Sound Stories #028 – Crafting Award Winning Radio Ads

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    How do you grab an audience’s attention when you only have 15 to 30 seconds? Chris Smith, Creative Group Head and Writer at the Richards Group has an admirable mastery when it comes to creating engaging and humorous radio ads. Listen as he describes his Radio Mercury Award winning campaign for Motel 6, and dives into his creative process.

    Chris Smith: https://richards.com/about-us/our-people/chris-smith/
    The Richards Group: https://richards.com/
    Ad Age Creative 100: http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/30-creatives-whose-smart-funny-and-innovative-work-keeps-advertising-interesting-165959/
    Chris Smith lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBenRXnxnK4
    Motel 6 ads: http://www.adweek.com/creativity/the-best-radio-ad-of-the-year-isnt-a-total-surprise-but-it-is-a-delight/

    TRANSCRIPTION SOUND STORIES #028

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Hi there and welcome to another episode of Sound Stories, an inspirational podcast for creative professionals and storytellers who want to improve their lives at home and at work. I’m Stephanie Ciccarelli, your host and co founder of Voices.com.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    How do you grab an audience’s attention when you only have 15 to 30 seconds? How do you take a brand that others may have deemed tired or cheap and create content around it that delights, entertains, and elevates perception? These are the kinds of questions that Chris Smith, Creative Director and writer at the Richards Group in Dallas is tasked with every day. He’s earning something of a reputation for the way he’s continuously created amazing work that captivates, often by incorporating humor and the unexpected. Just this year, Chris and his team took home two prestigious Radio Mercury Awards, specifically their radio spot titled Millennials took home the hardware as the Radio Ad of the Year, and the Motel 6 ad campaign itself swept the competition for the Best in Show. But that’s far from Chris’s only accolade. He’s also a two time Jeopardy! winner, as well as a select member of the Ad Age Creative 100 list. And we’re delighted to have him with us today.

    Chris Smith:

    Motel 6 has been a client of the Richards Group for over 30 years, and it’s a really long, really good relationship. And when they came to us way back then, they had a problem that nobody would admit that they would stay at a Motel 6. When we asked them, we had people in focus groups that we specifically chose them because they were Motel 6 guests. And we asked them where do you stay? What kind of places do you stay when you’re on the road? No one would admit it. So we knew they had a problem with affiliation. No one wanted to admit they stayed there. So what our insight was is that a lot of people felt like they stayed at Motel 6 because they didn’t have a lot of money. They couldn’t afford to stay somewhere fancier. We turned that to say, no, you’re smart you’re frugal.

    Chris Smith:

    And one of the lines we use in ads was, “When you’re sleeping, we look just like one of those big fancy hotels.” So we sort of made what people perceive as limitation into an actual compliment, you’re smart, you’re frugal. And then we tried to find the right voice to say that. And a creative director here who was a big fan of NPR heard a guy on the radio named Tom Bodett. And he said, “That guy’s got the perfect voice.” 30 years later, the rest is history. We have always only had two requirements with these commercials, which is say, “I’m Tom Bodett for Motel 6, and we’ll leave the light on for you,” and get a price message in there. Our claim was the lowest price of any national chain, but that’s changed over the years. So as long as we do those two things, the rest of the commercial used to be 60 seconds. Now we’re doing mostly 30s. That’s ours to play with. So as long as we get those two things in there, then we’re good.

    Chris Smith:

    However, we usually only bring concepts that back that up. And frankly, that’s where we’ve mined the most fun lately in writing spots, is Tom, who’s been doing this for 30 some years and he’s getting on in age, he’s getting up there. He kind of comments a lot about things are changing really rapidly, I don’t really understand, but one thing I do know, Motel 6 always has a great value and you can hear that reflected in the concepts over and over again. And that’s really what keeps it fun for us. Because we’re always kind of looking for new things in the news and pop culture, in trends that we can comment on and have Tom sort of be this pleasantly befuddled commentator on it and link it back to the value of Motel 6.

