by Mark Margulies
"I have absolutely no need for your services. My salespeople write the copy -- always have, always will." I was listening patiently, finishing up a sales call with the GSM I had been told by a friend to contact. "The fact is, I don't see a need for your service anywhere. And I can't imagine anyone wanting to use you."
Fortunately, he was wrong on both counts. But here's the REALLY interesting part of the story: this wasn't a GSM in Lexington, Kentucky or Albany, Georgia. This wasn't a small or medium market station that couldn't afford copywriters and production staff because of revenue or didn't know any better. This was Philadelphia, PA, the number four market in the U. S. of A.!
This, to me, was astounding. And yet, this is a thought I'd run into more than any other in radio. "My AEs write all their own copy. It's part of their job." Some truly believe that. And, I'll admit, I can see the grounds for their logic. After all, they figure, the AE is in the trenches, on the front lines. They're the ones that deal with the client on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, the thought follows, they must know the client and the idea they're trying to convey the best. And in that assumption, they're right.
But then comes the leap of faith that makes me crazy (you too, I'll bet). It's the thought that says, "As long as they're the ones who know what the clients want to say, they should put the ad together." Good thought. Bad execution.
Just because an AE meets with the client every day, goes drinking with them, has them over to their house for dinner, doesn't mean they know any more about putting a successful ad together than the family dog. Because, no matter how long an AE has been in the business, no matter how many times they tell you about all the "ads I've written," they just don't understand how to write to make a radio ad work.
The proof is in the way they handle their own responsibilities, not just those thrust upon them in terms of copy. Most times, they're not even doing a good job as an AE. Here's what I mean: Say there's a hypothetical client that's a restaurant, a restaurant that runs daily specials and wants them highlighted. In most cases, the AE goes in, gets all the information about the weekly specials, brings them back to the station, and writes an ad featuring the specials for every day of the week.
Now, stop for a second. Show this one example to your Sales Manager. If they shake their head and go, "Yeah? So? That's fine," start updating your resume immediately, because this Sales Manager and AE both missed the point.
Do you care on Tuesday at 10:13 a.m. what a restaurant is serving for dinner on Friday? People can't even plan lunch, let alone what's going to happen three days from now. And then, Friday, do you honestly care (as that same one ad keeps airing) what happened on Tuesday? No. But it's all in that one, all-inclusive spot that keeps running over and over, trying to be everything to everybody. And guess what happens? Tune out. And guess who gets the blame? Radio. All thanks to that AE who's the copy expert, who's written all those radio ads, who knows everything about the client. The AE missed their chance and, what's worse, never even saw it.
What the AE SHOULD be doing, were they TRUE creative experts, is saying to that restaurant owner, "We can do this ad for you, but it really won't be as effective as if you upped your schedule a little and produced a single theme ad with a donut we can change daily. That way, every day you highlight that particular day's special. And that affects people more directly and immediately. Then, when they come to your restaurant, tell them about the rest of the week."
An upsell. Simple radio sales. And, most times, the direct result of a copywriter who grabbed that AE aside and said, "Hey, this is silly. Why don't you try highlighting the specials each day instead of packing them together like this?" This mistake is made every day, in every market, by people who insist they "know how to write radio copy." Yet, if they truly did, you'd never hear those ads on the air. But you do -- because AEs aren't trained to write radio ads.
Let's not even start to touch on perception. In only the smallest town newspapers do the salespeople handle copy and layout. In only the smallest cable TV stations and markets will you find a sales exec who writes the clients' copy. Yet radio, even in its largest markets with the highest CPMs in the industry, still insists, "It's the salesperson's job to write copy." It's all image, and in an image business, we've dropped the ball.
But, in reality, what this all really boils down to is the bottom line -- profit margin. Management feels it's being prudent, saving the salary of a copy or creative person by putting the onus on the salesperson. And in some smaller markets, today's economic picture forces them to do so. That, anyone can understand. But what happens, many times, is these "cost cutting" techniques only end up being revenue cutters, because the money saved in the short term, in salary, is lost in the long term. Problems like reduced spec spot development, lack of campaign planning or marketing goals, and, finally, lack of results due to poor quality all become endemic and take their toll on revenue.
So why are there still so many management types who tell you radio copy is "my Account Executives' job"? The answer lies in the nature of radio in the '90s. Practically gone are the days of the career broadcaster. Major companies or broadcast groups now own, lease, or duopolize most of the radio stations in this country. And that means long-term planning becomes an oxymoron, like "jumbo shrimp" or "occasional furniture." Radio stations today are properties that are bought to be sold. Thus, the idea of "long term" to most companies means, what can we do to reduce costs THIS QUARTER to keep our balance sheets attractive.
Radio will be around long after most of these people are fired, quit, or have been promoted to places where they can do the least amount of harm. But the shape they're going to leave radio in is debatable. We don't need AEs who slice, dice, and make julienne fries. We need AEs who sell, who collect, who create and maintain revenue through sales. We need creative people who create, support people to support, and air talent to make it sound good on the air. That's when radio is at its best. That's when radio can beat anything around. And that's the radio we should all be striving for.