R.A.P. Interview: Mary L. Collins

Mary L. Collins, Director, Knight Quality Creative Services, Burlington, VT

by Jerry Vigil

Nearly four years ago, we did a story about an unusual department Mary Collins had established at WEZF-FM in Burlington, VT. It was called WEZF Creative Services. It was a division dedicated to giving something "extra" to advertisers who wanted a little more than your quick, voice-over-music, laundry list type of commercial. It offered jingles and campaigns, produced using local recording studios, musicians, vocalists, and voice-over talents -- the kinds of things that cost money, money the clients willingly paid in order to get this extra service. Now in its fifth year, WEZF Creative Services has grown from serving one station to serving six stations (soon to be eight) in the Knight Quality Stations group. Mary still heads the division, and it continues to provide a win-win situation for everyone involved. Join us as we check in with Mary for an update and get some insight into this unique approach to handling station clients.

R.A.P.: Tell us a little about your background in the industry.
Mary: I've been in radio since 1977. In that time, I was an on-air talent for a number of years in various formats - rock stations, easy listening and country. I've worked primarily in Burlington, Vermont. This is my hometown, and this is where I've stayed. As well as on-air work, I've also been a Promotions Director, and I've done copyrighting and production.

I have a fine arts degree in writing, and I was doing a little bit of writing for a while. Then I branched off and started my own company with a partner. We took on another partner thereafter and had a production company for about four years that was pretty reputable and did some nice work. Then we broke off, and I came to the Knight stations. I had worked at this particular radio station before it was owned by the Knights. The Knight stations are owned by a company out of Boston. They own six stations throughout New England and are about to get two more. And WEZF Creative Services is now Knight Quality Creative Services, a division of Knight Quality Stations.

R.A.P.: When you first created WEZF Creative Services, was the long term plan to expand this department to all the stations in the group?
Mary: Yes. When I first proposed bringing this concept into the station, it was really based on the knowledge that this company already owned multiple stations. The first year was more of an experimental year for them because they wanted to see how it would work. Having had no experience with this in the past, they wanted to test it out and fit it to their philosophy, if you will, of what they were doing. And that's how we developed it. And it was so successful the first year for the one station that we took it out on the road in the last four years.

R.A.P.: When you say, "on the road," are you actually setting up office to some degree from the other stations?
Mary: I go out probably once every six weeks on sales calls in the other markets to meet with the different accounts, and then I come back to my home office and studio to do the writing and production here. Then I go back out for presentations, or I Fed Ex things as they are processed. I'm in the other markets usually every five or six weeks. It's real important that the client see me and that I see their business and meet with them personally. I think that personal connection is one of our strengths. And for me, as a writer and producer, I really need to have that connection in order to do the best job I can.

R.A.P.: When you were just working for WEZF clients, you did all the writing and producing yourself. Are you still doing all the work?
Mary: Yes. I do all the copyrighting and producing of the campaigns myself. I want to qualify that because, with every project, I hire a different team, if you will, of musicians and voice-over talent. When I'm doing music, I work with different composers, depending on the style of the piece that I want. I shape it and write the lyrics and usually the melodies, and then co-write it with a composer. Then I hire the horn players and the vocalists and put the puzzle together for each of the projects. This gives me the flexibility to work with the best people for the job. Yet, there's always the same person at the helm shaping the project based upon what the client needs. And it's shaped for radio. It's not shaped by somebody who's once removed or who doesn't know radio or who doesn't have an understanding of music.

R.A.P.: You must be handling many more accounts than you were with WEZF Creative Services. How do you manage the increased load?
Mary: Well, I now have an assistant who comes in under ten hours a week to do the nitty gritty stuff that takes up a lot of time. I have probably 20 to 25 accounts going at one time, and I just try to set up my schedule so that I can handle more than one project at a time. I have several studios right now working on different projects for me, and I go back and forth between them, depending on what's scheduled. I bounce around a lot.

