"Very Good, Sir"

very-good-sirBy Ed Thompson

I’ve had an epiphany of sorts. A fundamental change of heart. A revolutionary transformation in my way of thinking on what it is that I do. I am not just a copywriter, producer, or voice. I am a servant.

 This conversion occurred during my recent move to new digs along Iowa’s West Coast. I used to hold to one of Robert A. Lutz’s Immutable Laws of Business. Lutz was the former head of Chrysler Corporation and held sway over Chrysler’s second renaissance in cutting-edge car design and its merger with Daimler-Benz. In his book, Guts: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World’s Hottest Car Company, he wrote, “The customer is not always right.” Lutz says that the customer isn’t always right because the customer doesn’t always know what he wants.

When I read that, it was as if manna had dropped from heaven. I was convinced that the clients for whom I wrote and produced spots didn’t know the first thing about writing and producing. So over the last several years, I attempted to “educate” every client with whom I came in contact that they should trust someone they’ve only met once to handle their advertising. Some did and enjoyed success. Others recoiled from me as if they’d stuck their tongue in a lamp socket and either went on to other radio stations and used the same tired advertising clichés with which they were familiar or wouldn’t advertise at all. And still they were successful.

What was wrong with this picture? Where had I gone wrong? What I believe I failed to understand was the difference between services and manufactured goods. Think about it. Before they were released, what consumer wanted an Apple computer, a telephone, an electric light bulb, or even radio? In a 1997 speech to the American International Club in Geneva, Switzerland, Lutz said that no consumer focus group would have ever come up with the Dodge Viper. In Lutz’s words, the Viper is, “a cartoonish-looking, 400-horsepower, V-10, two-seat, retro-sports car…[that] doesn’t even have a proper top, glass side windows, or outside door handles.” But when the Viper was set upon the world, it was an instant hit. However, in the service industry, all the customer wants is service. Nothing else.

I rented a large moving van for our relocation to the sunny shores of the Missouri River. After a long morning and afternoon of loading this truck with all of the material goods which I can call my own, I got in the cab and it was big wheels a rollin’! Not two miles out of town, the truck broke. I called the customer service number of the truck rental company, and after selecting several choices from the voice-mail menu, I waited on hold for nearly twenty-minutes before a live human being answered to tell me it would be an hour before they could send a mechanic to fix the truck. An hour passed. A mechanic arrived. He fixed what was broken. Or did he? After we were on our way, I encountered more trouble after a mere fifteen miles from our first breakdown. Another call to the service representative, another menu, another twenty minutes on hold, and we were forced to spend what would eventually be three days in a tiny town in Missouri, making daily calls to service reps, choosing from menu options, passing time while listening to the canned, “your call is important, please stay on the line and someone will be with you soon.” My wife and I then watched two more mechanics come, pronounce the truck fixed, and leave before we could start the bloody thing up to find out for sure if it would work. A fourth repairman came and finally fixed what was wrong all along. It goes without saying that I did not receive good service, and I will never use that particular company ever again, nor will I suggest anyone else use them either.

It was when we finally reached our destination that I realized something very important. What I had gone through with the truck rental company was not dissimilar to what I had put many of my clients through. When they would ask for certain things in their spots like their phone numbers, how long they’ve been in business, or that they have a friendly and knowledgeable staff, I would make “suggestions” and explain why they shouldn’t do what they wanted. Hey! Listen to me. I’m the expert and I know better, damn it! All they wanted was an ad on the air to tell people what they had to sell. Not a lecture on the minute details of modern day radio marketing.

They say, “Pride goeth before the fall.” Ain’t it the truth. My pride and ego could very well have ended my career. Radio doesn’t produce tangible goods. It’s a service industry. Fortunately, I learned the lesson before it was too late.

Most of my clients still don’t know the first thing about writing and producing good radio advertising. But, then again, they don’t have to. My job is this and only this: provide the best scripts and produced spots I can. Then, if they want to tell me what they don’t like, I’ll change it, smile, and cash their check. Some will continue to use the innovative ideas that I create and be successful. Still others will insist on the same familiar clichés…and still be successful. Hey! What’s more important, being comfortable or being right?

Can I get an amen?

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