Renaud Timson, Creative Director, CHEZ-FM, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
It's been said many times before, that a great promo or commercial begins with a great script. This is almost always true. And too often, the writers of these great pieces of production are eclipsed by the dazzling performance of the producer or the voice talent or both. Then again, sometimes it's so obvious that the writer is the star, and the voice talent and producer are secondary. Renaud Timson is this type of writer. As Creative Director of CHEZ-FM, Renaud's work has rewarded him with numerous awards, and he consistently walks away with something from the Radio And Production Awards, including this year's trophy for Best Commercial/Medium Markets. But there's more to Renaud's great writing than great writing. The environment he works in at CHEZ is rare and designed to allow a talent like Renaud and the rest of the creative team at CHEZ to deliver high quality creative in astonishing quantities week after week. As this month's interview explains, "it's all about having fun." It's amazing what can happen when creative people are encouraged to enjoy themselves at work.
RAP: Tell us a bit about your radio background.
Renaud: I've been at CHEZ now for ten years. Before that, I worked for a year at CFGO, and before that I graduated from the Creative Advertising Program at Algonquian College. They are still putting out some good graduates, by the way. It's a good program. I've been doing radio most of my professional advertising career. I've also been doing some free-lancing as well, print and radio for agencies.
RAP: What kind of a radio market is Ottawa?
Renaud: It's a medium market, but it's quite populated on the dial for its size. I think there's maybe fifteen stations in the area, and Ottawa has a population of only a few hundred thousand. The Ottawa-Carlton area, which comprises the counties outside the Ottawa area as well, may have a million people, but Ottawa itself is fairly small. The stations here are all niche formatted. If you like classic rock, it's here with our station. If you like hard rock, there's another station. If you like easy listening you go here. If you like talk radio, you go there.
RAP: How is the station ranked in the market?
Renaud: The book just came out. I think we were seventh overall, but in our target demo of twenty-five to forty-nine males, we're number one. We're number one or number two in the various time slots. We're doing all right, and it shows by our having a really good month. It's one of the best months ever and is still exceeding our budget expectations.
Actually, radio overall is doing really well in the market. It's really picked up because TV has been getting too expensive for a lot of the small retailers. It's the same with print. So people are shifting their money to radio and are finding that radio can work. It can provide an image, and it can give you results. And you don't have to spend as much money as you would in the other media. Not that the other media are bad, but, especially when retailers are looking for value for their dollar and for return on the dollar, radio is attractive. So radio overall in this market has really picked up.
RAP: You are a full-time writer for the station. Aside from those duties, what are your responsibilities at the station as Creative Director?
Renaud: As Creative Director I try to, in a sense, instill a kind of standard of what kind of commercials go out on our station. There's quality control of what comes in, and we make sure that the commercials we air conform to codes and ethics and other regulations. For example, for liquor or beer advertising, we can't promote directly or indirectly the consumption of liquor. In car advertising there are certain rules and regs, things you can say and can't say. It's the same with foods and restaurants. As Creative Director, you have to keep on top of all those rules and regs and make sure the commercials that you air abide by all those guidelines.
RAP: Is it just CHEZ, or are you part of a group of stations in the market?
Renaud: CHEZ is probably one of the very few independently owned radio stations in the country. The majority of them are all part of a chain like Standard Broadcasting, which owns a couple of stations up here. Then you have the CHUM Radio Network which owns several stations. We do own another station, CFMO, which is an easy listening station, but then again, we're independent of them. Our board of directors is right here in town, and there are local business people who are shareholders. I guess it gives us an edge in being closer to the community as opposed to having a board of directors in another province or at the other end of the country. It's the same with the on-air staff, too. A lot of them have been around for a while, so they have that local edge which comes in handy because, even though Ottawa is a medium market, it still has that small town feeling in the sense that people know people. People appreciate that about our radio station.
RAP: Is CFMO in Ottawa?
Renaud: It's just outside of Ottawa. It's in a place called Smiths Falls, but it broadcasts to the Ottawa market. So I guess it would be considered an Ottawa market station, but we're not in the same building.
RAP: Do you share talent or other resources with CFMO?