R.A.P.: Organization must be a big part of your routine.
Mary: Organization is a very major part of it. Many times I'll get a couple of vocalists in the same studio working on different projects at the same time. For example, recently I used a woman to do leads on one piece while I had a gentleman singing lead for another client. When she was through doing the lead vocals on her piece, I had her do back up vocals on the other jingle the gentleman was doing. So there are two totally different projects, totally different musical styles, but I was able to use her on both. And, in the mean-time, I have another project that I'm working on in a different studio with a different writer/musician and a different vocalist. So, it's just a matter of sort of throwing everything up on the wall and seeing in what order I can put the puzzle together so that it comes out as efficiently and economically practical as possible, with the right combination of things to get the desired quality.

R.A.P.: A lot of your work is done in studios outside of the radio station. Do you use the production facility at WEZF at all?
Mary: I use the studios at WEZF when I'm doing spot production. I never use the studio there for anything musical at this point, although we will be building a whole new studio there, a state-of-the-art studio, which will be built in the first quarter of next year because of the growth of this division. It's just been phenomenal. And frankly, the station needs the new studio. The current studio was built in 1982, and it's all analog. We're going digital with a lot more track capabilities so I can do a lot more in-house than I'm able to do now. But I currently do all the spot production there, and the musical projects are done in larger recording studios.

R.A.P.: Is the new digital studio basically going to be designed to accommodate your needs?
Mary: I'd like to think so. It's being done in order for me to be more efficient in the station that I'm located in. It will be a recording studio. Most radio station production studios are built as broadcast studios. I'm talking about a studio that, even though it's housed in a radio station, is a recording studio. That is a very radically different concept than most radio stations are ready to handle. I mean, you can build it, but you also have to use it. It's not that if you build it, they will come. A radio station production facility is only as good as what you're using it for and who's using it. There's a lot of learning that I'll have to do to be able to use it most effectively and efficiently, but I already know the ropes, as it were, in the production end of things and the talent and the musical ends of things. Now I just need the gear to do it.

R.A.P.: Your position with the company is unusual. You're much more than a staff copywriter or producer. You're nearly an independent advertising agency/production house. What kind of business relationship do you have with Knight Quality Stations?
Mary: Ultimately, I work for the Knight Stations. I work for the Account Executives and the clients of those Account Executives at all the Knight Stations. If I compete with them in terms of my time and availability to do my own thing, I think that can become a conflict of interest.

R.A.P.: I'm sure your talents are well appreciated by the Knight stations and that you're compensated for them. But there are many creative people in radio, like you, whose work is often the very reason a client buys the station. I've always thought a "bonus" plan or some commission structure for the producer would be a great incentive. What are your thoughts?
Mary: I think the creative people in radio, generally speaking, are underpaid. I'm not putting myself in that category, but I'd like to think that there could be a balance reached between the commission that the salesperson makes and the people who are helping them make that commission by the creative product that they're providing for the client, which often times sells the account. In my case, that's a lot of what they do to close that account; they bring me in.

I think that you have to give people a base, but probably something on top of that. I think that works because it gives the producer incentive to be efficient with their time and to get the job done. And it motivates them to do more. And the better job they do, the more they sell. The more they sell, the better off everybody is.

I think that's a good way to approach the internal structure, and I think radio stations in general need to really look at that internal structure with their people, whether or not they have someone like me who's a little bit different than your average producer. Stations are getting a little bit more savvy about the creative end, and I think they need to look at the compensation setup to keep people motivated and empowered. It pays off handsomely to the station. If I'm Joe X, the whiz producer, and I'm getting a little piece of it, you bet I'm going to do my best job. And I'm going to be my most efficient because then I can do more work. It's only smart. It makes the station sound better. It makes the clients happier. Everyone seems to win.

