Holly Buchanan, Creative Director, WMXB-FM, Richmond, VA
by Jerry Vigil
They're called Creative Directors. At some stations, they're called the Creative Services Director, or Director of Creative Services. The titles are all basically the same, but the duties of this individual can vary greatly from station to station. Some Creative Directors deal solely with programming matters, cutting only sweepers and promos. Others extend their reach into the sales area. Some of them are even involved in the station's billboard and television advertising. And it's probably safe to say that most stations don't even have a Creative Director or Creative Services Director. Holly Buchanan is a Creative Director with a primary responsibility towards providing direct accounts with the best commercials she can. She has become a vital part of WMXB's sales force, visiting clients and speaking with them on the phone on a regular basis; and her presence is reflected by the station's increased revenues. If you're a Production Director who "does it all," read on. You may find the ammunition you need to convince management that they need a Creative Director to help you and the station. If you're a GM or Sales Manager at a station without a Creative Director such as Holly, read on. Your station could be missing the advantage it needs to push those sales figures over the top.
R.A.P.: How did you get into radio, and how did you wind up at WMXB?
Holly: It was kind of an accident. God knows, if they'd told me I'd be writing commercials for a living, I never would have believed them. I was really into music and wanted to be in the programming side of the matter. But, when I got out of college, I called up Q94/WRBQ in Richmond because I knew some people who worked there, and I signed on as an intern. The only opening they had was as an assistant to the Continuity Director, so I kind of slid into the sales arena and got exposed to some copywriting and the whole sales end of the equation. They hired me part-time. Then the Continuity Director left, and they hired me full time as Continuity Director.
From there I worked my way up to Assistant Creative Director. We went through a couple of Creative Directors, and then they brought in Tom Ager who was just wonderful. I probably learned more from him in one and a half years than I did from the other Creative Directors combined for the previous five years. All the "problem clients" got thrown to Tom because he was just so good with people. That's probably the one thing I learned most from him -- how to deal with people. He was very focused. He was a very good copywriter, and he brought me up to speed.
Then, about two or three years ago, the General Sales Manager at Q94 at the time, Bob Rich, left to become the General Manager at B103. A few other people from Q94 followed suit. They hired a Production Director, Brian Lee, who became my partner-in-crime. He was doing all the Production Director stuff, writing commercials, and carrying the whole load. They soon realized this was way too much for one person to do, so they decided to keep him as Production Director and create a new position of Creative Director. When I found out about that, I pretty much hounded the living daylights out of Bob Rich and the General Sales Manager, Steve Hatter, who had worked at Q94 as well, until they finally said, "Okay, we'll hire you." That's how I ended up at B103.
R.A.P.: Brian Lee was the producer and a voice talent on both RAP Awards you won last year and this year. The two of you must work well together.
Holly: Brian Lee and I were just like a science experiment gone crazy. We got together, and sparks flew. He was just so creative and so incredible in the studio. And, he was real young; I guess he was 22 at the time -- just a baby. But, he'd been in radio since he was thirteen! He's still the most talented producer I've ever worked with.
R.A.P.: Where is Brian now?
Holly: Recently, Brian Lee went back to Florida where he's from. He's running his own business down there. It's called Vantage Productions. He left us, and we brought in our overnight jock, Mike Hammer, as our new Production Director. He used to fill in for Brian Lee whenever he was on vacation, so he already knew the production routine and how it was set up.
R.A.P.: Do you have any on-air experience at all?
Holly: Well, I was a Music major at the University of Richmond, and I worked for the college station, WBCE. That's really where I caught the radio bug. I started working there and thought, "Wow, this beats a real job!" I started off as a DJ with a jazz show and from there went on to do a rhythm and blues show, then a dance show. I basically did a whole bunch of different shows throughout the four years I was there. But, I have no commercial on-air experience. It's funny because that was the whole arena I wanted to get into, but as one Program Director so petitely put it, my voice sounds like I have a nasal, yankee twang. So, I never quite made it on the air. Actually, you don't hear me on any commercials either, not unless it's a cameo appearance like a Benny Bunny or one I did not too long ago as Amanda Ant where my voice is sent through a Harmonizer.
R.A.P.: Did you do any commercial or promo writing and production at the college station?
Holly: No, not at all. Like I said, getting into this end of the business was strictly an accident. If Q94 had had an opening in the programming department, I might have gone that way; but because the only opening they had was for a copywriter and Continuity Director, fate threw me in that direction.
R.A.P.: The position of Creative Director at WMXB didn't exist prior to you. Once you got there, how did this new department and position develop?