Renaud: Actually, we do. We've done voicing at CFMO, and they've sent down voice tracks by DCI or reel. So there is a sharing of talent.
RAP: Well, congratulations once again on your showing in the RAP awards this year. You took the trophy for Best Commercial - Medium Markets with a spot for Queensview Health & Fitness Club and grabbed First Runner-up in the Feature Production category. But CHEZ-FM's creative team always does well in the RAP Awards.
Renaud: Well, the philosophy here is that winning awards is great, and we don't take them for granted. We give them their proper place. But we always strive to deliver a message that cuts through all the clutter. We don't set out and say, "Okay, we're going to write an award winner." We set out and say, "How are we going to deliver a message to our listeners that cuts through all the clutter?" The main thing is to get noticed because with all the messages that are out there, from soup can labels to billboards to radio to TV, you have to deliver a message that cuts through them all and gets their attention. Then, secondly, you want the message to have that impact that makes them react and follow up and do something.
RAP: What creative approach do you take when you get a client who wants to advertise and you want to do something special for him? What's the process you go through?
Renaud: A lot of times we have what we call little marketing teams where instead of just a rep bringing us a fact sheet and leaving, we deal one-on-one with the client and the account exec. We bring the client in, and we sit him down for maybe a twenty minute or half hour session. Then the rep will bring us the marketing brief, and we discuss that in depth and look at what the objectives of the client are. Obviously, the client wants to sell more widgets or more TVs or more cars and make a gazillion dollars, but the question is, how do we help the client achieve those goals and where does the radio advertising fit in that respect?
We also try to develop "personalities" because advertising is a reflection of the corporation and the people running it. And again, this helps the spot cut through the clutter. Each person is different and has their own personality, and we try to make their ads have that distinct personality. And if they don't have a personality, then we create one for them that is a reflection of themselves.
Basically, the bottom line is to have fun. Advertising is meant to be fun. That doesn't mean we don't take our job seriously; we take it extremely seriously. But the bottom line is to have fun doing what you do and just let all the ideas fly out. Then focus on which one you think is the gut wrencher, and hang your hat on that one.
RAP: So the first marketing team consists of the client....
Renaud: The client and the account executive. Then the account executive and the writer meet, and there's a discussion there. A lot of times all the writers sit in on this discussion. Then you hammer out an idea or a spec or a formula, and then you bring it into production. Many times we bring the production department into the meetings as well. It's like one big team, but it's separated into little teams to make sure that the thought process doesn't get lost or convoluted or distorted in any way. That way the objectives from the client get delivered in the finished product. You don't want someone just bringing you a fact sheet because the objective often gets lost or isn't translated properly. Then the client hears the commercial and goes, "What the hell is this?"
RAP: How many writers and producers are there at CHEZ?
Renaud: We have two full-time writers, a third part-time writer, and two producers.
RAP: That's a production/writing staff of five people for one radio station. That's a lot!
Renaud: Well, we put out a lot of material. We're extremely busy, and we need this size staff to really achieve the kind of turnaround that this market is demanding right now. The clients want spots right away or the next day.
The part-time writer works on specs as well, so if we get busy with the day-to-day work for clients that have been billed, we have a third writer who is available to work on long-term specs. That helps and is a marketing advantage for us. If the two full-time writers are busy or if one of us is on holiday, we still have that other one as a backup to help us develop those spots.
RAP: Is this production-writing team typical for Canadian radio?
Renaud: It's common in the sense that the majority of the radio stations have producers and writers, but we try to take that team concept and just really develop it even further because, rather than just having the producer produce and the writer write, you want to have an influx of ideas to flush out what you have and make it even that much better. We find that it's not a case of having too many cooks. We have just the right amount of cooks who can add a little seasoning to the creative soup, so to speak. Let's face it, not all of us always have the great ideas. We go in and look at it this way and look at it that way and get several different perspectives. Then you can narrow it down to the best one.
RAP: What is the average turnaround time on commercials? You mentioned that you'll turn some of them around in a day?
Renaud: Oh, yeah. We've turned around spots in a matter of a couple of hours. We've had spots that have taken us as much as a few days only because of production elements and whatnot, but usually, we can turn them around in twenty-four to forty-eight hours, even the same day if need be.
