Creative Copy

by Steve McKenzie

“The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun…” (Ecclesiastes 1:8-9)

creative-copyBeen there, done that. This is the problem with radio—predictability. People are bombarded with thousands of radio commercials and expect yours to fall into the same pattern, i.e. car commercials with screaming announcers, dialogue commercials that sound unnatural, and dance club commercials that sound like…dance club commercials in every other market in the country. In so doing, we don’t engage our listeners, and eventually they tune out, or at best get bored.

Your mission. To go beyond these kinds of expectations and serve up something that has never been heard before, to arrange sounds in such a way that the listener is intrigued, surprised, and wants to replay them again and again and again. Radio is art and entertainment, so why not your commercials as well?

Brainiac. Sound difficult? It’s not as tough as it seems. With 1 quadrillion (1,000 trillion) synapses in your brain, chances are good that inside, you have hundreds of award-winning commercials waiting to be assembled. But in order to mine them from the depths of your brain, you’ll have to think differently.

Postcards are bad. If you ever want a typical, encyclopedic look at a city or tourist attraction, look at some postcards. You will find scenic (of course) skylines, beautiful (duh) bikini-clad models, and tropical images emblazoned with “wish you were here!” (yeah) No one is surprised by any of these—they’re expected, they’re trite, they’re dull! Although most of them are factually accurate, that’s as far as they go. You want a postcard that’ll get a response? How about the Statue of Liberty with a nose ring, a picture of your mother-in-law “on the beach, or a picture of you atop the city landfill? These are the things that people will talk about and will remember when they see you.

Yada, yada, yada. So it goes with radio advertising. The goal is not to paint the expected picture, i.e. “AAA Multimedia builds websites and databases and presentations for all your business needs…”, but to approach the client from a different angle, perhaps with an edgy announcer, reading a handful of words over quick ½-second edits of audio, illustrating how much multimedia knowledge AAA Multimedia has. The reason for this different approach is to be heard, to get noticed, to be the crown jewel of every stopset. Be encouraged! (Listening to most commercial breaks, it shouldn’t be hard to do).

Out-of-the-box. All of us have written or produced ordinary commercials. This is not a bad thing. Knowing how they’re built and how they sound will help you in creating the extraordinary ones. You’ve already conquered the “typical” commercials. Now you can get to the task at hand—"brainstorming” (the stormier, the better…). At this point, if you get a brain cramp, start by listening to some great commercials, i.e. the RAP Awards disc, previous Radio-Mercury Award CDs, and any other agency-produced commercials you salivate over.

These illustrate the craft of radio commercials without involving a minute of book reading. Plus, it’s a lot more fun. Be a detective—go over every inch of audio. Listen to their use of sound effects, rhythm, contrast, talent, delivery, pace, writing style, what they say and don’t say, and choice of music. Every element was a deliberate choice of the producer to evoke the maximum amount of recall in 60 seconds.

Mt. Everest and beyond. Once you see that others have climbed this creative mountain, you’ll realize that you can do it too. To start, find a place where you can unwind and “be creative.” When you get comfortable, take your client’s info, get in front of a blank piece of paper or a computer screen, and start writing. Write down everything that hits you, even if it’s goofy, strange, or different. These initial ideas can be the stepping stones that lead you to your final copy. Even if nothing comes out of your rumination, at least you got the ball rolling…and that’s good.

The kernel. Many times, I’ll sit for (what seems like) hours with only a handful of words on the page. It’s frustrating! But then, I’ll get in the car, drive home, and before I get there, something hits me. I’ll get a concept, an angle, an idea, and I’ll write it down. Granted, it’s not the whole spot, but once I get the kernel “in-the-bag,” the rest of the spot writes itself.

Disconnect. Once you have the client in your head, you don’t have to consciously think about them to come up with ideas. Once data goes in, your brain starts chewing on it, regardless what you’re doing. You may be surprised with what you come up with and when you come up with it. I’ve come up with great ideas in the bathroom, of all places. Make sure you’re prepared. I always have a pen and paper in the car when those moments happen. Should the idea come at home, I’ll write it down before I have a chance to forget. Some of these ideas may be totally unrelated to the client at hand, but that’s okay—you’ll need them down the road. Keep a list of these concepts on your computer, a sticky note, or legal pad so you’re ready when the right client comes along.

Angle is everything. To help you get more ink on paper, try looking at your client differently. Rather than telling how many widgets Acme Industrial produces, tell it from the customer’s perspective, or the pet’s perspective, or the kid’s perspective. How would your spot sound if it was a video game, or a jingle, or you incorporated the sound the widget makes every time it’s used (creating an audio recall cue for the listener)?

Picasso’s secret. Picasso found his “angle” (and not just in the geometric sense). He discovered that he could express himself on canvas in unconventional ways with cubes and squares and shapes. Monet chose coarse brush strokes and blobs of paint to convey his feelings. Were they proportionately accurate or true to life? No. But the feelings and emotions they evoke were powerful, and still influence us today.

Choose your brush. What “colors” will you choose? What “brush strokes” will you use? Will it be bright or muted? Rough or smooth? Fine or coarse? With that said, experiment. Become an artist for a day. Decide that you will paint an audio image you have never heard before. Explore a different writing style, write your own jingle, sing your own song, become a different announcer, actor, character—stretch your vocal limits. One song that inspires me the most is “Leave It” from the group Yes. Every time I hear the song’s intro, I am motivated to be as creative, as out-of-the-box as they are. Perhaps there is a song or concept that moves you. Let that be inspiration to push you farther forward in your craft.