    Chris Smith:

    So this is a spot called Millennials, which was inspired by the fact that so many clients nowadays and at every agency in the world, everybody wants to target millennials. And a lot of people are trying it and doing it badly. So we decided to have some fun with that. And Tom basically does the world’s worst ad targeted at millennials and we had a ton of fun doing it. So here it is.

    Tom Bodett:

    Hi, Tom Bodett. Apparently the hip thing for businesses to do these days is target millennials. So it may sound sus coming from this baby boomer, but Motel 6 is a V great place for your squad to stay woke or asleep. The updated rooms are hashtag blessed with contemporary floors, bedding, and flat screen TVs that are totally on fleek. Plus their prices are always low AF. I’m Tom Bodett, and we’ll keep it lit for you. Book online at motel6.com

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    And that folksy, kind of a regular guy, kind of, I’m frugal and I can relate to you, that just really comes through. So I’m glad that Tom Bodett was the choice because he just embodies exactly what it is that you were describing.

    Chris Smith:

    I can tell you sort of a unique story, if I may. The Motel 6 campaign is why I got into advertising in the first place. I was in college at Penn State and we were listening to agency reels one day in a creative class. And they played a reel by an agency I’d never heard of, called the Richards Group, in a city I’d never been to, Dallas, Texas. And there was a Tom Bodett spot on there that I just thought was charming and funny and just so smartly written and such a great piece of advertising. And I said in that moment, in 1992 or 3, I said, “That’s what I want to do for a career. I want to do that kind of advertising.” So now, 25 years later, I am running that account. So I’m literally doing exactly what I said I wanted to do in college. Like exactly.

    Chris Smith:

    So it was just the style of humor and the sort of stature of the brand and the fact that it was so iconic. And this was, by that point, the campaign was only five, six years old. And it was when I was in college, or a little more than that. But it was already iconic. It was already a legend and it won every award there was and all of that. So I aspired to, that’s the level of writing I want to do. And because I wanted to be a writer and this was such a radio heavy campaign, a writer could really shine. It was really a writer’s campaign. On Motel 6, it’s kind of a unique process because of the longevity of the campaign and the voice that it has to live in, this campaign started when I was in eighth grade.

    Chris Smith:

    We now have writers working on, including some of the spots I sent you, that were not born when this campaign began. The continuity has been… There’s been some change over, I’ve been on it, just writing on it, for about 15 years. And I’ve been the creative director on it for 12 or 13. But the real continuity has been Stan Richards. Who owns our agency, the Richards Group. He was there. He was present at the creation and he’s still here. He still has a relationship with Tom. I still run the work by him. And he still chimes in. I have a core group of writers that I work with. And then I tend to bring in a couple of sort of pinch hitters every once in a while, people who I think could contribute or haven’t had a chance to swing at it yet.

    Chris Smith:

    So I’ll bring them in and we’ll brief them. And then basically our process is they go write their scripts and then they bring them in and they read them to the group. They present them. And my job is I sort of Bodett-tize them. I see my role as I’m the keeper of the voice. They bring me the scripts and we look at them and everyone goes, “Oh, that’s funny, that’s funny. That’s funny,” but we’re really just kind of looking at the premise, is that a funny premise, a funny way in to this value message. And then I work with the writer, this is not how Bodett would make that joke. This is too mean-spirited for him. This is too sarcastic. It’s not gentle enough. It’s not witty enough. It’s whatever. And we sort of massage the scripts until they’re really singing.