RAP: That's pretty fast.
Renaud: Well, the way the market is right now seems to demand that. Everybody wants everything now. It's like fast food. You go down to Rotten Ronnie's or Tricky Dickie's or the Golden Burger, and if you wait more than five minutes you say, "Where's my food?" Not that it's good or bad, but it seems that a lot of clients and the marketplace in general are saying, "Look, we want our material now." And while we can deliver an excellent creative in that time, it can put a bit of pressure on the quality because sometimes you do need a little more time to develop a high-quality product.
RAP: What about the spot that won Best Commercial, the Queensview Health and Fitness Club commercial. Was that a quick turnaround?
Renaud: Eventually, it was. But when I was working on the concept, it took me about three days to finally flush it out completely. Then once we had it in production, it got turned around in a day by just having the right pieces there. The voice, John Rogers, was available, and we found the right music bed. That in itself took a day to turn around. The whole spot from the planting of the seed to the final fruition took about four days, but that was not the only thing I was working on. Obviously, there are other tasks that come in. If that had been the only thing I was working on, it probably could have been done easily in a few hours. It demonstrates that when you have a little more time to develop it properly, you can come up with a message that is effective and remembered by the listening public and will achieve the appropriate objectives that the client wants. And, it's fun. That's the main thing, of course.
RAP: How do you feel about being able to turn around an award-winning spot like that in a matter of a few days or even a few hours, and then you hear about agencies that take weeks to develop a mediocre radio spot?
Renaud: Well, I feel pretty good because we're pretty fortunate. We have a lot of voice talent, and we have some good production talent. I think it shows that you don't have to be one of the big agencies to produce highly effective and...I wouldn't use award-winning, but compelling advertising. I think the talent in the radio stations is there, and the award is the recognition for it.
We've won national awards and found that we were a radio station that beat out a lot of the big agencies, and we trumpet our hat a bit. But we realize that some clients stereotype radio stations negatively, saying that agencies have the best people. Well, they do. They have a lot of the best people, but so do the radio stations. People choose to work in radio because they enjoy it. We're quite proud of our achievements, and I think we can handle our own with the best of them just like most of the radio stations in the country and in the States or worldwide.
RAP: What was your inspiration for that award winning commercial for Queensview?
Renaud: Rather than think with the front of my mind, I try to just shut myself down. And in the back of the mind there's this chest full of ideas. You open it up and just let them all fly, and you start processing them one at a time as they start coming out. That's what I was trying to do. I start thinking, "This is the way you'd probably do it normally; now let's try going another way." You start going down different roads, and you start looking at different scenery. Then you start grasping at something that stands out. In this case, we have a lot of health clubs in town, and a health club basically is a health club is a health club is a health club. And while one might hand out towels and the other one doesn't, you just try to come up with an image that will stand out through the clutter. So the basic inspiration was how do we make this different, and not just for difference's sake to make it sound wacky, but just to give it that sense of, "Wow, this would be a really neat place to go." And I think you can do that without having to say, "Hey, this is a neat place to go." You give it a personality. You give it atmosphere. You give it a sense of being.
You always look at things head on. Why not look at it another way? A lot of your advertising is typical. It's spring sales and back-to-school sales. Okay, that's been done again and again and again. Why does it always have to be this way? Different approaches give you different perspectives, and that's when material like that stands out and gets people's attention.
Of course, if the listeners are specifically in the market to join a health club, then my theory is different, like car ads, for example. If someone is in the market for a car and some guy is screaming at him to buy this particular model for this particular price, it will get their attention. But if you want to draw more of a market, I think you have to offer a different perspective in order to really get their attention. You have to cut through the clutter. To answer the question about what my inspiration was, I really couldn't say that I thought about this or I thought about that. I just said, "Here's the gym club. I'm gonna go through the back door. This is what it's going to look like."
RAP: How many spots would you say your station is producing on the average week?
Renaud: Good grief. On my work list, I could have fifteen clients booked for the week. Then the other writer's share could be ten or so. But then you've got promos, too. We consider these spots for our clients as well. These could be programming promos or contest promos or event promos. So it could vary from fifty spots to eighty spots to even a hundred spots a week. It all depends. Sometimes you get a lot of, "I want a campaign of five commercials," and sometimes it's, "I want just one commercial."
