by Sterling Tarrant
We've all had experiences with "Agencies." Let me tell you one of my most memorable. An agency Creative Director from a large Midwestern Town was in my studio in Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs is the home of the United States Olympic Training Center and Sheryl Swoopes, a member of the Women's Olympic Basketball Team, was here. The Creative Director flew in here to record a session with her for a Nike radio spot. At that time, Sheryl Swoopes was the only other basketball player, except for Michael Jordan, who had a Nike shoe named after her (the Air Swoopes). To make a long story short, Sheryl Swoopes is now playing for the WNBA, the Creative Director took the tape and six months to pay me, and I had to shell out big bucks to replace my Program Director's Headphones which Sheryl Swoopes broke.
Moral of the story: The one who was the least paid of the three ended up paying the most. The other moral was that I looked at what that Creative Director did, and I thought to myself, "I could do that." Then I remembered the stories of Dennis Daniel as he crossed over from radio to an agency, and then, just recently, I read with interest John Pellegrini's stories about the way that agencies work. Maybe the moral of this story has yet to be told.
Then Craig Rogers of WHO in Des Moines took the time to e-mail me saying, "I have an idea for your column. I think it was sparked after reading Jeffrey Hedquist's interview in the June issue of RAP. I always find myself asking after having talked with him, what does it take to get that agency sound? Is it the luxury of time? The budget for talent? Natural talents?"
Very good questions. So, I asked Dennis Daniel and Jeffrey Hedquist: "How do you get that agency sound?"
Dennis Daniel/One on One Productions says: I think the first way of looking at it is that I'm not like a big agency like a BBDO or an Ogilvy and Mather. I'm a Production Company attached to an advertising agency, and it functions much like a production department at a radio station. One of the nice things about having a setup like this is, yes, you have a budget for a production. You know you're being paid for these commercials. Let's look at both scenarios. At a radio station, you don't have much turnaround. Most of the time you have a day or two to get a spot done. You either have the talent on air, or in the office, or from some other local source. You usually have to do the spot NOW with the resources you have available.
In an agency situation, you're pitching all kinds of different stuff at first. Radio, print, television, public relations...it's a whole package. Everything has a budget, and everything gets rewritten and sent and rewritten and sent and rewritten and so on....
It adds up to having time on your side. That lets you refine. In the refinements you get to ask the client if they want this voice or that voice, and you can provide them with voice demo tapes where they can pick who they want. Once they pick a person, if they fit in the budget, then it's easy with ISDN to get them.
I've done work for agencies before where simple spots that we would do in ten minutes at a radio station would take an entire day at the agency...just for the voice alone! "Give it to me a little softer, a little harder, now soft and hard, now do it like Robin Leach," over and over and over. In an agency situation it becomes a big throbbing massive collaborative monster between the client and the agency, and hopefully everyone's on the same wavelength.
Jeffrey Hedquist/Hedquist Productions in Fairfield, Iowa adds that a number of things contribute to that agency sound. "One thing we do is, when we get a piece of copy from a client or a free-lance copywriter, we'll sit and analyze it and ask: 'How can this be made better?' We look at timing, whether or not the humor is coming across, is it conversational? Part of getting that agency sound is accomplished by not trying to cram a lot of stuff into a spot. Simplify, simplify, simplify...so that you have one strong consumer benefit in there."
"You want to use whatever you can to get to that one basic 'What's in it for me' benefit for the listener, and you need to do it in a way that's engaging to them. It could be through drama, music, or humor; but you need to win them over very soon, within three to four seconds at the top of the commercial. Once you pique their interest, you have to engage them and tell them a story. That's the key...whatever you do, make it a story. Stories are part of the charm of humanity, and people respond to them. The writing is the most important part of the whole thing, and you have to give the actors time to act it out instead of cramming everything in. That's the beginning to getting the 'agency sound.'"
So the moral that I've discovered to this story is this: We all have the same time...just allocated differently. As Dennis Daniel told me, "Instead of writing forty different spots each week, I'm now doing forty rewrites of the same spot each week."
The other moral: I'll never have a Nike shoe named after me, but I have christened the broken headphones "Air Tarrants." They still have a good sound, whether I'm playing my own creations or agency spots through them.