    Chris Smith:

    And then we send them to Tom and he takes a pass at them. He says, “Well, this one joke, just, I didn’t quite see how I would deliver that. So could we try this?” By the time they’re done… You know, it’s funny we have ones going in and that script we thought would be the very, very best. And then we have others that we didn’t think this would be great, but once we hear it and it’s produced, it’s the best. The client let us get away with some jokes I never thought they’d let us do. So it ended up being just a real jam. And we’re really, really proud of it.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    You’re also on the selection committee for the Radio Mercury Awards, and I’m sure all of the submissions that you receive, they come from a place where hopefully people were having fun when they wrote them. But something I think we’re all wondering, is how these ads are evaluated. So for someone who’s behind the curtain what do those discussions sound like behind closed doors?

    Chris Smith:

    That’s a great question. And I wish more people, more creatives could see really what happens behind closed doors. I am on the executive committee of the Radio Mercury Awards, which means I sort of talk about the structure and I’m part of a panel of other creative heads of industry people. And we just sort of talk about how can we make the awards better? How can we structure the entries? How was the structure of the show? So it’s more, what is the criteria for entering, that kind of stuff. When it comes to actually selecting the work, they send it out to several, a large group of first round judges who listen to all of the entries. And that’s really just on merit, and every ad gets listened to by a couple of different judges. So you get sort of an aggregate score and the things that score the best, then go to the final round.

    Chris Smith:

    And I’ve been a final round judge a couple of times. And that is a hard day and a long day, but it is my favorite day because you’ve got a room full of people that I’m still in awe that I get to be in the room with these people. Just top notch pros from the best shops in the world. And we’re sitting there talking radio nerd stuff and just having a great time listening to great work. And in that room, we basically, we listen to everything and every panel is kind of different, every award show, but at the Mercury’s we listen and we really have a discussion. And we really say, I like that a lot. I think it really works great because of this, this and this, or it’s good, except it doesn’t quite work on this level.

    Chris Smith:

    And we’re only looking at the very short list. It’s not the UN, we’re not hammering out a peace treaty or anything. But everybody is really engaged and really wants the best work to win, whoever did it. We just want to reward the best work, because that makes the industry and radio a medium, let’s be honest, 90% of the work in the radio medium is not good. Or it’s not super creative or brand focused. It’s just very promotional. And we really want the best work to win and uplift the entire industry. So it’s really a blast.

    Chris Smith:

    To me, what makes an ad shine is just that there’s a surprise in it. There’s something that either grabs your attention right away, or if you’re maybe only half listening, suddenly gets you to pay attention. That’s what makes it shine. And also if it delivers on its job, if it does its job as an ad, but doesn’t feel like it, it feels like a little piece of entertainment. It’s an advert, obviously we’re all savvy. We’re all modern consumers, but nobody likes to be advertised to. But people don’t mind having a conversation with brands they like. So if it feels like that, and really just feels like a piece of communication aimed at you, that you actually can respond to and get a little something out of for yourself, you listen, that’s what makes it shine. If you’re just hammering me with information, that’s important to you, the advertiser, but I don’t care about. So then that just becomes wallpaper. And nobody’s going to pay attention.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Along this journey, there must have been some kind of challenges and times that were really difficult for you to get through as you grew in your career. Can you think of a time maybe that you could share with us of a struggle that you had, what has happened in your career that maybe challenged you in such a way that you felt you needed to grow past, like to push into that pain, to overcome it?

    Chris Smith:

    Every creative person will tell you that their career is ups and downs, and this job is so incredibly rewarding and so incredibly punishing. And the analogy I make is that every day, you have an idea, that’s like having a baby. And you bring that baby into a room and put it in the middle of the table, and then 12 strangers hit it with sticks. And you have to watch. And that’s how it feels, like someone is literally beating up your baby. And some days that can… That’s graphic, but that’s how it feels.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh man, I know, I think everyone here can relate with you.

    Chris Smith:

    Yeah. And you get in periods where you’re not selling anything and a lot of creative people, if they’re honest, will tell you that no matter what level of success they achieve in this business, we drive home every day thinking we’re terrible at this. Like, that’s it, I’m out of ideas. I suck, I’m a hack, whatever, I’m, done, I’ve had my last idea. And then the next day you get up and in the shower, something comes to you, an idea, and you’re like, “Oh, hey, look at that. I can still do this.” So to me, it’s not necessarily periods of ups and downs. To me, it’s kind of every day. Because every day has ups and downs in it. So you have a great meeting and then the next meeting, you’re just a complete buffoon and nothing sells. And that’s within 45 minutes of each other.

