Close-Up: Live Issue - What makes a successful radio ad?

Kate Nicholson finds out what it takes to raise the bar in a medium with a shaky creative reputation.

Scooping the top prize at the Aerial Awards last week, Ricky Gervais' "check-up" spot for The Pros-tate Cancer Charity went some way towards dispelling the myth that radio creatives cannot make good ads.

The ad was created by the Publicis creative team Gary Turner and Jamie Marshall. It encourages men to get regularly checked for the disease by using a brilliant combination of sound design and Gervais' humour that makes it impossible to forget the ad's message.

While "check-up" has raised the creative bar in radio advertising, anybody who listens to commercial radio regularly will agree that the majority of ads still have the ability to make listeners reach for the dial. Poor acting, unconvincing scripts and garbled information machine-gunned at listeners regularly combine to give the medium a bad name.

Writing a commercial for radio is a tall order. Al Young, the former creative partner at FCB London and the joint chairman of the Aerial Awards, explains: "If anyone ever said writing for radio is easy, they couldn't be more wrong. It's bloody hard. You've only got one trick in your bag and that's sound. You need to grab attention, say something relevant, leave a lasting impression, make somebody laugh or cry and make them really want something. All in about 30 seconds."

While it is agreed that there is no exact formula to a good radio ad, there are some basic ingredients to cooking up a decent radio script.

First, a good radio commercial connects directly and instantly. Whether it is music- or word-based, it makes listeners listen. Turner explains: "Good radio needs to keep the listener interested, or they'll just switch off. Clever use of sound design can help an ad stand out and sound different from the rest of the clutter."

Indeed, music and rhythm can get inside listeners' heads; use it well and they may just spend their day humming the jingle, as Mother discovered with its recent "Zulu" spot for Coca-Cola. Clever use of sound design is also effective: Euro RSCG London's Aerial-winning "mix" spot for Peugeot 107 made innovative use of sound that, according to more than one judge, can stop listeners in their tracks.

With more radio commercials relying on humour to connect with audiences, there is a high level of expectation that scripts should be funny. The results, however, often fall flat.

Martin Galton, the creative partner at Hooper Galton and the man behind Nando's radio advertising, says: "Most ads are nearly funny, but the humour is punctured by the selling bit. It's like spending the most wonderful night with a woman who then asks for money in the morning. Good ads use the selling bit to pump up the humour."

Finally, the cast can make or break a radio ad. Martin Sims, the managing director of Eardrum, recommends a healthy turnover of actors, in order to prevent voices from becoming over-exposed.

He advises: "Explore new actors. Matt Lucas and David Walliams of Little Britain have been everywhere, and now it's Simon Pegg and the Peep Show guys. A new trend is a much more naturalistic approach to acting and use of varied local accents. This is one of the few benefits of reality TV: it has tuned the nation's ears to a whole range of regional accents that also work well on radio."

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RADIO SPECIALIST - Martin Sims, managing director, Eardrum

"For me, a good radio ad has to tick three boxes. One: engage or entertain the listener. Two: link it to the brand. Three: effectively communicate some sort of commercial message. If you tick all three of these boxes, then you're on to a winner. If you only tick two, then you'll generally have a very funny ad that's unrelated to the product or an ad that's very product-focused but as dull as dishwater to listen to.

"Creatives are getting more excited by radio. With reduced ad budgets and the proliferation of TV channels, creative teams are realising they can get noticed by doing two or three radio ads. It's an opportunity to shine."

AERIALS DIRECTOR - Chris O'Shea, director, Aerials Foundation

"I have absolutely no idea what makes a good radio ad. But I do know that the best radio ads are written by people who understand radio. They understand it because they listen to it a lot. And they've discovered that, uniquely, it is the listener's friend.

"Listeners usually listen when they're on their own - driving, ironing, whatever. As such, what they hear can go through their ears to their heart. This, in turn, is why good casting and production are vital. With radio, anything that isn't spot-on will be spotted a mile off.

"So my advice is listen to more radio. Junk that iPod. Or, if that's too heretical a notion, at least download a few podcasts from Radio 4."

CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Nik Studzinski, executive creative director, Publicis

"There's no formula for writing a great radio ad. But then how often does anything great adhere to a formula? It's all about getting the basics right - the idea and the production. Get one right, you have a good ad. Get them both right, you have a great ad.

"I never have to 'encourage' any of my teams to take on a radio brief. Despite the breadth of media we're faced with, radio still seems to have an allure that appeals to most creatives. Maybe it offers a little more in terms of creative freedom?"

CLIENT - Peter Gandolphi, head of brand marketing, Nationwide

"We believe the creative success of our radio advertising starts from a clear, concise briefing focused on a single point of difference that is credible and relevant to the consumer. From here, our radio agency, Radioville, dramatises the message through the use of humour to engage and entertain the listener.

"As the majority of our messaging on radio highlights our difference from our bank competitors, it is essential that we use the right level and tone of humour to soften what could otherwise be seen as an assertive communication approach."