RAP: With so many spots to write and produce, I'd guess most of the ads on the station are local.
Renaud: Yes, it's more locally driven. Now we do have a lot of national accounts, but a lot of that material is produced by the agencies that come from Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, although we have done national accounts booked locally, like Canadian Tire, which by the way got one of the runner-up awards for RAP in 1990. But most of the business is locally driven.
RAP: Producing quality commercials in such high volume must be quite a chore. How do you maintain the quality?
Renaud: We try to strive for a certain standard. Of course, you'll always have the clients who say, "Just give them my name, my twelve specials, and my store hours." No matter where you go, you'll always have clients who are like that, and we'll always book their kind as well. But we're pretty fortunate that we have account execs who know that it's not just a matter of dollars where the client is just going to buy our station because we've got a good rate. That's part of it, but the quality of the creative to deliver that message must also be there, as opposed to some other stations who say, "Buy us because we're cheaper. By the way, here's a commercial." Many times we try to sell the creative first, then say, "By the way, here's the price." It's the quality of the material that counts as well as the price. It's the full package.
RAP: When you say the salespeople "sell" the creative, do you put a charge on the creative or is it all free?
Renaud: No, it's all part of the package. The client buys the air time and with it comes the advertising campaign.
RAP: As you say, you're going to have clients who just want to list a couple of specials and their phone number and address. Are most of the commercials you produce like this? What percentage of the spots you produce would you say are the really creative spots?
Renaud: It seems to go in waves, but a standard would be that there are certain high bars that you try to jump. There's a standard of good, but then there's better, and then there's the best. I find it hard to limit it to a number because we try to do the best job we can with everything we get. It depends on the client. It depends on the amount of freedom we're allowed to have and develop as opposed to some clients who come in and say, "This is what I want, and that's all I want."
I wouldn't say we try to educate clients, but we try to deliver clients the option of an ad that cuts through the clutter. And I'd like to pride ourselves on our station and that it's known locally for producing quality creative. And I'm speaking for the group as a whole, not just me. The whole writing and production team is known for producing some excellent creative. We had a focus group a while back, and one of the things the clients said is that CHEZ is known for its creative.
So we just try to concentrate on delivering good, quality, exceptional, compelling, funny, attention-grabbing, ear turning creative. And again, it's important to have fun, and we try to all the time. We've got a little basketball net set up, and we have a good rapport with each other. It's like trying to have a party when your parents are gone, and you just have all kinds of fun. We don't try to make a mess, we just say, "Hey, this is exciting." You try to keep the atmosphere on the edge, not over the edge, but on the edge where ideas can come out freely and fast, rather than try to stifle it in a business sense. That's when creativity stifles, and that's when the effectiveness of the message starts dying.
RAP: What are some other things you do around the office to keep things enjoyable and keep the creative juices flowing?
Renaud: The creative team basically kind of hangs out together. We go out and do the lunch thing and stuff like that. We also produce morning show material where we get a chance to really let go and have fun and deliver. That's kind of fun too, and it really keeps your creative juices flowing, especially at times when you get clients who just want you to give them something simple. Doing the morning show stuff gives us a chance to come up with a whole bunch of fun stuff, and I think that's an important outlet for us to keep that high level of creativity going while kidding around and having fun. These may sound like small, trivial things, but I think it's extremely important to have the attitude that coming to work should be fun and not a chore.
RAP: How does management help you have fun?
Renaud: They give us a lot of latitude. Sometimes they have to rein us in if we get too carried away, but they give us a lot of latitude because they realize that one of the differences between us and the other radio stations is our creative. We're pretty fortunate. We have egos, but not to the point where we consider ourselves the best. We're just people having fun, and part of running the radio station is coming up with advertising. That's our job, and they give us a lot of room and a lot of support and encouragement to proceed with that kind of approach. They're behind us one hundred percent, which is important, especially in a market like ours where we're the only independent radio station. Our pockets aren't as deep as the big chains where maybe they can afford to beef up their staffs or spend a lot more money on having three studios or bringing in the big voices. So it's important to have that kind of freedom, we feel.
