Speaking at the annual Radio Festival last week, Rupert Howell delivered
a scathing attack on creativity in radio advertising. He maintains that
good ads are extremely rare and that this isn’t only embarrassing for
agencies but potentially damaging for the health of the medium. Is he
right on both counts? Alasdair Reid reports
A major advertiser recently asked a researcher to phone each of the top
20 advertising agencies and request their radio reels. Only two
responded. The advertiser in question - which didn’t reveal its identity
to any of the agencies, for obvious reasons - was rather confused and
disappointed by this. It needn’t have been - for most creative
departments, radio is such a low-flier that it drops off the radar
That’s not to say that none of them ever produces excellent radio work.
Some do. And good radio work often forms part of an agency’s overall
creative credentials. It’s just that agencies don’t automatically
showcase their radio work as they do TV or press or posters - it’s the
work that they are least proud of.
There are obvious reasons for this. After all, it’s the only non-visual
medium. Radio executions can’t adorn the walls of an agency reception or
be reviewed in the pages of Campaign, so they form no part of the
currency of creative peer group rivalry. A radio campaign is the
creative department short straw, a task often handed to young teams
cutting their teeth.
Does this matter? Radio campaigns may be charmless, but they must work
because clients keep coming back for more. The medium continues to grow,
not just in absolute terms but in terms of share of UK display revenue.
It could reach its target of 5 per cent by the end of this year, up from
4.3 per cent in 1995.
It does matter, according to Rupert Howell, a managing partner at Howell
Henry Chaldecott Lury. In a hard-hitting speech to the annual Radio
Festival last week, Howell said that third-rate creativity is a major
problem. ‘If this doesn’t start improving soon, it really will limit the
growth and the popularity of the sector,’ he maintained.
‘Great radio ads are much too few and far between. In fact, you can
easily be tempted to switch off the radio altogether sometimes, as you
are slowly driven insane by the endless repetition of appalling
commercials. My favourite one at the moment is on Heart FM and is for
double glazing. It features the immortal line, ‘the only catch is on the
Howell believes that lessons could be learned from the poster industry,
which was equally unfashionable in creative circles 30 years ago. Then
came Collett Dickenson Pearce’s Benson and Hedges ‘gold pack’ campaign.
Its success, both commercially and creatively, was marketed
remorselessly by the medium and it became fashionable. Radio, he said,
had missed similar opportunities.
Doug MacArthur, managing director of the Radio Advertising Bureau,
admits there is something in what Howell says. ‘What the RAB has focused
on to date is the rational side of things,’ he says. ‘We’ve been
educating people about the facts and figures side of radio. And it has
worked - we have helped to increase radio revenue. That phase is almost
at an end. The next real change won’t come from the rational side of
things - it will come from encouraging an emotional like of the medium.’
MacArthur points out that creative quality has always been one of the
RAB’s concerns - albeit on a rather piecemeal basis. ‘We have awards
already, of course, and we have encouraged creativity on an isolated
tactical basis. All of that has been valuable but now we must build it
all into a serious plan. The reappearance of this topic is timely
because radio needs galvanising in this area.
‘But Howell is absolutely wrong to say that there is no good work out
there. It’s there, but we need to highlight that fact more consistently.
We also need to help make it sexier for creatives - the good thing, too,
is that clients are being more demanding these days.’
Greg Delaney, the creative director of Delaney Fletcher Bozell, agrees
that creative departments have been losing interest in radio. ‘Having
said that, the trouble with this sort of attack is that it’s a bit like
attacks on declining moral standards - it presupposes that things were
better in a golden age not so long ago. I doubt whether there ever was a
golden age,’ he says.
‘There is good work around but the perception problem comes from the
fact that there haven’t been any great campaigns as opposed to isolated
work. Great campaigns are important because they help to create
sustained interest and raise the profile of the medium. That always
affects attitudes in the creative department - creatives tend to want to
go where the fashion is.
‘Also, radio doesn’t suit many creative teams. It demands very
intelligent writing and it’s very risky. When it works, it works very
very well but when it doesn’t, you really know about it.’
Trevor Beattie, the creative director of TBWA, says he felt a certain
amount of deja vu when he heard Howell’s comments. ‘Yes, he’s right. I
don’t think enough people care about radio - that’s the trouble. Radio
is appalling and it needn’t be. But we’ve been saying it for ten years
now - that’s the depressing thing,’ he comments.
‘Howell is in a very good position to talk about this because his agency
has produced brilliant radio work. I was on a radio awards committee
last year and along with the Boost campaign, the Howell Henry ‘apply
Tango’ work stood out a mile.
‘The impetus to change things has to come from the agencies themselves -
the awards people are doing their best to raise the profile of the
medium but they can only deal with what they are given in terms of
‘Yes, radio is regarded as the short straw in creative departments.
Creative directors do share a certain amount of responsibility there,
but the main problem is that it’s non-visual. You can have the best
awards in the world but you can’t put radio ads in an annual, you can’t
put them on the wall. Once they’ve been played, they’re gone. I don’t
know what you can do about that.’