R.A.P. Interview: Steve McKenzie

Steve McKenzie, Corporate Production Manager, NextMedia, Chicago, Illinois

Steve-McKenzie-apr01By Jerry Vigil

This year’s RAP Awards competition had lots of close races, except in the category of Large Market Commercials. Steve McKenzie’s spot for Pirro Brother’s Pizza beat out its closest competition by a 3 to 1 margin. Steve also managed to capture the 2nd Runner-up award in the same category. As Corporate Production Director for the Chicago area NextMedia group, Steve makes home base at WZSR-FM where he handles the commercial production for the group’s cream of the crop accounts. They’re in good hands.

JV: Let’s start with some background on you.
Steve: I went to Olivet Nazarene University where I majored in Broadcasting. In my senior year there in the fall of 1985, I got a job at a small radio station in a Chicago suburb. In the beginning, I primarily stayed in Christian talk and Christian music stations, and at those stations, I was totally immersed in the realities of radio—pulling air shifts, doing production and working holidays. There were no rosy pictures painted there. Soon I started to write some commercials. You go to broadcast school and learn how to write commercials, but, you know, it’s not a real life situation. So, I learned a lot from other people and more by experience, and it’s a continuing evolution because every year you learn something new.

Then I went to WYLL in Des Plaines in ’90 and worked there for about eight years. I got a large amount of mentoring and training from Ron Turner. He was the Operations Manager, and he really got me thinking about putting thought into commercials. In January of ’98 I started working for Pride Communications, which is now NextMedia, and that was where it just exploded for me. I had the freedom and latitude to do some more experimental, avant-garde type commercials. I was able to spread my wings a little more and not fall into that same straight-read mentality. Where I was before, you were actually discouraged if you did multiple voice spots because “only professional voice actors could do those kinds of spots.” But here at Pride Communications and then at NextMedia, I was able to really unleash everything that I had into commercials. I was able to open up and really tap all the resources and creativity. And I think one of the keys for me has been listening to other people, listening to other commercial creators like the Dick Orkins of the world, just listening to good, solid creative and trying to emulate that in the work that I do.

JV: Is there another station in the facility with WZSR? How many stations does NextMedia have in that market?
Steve: WAIT is also in the same facility here. There are two stations in this facility, and they have some stations up in Kenosha. Actually, in the Chicago area there are now thirteen stations in the group. Being in a group like that, I’m able to do some commercials for the entire group on a periodic basis.

JV: What’s your official title?
Steve: I’m actually the Corporate Production Manager for the group here in Chicago, and there is a Production Manager here in addition to me.

JV: Were you hired as the Corporate Production Manager?
Steve: Yeah, I was. And it was a position that was created. It didn’t exist before.

JV: What are your responsibilities as a Corporate Production Manager?
Steve: There’s really not any kind of administrative thing involved in this. Probably a more apt title would be Corporate Creative Director because I mainly just oversee a production house here called Dream Makers. It’s a corporate production house where we do agency quality work for people who really can’t afford agency quality commercials. It’s a separate business under the umbrella of NextMedia and in the same facility. My responsibilities are basically to create agency-quality material for some of the higher-end clients on the station and clients with annual contracts. Some of those we’ve done work for include Verizon Wireless, Stewarts Coffee, and McDonald’s of McHenry County.

JV: And some of these spots might run on any of the thirteen stations there in the group. Is that correct?
Steve: Yes. And, some of the spots, like the Verizon Wireless spots, also ran on Chicago radio stations outside the group.

JV: Do you charge the clients for the extra creative?
Steve: We’re just starting to do that. In the past, we basically rolled it into the campaign. “Okay, if you decide to do an annual with NextMedia, we’ll give you the creative free.” It was an incentive kind of thing. But now we’re starting to charge people, and we’re in the process of formulating a good, solid rate card for that purpose.

JV: Do you have any idea what one sixty-second commercial is going to cost the client to have Dream Makers write and produce it?
Steve: Right now I don’t have anything firm, but depending on talent and complexity, anywhere from two hundred to a thousand dollars. Well, the more I think about it, especially given the cost of voice talent, you’ll easily pay two to three hundred bucks for one voice, even an average voice. But to be honest, we’re kind of learning as we go here, and it’s been an evolution. When it started, we didn’t even have the corporate production thing happening. But it has evolved and grown as the years have passed and, hopefully, things will pick up even more. We’re not even at the stage of extensively marketing this thing yet.

