Bill “Be Fabulous” Burton Says: “An Automobile Is A Radio With Four Wheels” (03/22/04)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-In-Chief
Bill Burton is a man with a message, and he communicates it as often as he can to anyone who will listen. He’s on a first-name basis with virtually every automotive company chairman, president, and division manager in the United States. He regularly preaches the fundamental power of Radio with all of the above. The message: Radio is effective, inexpensive and far underrated.
As president and COO of the Detroit Radio Ad Group, Bill “Be Fabulous” Burton has done as much for the sake of Radio — on both local and national levels — as virtually any single human being since Marconi. By repeatedly communicating to the Big Three automotive decision-makers that Radio is uniquely positioned to put consumers behind the wheel of new cars, he has helped to increase the amount of national dollars allocated to our medium. Acknowledging that his crusade directly affects both the local and national Radio landscape, Burton says it’s far more important for him to make a mark on the entire industry.
“Every local station knows I’m involved in getting Radio presented at the top levels in the automotive industry, and that filters down to the local level,” Burton observes. “Radio’s biggest category still is automobile dealers, and because I get in at all the top levels in Detroit, I have an effect at the local level, too.”
What drives Burton in his tireless effort to get Radio’s message across to the automotive industry? “I want to be known as a professional product-mover, people-builder and cheerleader,” Burton tells Radio Ink. “From the very time I came into this business, I have always positioned myself as a product-mover.”
Born and raised in Detroit, he holds a business-and-economics degree from Michigan State University, and he attended law school at the University of Michigan until called to service in the Army as a military police officer. He began his career in sales at the nation's biggest paper jobber, followed by five years at 3M. He joined Radio in the 1960s as a salesperson and rose through the ranks until he eventually was named president/chairman of Eastman Radio. A runner and a swimmer (he’s completed the Boston Marathon), Burton and his wife, Carol, live in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; he has two daughters, Debbie and Kerrie.
Your Number One mantra seems to be “Don’t take ‘no’ from someone who can’t say ‘yes.’” But on the local level, how do you get to the person who can say “yes” — the decision-maker?
The local level is really no different from the national level. Whatever you’re selling, you always try to get to the “yes” person. There are millions of people out there who can say “no,” so you’re always trying to get to the decision-makers. The local level just changes from being the top people at GM, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler to being the retailer. Does he or she own the store; is he or she the manager? Now, of the 300 people selling Radio locally in Detroit, very few have ever met the owner of the dealership. They’re dealing with the general sales manager and maybe a small agency. So one day, they may walk into Ross Roy Ford, where they’ve been getting all this business, and the manager says, “Sorry, Bill, we’re not going to use Radio anymore.” The sales rep asks why, and the answer is, “Well, Roy doesn’t want it anymore.” To which the sales rep says, “Well, let me talk to Roy.” The response: “Well, Roy is in the Bahamas or Palm Springs.”
So how do you get to the decision-maker in a situation like that?
You do it before it ever gets that far — and it’s actually pretty easy. When you get the order from Ross Roy Ford, besides writing back to the person who placed the order at the agency, you drop a note to Mr. Roy. It says: “We really appreciate your business. Joe Shnook, your sales manager, is a terrific guy to work with.” You have to let Mr. Roy know you’re going to do everything humanly possible to move his product. It’s a matter of always running a bit of an investigation. The most basic element in selling anything: Talk to the person who’s the decision-maker, rather than to someone who’s just investigating your armpits before you get to the right person. You keep looking for those little things to build the stairway to the stars. You don’t do it in 15 minutes, but over time, Ross Roy gets to know this person who cares about his business. That’s the door opener; and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Richard Wagoner at GM or Ross Roy, who might be in Palm Beach this weekend.
Should the account executive try to work directly with the dealer, or is it best to approach the market’s dealer group?
It depends on the size of the market. In the top 50 or 100 markets, there are dealer groups; and whether we like it or not, probably 75 percent of their money is spent in TV. This is largely because the car company uses TV, and it’s something they all want to be a part of because it’s “big time.” Now, in any of these markets where they have a dealer group, once you get to the group, it’s the perfect place to extend your reach and get to the decision-makers. If there are 12 dealers in the room, you now have some intimate knowledge of 12 faces. Many times, they’re the general sales manager, but many times, they’re also the ultimate decision-makers — whether it’s the president of the company or the assistant manager in the retail store.
How important is it for Radio to work with other media in the market, rather than to grab the largest share possible of the dealer’s marketing dollars?
