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What a Grubby Guy in Sweatpants Can Teach You about Making Better Ads

Years ago, while holed up in a small recording studio supervising the production of a radio spot, I learned an important lesson about doing great work.

Our voice talent was an incredibly talented individual. He was blessed with what radio people call “great pipes” — the kind of guy who could sound as announcer-y or unannouncer-y as you wanted him to, hitting all the important sales points perfectly, and doing it in 58 seconds every time.

That said, he pretty much looked like a homeless guy: unshaven, unkempt, and wearing some pretty grubby sweatpants. But that’s one of the perks of being “voice talent,” I guess. When nobody can see you on the radio, it doesn’t matter how crappy you look.

The session seemed to be going well. Appearances aside, our talent was a nice guy and very easy to work with. We did numerous takes, with each one bringing new feedback from me, the producer, or the recording engineer: “Say the word ‘only’ more emphatically.” “Say the client’s name with a smile.” “Say the client’s name with a bigger smile.” Etc.

Finally, after everyone had had his say — and after we had cobbled together a pretty good spot from bits and pieces of each take — I decided to try something.

Pressing the talkback button, I made a new request. “Let’s try one more take,” I asked him. “Only this time, do the spot however you want to do it.”

He wasn’t expecting that. “However I want to do it?” he asked, a little taken aback.

Exactly,” I urged him. “Riff on it. It’s all yours. I’m not sure we’ll go with it, but let’s hear how you’d do it.”

58 seconds later, we had the best read of the day — better than I had ever imagined it could be. And it ultimately became the spot that aired.

What happened? Simple. Grubby McGrubberton had absorbed all our feedback, then subconsciously merged it with his unique talent and expertise. And all because I had given him the freedom to do it.

Since that day, I’ve made it a point to follow this same process every time I supervise a radio or TV recording. And more often than not, it’s resulted in a better end product.

But the lesson I learned that day doesn’t just apply to me. And it certainly doesn’t just apply to voiceover artists, either. You can apply it to people who report to you… suppliers or vendors… even your advertising agency.

Let’s say your agency has been working on a new ad for you. You’ve been giving them feedback all along the way, and each new comment is faithfully reflected in every new revision that comes your way.

Eventually, you have an execution that answers all your needs. But let’s be honest. Even though it might look good, it’s something that’s been patched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

What would happen if you just told them to “riff on it?” To step back, regroup, and give you their unfiltered, unencumbered interpretation of everything they’ve heard you ask for up until that point?

I’ll tell you what would happen. You’d get something better.

Something that works harder.

And something that makes your agency happier than an unshaven announcer in sweatpants.

Give it a try.