JV: Well, it sounds like you’re on the right track. In last month’s RAP Interview with the guys from World Wide Wadio, they pointed out that radio shoots itself in the foot when it says to clients, “Hey, we’ll give you the creative for free” because it basically says this is all we think our creative is worth.
Steve: Exactly. I agree. A lot of newspapers charge layout fees—“Hey, it’s going to cost x amount of dollars to have our designer do this for you,” and radio says we’re going to just throw this in for free. And when you think about it, charging for these services also creates one of those non-traditional revenue streams.

JV: Tell us about the studios you work in.
Steve: For our workstation we use a kind of obscure German-based software program. It’s called tripleDAT. A company called Creamware puts it out. I like it. Eventually, I’d like to go to some software that they’re continuing to work on and develop because this program is essentially dead. They’re not continuing to upgrade it anymore. But it works great. Everything I’ve done to date has been done on that, and it is very user friendly and intuitive.

There are three studios in the facility, and we use tripleDAT in two of the studios here. We run the software on Windows based 866 MHz Pentium IIIs. We just have regular broadcast consoles in the rooms; we don’t use any production boards, but it works fine. For mics we use RE20s, and occasionally we use an AKG solid tube mic. You can tell such a difference when you use a tube mic. It’s just very present, very crisp and clear. As far as getting the commercials on the air, we use the Computer Concepts digital system.

JV: One of your RAP Award winning commercials this year was a spot for McHenry Country Department of Health called “Smoking is Dumb,” a very catchy spot. Where did you get the concept for this one?
Steve: Well, lately I’ve been into Roy Williams. I went to one of his seminars, and I’ve been really getting into some of his work. The “Smoking is Dumb” spot kind of reflects that philosophy of commercial writing, and I put that idea together when I was at his seminar.

One of my biggest beefs is that for the most part, radio doesn’t really give a crap about the quality of production. They’re happy with straight reads, boring reads, maybe a dialogue spot that sounds totally contrived. They don’t understand the payoff with good production. If you have a killer spot, you’ll be able to convince virtually any client to come on the air with you. And if they’re a big client, they’ll be convinced to stay with you for a long time. But if you’re satisfied with crappy production or are not paying someone enough to do it right, then you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot.

Here’s an example of how good production pays off. Stewart’s Coffee is a huge coffee producer in Chicago. We went to them with a “message on hold” program, and they liked it. From there, we put together some spec ads and said, “Hey, listen to these, and if you’d like to advertise, we’re here and we’re ready.” They heard the ads and just absolutely loved them. One of our salespeople contacted them shortly thereafter, and they’ve been an annual sponsor ever since. They’re a huge client, and they are a very established client, meaning that they’re the kind of client that is very hard to change. They’re an older business that’s kind of set in their ways. But the commercials were strong enough to convince them to try radio. And if you can create commercials that are good enough that people can envision themselves being on the radio with them, then that’s half the battle. You need to have commercials that are so good that they can’t wait to hear them on the air.

JV: About how many commercials a week would you say you’re knocking out there?
Steve: I would say twenty to thirty.

JV: How quickly are you turning spots around?
Steve: Probably anywhere from a day to a week depending on the complexity of the project. If it’s a campaign that is going to involve five or six spots, it might be a week before we have it all together for them. But if it’s just a single spot, then we can turn it around same day if necessary.

JV: Tell us a little more about what you got out of the Roy Williams seminar.
Steve: I came back with a new appreciation for the power of audio—the little jingle things and the little audio things that get stuck in your mind like the Clara Peller “Where’s the beef?” or the little 4-note Intel sounder. Once you establish those things in the listener’s mind, they’re stuck there forever. Then, if you can associate your business with that audio cue that you’ve stuck in their head, every time your spot plays, every time they hear that sound, they’re going to think of you.

Putting it briefly, I came back from that seminar with a new appreciation for the power of audio. The spot “Smoking is Dumb” had that corny little “smoking is dumb” jingle in there, and it just basically drilled the point home, which is exactly the message that the client wanted to stick in people’s minds. I use a lot of audio things like that in my work, especially lately, just because it is effective. And if you do it right, you can really get an advertiser’s message across.

JV: When you speak of the power of audio in this sense, are you referring primarily to short little jingles and musical sounders like the Intel thing, or are there other ways to harness this power?
Steve: I’d say it’s primarily jingle-type things, but it can also be non-musical in nature. It might be a certain cadence you use when you say a word, a certain way you say the word. A good example are the Sega commercials where the guy screams “Sega” real fast. This technique is also one of the things I’ll use from time to time.

