On The Cassette: When the Client Becomes the Copywriter

by Doug Grant

If you're not a musician (and God knows most of us got into radio because we can't sing or play a note), then you must wonder from time to time what your favorite artists listen to. I do. In particular, I wonder whether Aerosmith or Madonna or Trent Reznor listen to their own material while driving down the highway, top down, wind in their hair. I mean, do they like what they create so very much that they are willing to listen to it again and again?

I like to think they do because I know I have created spots I could listen to again and again. Not because of any ego at play, but because they came together exactly as I envisioned them from beginning to end. It's an awesome feeling to imagine thousands of people listening to your voice while conjuring the image of someone completely unlike you in the theater of their minds. Maybe you had that "just right" character voice or added some particularly convincing sound effects. Or maybe that music bed you finally found (after hours of listening to every cut in the library) was the ideal choice for setting the mood you wanted.

Again, this isn't ego. It is simply taking pride in one's accomplishments. But imagine putting together one of those "perfect" marriages of music, sound effects and character voices only to find out it wasn't exactly what the client had in mind. You've been there. We all have. The failed "perfect" spec--perfect in YOUR eyes, that is, because the bigger picture really does have a third dimension, a depth only obvious from the client's perspective. That's the side where the flaws tend to show. The sad part? Usually there isn't a single thing you can do about it. Unless you already have some personal tie with the client, absolutely no amount of logic will work. Begging, pleading and cajoling won't do it. And in most cases, the sales rep isn't about to side with you against a client, so don't kid yourself there.

Case in point: August, 1995. A local "micro-brewery" that was trying to make a name for itself. Traverse Beverage Company and their flagship product, Manitou Amber Ale, were attempting to establish an identity amongst all the new brews available from both major makers and backyard brewmeisters alike. My approach? Guy goes into a package store and asks for some of these trendy new brews only to find that the proprietor has never heard of them. However, he HAS heard of the award-winning ADVERTISER PRODUCT. He even knows a little extra about it and actually sounds almost enthused about the stuff! The punch line? He's fresh out of it. This acknowledged the fact they had trouble meeting demand early on and made for a humorous way out of the spot.

So I strained my brain to concoct a few semi-realistic yet goofy beer names (wouldn't dream of using real ones...we're a classic-based AOR and have several regular beer clients) and went into prod. I'm one of those guys who does GREAT character voices..but only when there isn't a mic around. So I felt pretty lucky to get a convincing older man/younger man dialogue going on our analog 8-track setup. I found the perfect goofy music and one or two appropriate sound effects and voila! A spot even I looked forward to hearing over and over on the radio.

BUT (and there's always a "BUT"), it just didn't fly. And adding insult to injury, a new script was supplied by the clients themselves. The new one equated all the different new beers (particularly those with animals in the name) with the concept of the "Great Beer Jungle" and urged the listener to "break free of the 'herd mentality.'" Despite the fact it was not the spot I wrote, I still gave the new version full production attention using jungle-style drums and various animal effects as atmosphere. The new spot was not without an inside gag or two. I inserted a plain old dairy cow moo into the "Great Beer Jungle." I also loosely based my character voice on Commander McBragg, a cartoon character from the old Tennessee Tuxedo show who always told wildly exaggerated tales to friends who tried to get away from him.

After listening to both spots it may become clearer why the clients' own spot worked better for them than mine. Yes, mine was funnier (personal opinion). But did mine extol the virtues of the advertised product? Sure it did--but only as a secondary function toward ridiculing the silly names of some of the other beers available. That's in direct contrast to the clients' spot which celebrated Manitou Amber Ale's uniqueness less at the expense of its competition and in a generally more positive light. Also, a few product points given to me by the sales rep were not included in the client version. They may well have had a different direction in mind all along. Ultimately, this would be the spot that aired for several months afterward.

What do you do in a situation like this? Grin. Bear it if you can. Ultimately, it's just another beastie to tame in the Great Ad Jungle. So MY spot never got on the air--not that it bothered me all that much. I learned long ago not to take spec rejection too personally. But it always seemed a bit of a shame not to have it heard. The local ad awards don't accept spec spots, so I couldn't even submit it for recognition, and it remained a sad, sorry little orphan heard only by five or six people...until now. It's on this month's RAP Cassette, and while I don't expect YOU to listen to it again and again (you may not even think it's all that great), I guess I ought to put it on a "Best of Doug" tape. Maybe I'll get the chance to steal it back from myself one day.

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