Holly: When they hired me, they kind of locked Brian and I in an office and told us to set it up however we wanted to. We were really lucky that they said do it our way, so we divvied up some of the jobs. I did all the writing, and Brian basically was just in the studio, producing, since that was really his strong point. As Production Director, he also ordered supplies and kept the production studios up and running. I took over assigning out production and all the copywriting duties.
R.A.P.: Since the position of Creative Director was new to the station, it was also new to the sales department. How did this new relationship get off the ground?
Holly: The salespeople had never had a Creative Director or copywriter, per se, that wanted to actually go out on calls with them. That was a whole new experience for them, and I was very big on that. I said, "Please, I want to meet your clients! I want to see their businesses! I want to see their nightclubs! Introduce me! Take me everywhere!" And they were kind of like, "Uhh, okay...." But, as they found out that I was somewhat presentable in public and had a good rapport with the clients, they started bringing me out more and more. And I just can't say enough about how important that is. The Production Directors I've talked to don't have a lot of direct interaction with clients, and I think that's a huge mistake. I actually get to go out and see the stores and the dealerships and the nightclubs and talk one on one with the clients. And I know the right questions to ask to get a good piece of copy out of them. I think the salespeople are good at that too, but sometimes the client may say something that sparks something in me and gives me an idea. I think it's best to go directly to the source rather than have the client go to the salesperson, and the salesperson go to the Production Director. I think you lose something in that interaction.
R.A.P.: What kinds of questions do you ask the clients?
Holly: I think the biggest thing is, "What are you trying to do?" Is it strictly an imaging ad where it's not focused on sales but rather just to get a certain image across, or is it what I call a "hook" ad for a sale or something specific. My first question is, "Why would people shop here instead of somewhere else? What do you have that your competition doesn't?" These questions help get the client focused. Otherwise...say you go on a client call to a nightclub. The club owner says, "Well, we play top forty dance music, and we've got a great light system and dance floor, and we offer drink specials, and it's kind of like we're in a hotel...." Well, about fifteen other nightclubs in Richmond are in hotels with nice sound systems playing top forty dance music. I try to get them to focus on what's really going to get people in the door. "Should we do a club night, or could you offer free shrimp from 5 to 7?" I try to get them really focused in on a hook.
A lot of advertisers will say something like, "Well, I'm doing ten percent off all fall and winter clothing." Well, that's all right, but if you're expecting your store to be packed, that's not going to work. And, I can say that to the client because I'm not the salesperson. I'm free to say, "If it's March and you're offering ten percent off fall and winter, that's not going to do anything. Do you have some new spring and summer clothing you could do twenty-five percent off on?" I try to get them focused in on something that's really going to pull people in.
R.A.P.: Do you often suggest promotional ideas to clients?
Holly: I try not to do that too often because they usually have something in mind, but if they ask, I try to come up with something. I mainly suggest alternatives only if they want to promote something that I feel very strongly is not going to work. That's when I really kind of step up and say something. Sometimes they'll have a promotional idea that you can twist and turn into something that will work and still make them think it's their idea.
R.A.P.: How many client calls do you go on in a week?
Holly: It varies. I would say I may go on actual physical calls maybe three or four times a week. A lot of times I'm on the phone with the clients, especially if I've already seen their business. Instead of them going to the salesperson with copy ideas, they'll call me directly, and we'll talk about copy ideas. I usually only go out to see new clients or maybe existing clients if they want to do a new promotion. I do a few obligatory client lunches and that sort of thing, too.
R.A.P.: How do the salespeople react to having someone like yourself going out to see the clients and being there at the station to receive these calls from their clients? Many salespeople are quite protective of their account list.
Holly: I would dare say that they are very happy to have it set up that way because that frees them up to do what they do best, which is sell. They don't have to write copy, and they don't have to worry about the fine details.
R.A.P.: Do you handle any other duties that are commonly associated with the position of Continuity Director?
Holly: Not really. Our Traffic Director does a lot of the paperwork as far as assigning cart numbers, deciphering agency traffic instructions, and all that good stuff. As far as my paperwork goes, it's pretty minimal.
R.A.P.: Do you gather all of the copy facts from the clients, or do the salespeople on some accounts come to you with copy facts?
Holly: It's a combination of both. A lot of times the salespeople will bring me the information without me talking directly to the client. Usually, what happens from there is that I'll write something up then call the client, read him the copy, and have some interaction there. If the client feels comfortable enough to come directly to me, they will; or the sales people can bring me a production order with copy facts as well.
R.A.P.: Over the past year or two, has the station been able to see some tangible results of taking the time with clients, to be creative, to give them a product that's going to work on the air for them? Is the station able to measure the presence of someone like you in the position of Creative Director?