RAP: As much as you guys produce and write, I'll bet you keep some long hours?
Renaud: They can be pretty long. My hours are from eight to four, but it's not uncommon for me to come in at seven and stay to five or work through lunch or bring work home. It's the same with the other guys. I think why many of us do it is the passion behind trying to deliver that product. We don't feel bound to stay. It's just that we want to spend the right amount of time on the product to make sure it gets done right. You don't want to just rip something off and deliver something that's second rate because it does no one any service. It doesn't do any service for the listener because they get crap and don't react to the spot, and the client doesn't get anything out of it because he doesn't get his objectives met. And it doesn't do our station as a whole any good because then people hear the commercials and go, "That's crap. I'm going to go to another radio station." It's not uncommon for everyone to work longer hours. And when you're having fun doing something, you don't really measure the amount of hours one spends on delivering the product.
RAP: How many production studios are going during the day?
Renaud: Two with our two full-time producers. We have Craig Jackman who does the majority of the promo work and some commercial work. Then you have Dan Youngs doing the majority of the commercial work and some promos as well. Both are excellent producers.
RAP: This creative team has been in place for a while.
Renaud: Yes. Robin Smith is the new kid on the block. He's only been at this station for a year, but he was at CFMO for seven years. He came to the Mother Ship. Now we feel like we've got the right components for a creative team to deliver that product. The team has been together for a few years, and it's really starting to hum now. You've got your sales reps, and sales reps come and go; but when you latch onto the key people, you want to hold onto them.
RAP: Does your department have any say on when a commercial starts, or do they come to you and say, "Hey, this starts tomorrow?"
Renaud: We have no say in that, but there have been occasions where a client will come in and say, "Look, can we start this tomorrow?" and we'll say, "We can't deliver the quality product you want tomorrow. Can we start the next day?" And the client will agree. Sometimes we ask if we can run it live one day to give us more time to develop a produced commercial.
Deadlines are deadlines, and we have to respect them. Of course, there are times when there are extenuating circumstances when deadlines can't be met. That's advertising. But for the majority of the times, we meet the deadlines that are requested by the account execs.
RAP: You mentioned earlier that radio in your market was making some inroads into getting a piece of the television and newspaper advertising dollar.
Renaud: That's right. What's happening is we're getting a lot of the specialty channels on television. And while radio can be fragmented to the point where you have classic rock and talk and so on, it's still a broader base. Now we've got a lot of specialty channels on TV where it's diluting the market. It's really getting into "narrow-casting." They find that their message is only hitting a smaller portion of a broad base, so they turn to radio feeling they can hit a few more people with their message. And print, as wonderful a medium as it is, can be costly. But with radio, I mean, you can do anything with radio. You can develop all kinds of scenarios and do all kinds of production things that cost nothing to the client unless, of course, you are an agency and you hire Jack Palace to voice your spots. But being in a radio station, we don't incur those costs and don't pass those costs on to the client.
RAP: Are you producing a lot of spec spots?
Renaud: Yes, we are really turning out a good number of spec spots because, as the markets change, you need to go after new clients, or as some clients fade away, you try to generate new accounts. We're always generating specs, and that's where our third writer comes in. He does a fair bit of them, and he goes on client calls and meets with new clients. Speaking of client calls, we also try to get the producers to go out once in a while on client calls. We just had one where Robin and Dan went to this laser tag kind of place. That way the producer and writer are both on the same wave length when it comes to working on the material.
RAP: Well, you guys are definitely busy there.
Renaud: That is for sure. But you try to maintain a fun attitude. You don't just legislate a positive attitude like, "You will be happy here." It's something that's inward. We have the people who are driven to deliver exceptional creative but also to have fun at their job. If you stop having fun, you're working for the tyranny of work rather than to be able to say, "I had a great day today, and we worked on some great creative." If you can maintain that positive attitude, that fun, that joie de vivre in radio, it will translate into that creative that you're developing for the client.
RAP: There are a lot of people who will read this and wish they worked at a place that was fun. I think everybody in the creative end of this business is in it because they enjoy doing it, but so often you have management that doesn't understand that the creative department needs to have a little fun in order to keep the creative coming.
