He's the man from DRAG - and he'd wear just about anything, save panty hose, to make a sale.
Say hello to Bill Burton, one of advertising's most colorful and enduring personalities.
As president and COO of DRAG, the Detroit Radio Advertising Group, Burton crusades nationwide on the virtues of radio advertising. One of DRAG's primary charges is to help radio stations and their salespeople win more advertising dollars, particularly from the auto industry.
Burton's message to automakers is simple: Radio is effective, inexpensive - and underrated. 'We're the little guys,' he says, 'but don't try to sell radio short.'
But that's easier said than done, the 61-year-old master salesman concedes. Radio gets most of its automotive dollars from local dealers. The medium is virtually ignored by manufacturers. Of the estimated $7 billion manufacturers spent on measured advertising in 1997, only about $60 million went to national spot radio, according to Competitive Media Reporting in New York. Automakers spent $58 million on network radio the same year.
For the first eight months of 1998, national spot radio was holding steady at $38.6 million, but spending on network radio had plunged to only $3.3 million through August.
That is because Chrysler Corp. and General Motors, by far, have been the biggest spenders on nework radio the past few years, but Chrysler had not made any buys on that medium in the first half of the year. GM contributed the entire $3.3 million.
Which is exactly Burton's biggest problem. He needs to get more automakers in the act. His strategy: Take the case for radio to the decision makers at the top.
'Magazines do a better job at getting to the penthouse than radio,' he says. 'But me! I go to heads of agencies; I'm always going upstairs.'
Burton's legendary 'be fabulous' tag line is almost as well known as his Colgate smile, constant handshaking and rapid hunched walk. 'I consider myself a cheerleader for radio,' he declares happily. Some say he invented the term 'networking.'
'He is the most upbeat guy you ever want to know,' says Bud Liebler, senior vice president of marketing at DaimlerChrysler Corp. in Auburn Hills, Mich. 'He's the ultimate sales guy, and sincere as hell. He's a good guy.'
Burton recalls an episode at General Motors headquarters 20 years ago that illustrates his gung-ho approach. At the time, he was trying to impress media buyers with boxes of doughnuts, since he did not have enough money to take them to fancy restaurants. One day he ran into a guy there who inquired about the doughnuts. Burton explained he was going to use them to make an impression on the people at Chevrolet. The man turned out to be Ed Cole, GM's president at the time. Burton's reaction? He started providing Cole with doughnuts as well.
The same persistence has marked his career all along. Burton originally intended to become a lawyer, but law school was interrupted when he was called to the Korean War. 'I try to lie and say it was the Vietnam War,' he jokes. 'I'm always lying about my age.'
When the conflict ended, Burton began selling radio time to Detroit automakers. He spent 30 years with Eastman Radio, a national group based in New York that sells radio time, before retiring as its chairman in 1991. He joined DRAG the same year.
Burton doesn't take the credit, but radio is making some headway. Spending by manufacturers on national spot radio rose from $263,000 in 1994 to $60 million in 1997. National spots are a much preferred buy for the manufacturers because they can select stations and regions. With network radio, advertisers do not have a choice.
But the challenges in prying loose more automotive advertising dollars for radio still are huge and obvious. Not being able to show the manufacturers' products is a big one. 'They've got to show a picture of their baby,' Burton sighs.
He also thinks the medium has a dearth of creative talent, and he admits it sometimes struggles to document its own effectiveness.
Big morning audience
But that doesn't mean automakers can afford to ignore radio, a medium that claims 2.5 times the morning audience of TV, according to Burton. 'The Big 3 do a mediocre job of talking to women and minorities,' he adds. 'They're not using the medium of choice to talk to the people they want to reach. With radio, They can use stations they know minorities and women listen to.'
He also points out that the average TV commercial is $268,000, compared with $15,000 to $20,000 for network radio spots. That's a bargain for manufacturers, but not for ad agencies that buy media. 'Part of our problem,' Burton concedes, 'is that ad companies would rather get a percentage of a TV ad vs. a radio ad.'
Burton has no intention of gearing down anytime soon. He has been running hard since doctors told him in 1963 that an illness would soon sideline his career. He also swims 30 laps each day. Persistence and perseverance are his middle names.
'I only go in front of the big people,' Burton says. 'You should never take no from a person who can't say yes.'