“They liked to pair me with things that were ultimately going to crash and burn,” says Ron Hayes, executive VP, on-air marketing and digital at NBC. Remember Emeril on NBC in 2001? He continues: “It was like a compliment to me. If they give you a job that not everybody else can do, that’s your opportunity to make your mark.”
This is the thinking that has inspired Hayes throughout his 27 years at NBC. According to him, your personal brand is an influential decision-maker when it comes to career growth. Whether you’re an up-and-comer or a seasoned veteran like Ron, you still have to make your mark.
“If I screw up a campaign, it’s on me,” says Hayes. But in today’s fragmented TV world, he sees campaigns as conquests over which he needs to prevail.
In this interview with Daily Brief contributing editor Kareem Taylor, Hayes talks about how to polish your “personal brand,” the formula he uses for creating spots that work and what it’s like to reboot Will & Grace, a show he originally launched.
You’ve been at NBC since November 1990. How’d you get here?
I was working at a local TV station — Channel 13 KCOP. I’d been there five years and decided it was time for me to go. And so I applied for two jobs. I saw a listing in Variety that NBC was looking for somebody and I had a friend at KTTV at the time, and they were looking for somebody. I lucked out and got two job offers at the same time. I took both of them, they were both freelance and I was terrified of being out of work.
I worked at NBC from 8 a.m. - 3 p.m., and then I drove over the hill, and worked the rest of the evening until about 11 p.m. at KTTV writing, “What you don’t know can kill you!” news teases. “Tune in at 10 and see what that is!” I did both jobs for about four months, and they just liked me better at NBC.
I wasn’t as good at writing the news stuff. I recall my editor at KTTV. [His view was that] local news is about fires, assaults, ‘if it bleeds it leads.’ At the time, the Gulf War was breaking out and I wrote a tease about “Will Bush push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait?” The editor rightly looked at me like I was a complete idiot, and said “Why would you do this? There’s a warehouse fire downtown. Some guy threw a puppy down. There are all kinds of better things to put in this tease than what you have.”
The decision kind of made itself, and I ended up getting offered a staff job at NBC a few months later. They haven’t been able to chase me out yet.
You did an interview in which your advice to young people was “Start with passion.” Is that what you had, and have continued to have?
Yes. People work better when they have a passion about them, when there’s a fire about them. My sense is that you need to find both the fun and the drive in everything you do, and it’ll make you better at what you do as opposed to going “well, that’s another thing that I have to do.”
For a lot of people, it’s fairly simple. They look at every opportunity that comes along as an opportunity to polish their brand, build on their reputation. I think there are worse ways of looking at a job.
Some people are lucky to be able to choose their passion and let it direct them. But the majority of us are in a position where we are given our assignments or projects or the work we are lucky enough to find, and we have to find an aspect of it that gets us really excited. Everybody in this business has to work really hard, long hours, in order to survive in the job. And if you’re really engaged in it, then the time goes by very quickly and you don’t even notice it. If you’re bored, you probably won’t last very long, and you probably won’t work as hard as you should.
When I was at the Conference, I ran into a lot of young writers/producers/editors from around the world. Some people are working on projects they don’t enjoy. At NBC, there’s so many properties to work on that are so exciting to cut, all the resources are there. What do you tell people who are working on things they’re not so excited about, and how do they cut something that’s good with that in mind?
We work in marketing. Marketing is about adding value. Sometimes, you are blessed to work on great shows that you would watch even if you didn’t work at that place. When I first started, we had shows like Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends. Those were shows that were fun to work on. It was a plum gig.
For whatever reason, I seemed to attract the less well-regarded shows. They liked to pair me with things that were ultimately going to crash and burn. We had a sitcom called Emeril for a while. It wasn’t a very good idea because you wouldn’t think that a sitcom that stars the famous chef Emeril Legasse would be a funny show and sure enough, it wasn’t. But I was on that.