R.A.P.: Your creative presence must be felt by the other stations in the market to some degree. Have any of them reacted to the creative force that your division provides?
Mary: It's been very flattering for me that I am still the only person that I know who does this in this region. I know there are producers in other stations, but they're doing it all. You get John Jones playing keyboard, doing the singing, and being the announcer voice on the spot, too. I act as more of an agent, even though I do voice-overs. I like having the different people and personalities involved in the job so I can get a unique piece. And it's not going to sound like something I did just last week. Even though I'm the Executive Producer on these projects, I mix up the stew and come up with different things each time. The other stations that I know of, at least in the local markets, they usually work with outside firms. They'll call them in on a project, but they don't understand the process. They might have a jingle company they use in Nashville or Florida or Dallas or somewhere outside the area. But, these people are people who aren't from the area, who don't really know the clients because they're not in the market. They don't ever see them. And then they come in and go, "Well, here's your jingle." It's a package. It's a cookie cutter kind of thing.

On the other hand, everything that I do is custom. All the clients meet me, and they all know me. I'm hands on with them, and I'm the one who's writing it for them. It's a little bit more involved, but I think it gets a nice piece of work out. And no one else that I know of does it that way. I'm glad for that. It makes it kind of unique.

R.A.P.: Your creative efforts for a client are part of the package when they buy spots on Knight stations, but the fact is, they're paying extra for your service. Perhaps that's one reason why other stations haven't tried to compete with your service. It's difficult enough to get the client to buy radio without having to charge them for creative, too.
Mary: Yeah, I still hear a lot of people saying, "How do you get people to pay for this?" Well, you have to look at the overall value of the contract and make sure that you're getting compensated for what you're providing. I've been doing this long enough that people know me, and they know my reputation. So, I don't have to pre-sell myself as much as I used to years ago when this was just an idea. And I think that might be some of the drawback for other stations that I know of. How do you compete when there isn't somebody on staff, in-house already, who has this knowledge and experience and a track record? And how do you get the client to pay for it when they don't have to pay for it? I think that's the hang up for many stations. They see it as a cost rather than a potential for profit.

R.A.P.: Right. It's difficult for many stations to consider added expenses for the client, even if it can help both the station and the client.
Mary: Well, it's like selling cars. You can sell a stripped down car, but I bet you the cars that sell more are the ones that have a lot more features to them. Even if you go back to the '40s, you find radio was much more theater of the mind and much more involved. Nowadays, we're trying to be efficient and turn things around in 24 hours. I think we've gotten away from really good writers, really good talent, really good producers, themes and music, for the sake of being quick and getting the deed done, and that will cost you in the long run. Quality never costs. Quality always pays you back in spades, I believe.

R.A.P.: Is Knight Quality Creative Services in competition, to some degree, with the local ad agencies?
Mary: Yes and no. I do an awful lot of fulfillment for agencies as a writer and/or producer for them. I do jingles for them. I think most agencies still are very print or television oriented. I still find in many markets that radio is not the strength of most agencies. And those that have that strength, well, they still have to produce somewhere, and they don't see me as competition. They just see me as someone who can produce for them. Still, some don't. Some prefer to take it out, and that's okay. There's plenty of work.

I'm very careful about respecting the agency's position with their client. I will never go to a client directly if an agency has come to me with work and say, "You know, I can really do a better job for you, and you can work with me directly." I don't have to do that. I think that I'm certainly busy enough. Yes, I could do that, but in the long run, I'd rather have a good respectable relationship with the agencies and help them to get the best out of what they're offering to their client and respect where the work came from.

Now, if a client leaves an agency, or if a client isn't with an agency, you bet I'll go after them, absolutely, and I do. I've also technically "lost" work to agencies when a client has gotten bigger than just being a radio client and needed someone to help them do more full service work. And so they go to an agency, and often times the agency will come back and have me continue to fulfill the radio arm of that work. And I'm willing to accommodate that, even if they change the whole concept.

I've also lost work I was doing for people who have gone to full service agencies and never came back. Generally, the agency will want to put their own stamp on it, and they want it to be cohesive with whatever else they're doing. And I understand that. I think ultimately the key is doing what's right for the client at their stage of growth or need in their own business. And I'm plenty busy. It's not like I feel like, "Oh, you're taking bread out of my mouth." If there's a hole, it will be filled immediately.