    Chris Smith:

    So it’s a really high, low, day to day kind of thing. So to me, it’s just everyday getting up and reminding yourself, why am I doing this? And Stan Richards always said at the end of every one of our meetings, he says, “Thanks. Now let’s go have fun.” And that’s how we ended all of his meetings. And I really do try to do that. I’m like, “This should be fun. I have a fun job.” My sisters are our special ed teachers and social workers and they have really seriously difficult jobs. I don’t deal with anything like what they deal with every day, I get to do the fun stuff. So I have to remind myself of that every day, that this should be fun. And if it’s not fun, what can I do to make it fun again? And if that means sometimes having a heart to heart with a client of how well, the team and going “Guys, we got to do this better or that better, or what’s what’s on your mind,” that’s it. So it’s every day.

    Chris Smith:

    We have another client, it’s original grocery chain here in Texas called HEB. And they’re sort of a dominant grocery chain in this state. They’re one of the best companies in the country, always voted that way. And we’ve had that account for 18 years. That’s my group’s busiest account. And our goal here at the Richards Group, Stan Richards will always say, “We want our work to be the best in the category, whatever category that is.” And with HEB, we have a client who really pushes us to do the best work in the category. And we respond, even though they’re incredibly busy and they do a ton of ads a year.

    Chris Smith:

    And sometimes our work gets mentioned in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. And that does nothing but strengthen their brand. So that’s our goal. We don’t sit in a silo and just create, and then come down from on high with, “Here is your ad, go run it.” We get a lot of feedback along the way. So my job, I’m a Creative Group Head, that’s my title. My job is to make sure everyone feels like their input was included, but also know when, okay, enough is enough, and now perfect is becoming enemy of the good and all those cliches. Guys, it’s really good. We can sit here and nitpick it all day, but at some point we have to trust our guts and go with it. And I am sort of a gentle reminder that guys, we’re done. We can noodle.

    Chris Smith:

    And that’s not just the client. Sometimes that’s the creatives too. Because we could sit there and kind of navel gaze all day and just tinker and tinker and tinker. But sometimes I have to be the tough love and come in and go, “No, it’s good. It’s done and let’s go.” And in the best relationships with clients, they look at us to do that.

    Chris Smith:

    A lot of our clients now come to us because we’ve had such longterm relationships that have been so fruitful for our clients. Motel 6 is one example. We’ve had Home Depot for many, many years. We have several accounts that have been in this agency for decades. They want that kind of relationship that lasts because the relationship is positive. And the main thing we do, I believe, is we listen a lot more. We don’t come with, “Here’s the only solution and if you don’t buy this campaign we’re showing you, you’re an idiot.” That’s not our style. Ours is much more collaborative and much more, “What do you think, you’re a part of the process with us, so let’s sort of create this together.” And I think that’s what clients respond to and why they stick around.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I love what you said about just everyone you’re listening, you’re having conversations, and you’re really trying to celebrate, the advertising in radio. And on that note, Chris, where is the future of radio advertising headed?

    Chris Smith:

    Ah, the old, what’s the future question. I was a history major. I only do past. The future of, you know, it’s funny, the future of radio is really the future of audio. And radio is just becoming more and more one delivery device for audio. So that’s why you’ll see a lot of the award shows now changing it to it’s not just the radio category, it’s the radio and audio category, the audio branding or whatever. So really the whole definition of what the medium is, is changing. But I think the future is we are getting better and better at finding ways to get people this content when they are most receptive to it. It used to be everybody wanted shorter, shorter, shorter, shorter, shorter, okay. And on the internet, you’re seeing things, digital stuff is five seconds, six seconds, two seconds, pre-roll whatever.