I’ve worked on many shows that were destined to flame out. It was like a compliment to me. If they give you a job that not everybody else can do, then that’s your opportunity to make your mark. That’s what we do as marketers, we add value. The more you can add to something, the better your contribution to the success of that thing.
In that sense, when I’m in the bay, or in my office, and I’m talking to somebody who’s working on stuff, I’ll sometimes pull that line out. I’ll likely say, ‘You are able. Not everybody can make this show look good. You’re going to make it look good because you’re just that good.’ That really cuts to the heart of what we do — finding a reason for people to like something. If it were easy, everybody could do it.
You spoke once about promos, saying if you want to make good promos make them emotional. Do you think that skill is innate? I was a part of Promo Pathway, and they’re teaching you how to cut promos. Do you think you’re born with this ability to create emotional work that touches viewers or do you gain those skills through training?
As with all things, you’re a combination of the innate things you’re born with, the skillset or genes, or function of your upbringing. You just have a particular sense of humor, irony or emotion. I do think, though, that anybody can get better, and anybody can learn to be more in touch with their emotions.
A large part of what we do is as we’re crafting a message we try it out on ourselves. And if we get that little tingle, or that little lump in the throat, or if we just laugh, then maybe it’ll work that way on somebody else. Usually it will. Because usually there’s a commonality of emotion and experience that we all share, and that’s the reason why we tend to like a lot of the same things. That’s a little less true nowadays where there are so many niches and particular audiences of things. But it does come down to being able to monitor your own emotional and physical reactions to things, and then being able to know what buttons are going to elicit those feelings in other people.
This may be a trade secret, so you may not be able to answer this. Is there a secret or formula to creating that kind of work that hits? And if you tell us this will it allow us to win more awards, be more likely to be promoted, more likely to create content that makes an impact?
As with anything, there’s no magic bullet. Over the course of everyone’s careers, they develop and improve upon a bag of tricks, skills and abilities. There are as many tricks as there are ways you want people to feel.
Generally speaking, you want people to get a sense of what the show is or what you want the show to be, or what you want them to think that the show is going be, so that the biggest number of people are going to watch it. There’s one word that sums it all up for me and that’s storytelling. We all in this business are learning how to tell a story in fifteen seconds, learning the essential elements in the story, how to tell it in a pithy way whether you’re using soundbites, copy, music, and more. All of those are the elements that we use to craft a good spot and tell a story.
When I walked in, it looked like you were viewing work that someone cut. So when you’re looking at work that someone cut, are you asking a list of questions? Are you ticking a box; laughter, beginning, middle, end, intro, body, conclusion. Is there a pattern to things that just work?
The first thing I do when I see a spot is I ask myself if it worked on me. And usually I know that fairly quickly. The second question I ask is, ‘What was working and what wasn’t working and was there an impediment to it working as well as it could’ve worked? What was hanging me up, what was not quite allowing that message to seal the deal?’
You referenced a list of things to check off. The way we do marketing here at NBC, before we cut anything, we take a step back and figure out what we want people to know about the show. And how we’re going to speak to the audience about that. We talk about which audience we’re going to speak to because audiences now are so fragmented. You could have a show that’s called a hit, and maybe 2% of your target audience of 18 to 49 are even watching the show. That means 98% of your target audience is not watching the show and it’s a hit relatively speaking. Then it becomes very important to whom you’re speaking.
We all do this intuitively in our everyday lives. When we’re talking to our boss, we may have one tone or one message. When we’re talking to our family, we may have a different way of speaking. We need to, as much as possible, say the right thing to the right viewer.
So when somebody comes in with a spot, and it’s a good spot, the next question I might have to ask is ‘Which of the buckets is this in or who’s this for? And is it persuasive to that particular viewer?’ It may or may not be. It may be a perfectly great spot that just isn’t going to work with the audience we need.
How many spots do you push out weekly?
