Pirate's Hidden Treasures

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Hate your smarmy brother-in-law? To hear the folks at Toronto-based Pirate Radio & Television tell it, you can put him in his proper place with the purchase of Mindtrap, the Game of One-Upsmanship (script, right). Pirate has been finding unique approaches to selling products from Pepsi and Ray Ban sunglasses to games such as Mindtrap, Trivial Pursuit, Act One and Othello for nearly 10 years. The boutique sells those products successfully through one of the most difficult media -- radio.

"If you can create a radio spot with a big enough idea, with great acting and beautifully placed sound effects, you can create a bigger impression than you could on TV," says Pirate's founding partner Terry O'Reilly, who sports neither peg leg nor eye patch. "The audience becomes your art director."

Humor frequently is a staple in Pirate spots, but as the Ray Ban ad "Marilyn" illustrates, not every commercial is about making people laugh. Amid a background that brings to mind a dark and smoky club, a gravel-voiced male speaker reminisces: "She spoke with a little girl's voice. But when she moved, she cut a silhouette that brought Hollywood -- and the world -- to its knees. On film, she was predatory. In public, she hid behind dark glasses. Not to shield Marilyn from the flashbulbs. She wore them to protect Norma Jean. Ray Ban. Wear them. Wear the legend."

The key to their success, Pirate's clients say, is O'Reilly's ear for talent and a never-ending search for new voices. According to Brad Riddoch of Riddoch Communications, Toronto, "[Pirate's] main thing is versatility. Regardless of what you're trying to accomplish in the theater of the mind that is radio, they can find the sound and create the visuals." Karen Howe, creative director at Due North Communications, Toronto, believes that O'Reilly's casting instincts are among the best in the business. "When it comes to humor in casting, Terry has no borders. Wherever the best talent is, they go for it. If there's somebody in London or in Cupertino, Terry knows it."

The full-service shop in Toronto's warehouse district found its radio niche 10 years ago. The medium is an early love of founding partners O'Reilly and Rick Shurman. And the rebirth of radio advertising in the past few years has helped Canada's largest post-audio company solidify its position in the industry.

Pirate, founded as Pirate Radio, grew out of a dream O'Reilly and Shurman had to work together full-time. O'Reilly had been a senior ad writer with an agency; Shurman was an award-winning radio ad director. O'Reilly says Shurman was a "writer's director" whom he hired again and again -- a director who "respected that any great idea is like a candle. Any slightest breeze across a table can extinguish it."

"After we had worked together on a job, Rick would say, `One day we'll be working together full-time,' " O'Reilly recalls. That day came when he was bitten by the independence bug. "I got to the point I wanted to live and die by my own bad decisions. If I was going to be up at 2 a.m. working, I'd rather do that for myself." He recalls the outfit had just one client initially, but added, "We're big believers, Rick and I, in that if you jump in, the net will appear."

Quickly, it did. His fledgling company started getting more work than he could handle -- "Not because I was so good," he's quick to say, "but because I was all alone in what I was doing." No longer. In addition to O'Reilly and Shurman, Pirate's principals are partners Tom Eymundson, Kerry Crawford and Robert Armes, and music writer and director Chris Tait. The talent they bring to the mix has resulted in a slew of awards, ranging from London International Advertising Awards to Canada's Crystal Awards to prizes given by the Art Directors Club of Toronto.

O'Reilly approaches radio by requiring listeners to participate in creating mental images. He says the medium's lack of limits encourages taking creative risks, even urging actors to ad-lib lines when the mood strikes. Although they take their work seriously, Pirate's creatives know better than to take a serious approach to many of the products they advertise. Explains O'Reilly: "Great humor does not contribute to the noise [of the medium]; it contributes to the entertainment. When a product takes itself too seriously, it becomes a bit farcical. How serious can someone get about dog food or deodorant?"

Its relatively low price tag can be one reason why ad agencies should embrace radio. Due North's Karen Howe and Pirate worked together on a Bell Cellular campaign that illustrates that. A $6,000 radio ad promoting a special $29.95 a month cellular phone offer resulted in triple the company's previous monthly sales record after the spot aired. "For $15,000, you could get the spot of the century on radio, and you're not even out of the gates at $200,000 on TV these days," O'Reilly points out. "How many cars do you have to sell to get your investment back on radio as opposed to television?" That lower cost, coupled with the creative variety available on radio, has led to what he describes as a renaissance in radio, enabling Pirate to expand its warehouse office to 12,000 square feet, with a fourth recording studio being added.

From a company that was created on a wing and a prayer to produce radio ads from a writer's perspective, Pirate has developed into what Howe describes as "world-class. [O'Reilly] is not just the best in Toronto; he's one of the best in the world."

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