There's a friend of mine who is a public relations professional, and I was talking with her. I said, when you do articles or stories on somebody who is an expert in their field, there are two schools of thought. One, that you don't give away anything, and the other is that you really tell people how you do it. I said I'm the kind of person who, as much as I can, tells people how I do it. Other people feel that you're giving away the information, and she said that's not true. If they really see that you know what you're talking about, people will work with you because they know you can do it.

We're all trying to be efficient, and we're all trying to get the best for our dollar. And if an agency sees me as being able to fulfill an area of their need, you bet they're going to come to me. They know that I have a lot of voices that can work. They know I can write. They know I can produce. They know I can do good jingles. If that's what they need for their client, why the heck would they go somewhere else? They're going to have to go somewhere anyway to fulfill it. Why not go with somebody who has a huge volume of work. Even though I happen to work for a radio station, it's still their client. They're still going to get the better product.

R.A.P.: When you do work for the other stations' clients in other markets, do you try to handle most of the discussions with the client over the phone?
Mary: I sometimes do it over the phone. But it's best to go visit the client. Tomorrow, as a matter of fact, I'm driving to New Hampshire because one of the clients there wants me to eat in their restaurant on a weekend night, which is their busiest time. I'll really get to know the business that way. That's something most production companies or jingle companies can't do, nor would they want to do that. For me, it's part of the job. How can you write a creative concept for someone if you don't know anything about who they are or what their business is? Everybody can come up with ideas and slogans and cliches, but there's a coldness about them if you don't understand who the business is. I look at all those things. Then I think about who has the right sensibility as a composer to come up with an idea for them. What vocalist is going to fit this mood? What words and melody are going to feel right for who they are and how they represent themselves in business?

I can't really do that over the phone. That's a hard thing to do over the phone. And I want them to know they're part of the process. It's very important for the client, who knows their business better than anybody, to help shape that through their conversations with me. And I can interpret what they say pretty well. Then it comes back to them in the form of a nice, finished piece of music. It's not a generic concept. It's really them, and they appreciate that. I think it makes the work that much better and more effective.

R.A.P.: What types of commercials do you find clients more eager to pay for? Is it the jingles, or the funny stuff, or is it pretty much a little bit of everything?
Mary: Well, jingles, obviously, are the most popular, as mysterious as they are. In fact, as we're recording for these companies, I have the salespeople coming in, sort of training with me so that they understand the complexity of putting these things together. The jingles are probably the Cadillac of the process because it is an unusual, more enhanced piece. But the campaign work can be equally, if not more, complicated, depending on what's required of the campaign and what pieces are involved. They can be very complex.

Most people like humor. I think humor generally hits a chord if it's done well. It's also the hardest thing to do. But, when it's done well, people seem to like it. Music logos have a long shelf life, but they're more for presenting an image. You can't get much more specific if you want it to have some long term value. You have to come up with an identity, a logo. And you can't sell a specific event or promotion with a music logo. You have to do that with your copy, as you should, to keep it fresh. You can't change your jingle every week.

But which route we go depends on the client. And it depends on what I think is the best thing for them, too. Sometimes they don't know. They just say, "I want something good. I want something that will work for me." And I'll ask them a lot of questions about their business and what their goals are and so forth. Then, from that, I'll decide if a jingle is a good direction and whether or not they can support it with air time. I mean, it's no good to have a nice piece of work that you can't run on the air because you don't have a budget to support it.

R.A.P.: Are the fees clients pay for your services part of the advertising contract with the station, or are they separate?
Mary: It depends. They can have it through their contract, or they can have it direct. It really kind of floats. It depends on the client.

R.A.P.: Are fees sometimes negotiated depending upon the size of the time buy?
Mary: Oh, sure. The bottom line is that we're trying to make it as affordable and easy as possible for the client to get this product and to make them sound good and make their dollar work for them most efficiently. But again, they have to understand that it's a premium. There's a real value to this, and it costs us money to do this.

R.A.P.: And it's not a non-profit deal either. Wasn't your approach to management in the beginning that this would generate additional revenue?
Mary: Yes. It's not a non-profit deal.