In the lab. Sometimes you have to experiment to prove the merit of your idea. I have gone into the studio many times to see if what I have put on paper will work in production. There are times when my concept doesn’t work. There are times when it goes exactly as planned. And then there are times when new ideas are generated in production, and the result is something that’s way beyond my expectations. Now that’s cool. Whatever the result, it’s always a great learning experience.

Where do ideas come from? Some of the best creative comes from real life. What’s funny to you? What have been some of your favorite moments on planet earth? Think about these times and then build upon them. Years ago, my oldest son (then 5) started asking “Why?” to everything. When I would say, “We’re going to the store,” he would respond “Why?” After hours of this kind of dialogue, I thought, “Hey, why not use this in a spot? So, I sat down, put together a commercial that featured an inquisitive child asking “Why?” to everything, and tied it in with my client. The result was an attention-getting ad that the client loved and uses to this day. (See RAP Awards disc March ‘00) What kind of stories do you have to tell?

Real life. If you analyze sitcoms on TV, you’ll find that these are not shows about clowns or slapstick comedians, but people in real life situations responding to real life events (in funny ways of course). But that’s why we keep watching: we have experienced similar situations and like seeing how other people react and respond to them. Radio commercials are the same way. If you can paint a picture people can empathize with, laugh along with, or feel strongly about, and tie it into the client, you will have a powerful commercial.

You can learn a lot from an electron tube. In between good sit-coms (and especially Super Bowls), are great commercials. Many are executed to perfection visually, with talent, and with the VO. Still others are incredible examples of thinking “out of the box.”For 22 seconds the advertiser was taking you one direction, and then, “BANG!” nails you with a surprise finish or twist that drives the previous 22 seconds home. After that, you go home and tell everyone you know about this incredible commercial you saw on TV. Talk about word-of mouth advertising! And then suddenly, the millions they spent to produce the ad doesn’t seem as strange. Radio commercials should strive for the same effect: ads that get results and ads that people talk about.

“Are we there yet?” It’s an expression that parents dread, and one that radio creatives should fear as well. When someone hears your commercial, they shouldn’t be looking for the “off” button, or trying to switch stations. What they should be doing is turning up the volume and saying, “Hey, listen to this!” If every commercial could do this, radio stations would play commercials instead of music.

Toddlers and kneepads. No child gets great at walking by sitting on his diaper. He’s got to get up and fall, get up and fall, get up and fall, get up and fall, get up and fall, get up and fall, get up and fall, get up and fall, get up and fall, get up and fall, get up and fall, get up and fall—and then take the steps that amaze his parents. Production is no different. We all have skinned knees, but the more we do it, the more we go through the process, the more we will amaze our clients and peers with the quality of our production.

What’s my motivation? Production’s a lot more fun when it’s your commercial. Nothing’s more depressing than when your “favorite” salesperson gives you a crappy commercial (that he or she wrote) to produce. On the other hand, produce a spot that you’ve composed, and now you have some motivation. When it’s your baby, you will spend the extra minutes it takes to finesse the details and tweak the mix; so when the client hears it, it’ll be perfect.

In the driver’s seat. The benefit of writing your commercials is that you are in total control. You can steer this baby wherever you want it to go. You know who your voice talent will be, you know the choice of music, and you know how it will be assembled. Another benefit is that you can write to make the most of your strengths and resources. You know who’s in your talent pool, what sound effects and music you have access to, and what you’re capable of. Plus, since this is your commercial, there’s more at stake now. It’s a reflection on you—not to mention the fact that one of these days as you continue down this path, you’re going to produce an award-winning commercial, a commercial, by the way, that you wrote and produced.

Go ahead, raise the bar! Somewhere in our bodies must be a “competition gene” because from the time we’re born, we want to win. We want straight A’s. We want to be number one. Therein lies even more inspiration for creative persuasion—awards! Write down the dates for all the year’s awards events and post them where you spend the most time. Let them beckon you to always be thinking, always be brainstorming, always be experimenting, so that when the time comes, you will have something to submit. Keeping these events at the forefront of your mind will not only improve the quality of all your work, it will provide forward momentum for your career as well.

Wanted: creative writers. There are plenty of experienced production people. There are fewer good writers. (Judging from some of the scripts your salespeople give you, wouldn’t you agree the world could use a little more creativity?) By taking this baton, you will increase your marketability, enhance your skills, and make your radio station a better place. The only challenge is time.

Tick tock. Tick tock. “There’s no time to be creative—I’m busy enough with production!” That’s a reality for some folks. If that’s your situation, then make it your goal to write one spot a month for whomever you want. Even at this level, you will be doing more for yourself than you would by not writing. Plus, you don’t have to kill yourself, and can still get the creative “exercise” to stay healthy. In doing so, you may discover that you’ll work yourself out of this job, into one where you are both writing and producing.

The yardstick. Find someone whose work you respect and admire and bounce your work off them. It really helps to have someone who can give you creative advice and input on what you’re doing. Without it, you’re just wandering in the dark. That way, you have a way to measure your work. Plus, you’ll come away with new ideas and new techniques that will broaden your vision, give you direction, and help you grow even more. If at all possible, have more than one person you can go to. This will balance out the viewpoints and give you a more objective look at your work and how others see it. We’ve all heard the phrase, “No man is an island”…it is especially true here.

Do what you love. Not everyone will get fulfillment out of writing commercials. That’s okay. Just make sure that whatever you do, you do it with passion. It will shine through what you do. Neither will you be able to create an award-winning commercial for every client, every day. That’s reality. You will however, be able to create commercials that are unique, extraordinary, and effective by utilizing techniques such as these. Now, not every client is daring enough to accept spots that are highly creative or attention-getting, but those that are will reap rewards beyond their wildest imaginations.

The world is waiting. The world’s best radio commercials have yet to be produced. Will you be the one to write them?

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