As a consultant, I'm paid to know what will happen next. Even if I'm not always sure.
Clients hire Jacobs Media for our expertise and experience. And yet oftentimes, it comes down to this:
What do you think will happen?
My gut instincts are pretty good. And some of the hunches we've taken on Classic Rock, The Edge™, mobile apps, web surveys, and connected cars have paid off – royally.
But most of you remember the ones that worked out – not the ones that went down in flames. Believe me – we have some of those, too.
So, when I ran across Jeff Haden's newest piece in Inc. – “Want to Succeed More Often? Stop Thinking you Know For Sure What Will Work (and What Won't), he had me at the headline.
And his prime example of getting it wrong, but eventually getting it right is Deep Purple's “Smoke On The Water.” It is the band's biggest hit – punctuated by those opening riffs that make you grab an air guitar to hit some of the most iconic power chords of all time.
But Roger Glover and the rest of the band didn't believe in the song, choosing to release a song called “Never Before,” a track that you've probably never heard of.
It wasn't until they started touring that fans heard “Smoke,” communicated it to DJs (no, there was no Facebook in 1971), and the rest – as they say – is history.
Today, it seems unfathomable Deep Purple, their management, their label, their girlfriends, or their moms didn't somehow intuit that “Smoke On The Water” would become a massive hit. But as Haden points, they just didn't know.
In fact, he puts it well:
“They couldn't know…because no one can ever know.“
And that should give all of us pause – whether we're consultants, managers, PDs, on-air talent, or in sales – to remember that none of us truly knows.
And it reminded me of a story very early in my consultancy. I wasn't as sure-footed about radio as I am today. And an odd opportunity dropped in my lap.
A station that abandoned rock wanted to bring back the original format, and I was chosen to help put it together. WGRQ was the rock station of record in Buffalo for years, but in the mid-'80s, they dumped the format and instead opted for the “safer” trappings of AC radio.
They changed the calls to WRLT, but that never really took. So, when one of the owners – David Rich – took over the station, the wild-eyed, crazy plan was to return to the glory days of rock, bring the core staff back together, and pull off an unusual feat – a radio resurrection.
The mastermind behind this rock slight of hand was a slick research/marketing guru, Jhan Hiber. He was glib, confident, and convincing. Jhan didn't know the music (that was my role), but he put together an incredibly grandiose promotion and marketing plan for the return of 97Rock to the Buffalo airwaves.
My bet is that there was never a TV campaign for a radio station – before or since – that's come close to the scale of what the Rich family ended up running in support of the new 97Rock.
And the other part of the debut was the promise to program in a set number of daily 97 Minute Commercial Free Blocks – a commitment that would never go away. Jhan's concept was the station betrayed the audience when they deep-sixed the rock format. Never again would it screw over them over by going back on its aggressive commercial-free promise.
On the day of the last big strategy session, we were all to meet at Rich's beautiful summer home on Lake Erie. I was increasingly having problems with the plan, I did not like the TV creative, and I was actually concerned the inevitable sales pressures would cause us to renege on our commercial-free pledge. As a programmer, here I was in the awkward position of arguing for less commercial-free programming. Go figure.
Like it was yesterday, I remember being in the boarding lounge during the summer of 1988 – yes, 30 years ago – waiting to catch my Northwest Airlines flight to Buffalo.
And I had a panic attack. Or as close to one as I've ever had.
I started to convince myself this crazy plan wasn't going to work, that Jhan was overpromising, that the station's return could never live up to the hype, and that it would end up being an embarrassing hot mess.
The gate crew started boarding the flight, and I decided not to get on the plane. But then I started to think that my pessimism about the plan was being fueled by panic and fear.
And I started to reason that in spite of this spiraling, out of control, over the top concept, maybe it could somehow work. Perhaps the opportunity to bring rock back to Buffalo was so powerful that it made sense. I exhaled, pulled myself together, got on the plane, and made the meeting.
And it was a good one. I expressed my concerns. Hiber and Rich heard me, and I think PD John Hager was happy we went through the “What if?”/devil's advocate drill.
So, of course, you know the end of the story.
The resurrection of 97Rock was probably turned out to be one of my consulting career highlights. I worked with the station (with just one short blip) all the way through the 2010s, through multiple owners, GMs, competitors, and other radio madness. But you couldn't have convinced me it would all work out back in the boarding lounge at the Detroit airport.
The station signed on bombastically. We took over a nice bar, invited advertisers and other locals, and the entire airstaff showed up wearing tuxedos. The picture below was shot next to the mega-tour bus David Rich bought the station. No expense was out of the question.
Some of my best memories as a consultant were seeded in Buffalo, New York. I worked for some amazing people – in the early years, Charlie Banta and Bill Saurer. And the airstaff – what a great group of true, blue Buffalonians. Larry Norton, Anita West, Cindy Chan, Carl Russo, J.P., Jim Pastrick, Slick Tom Tiberi, Rob Lederman, and many others. I also worked alongside one of the best promotion and marketing pros of all time, Heidi Raphael.
I learned about beef-on-weck and other Buffalo traditions. We had tremendous success with the “second coming” of 97Rock, and I can tell you I always enjoyed making the trip to Buffalo to visit the station.
Until that time I flew into town the morning of 9/11 and watched the second plane hit the Twin Towers from my Buffalo hotel room listening to Larry “Snortin” Norton. And then John Hager drove me back to the airport, I rented the last available car, and made the long drive back home to Detroit. We weren't going to do those LAB groups that night.
John is still manning the place – a position he's held non-stop for more than three decades. He's been the guts and glue of 97Rock, survived a lot of GMs and corporate types, and made a lot of us look pretty smart. And his heritage staff has continued to deliver on the promises made 30 years ago by a bunch of rock jocks who passionately wanted to win for their hometown fans.
Thanks, 97Rock, for teaching me an important lesson that day.
Because you just never know.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,200 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
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