R.A.P.: So there is some mark-up on the whole process, but it's just not to a degree that you're gouging the clients, correct?
Mary: Right.

R.A.P.: When you first set up WEZF Creative Services, you were charging specific rates for such things as studio time and your time spent visiting with the client to discuss concepts. Has this structure changed?
Mary: That whole process has really changed. That's really an obsolete process at this point. We have flat rates if, let's say, somebody wants something, and they're not doing a contract with us. If they want us to get voice talent and the studio time, then certainly they have to pay for that. It is a recording studio, and I am a producer. If they want to work with me, and they don't want to buy the station at all, we can do that. But we don't recommend it. We certainly want people to use the product on our station and make the whole deal a nice round figure.

R.A.P.: If a client wants to use the commercial that you've done on other stations as well as on the Knight stations, are there additional fees that are tacked on there, or do they pretty much own the commercial or the campaign once they've cut the deal with you?
Mary: Again, our goal is to make sure that the client can have the very best that they can have at the very least that we can offer it to them. So, we don't restrict them in any way to the market that they use the commercial on, and we don't charge them extra. Most radio advertisers are going to run two or three stations to even out the market. They should use the commercial on the other stations, and we allow them to do that.

However, they can't sell it. If they're a franchise, they can't sell it off to another company that's similar to them in another state or outside of their market area, and they can't use it nationwide. We have a separate discussion on those kinds of things. And we have done that. For example, there was a franchise that had an operation in New Hampshire and one in Kentucky, and they wanted to use it for both places. Well, we wrote it for the New Hampshire market area and then had them buy it again for their other market because we don't have stations there. We don't get media dollars there. I had a customer here in Vermont, and there was a gentleman out of Cranston, Rhode Island who had a very similar business. The gentleman in Cranston said, "Gee, I really like those commercials. Can I buy them?" And I said, "Sure, you can buy them. We'll just customize them for you and it will cost you this." So, that happens sometimes.

R.A.P.: For those that would consider putting together a program like this at their station, what's the first step?
Mary: Well, first of all, you have to have an organization that can really support it. I think a single station, unless it's in a larger market with plenty of revenue, shouldn't even attempt it. And if you're going to do it halfway, don't do it. You also have to live in an area where you have access to good talent -- musicians, vocalists and voice-over talent. However, sometimes I do work with people who don't live in the state.

R.A.P.: The whole concept of a full service department like this in a station is pretty unusual. Management would have to re-think their entire approach to how they treat their advertisers with respect to the production of their commercials.
Mary: Yes. I think GMs, Sales Managers and production, everybody just really needs to look at what you're doing. What you're selling is an idea. The listener is listening to a commercial or a message. How are they going to feel about that message? How they feel about that message is how they feel about the business. The advertiser has to have the right station, the right frequency, and the right message. And almost inevitably, I think most stations fall down on the message. They have lousy copywriters, people who think they can write. I'm not saying this about everybody, but a lot of smaller stations either can't afford a good copywriter, or think they can't afford one. They've got salespeople writing copy. Get somebody who can write. Get somebody who understands theater, who understands voice, who understands how music is important to convey emotions. I mean, if you're a music station, that's what you're playing to the listeners -- music. Take a look at that. Really listen critically to what you're putting over the air waves technically and creatively. That's what people are listening to.

Good spots sell. The clients get response from them if they're well done, and the clients are happy. It doesn't always have to be funny. It doesn't always have to be rock or humor or real noisy or an "in your face" kind of thing. There's some very subtle, nice things that can be done. I hear a lot of stuff where more attention is paid to the effects, all the funky, wild production effects. Strip that away. Go back down to a very simple, single voice provocatively reading a nice piece of copy. Go way back to that. I think every producer should do that on a regular basis to remember what the foundation is. It's emotion. And get away from all the effect things.

If a station wants to do a department like this, I think first of all you have to get the right person who can be a salesperson and work well with AEs and clients, as well as understand radio and music and theater to some extent. It is a combination of abilities that may be hard to find. There are people out there who may have one or a few of those talents available, and maybe they can be trained to do the rest.