Renaud: All stations work for the bottom line, which is to make money, and it's that way here as well. But management here, and we're extremely fortunate, realizes that in order to achieve that bottom line, part of that component is developing quality creative and having a department that has the freedom to develop that kind of material rather than just the usual cookie cutter spit them out type of situation where after a couple of years, you've burnt them out and you hire someone else.
A lot of the personnel at this station have been here since day one. This station celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Our GM and President has been here since day one. Our Chairman of the Board has been here since day one. One of the salespeople has been here since day one. We have a couple of jocks who have been here since day one. I've been here for half its lifetime. I think that says something about the commitment that this management has to the people in this organization. It's people driven, and it's important to have the right atmosphere for people to excel at their particular task, be it selling, be it on air, be it in advertising.
Just as an example of the commitment to their people, last year at the Clios in San Francisco, there were some seminars I thought would be really good to attend. I asked, and they sent me down, which I thought was pretty nice on their part considering that we're a small station with small budgets and whatnot. But they figured that if this was what it takes.... You have to continually feed the brain to see what else is out there. You can't be so insular that you think you're at the point where you can never get any better, because you can. So they sent me down, and I went to the seminars and came back rejuvenated with new ideas. After that, I think we had our best year, creatively speaking. When they do something like that, it shows they're committed to the creative arm of the station.
RAP: It is more typical in the U.S. for a production person to have management tell them that it's just not in the budget. It's rare to find a management team that is going to put the emphasis on the creative that they appear to do there.
Renaud: I find there's an equal amount of emphasis here because they send the account executives to training seminars, too. And that's important because you also want a highly motivated account exec force. By the same token, you still need that kind of commitment to the creative side because they need to be exposed to what's out there as well, and not just be stuck in their little cubbys while everyone else is sent to get trained.
RAP: You've always been a writer in radio. What do you see yourself doing down the road?
Renaud: I'd still like to be writing. A lot of local advertising is print driven, and with the advent of computers and desktop publishing, I'd like to see radio stations control more of a portion of the advertising budget by doing the print ads as well as the radio. You can marry the two campaigns. I think that would be really fun and interesting and challenging, working on a multimedia campaign for a client. If you can develop a print campaign and deliver that to the client as well as a radio campaign, I think that would give you a stronger edge in making a buy because then you could have a greater say in the client's budget.
RAP: You're not suggesting that they spend money on print where they might not, but if they're going to do print anyway, let you work up the ad.
Renaud: Exactly. If the print dollar is going to be going to print anyway, and if we can develop something through here for a fee, at least we're getting that revenue. It would be great if we could develop that kind of multimedia campaign for them. I think it's possible. That's something I'd like so see develop here.
RAP: Any parting advice for those looking to improve the creative in their commercials?
Renaud: Everybody has their own little style, but mine is to keep an open mind and always approach it from different directions. You get a whole bunch of different perspectives and see where they take you. Don't be afraid to go anywhere. There have been times when I've said, "Well, I don't know if the client will go for that." Just try it first. If they say, "It's never been done that way," say, "So what? Let's do it this way now." You don't have to have a devil-may-care attitude or necessarily be bold or daring, just be unique. The client is unique. So is your style. So is your material. Just put a stamp on it. Try not to be like everybody else. Try to be you and just approach it from as many angles as you possibly can. Your mind is full of untapped ideas. Access them and give them room to breathe. Welcome other people's ideas, too. When we walk into production, for example, Craig or Dan might say, "Well, have you thought about doing it this way?"
A lot of people think we're writing for the clients. We do, but the end user is actually the listener. Remember who you're writing for. When it comes to commercials, don't make it creative for creative's sake. It has to have a strategy behind it. Don't try to make it wacky just for the sake of a spot being wacky or serious because it's serious. It has to have a strategy and a reasoning behind it in order for it to succeed.
A lot of people you talk to think that "make it creative" means to make it funny. What exactly does "make it creative" entail? A person's definition of creative could be different from mine or yours. So I think it's important that the creative and the strategy are in sync in order to develop an exceptional piece of creative. And again, I keep going back to it, let's get out there and have fun.