    Chris Smith:

    In audio, there’s almost a trend that it’s going the other way, because they’re starting to figure out that people listen to audio while they’re doing something else. That they are listening to audio as entertainment. So you’re seeing more and more brands doing podcasts and branded content that’s long form. So for a while there, everything was getting shorter and now everything appears to be getting longer. So the future is really kind of wide open. And in recent award shows, I’ve seen packaging that had an audio component to it entered as an audio piece. You’re seeing podcasts. You’re seeing stuff that Siri or Alexa says to you, or things like that. It’s really kind of all over the map, but it’s exciting. For a while there, everybody was a little scared, but everybody seems to be sort of embracing it that audio is wide open.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    If there’s one thing that a listener could do today, Chris, to become a better storyteller, what would that be?

    Chris Smith:

    To become a better storyteller? Wow. That’s a tough question. What I try to do, because I work on campaigns, particularly Motel 6, that have been running for such a long time, any good story is you create an expectation and then you deliver it. You deliver on that expectation with a surprise or a twist. So that’s really the Motel 6 campaign in a nutshell. When you hear that music, that mm pah mm pah and the violence start and, “Hi, I’m Tom Bodett,” you have an expectation. You know you are in for a certain kind of experience. Just like when you turn on a TV show that you’re binge-watching and you have an expectation of what I’m going to see. But the shows that lasts the longest, keep delivering on that expectation with a surprise. Sequels that work in movies, they have an expectation and if they don’t deliver on it with a surprise and it’s just sort of all expected or just kind of overdone, and there’s no charm to it, they fail. But if there’s a surprise, they succeed.

    Chris Smith:

    So that’s what I tell my writers. And that’s what I try to do every day when I sit down to write something, is what is the audience expecting, how can I deliver on that in line with the brand’s promise, but then deliver it with a surprise that makes it entertaining?

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow. And that is a great story. So before we go, I just want to let everybody know where they can find out more about the Richards Group and also about you Chris. So I know richards.com is where the agency’s website is. And also you have a bio page on there, but is there anywhere else you’d like to direct us to where we might see some of your work?

    Chris Smith:

    Our agency is very active on social media, on Facebook, on Instagram, elsewhere. On Twitter. So definitely follow us there because, we tend to put out notices about our own work and good things that are happening. But mostly just our work is in a lot of places. So look for us on the Super Bowl, hopefully for some of our Chrysler work. Our Home Depot work is all over the place. Motel 6 is. We’ve got some new partnerships that are coming up. So you’ll start to see our work more. But if you’re interested, go to our webpage and honestly find somebody on that page that you want to talk to about a discipline and email us or call us. And we’d love to talk to you. We’re a very open agency, and we’re very easy to get ahold of. So obviously if you see on our website a client you’re interested in, or someone, a creative or someone who runs an account that you’re interested in talking to, email us or give us a call, we’ll talk to you.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, thank you so much, Chris, for being on our show today, it was an absolute pleasure.

    Chris Smith:

    Hey, this was really fun. Thank you. Thank you so much. And I don’t get the chance to talk for more than 30 seconds at a time. So I really take advantage of it. So thanks.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Thank you for joining us for this episode of Sound Stories. If you liked what you heard, you can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We hope to have you back for our next episode of Sound Stories.

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    Stephanie Ciccarelli is the Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Voices.com. Classically trained in voice, piano, violin and musical theatre, as well as a respected mentor and industry speaker, Stephanie graduated with a Bachelor of Musical Arts from the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario. Possessing a great love for imparting knowledge and empowering others, her podcast Sound Stories serves an audience that wants to achieve excellence in storytelling. Stephanie is found on the PROFIT Magazine W100 list three times (2013, 2015 and 2016), a ranking of Canada's top female entrepreneurs, and is the author of Voice Acting for Dummies®.

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