Holly: I would say yes, especially if you want to get specific. We have what is called a retail sales department which basically has almost no dealings with agencies. It's almost all direct business. These are the clients I do all the creative for. This department has grown tremendously in size and in dollar amounts generated. The billing is through the roof, and I would like to take total credit for that. I can't, but there's a noticeable difference since I've come on board, and they've put a big focus on that department.
R.A.P.: Are the salespeople getting you to crank out the spec spots? Is that the tool they constantly get from you?
Holly: To a certain degree, yes. I was never a huge fan of the spec spot. In my past, I found they didn't seem to work very well. But, as my experience with them has grown, my thinking has changed. Sometimes salespeople use spec spots because the client isn't really interested. The salesperson is saying to the client, "Well, let me bring you back a commercial, and you can hear what great stuff we do." Well, that client really doesn't want to advertise. It may be a good spot, but they still may not advertise. On the other hand, if the salespeople use the spec spot for a good prospect, then I'm all for doing a spec spot. I can name off a couple of people we've brought on recently that we did spec spots for. They loved them, and they signed contracts. When used properly, spec spots can be a wonderful thing, but when used improperly.... Well, I'll just leave it at that.
R.A.P.: Well, it doesn't sound like the sales staff is abusing the luxury of having your there.
Holly: I would say that the entire staff here treats me very well. My boss, Steve Hatter, tends to let me run loose. If I happen to get off track, he'll steer me back on the right path. It's a terrific group to work for. They're very appreciative, and they're not abusive at all. They work really hard to get things in on time and to really work with me. It's a great situation.
R.A.P.: How many commercials are you writing a day?
Holly: Well, let's use today as an example. I probably wrote about four or five commercials, three or four promos, and I'm working on a promotional campaign. So, I would say on an average day it can range anywhere from three to six commercials, and I usually have as many promos as well. Some days I may write one commercial; others I may do a lot more. It tends to vary tremendously.
R.A.P.: Do you always get copy approval from clients, or do you sometimes let the salespeople do that?
Holly: Most of the time, I try to get client approval. Sometimes, the client will just say, "Write it and go with it." But I'd rather get them to approve the copy and then go into production, rather than to go into production saying, "That's great, except we need to change the address to this." I'm also the one who calls them back and plays the finished commercial. I think a lot of other places are set up where the salesperson does that, but I try to stay with the client through the whole process from copy approval to final commercial approval.
R.A.P.: Are you also involved in the creative for promos?
Holly: Yes. The way we're set up, we have sales promos and programming promos. The sales promos include those promos for appearances, club nights, and so on. The programming promos are for things like the Special Olympics and the beach festivals. We also have a program called Innsbruck After Hours which is a Wednesday night concert series. Things that aren't sales driven fall under programming. I do all the writing on the sales promos, and I do a lot of the writing on the programming promos. Our Promotions Director, Adam Stubbs, also writes and produces some of the programming promos. I go to promotions meetings, and I try to dip my hand into programming promos as much as possible -- A, because I think it's very important for the sound of the station and, B, they're fun. You don't have clients dictating what you can and can't do. Our Program Director, Brian White, usually just tells me to take it and run with it. The promos are great fun. I think that's where you can really let your creativity loose.
R.A.P.: Why do you suppose most stations don't have a Creative Director with your basic duties?
Holly: With all the staff cutbacks and combining of stations that has been going on, I think many managers feel that they've got the Production Director to write and produce everything. They think a Creative Director is an extra position, an extra salary that they're paying. Most stations don't put enough emphasis on the creative process, as far as commercials go. Let's say you have a $50,000 schedule. If the commercial isn't good and it doesn't work, that's not going to do you any good. The schedule is only as good as the commercial is. I think WMXB is a prime example of a station that knows that. Management realizes they're paying out the extra money to have a Creative Director, but it's coming back many times over from the clients that have commercial schedules that work.
Because I do have more time to concentrate on the copywriting and to actually get out and deal with the clients, they end up with a much better product, and it sells more cars and more houses. The result is, they spend more money with you. It's a direct relation, and management at B103 sees this. They're very big on it. The emphasis on creativity is on everything from the overnight commercials to the programming promos and promotional campaigns we do. My boss, Steve Hatter, says, "People don't tune out because of commercials; they tune out because of bad commercials." I think that's very true.
Commercials, in some cases, take up to fifteen minutes of your air-time an hour. If you can make your commercials and promos entertaining and effective, then you've got your listeners that much longer. Plus, you've got your advertisers, too; and they're going to spend money which means you get a pay check. It makes good financial sense. I think that a lot of radio stations just haven't woken up to that yet.
