to make your point?

Could you create a character, i.e. the Budweiser frogs, Ronald McDonald, The Primeco alien, to identify your client/product?

Can your message be turned into a jingle?

What if you incorporated a musical “sounder” to identify your client, i.e. Intel?

What will make this ad stand out from the rest?

What if you create an ad from the product’s point of view (i.e., a piece of furniture describing how nice it is to finally be “home” after working so hard in the showroom day after day).

Some additional techniques/ideas worth exploring are juxtaposition (contrasting two different ideas/concepts/styles with each other), approaching a product from a child’s point of view, reading a commercial in the style of an automated voicemail, spoofing a soap opera and inserting client information, creating a silly (or serious) jingle that gets a point across, using a tongue-in-cheek approach, inserting a strange character as the announcer voice, using sarcasm, incorporating things everyone is familiar with (morning commute, children, sporting events, arguments) into your commercials.

Brainstorm! Let your mind go. Remember, there are no bad ideas when brainstorming. Even if something seems totally out-of-place or inappropriate, you may find use for it later on. I find the best place to brainstorm is in the car. The steady rumble of the car is a nice backdrop from which to work. I just have a pad of paper on the passenger seat (I write without taking my eyes of the road!) and go. I scour my brain for experiences or techniques, which might prove effective for the client I’m focusing on.

Brainstorming is the art of triggering your memory and unlocking the treasures buried in your mind. It is for this reason that brainstorming works best with others. Undoubtedly, they will say something that sparks something in your mind, which leads to something else and something else, and soon you find you have an entire page of great ideas ready to chew upon.

Be a cow. Ruminate. Chew upon all the ideas (good or bad) before you. The more you digest and refine your ideas, the better chance you have of creating a real gem.

Obviously, you need to be aware of all the players on your production team. If you don’t have a woman who can pull off a German accent, then you don’t want to create commercials that utilize that kind of character. You need to play to the talent you have available. If all you have is a good male and female announcer voice, you will be more limited in the kind of commercial you can create, but it can still be different, attention-getting, and effective.

If you want to see what can be done with brainstorming, peruse a Radio-Mercury Awards CD (available from the Radio Advertising Bureau). This features a good cross-section of serious, humorous, and avant-garde pieces that are exceptionally creative, yet very effective. Surround yourself with these types of commercials, and you will begin to think “farther” than you have before. Take a sheet of paper and draw a circle. This represents every average commercial ever created. Outside this circle is every commercial that will get attention, get results, and make a difference. What can you do to go beyond this border and make a difference?

When commercials sound the same or have the same style, people don’t pay as much attention to them. They need pizzazz, zip, and zing—the kinds of things that draw attention to themselves, and in so doing, draw attention to the advertiser.

Recently, I have been researching various brainstorming tools and creative ways to come up with new ideas. Note that these programs and methods do not do the work for you, but they do provide the stimulus and input to trigger new ideas, unique combinations, and novel ways of doing things. One of these programs is called “IdeaFisher.” It is an idea-linking database that helps make associations between words and ideas you know, and those that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. It is a good research tool and helps expand your vocabulary and range of thinking. For more details, go to their website, www.ideafisher.com. The more associations you can make, the better chance you have of finding a better angle for your client. Search the web and look for ways of enhancing your creativity, concentration, thinking skills. Your brain is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger and more resilient it becomes.

Locate a client you would like to target with a spec spot. Do your research, investigate, brainstorm, and practice these techniques to come up with something that’s different than anything you’ve done before. Regardless whether the commercial ever makes it to air, you’ll find that it’s fun to go beyond the borders you’re used to. The best commercials ever created are yet to be created. As you reach and stretch and yearn toward new creative heights, you’ll find yourself soaring higher and higher.

I’ve thought several times, “What if I can’t come up with something unique again?” or “What if I can’t match the creative qualities of that spot.” I’ve learned never to worry. The possible ad combinations are infinite. You will never, ever, ever, run out of ideas or combinations for your commercials. The key to consistent creativity is brainstorming. If you practice it, you will do it. Challenge yourself to always think “outside the box.”

As in baseball, no one ever has a perfect batting average. There will be times when you will succeed gloriously and other times when you will strike out. Keep in mind that whenever you strike out, you learn, and with practice, you will become a consistent hitter.

On your journey, talk with people you respect and admire. Ask them questions; bounce your work off them. They too, are the product of years of hard work and hunger and searching. Take advantage of their wisdom and let it shape and mold your life. Then someday you will repay the favor to another young, hungry production person who refuses to be satisfied with where they are. It’s the “circle of (production) life.”

Recently, I was talking with a Chicago radio GM about my frustration that no downtown radio stations had called me regarding my production. Her reply was quite blunt: “Don’t expect anyone to call you. These are all people who are busy, busy people. Have you sent them any of your work? Have you spoken with anyone?” Of course, my answer was no—I was expecting the world to come knocking on my door. I had to take a proactive approach and start contacting these folks myself.

Find the direction you want to go and make preparations. If you eventually want to make it to a major-market station, then it might be wise to learn some of the most popular editing/multi-track programs, so you’ll be more marketable. Read everything you can about copy writing. Surf the web for every possible writing, creative, brainstorming angle. See what the competition’s doing on their websites. Let this stimulate your brain to show you what’s possible. Then, begin the journey. It’ll probably start out like pushing a car—slow at first, then faster until it feels like you’re barely pushing at all.

The good thing about all this is that normally, you’d be unmotivated to see any of this happen. However, in your present financial state (bills are a great motivator), you can do it, because you’re hungry, you’re desperate, and you want to see change. I am a hungry man right now, and I will do whatever it takes in the freelance/radio area to make my dreams come true.

So get started! Network with radio professionals (even if you don’t know them personally), make phone calls, ask questions, state your goals and mission, and let them help you. It’s amazing what can happen when you buy someone a cup of coffee. You make an acquaintance and at the same time walk away with some priceless advice. Another good thing is that people know people. The more people you network with, the more opportunities you’ll have to meet people who might be able to offer you a job.

Fill your mind with stuff. Read books and trade publications. Immerse yourself in your passion, and it will pay off. Hunger is not a fun feeling, but it is the sole reason why Super Bowl ads are funny (and effective) and movies are engaging. Within these creative teams are hungry people, with a passion for excellence, a passion to do it better than the rest, and a passion to get noticed—all because they want the next step, the next level in their careers. Do this and you too will climb that ladder.

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