It’s critical. Radio can make more people turn to the dealer’s TV; it can make more people open to his Yellow Pages; it can make more people refer to his newspaper ad. Radio can be the ultimate complement at a very reasonable price to hit this moving consumer target. But if an AE goes to any of these people and says that Radio will solve all the problems in the world, the meeting is probably going to be very short. They have to take a multi-media approach in order to assist them in what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s imperative for the sales rep to go in with a bigger vision.
What’s the greatest obstacle Radio must hurdle when working with a local auto client?
If we could genuinely document results by walking in with a free-standing insert (FSI) or a newspaper ad, within two years Radio would go from $20 billion to $30 billion. Local dealers look for any way to document that what they ran on Radio brought in legitimate prospects that purchased cars. The most successful auto dealers do a pretty good job of interviewing potential customers, and the biggest Radio users do a great job of documenting that people walked through the door and bought a car because they were listening to Radio.
How can Radio’s strengths be maximized as part of a multi-media advertising campaign?
Research shows that we forget 85 percent of what we’re exposed to overnight. If you saw a commercial on Friends last night at 8:00, will you remember it tonight at 6:00 when you have your first chance to go into a store? This is where Radio — the frequency medium — is the primary medium. Even if you saw a commercial last night on Friends, if a Radio commercial today reminds you of what you saw, you have a much better chance of going over to Ross Roy Ford on your way home from work.
You’re known for saying, “A car is a Radio with four wheels.” Where did that come from?
I don’t know if it’s an original Bill Burton or if I stole it, but the first time I recall using it was with Ed Cole, who was then president of General Motors. He liked it, and I’ve milked it ever since. I was brought up always to put a little “taillight” on the end of a letter, and it’s a way of putting a commercial at the bottom of every letter that goes out. Over the years, it has become part of my brand, just like “Be Fabulous.” Whether it’s an original or not, I get credit for it all over the nation.
Are you worried that Radio is close to becoming a “CD player with four wheels” or a “telephone with four wheels”?
No, I’m not. Every time I go out and speak, I have to answer those questions. We’ve survived the cassette and the CD and the cell phone, and now there are some cars with TVs. Then there are people who do their nails or read the paper while they’re in the car. The bottom line: Radio is live and local and will remain the primary medium in the car.
Short of showing the dealer the equivalent of an FSI, how can Radio demonstrate that it’s working?
Dealers are looking for anything to document that they got some value from money they spent. They’re gun-shy of having a station promotion that brings in a lot of people for a free chance to win a car; they’re not legitimate buying prospects. Dealers are looking for anything a sales rep can come up with to get a legitimate buying prospect in the doors. One of every three or four people who walk into a showroom buy a car, so a sales rep must be able to document that he or she got them in there. It has to be something more than just a big crowd; dealers are looking for meaningful people, who are going to buy.
What one suggestion would you offer the new sales rep who was just handed a local automotive account?
In this day and age, there are so many places to get an immense amount of information, starting with the Internet. Walk into the dealership, walk around, steal a few of the brochures. If local Radio salespersons did nothing else but go a couple days before and read the brochures, they would know more than they currently know by just walking through the door. It’s a fabulous sales tool. Sales reps who walk in and say, “I want to tell you about my Radio station” — but haven’t done their homework — are probably just part of the short-lived turnover in the Radio industry.
How important is the creative aspect of automotive advertising?
After all my time in this business, I still believe that creative is paramount. Now, the agencies make their living doing production and television. Would they rather do a $3-million Super Bowl commercial or a $5,000 Radio commercial? The average TV commercial on the national level costs $364,000. Another point is that, if a creative person was one of 75 people who worked on an OnStar GM commercial, the person has that in his/her reel. Nobody ever asks for the person’s Radio reel. The people who are partners in moving product have Radio way down at the end of the aisle, around the corner, in the back room. Now, in their defense, some of the giants in the ad agency business have admitted to me that doing great Radio is very challenging. It’s hard to get anybody to do great work in that area.
How important is Radio’s ability to hit the automotive customer closest to time of purchase?
Radio is the ideal sales vehicle to get as close to the point of purchase as possible. Measured down to the hour, we’re the medium. For retailers like Kmart or Wal-Mart, Radio is the ideal sales vehicle. Now, Radio recency in an automotive buy doesn’t work the same way, because people don’t decide to buy a car in the next hour while driving home. Here’s what it does: If you’re in the market for a new car, the Radio commercials for Ross Roy Ford suddenly sound louder and clearer. Once you are in the market for something — boom, Radio sounds like it’s in an echo chamber, and the message gets through to you.
You’ve been a cheerleader for Radio for your entire career. Why aren’t more advertising people as gung ho?