R.A.P.: What is a good, creative commercial?
Holly: I think it's a commercial that entertains, as well as gets the point across. But there is a fine line between creativity and something that's going to sell. Oftentimes, you can do the most creative commercial in the world, and it's not going to get people in the door. I use a lot of humor. I try to throw in different voices and sound effects. Even with just a straight read, I try to use some clever play on words or an interesting music bed, anything that is going to make it not sound like the same old commercial, anything that will make it a little entertaining. Throw in something that's funny or something that touches you emotionally -- something that stands out, that a listener doesn't punch out of. I think the creative commercial is something that's going to hold the listener's attention and deliver the message.
R.A.P.: A high demand for creative commercials usually calls for a lot more voice talent than usual. Does your station have a budget for outside voice-over talent?
Holly: Right now, we use Brian Lee, my old Production Director. We have him on retainer, and we continue to use him on commercials, promos, etc.. He is really the only outside talent that we pay.
We're very lucky to have at the station a very strong pool of voices. We have John Berry who has just a wonderful, professional announcer voice. We call him "god." We have Kat Simons, our evening personality. She has a wonderful voice. We have Bill Bevins who can do all kinds of fun stuff. We've got Garrett Chester who can impersonate anyone. He's amazing.
R.A.P.: Do you think about the voice talent you have to work with before you write a spot, or do you write a piece of creative copy with character voices, etc. and hope your voice talent can pull it off?
Holly: I am very cognizant of the talent we have, and what we can and cannot do. That's hugely important. That was one of my bigger mistakes when I first got into copywriting. I did these elaborate commercials with kids and grandparents and all sorts of different voices and, of course, we didn't have any kids. Nobody could fake a grandparent. You can end up with a really lousy commercial if you don't have the talent to pull it off. I know our strong points and weak points and who to go to if I need a certain type of delivery. You have to be very cognizant of that because if you write something you don't have the voice talent to pull off, you're probably going to end up with a pretty lousy commercial. I would love to be in an advertising agency and have any voice I wanted. But I still think we do very well with what we have.
R.A.P.: Do you get involved in the production at all?
Holly: I maintain a very tight fist on the creative control, but I try not to be in the studio too much because I can be a bit of an ogre. What I'll usually do is get together with whoever is producing the spot, go over the copy and say, "This is the type of music I want, and I want a sound effect here." I might read a couple of lines and say, "This is the kind of delivery I'm looking for." I'll usually go over things so they know what I'm looking for. For the most part, I have faith in whomever is producing the spot, and I pretty much try to let them do their thing. But, I have been known to go back and change something if I don't like it.
R.A.P.: How do you deal with clients who want laundry lists?
Holly: I try to advise heavily against that. I go through my spiel about the hook and staying focused, and that listeners, if you throw too much at them, are going to come away with nothing. I think a lot of clients are used to print ads where you can do that, and I try to explain to them that radio is different, that it's very "theater of the mind," and that you want to do something creative that's going to pull them in; but you need to stay focused. If they still insist on putting 25,000 things in there, if that's the only way they're going to go, then I might do something like what we did for an advertiser for a kitchen store who wanted to talk about all the wonderful things they had. Midway through the commercial, we just rattled through a laundry list of about ten items very quickly. The client is happy because we're talking about the fact that they have napkin holders, coffee makers, gourmet coffee, pots, pans, knives, etc.. The listener probably isn't going to pick up on everything they have, but they're going to come away with the idea that, "Wow, this place has everything!" So, if I'm forced to do a big list, I try to do it all at once and just kind of ramble through it so the listener gets the idea the store has all these things. Other than that, if they insist on more, just use a fun music bed, maybe throw in some special effects, and hope for the best.
R.A.P.: How do you deal with clients who want to spend too much time with phone numbers and addresses?
Holly: My standard line on phone numbers is that unless it's very easily remembered, all you're doing is wasting copy space. People are listening in their cars or at work, and they're not going to stop and write it down. But, if they insist, I usually throw it in at the end. What I'll also tell a client is that when you do a commercial with a phone number four or five times, it almost cheapens it. I think people are so used to hearing the phone number repeating several times on commercials for cheap products. It's almost an image thing. If a listener hears a phone number once at the end of a commercial and doesn't remember it, they can call us up and we'll give it to them, or they can look in the phone book or call information.
As for addresses, pet peeve number three is the number address. Don't do it. You're wasting your breath. I'm very big on cross streets and landmarks, especially because Richmond is a fairly good-sized city if you're talking about Broad Street. If you say something is located at 11-240 Midlothian Turnpike, it means nothing. But, if you say it's at the intersection of Midlothian Turnpike and Europeus Road, well, they know exactly where that is. So, I try very hard to counsel clients to either drop the number altogether, or have the number in there with either a cross street or a landmark reference.