JV: Where do you go to get the creative juices flowing for all these commercials you’re knocking out?
Steve: Well, believe it or not, I get most of my ideas when I’m in the car because when I’m in the car, I can kind of detach. I can zone out, and it gives me a real neutral area to spread the canvas, if you will. Occasionally, the creative spark happens here at the station—it’s got to for me to survive—but in the car is pretty much where I get most of my ideas.

JV: What’s your basic process when you get an account that you have to do a commercial for? What are the steps that you take?
Steve: First, I’ll totally immerse myself in the client and what sets him apart, what makes him unique. Once I find the unique aspects of that client or that business, then I will brainstorm about it. Okay, they’re totally into custom work. They’re totally into the customer is king, or whatever. I’ll just immerse myself in those thoughts or in those key points, and I’ll brainstorm and think about wild and wacky associations just to try to put some unique angles together because I really feel that the angle is everything. I mean, everybody takes a picture of the Statue of Liberty head on, your typical shot where it's full length and you see her arm there holding the flame. Well, what if you got in a helicopter and shot down? What would that look like? That’s the approach I take with a lot of my spots. I want to give somebody an angle that they’ve never seen before.

There are tons of car dealerships out there, and they are probably one of the biggest supporters of radio. But so many car spots sound the same. How can you do a spot that will be totally different than anybody has ever heard before? What is the unique angle that you can take with this client that will make him stand out from all the other car dealers? That’s how I go about a lot of the spots, just trying to find that unique angle with a client. And once I find it, once I have the kernel of creative there, the spot just writes itself. It’s not even a difficult process. A lot of times, all I need is the concept. Once I nail the concept and have the angles, the spot is pretty much done in my mind.

JV: Your other RAP Awards winner, the one that took the 1st place trophy, was the Pirro Brothers Pizza ad called “Kid Advertising.” What was the process on that creative?
Steve: Well, my son helped there because kids have a unique way of getting your attention and selling you in everyday life. It was a matter of just seeing how he responded and reacted to me and my wife in daily situations. I took some of that and applied it to the spot. The concept actually hit me early last year. It came from just hearing him whine one day. You know, kids are so good at whining, and once they want something, they’ll continue to whine and whine. I just incorporated that in part of the spot. Then, of course, I tried to tie his whining in with the advertising process and came up with the spot.

JV: I suppose if everyone just looks around, they’ll see and hear hundreds of potential commercial concepts just waiting to be developed, but the trick is to be able to take any one of those concepts and turn it into a great spot.
Steve: I consider myself to be an explorer, a risk taker, an experimenter. I like to try things that have never been done before. I want to do things that have never been done before in commercials and with audio. In doing so, I’ve failed a zillion times. I’ve done things I thought would be great at first, then I produced them and they just sucked. But there have also been times where I took a chance, took a risk and hit it, and it turned out incredible and really paid off. It is a risk, but when you do come upon something, it really pays off.

And another motivator for me are the awards competitions like the Radio Mercury Awards and, most recently, the Radio and Production awards. Those kinds of things are really motivational for me. Whenever I come in here and write spots, on the back burner I’m thinking, “You know what? This has potential. Maybe I should do this even better than I was thinking just so I’d have a shot at some of those national venues.”

JV: How do you handle it when a client hears your spot for the first time and completely hates it?
Steve: If I think a client is totally off base, I’ll just recycle the spot and use it for someone else who will truly appreciate the creative. But other times, if the point is valid, I’ll say, “Yeah, you’re right,” and I’ll make the changes necessary. Generally, I’ll work on something until the client is happy because that’s number one.

JV: Do you have enough voices around the station, or do you go outside the station for talent?
Steve: Normally, we get voices in-house and use available staff at the radio stations that we serve. But there are occasions where we will hire free-lancers in the Chicago area. I’d like to expand that even more because it’s really important as we do more spots. And if I have the choice, I would rather have an average voice with incredible intonation as opposed to a killer voice and crappy intonation. An average voice with great intonation is so believable and is so convincing that it’s more powerful than a great voice from someone who can’t really deliver the message credibly.

JV: What’s down the road for you?
Steve: My ultimate goal is that I just want to be everywhere. I want to have my production on every single radio station in the country, and not for ego’s sake but just for accomplishment’s sake, just knowing that I’ve done a good job and that these spots are totally on par with what any agency can do. I don’t give a crap if anybody knows who I am, I just want to do them. I just want to be there. I just want to be a recognizable voice, just like Dick Orkin. You hear that voice and you know it’s going to be a good spot.

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