From the Corner Office – Keep On Trying Till It Works

July 1, 2011

Why do we attack our present and future challenges with solutions and attitudes from our past? Why does one failure allow some people to write off any future attempts to conquer a challenge? Those questions are forefront in my mind ever since I heard a radio professional dismiss a good suggestion with a curt “We tried that and it didn’t work.”

Perhaps I see red when I hear that excuse because it reminds me of the old advertiser comeback “We tried radio once and it didn’t work.” Too many years on the street forced me to hear that old chestnut far too many times. A closed mind is hard to pry open. One or two attempts and they write off a problem as unsolvable.

Thomas Edison embodied the tenacity that makes a great inventor or innovator. After others had failed, he took on the goal of producing a viable electric light. Eighteen months of concentrated work; more than 700 failed attempts and Edison emerged with a practical solution to the light bulb problem. Then he got to the real work: he had to create seven different electrical system devices that did not exist to commercialize his invention. A year later, he was electrifying lower Manhattan. Edison’s secret was not so much genius as it was a persistent focus on the goal and the ability to surround himself with dedicated researchers and engineers. He set the goals, and set them high, and focused his team on the goal, not the intermediate failures.

The entire advertising and marketing model is undergoing profound change. After years of stable and predictable business, our radio world is being rocked by unanticipated events that have created numerous possibilities, both positive and negative. To take advantage of those possibilities, we have to experiment. And if we embrace experimentation, we must embrace some failures on our way to the goal. Attempting an innovation once or twice with minimal resources is not real experimentation, nor will it lead to success. Sometimes, you have to go “all in”.

On the selling side, advertisers and their agencies are actively seeking out new ideas and conduits as they morph from mass marketing to targeted conversations with individuals. There are some very smart people on the buy side who are working to develop a new marketing template. For radio salespeople, this is a challenge to make their own transition from vendor and order taker to marketing partner. This means creating relationships with more decision-makers who will influence the advertiser marketing plan. Those decisions must lead to a deeper understanding and partnership with advertisers. For years we have told salespeople to work deeper into their advertisers’ decision structure; now it is not just a recommendation, it is the only way we will grow our business. Radio, like other “traditional media”, can quickly become a commodity vendor bought on lowest price. Unfortunately, many of those who work the streets in our industry have not gotten the message: if they want their income to grow, they have to break their order-taking habits and become a marketing asset for their clients. Learn to ask the right questions; learn to become an advocate for the advertiser’s marketing objectives and learn to sell the value of the results we can produce for them.

On the creative side, not one more day can go by without radio embracing the digital and interactive tools that we can deploy to communicate with our listeners. The bar is being raised by every new consumer gadget and software platform. We have the capability to listen to our listeners, one by one, and engage them in a conversation far beyond what we can learn from an occasional research study. We have to embrace the two-way nature of the new listener paradigm, and extend and enrich our relationship with them. We have come light years from the days of answering the request phone with “yeah, I’ll try to get that on for you”. The listener expects and demands individualized attention and responsiveness.

As I contemplate our near-term future, we must be thinking today about results-based selling and measurement. We should be proactive, preparing for the digital dashboard in new cars, and we need to have a fix on the role of our air personalities in a Facebook-Twitter-text-always-connected environment.

“We tried it once” is not going to get us where we need to go. We must embrace the reality that we are in competition with everyone, both for attention and engagement as well as advertiser revenues. When we are asked to evaluate our business, we continue to look only at radio revenues in our markets, or radio ratings in our metro. These are yardsticks that only tell a fraction of the story. They are reflections of our historic business, and not an indicator of our future. I do not diminish the importance of superior performance on those metrics, but we must see that they are today’s metrics and no guarantee of a future for our business. That requires new goals, new measurement and new behavior alongside the old. It will not happen without a clear goal, high standards and excellent staff, just as Edison had all those years ago.

So I ask: How clearly have we outlined our future goals and how many experiments have we commissioned, fielded and championed to get us closer to those goals? How have we dealt with those projects that did not live up to expectations? Have we regrouped and tried another direction, or have we reverted to the tried and true, out of habit or frustration? Change is tough; it doesn’t happen by itself. It demands leadership as well as tenacity, positivity and creativity. We need to continue trying until we find that practical commercial solution.

I believe that we have those qualities in abundance in the radio industry. We simply have to keep on trying until we get the light bulb to glow.

I’d love to her your thoughts about this; drop me a note at askpeter@greatermedia.com.