R.A.P.: Do you write a lot of dialogue spots?
Holly: Somewhat. A lot of clients and salespeople seem to suggest dialogue spots. I think they are one of the hardest types of spots to write because it's very, very difficult to make dialogues sound natural, especially when you have radio announcers who are obviously radio announcers trying to play parts of mother and son and a lady that's suicidal. Even if you have a strong talent pool, I think dialogue spots are very difficult to make come across as natural-sounding.
R.A.P.: What's your favorite kind of spot to do?
Holly: I would say spots with humor. I've got a very sick mind, but, if I can take my warped sense of humor and put it to good use in a commercial or promo...that is by far my favorite. Nightclubs are fun. They're all offering pretty much the same thing, so it's a challenge to come up with the reason why someone should go to one place rather than to another. But if you have a good hook, you can have a lot of fun with it. For example, take the Katy O'Leary's Big Hair commercial that we came up with that was a finalist the year before last in the RAP Awards Commercial category. That one was great fun to do. We did a big hair contest at the club, and talk about having fun with a commercial -- what a great group to pick on!
R.A.P.: Give us a bit of your Creative Director's philosophy.
Holly: I think it's important to push the envelope. I try to do commercials that are not what you'd expect. Take the Virginia Opera for example. They came on with some ads, and I was expecting a very stuffy group. They were actually young, very hip people. They said, "We want to try to get across that the opera is not stuffy, that it can be fun, and that you probably know more about it than you think you do." I came up with an idea to use Elmer Fudd as a spokesperson for the opera. Most people would think that was nuts and wouldn't even let me go near it, but there's a Bugs Bunny cartoon with Elmer Fudd and Bugs where he's chasing Bugs singing about "kill the wabbit," which is actually Puccini's "La Boehm," which is a work they were performing. So we do this commercial with Elmer Fudd -- a guy impersonating Elmer Fudd - as a spokesperson for the opera talking about "kill the wabbit." It was great, and it worked very well. Most people would have thought it crazy to have Elmer Fudd as the spokesperson for the opera, but it was something kind of fun and kind of different which was exactly the point they were trying to get across.
I try very hard to really push the envelope. Sometimes you know you've gone too far and have to pull back some, but I would say to everybody: if you have a crazy idea that seems too wacky, go with it. I think people are tired of hearing the same old commercials and promos. They want to hear something a little off the wall. It's attention-getting, and if it's done right, it can work. All they can do is say no.
R.A.P.: Are you using your musical education in any way in your current position?
Holly: Somewhat. I think I'm very familiar with a lot of different musical styles, and, especially with clients like the Virginia Opera and the Richmond Ballet, the classical influence has come in very handy. I know a lot about jazz, and that comes in handy with the clubs. I'm very current on the new dance styles which helps when we do a nightclub commercial. I think music is very key in a commercial. I think that it can make it or break it.
R.A.P.: Do you have a pretty good selection of production music to choose from?
Holly: We do now. When I first came over to the station a little over two years ago, I went in to see what kind of music library they had. Well, they had the S.O.B. library on vinyl. Oh my God! It was horrible! One of the first things that Brian Lee and I did was to order a library from FirstCom, and we just recently expanded that library. You have got to have a good music library and a good sound effects library. That is absolutely key. That's another thing that management sometimes doesn't want to spend the money on, but when you're looking for that "just right music bed" and you don't have it, it's terrible.
R.A.P.: If you wanted to go to another station that didn't have a person in your position, how would you convince the station that they needed you or someone like you?
Holly: I think I would really focus in once again on the fact that if the commercial isn't good, the schedule isn't going to work, and that client is not going to come back. The market is changing tremendously, and I think there is more and more emphasis on direct business. We have all sorts of special programs set up to try to reach these people and get new advertisers on because the dollars are shrinking. The way you're going to compensate for that is to get new advertisers, and you've got to have commercials that work. In order to work, they need to get the point across, and they need to be entertaining enough that your listeners aren't going to tune them out. Everyone wants to make money, and that's how you're going to make money -- with commercials that work.
R.A.P.: Any final thoughts for our readers?
Holly: I know that so many production people are tremendously overworked and under-appreciated, and I'm very, very fortunate to work for the stations that I do because they get the big picture and they treat me like gold. All I can say to those out there who are struggling is to keep at it because, one day, I think the industry is going to come around and start appreciating the forever under-appreciated Production Director. I think we're going to take a turn. Keep up the good work.