If Radio did not exist and was invented tomorrow morning, people would line up across the country to buy it. A lot of advertisers would suddenly see Radio as a phenomenal advertising medium — which brings up another huge situation. If the advertising capital of the world had been L.A., instead of New York, Radio would be doing a lot better. The freeway there is the world’s biggest parking lot, whereas in New York, decision-makers live in West-chester or New Jersey. They’re in the train car reading The Wall Street Journal on the way to work, and they’re in the bar car on the way home. It’s hard for them to understand how much other people listen to it.
Why don’t the major automotive companies use more Radio when introducing a new car to the market?
General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler say that they have great respect for Radio and want their dealers and dealer groups to use much more of it. The party line on the national level is that design is paramount to introducing a new vehicle. As Bob Lutz, the vice chairman/chairman of GM, says, “If the outside doesn’t turn you on, you’re not going to get in the inside.” I have no problem with the fact that they have to introduce their new babies with TV and print. Out on the road, though, babies begin looking like other babies. Radio is the ideal sales vehicle to drive prospective purchasers into the dealership.
Hummer’s Liz Vanzura: Understand The Marketing Strategy
Liz Vanzura, director of marketing for General Motors’ Hummer, is one of the more cutting-edge marketing minds in the automotive industry today. Several years ago, she was responsible for the marketing strategy developed around the re-launch of Volkswagen’s Beetle, and she currently oversees all marketing efforts for GM’s H2 Hummer. A strong believer in Radio’s power to deliver specific messages to consumers, Vanzura notes that, for both vehicle launches, she initially used a high volume of visual media — television and print — because it’s absolutely critical to show the product.
“In the case of Hummer and Beetle — and probably a lot of high-profile product launches — the very first thing we want to do is showcase the product,” she observes. “It’s a visual item, and most marketers want to get a visceral response out of consumers. We want them to just stare at it, say ‘wow,’ and realize that they just have to have one. That’s always going to be job one.” After that initial push, “job two” is to communicate other messages that may require the use of other media.
“That’s where Radio comes in,” Vanzura continues. “In the evolution of our Hummer plan, Radio has been sprinkled into the mix. We like Radio mentions, things like ‘Brought to you by Hummer’ for a stock report or a weather report. We really love that affiliation. Right now, we’re also using Radio in the OnStar campaign, with the tag line ‘OnStar, now available in the new H2 Hummer.’ We also use it to announce where Hummer dealers are located since we built a new dealer network. We use Radio very specifically to announce an important piece of information, or to locate a dealer.”
As advertising dollars become harder to come by and direct results are a prerequisite of any buy, accountability has become more and more critical in every campaign. “Most marketers are really pressed to show that awareness, consideration, or opinion of their brand moved up because of an advertising campaign,” Vanzura says. “Of course, you also have to demonstrate increased showroom traffic. If you can move any of those measures, the campaign was successful. In the case of Radio, if our dealers can tell us, ‘I saw a big increase in traffic in the last part of the month, right when that Radio campaign was running,’ that tells us a lot. With Hummer, I can show you exactly how many TRPs [Total Rating Points] we had out in the marketplace, and correlate them directly to sales. It’s a very competitive world, we have limited dollars, and we have to know just where we put them.”
Vanzura’s message to the local Radio salesperson who’s trying to sell a local dealer or dealer group on a Radio buy: “Understand what the strategy is, what the need is, and bring proposals that match those. If you bring proposals that do that, it’s a win-win.”
For about as long as anyone can remember, Bill Burton has been known throughout the industry for telling friends and colleagues to “be fabulous.” Radio Ink asked him where the greeting comes from and why it has become part of the Bill Burton “brand.”
“It’s really just a laugh and a giggle at myself,” Burton says. “But it’s also my way of saying, ‘Be the best you can be; have a great, good, fabulous feeling about yourself.’ If you don’t, you’re not very good to your wife and your kids, so it’s intended to be a positive compliment. I would admit to you that I always want to be on the positive side of the ledger.
“Here’s how it came about: Bob Eastman, who worked at the John Blair company, was a legendary guy in this business. When he came to Detroit on his first trip, I hardly knew where the men’s room was, much less what we were doing. I’d had almost zero training. We were at Campbell-Ewald, the agency for Chevrolet; and we were waiting for the receptionist to tell us it was our time to go in. Bob told me that, when he used to work for NBC and went on sales calls, he motivated himself by saying, ‘Be enthusiastic. Be exciting. Be fabulous.’ Now, I have to tell you that I have never gone on a sales call since then that I don’t say those things to myself. I always try to walk in with enthusiasm, excitement, a ‘be fabulous’ attitude.”
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