R.A.P.: I'd bet there are a lot of production people at stations with the skills to pull something like this off. It's just a matter of selling the idea and selling themselves to management as the person to do the job.
Mary: One of the things I notice about production people is that they're not necessarily good at selling themselves or stating their case of why they're really valuable. There's a lot of whining that occurs. "You don't appreciate me; you don't understand me." It's true. Most account people don't appreciate or understand them because it's not their area of knowledge. I think it's the job of a production person to teach them what they do if they want that respect, because whining isn't going to make somebody respect or appreciate you. They'll respect and appreciate you once they understand what it is that you do and why it's valuable, and it's your job to teach them that.

R.A.P.: By far, the majority of radio's production people are men, even though women are heard on the air all over the dial. Why do you think there are so few women in production?
Mary: I don't know. I think it's unfortunate that there aren't as many women in production. I think women think differently than men. We are more nurturing, and that goes very well with coming up with ideas. This is not to say that men aren't nurturing because I know a lot of men who are very nurturing. But, that type of person or personality helps a lot when you're trying to create an identity and come up with an idea for people.

More women that I know in radio do on-air work. They're not behind the scenes. Maybe there hasn't been as much interest there or support for developing that. I'm not really sure, but I'd like to see more of a balance. Those people out there who have women on staff -- either part-time, as interns, or on the air -- get them into the production studio. Find out if they have an interest. Nurture that interest. Support the interest. Support those who show the little inclination towards learning the gear and what it's all about.

R.A.P.: Women who are only on the air can certainly get their feet planted more firmly in a radio station if they do a lot of production. In fact, it can plant them more firmly in the industry.
Mary: And they should know that there isn't just the one style of production. Again, I think there's a lot of production done that just focuses on the effects thing. If there's a woman copywriter who has an interest in being more involved in the production end, let her rip. Let her go. I think women generally just have to be more assertive about the fact that they can learn this. Anybody can learn this, and there's no reason to be shy about it. It's a skill, and it's a talent. If you're a creative person, it doesn't matter if you're male or female. You just explore all the options that are available to you.

And if there are more men in the managerial roles at your station, adding a woman's perspective creates a nice balance. I work with some great guys, and we balance each other very well. And there is a lot of respect. I've also had difficulty in the past with sexist attitudes, but that's just part of the working world. The way I decided to approach that is to try to not be a shrinking violet about it, but not be too aggressive either. I just sort of stand my ground if somebody's being obnoxious, which isn't very often. But in the few cases when someone's being obnoxious, I just to try to deal with them like you deal with a little child. Divert their attention or walk away from it.

Those kinds of people you can't really teach anything to anyway. It's all around us that we should all be treated with respect equally, based upon what we know and what we do, because we're human beings, regardless of our sex, our color, or our creed. So I try to not fuel the fire if I can help it. I just approach people from the angle that I'm a professional and that I care about what I do and want to do a good job. Just look at me in those terms.

R.A.P.: One would think women would have a much greater roll at most every station, especially on the programming side, when you consider that females make up half those 12 plus numbers!
Mary: You bet. And hopefully it will get to a point where we don't have to make these distinctions between male and female. I just think of myself really as a human being. And I have some qualities and some limitations as a human being that really have not much to do with my sex.

R.A.P.: What's in store for you down the road?
Mary: A vacation would be nice. I'm just trying to find a balance right now. I'm a single mom. I have a three year old son, and for me, the most important thing is to find a balance between my professional life and my personal life, and then just to refine my skills.

What would I like to do in a couple of years? I have tons of different ideas. I'd like to open up a fun night club. And I love collecting things. I collect pedal cars. And if I can do some more traveling, I would. In terms of my profession, I'd like to be more in the international arena where I can work with larger clients in bigger arenas. I'd also like to be the voice of the Dove dishwashing commercial. I've always wanted to be the person who says "my hands are so soft and supple," or be the lady on the phone who says, "the number you have reached has changed." I also have a wicked idea for a Mr. Potato Head TV commercial. So, if the Mr. Potato Head company is listening, they should call me.