Close-Up: Should agencies focus more on radio?

Radio has become a neglected medium as creative standards continue to slip, Matt Williams says.

The Radio Advertising Awards took place earlier this month, but even if you worked at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO or Mother - two of the big winners on the night - it wouldn't be a surprise if you failed to notice.

Creativity in radio, it seems, is suffering in a big way. The medium is sadly now seen as little more than an after-thought, one that is only useful to give grads something to work on as they aim to earn their stripes in the big wide world of advertising. And, perhaps in part because of this, standards are slipping.

"At this year's awards, we really struggled to find commercials worthy of awards in the creative categories," Tony Hertz, the founder of Hertz:Radio, says. "My sense is that as media such as digital has advanced, radio has declined both in degree of skill and passion applied and the resulting work."

Maybe it is an example of UK arrogance. Are domestic agencies even concerned about producing strong radio ads? At Cannes this year, the UK submitted 42 entries - 39 fewer than Australia, 40 fewer than Canada and a staggering 80 fewer than South Africa.

"Radio ads are increasingly becoming an after-thought for agencies," Alasdair Graham, a creative partner at Ogilvy & Mather London, admits. "If we want to start creating better campaigns, then maybe we need to start putting radio at the centre of what we do."

Hertz says that to do this, agencies must swallow their pride and retrain people at all levels on basic radio skills. "Over the past few years, I've been asked to conduct radio workshops in 29 countries, but the only UK gigs have been a couple at colleges," he says. "There seems to be a difference in attitude and eagerness to learn between the UK and other countries, and most UK agencies still seem convinced of their own superiority."

If agencies do take a different approach, then there is clearly scope to produce strong creative work.

For one thing, creating a radio spot is relatively cheap, and because of this, clients will be taking less of a risk when spending money on radio campaigns.

"Radio should be sold as the prototyping medium, allowing agencies and advertisers to try out a range of messages and creative treatments in real markets, in real time," Craig Mawdsley, the joint head of planning at AMV BBDO, says.

"It means you can create more inventive and creative campaigns without having invested hundreds of thousands in production and millions in airtime."

There's also the issue of immediacy. Not only is it cheap to create a radio ad, but it's also quick. Think of the success and power that a quick-turnaround print campaign that plays on current events - such as the Specsavers "goal-line technology" ad - can have. Radio could be just as effective in this area.

And supporters of the medium argue that consumers' listening habits are much more predictable with radio than with most other media, with certain shows and presenters being able to deliver a large and loyal audience at the same time every week.

"This gives us the chance to tell stories and, perhaps more importantly, to offer the evolution of the narrative to the audience," Mawdsley says.

If agencies do take a moment to re-evaluate what radio has to offer and make a concerted effort to increase salience among the creative community, then perhaps radio will be able to gain more of a foothold at creative agencies and on client media budgets.

CREATIVE - Tom Ewart, executive creative director, Publicis London

"I love listening to the radio. I hate listening to radio ads. And there lies the problem. What can be a wonderful, captivating and emotive medium in programming more often than not descends into a cacophony of shouted phone numbers, cheap SFX and unintelligible legal waffle in advertising.

"Why? Because it's lost its self-respect. It's the brief with no time, no money and no ambition. Which is a real shame, because when we choose to invest in it, radio can engage, entertain and persuade with the best of them. Think podcasts, not carpet sales."

RADIO SPECIALIST - Tony Hertz, founder, Hertz:Radio

"Given that agencies are capable of producing exciting and arresting campaigns across all other media except radio, then you'd have to say that they aren't giving the required attention to radio campaigns.

"But it's not just about attention. If radio is an after-thought, it's because agencies aren't emotionally drawn towards it in the way they are to other media sectors. I believe a starting point must be to teach radio skills to agency creatives - at all levels - plus clients and media people.

"UK agencies make excellent TV, online and print work because creatives have visual skills and with skill comes confidence and passion. They can develop radio passion, but not without the skills."

PLANNER - Craig Mawdsley, joint head of planning, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"If you could define the ideal characteristics of a 21st-century medium, what would they be?

"It would give you the opportunity to test messages in real time, with low production cost and the ability to react quickly to success; it would enable you to provide the audience with an immediate social channel to comment on the message and shape and create it as they see fit; and it would have an element of audio and visual, giving you the chance to exploit a range of senses.

"If thought about properly, radio has all these elements, but agencies simply aren't taking advantage of the benefits."

CREATIVE - Alasdair Graham, creative partner, Ogilvy & Mather London

"Radio doesn't have to be to a standard length, or even in the ad break, or an after-thought to the work in other channels.

"You can see from the work at Cannes that other countries are creating great radio campaigns, so the possibility to do something different is there. The SDIA music idea for Aids awareness at Cannes this year, for instance, shows what radio has to offer when it's put slap-bang in the centre of things.

"But looking at most UK work, it just tends to be extensions of TV campaigns, not an idea in itself, and that's what needs to change."

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