I think what’s interesting is that I kind of know the answer. Because I get that answer every week. A low would be 300 and a high would be about 600. It’s not that they’re all different creative. These days with placing things on digital sometimes you might deliver a spot in a dozen different forms. You may need to crop it in a square format for social media, or put some sort of cross-promotional tag on it. We see a lot of stuff. We make a lot of product.
What route did you take to getting into management and creative? Did you fid that path yourself, or did you go with your gut or just with your career flow?
I got a job writing copy for bumpers when somebody was on maternity leave. And I just tried to do the very best job I could do at that.
The fundamental reason why anybody in the world would want to give you a job is because you can solve problems for them. That is what I would focus on doing so that my boss could do their job better and my stuff was taken care of. You try to do your very best to make the problems go away, to do the very best job you can, and the opportunities come up. People leave, jobs open up, where you’re working or other places. And you hope you have done a good enough job at polishing your own personal brand that the people deciding who get that job consider you a worthwhile candidate. And you hopefully get that job and you do it well enough that they’re glad that they gave you that job. It makes it easier next time when another position is open or if they want to keep you and need to offer you something, that you can make the next transition.
If you want to be a creative, then you hopefully are lucky enough to find a job in that area. If you want to manage creatives, you’d have to have been a decent creative. Nobody to my knowledge has ever said ‘You’re a really good manager, you went to Wharton Business School, you seem very qualified, here’s my promo department to run.’
It’s really more of ‘Are you a good creative?’ And … are you not crazy, fairly responsible, the person I can trust with this thing.
One of the things I think about being a manager is you have to be about helping everybody else around you find success. That to me is job one of being a good creative manager: Collaborating with people and helping to bring out the best in them or helping them to bring out the best out of themselves.
If you can do that, and you don’t have a pathological need to take credit for their work, that you can let them revel in the satisfaction of a job well done, then you’ll have positioned yourself to be a good creative director and manager.
You’ve been at NBC for 27 years. You’ve had this illustrious career where you’ve worked on prolific campaigns like Seinfeld. You’ve seen a lot of productions, year after year. How do you maintain the passion you have for this?
Projects come and projects go, and its always interesting to look back and say what was I working on when, because it all now seems so far away. Today, I feel more engaged and excited and enthusiastic about everything I do than probably at any point in the last 32 years. The reason for that is maybe because I’m at a higher level now and there’s more at stake, so if I screw up a campaign then it’s on me. If nobody tunes in, all they know about the show is what I put out for them and if I didn’t do that good of a job then I participate in the failure. Conversely if things go well, then I feel really good about the fact that we did do well. It’s more emotional on both ends.
The level of fear and conquest is really exciting and engaging. When I started, you could hand a tape to a writer/producer, they’d make a spot, you’d put it on the air. Everybody would see it because a third of the country was watching Cheers at the time. Now, the audiences are so relatively small and you have to customize your message and put it out for people who want to be on their phones all the time. It’s become a harder challenge than its ever been, and whenever things are harder, they are more rewarding and exciting.
In that way, entertainment marketing has gotten more exciting. You have to stay on top of a lot more. It’s become a lot more forensic, you have to think about it in a more systematic way and also keep it creative, fresh and entertaining.
Are you working on anything cool right now?
They’re all cool. We love all our children equally! Will & Grace is cool, on a personal level for me, because I launched the show seventeen years ago.
It was exciting then because it was the best pilot I’ve ever seen. It was satisfying on a number of different levels that it did as well as it did. It went on to a very illustrious run on NBC. And bringing it back and working with the same people again is really exciting and satisfying and terrifying. We’re all wondering if a show with such expectations and such a reputation can work in the current day. You never know 100%. Nothing’s too big to fail. We have reasonable amount of enthusiasm that this is going to succeed, and we’re really excited about it. And it’s a really fun opportunity to reboot something that we booted. That, to me, is cool.
But everything else is cool as well. When you work in marketing, you have to find the cool. It’s in there. You have to pull it out and show it to everybody and have them all nod and go ‘Oh, yeah, that is totally cool!’