Last week's Aerial Awards were hailed as a celebration of the best radio advertising in the UK, with Leo Burnett winning gold for its "script" spot for Procter & Gamble. The spot was created by Caroline Rawlings and Chris Birch. But, across the tables, it was hard to ignore mutterings about the general standard of entries. Was this the usual chirping from industry pessimists, frustration with creative quality or something more symptomatic of adland's attitude to radio?
Despite these doubts, figures still show a clear demand for the radio medium. Radio's ability to reach consumers on the move and galvanise local audiences help it appeal to a wide range of brands. Although last year's sector spend of £582 million did show a slight drop on 2005, Vodafone, DFS and Ford beefed up their radio budgets by an overall average of 61 per cent. Meanwhile, COI, the UK's largest radio advertiser, raised its spend by 9.8 per cent to £37 million in 2006.
Yet there is still a client perception that radio plays second fiddle to other media within full-service agencies, used largely for training purposes, or worse, left out in the cold altogether. Reasons for this could be the high turnaround of retail and tactical briefs that can dampen its creative appeal. "Both the advertisers and the stations understand the importance of commercial radio. Yet agencies could do more to show this," Brian Jenkins, the head of radio at COI, says.
This feeling runs deeper among radio advertising specialists. "For all the talk of large, integrated agencies, radio is the poor relation that is stifled at birth," Stephen Donovan, the managing director of Radioville, says. "All our advertisers have got agencies and come to us with a range of problems. The intelligence I see most is that unless you're lucky enough to get someone who loves radio working on your brief, it's more likely it will get dumped with the junior creatives."
Donovan asserts two reasons for this: radio's commercial realities and its equity among creatives. He says: "TV is a serious investment, but labour-wise is low-intensity. Radio is the opposite. It is high-investment because it is judged by the quality of writing and is directed by the creative team, rather than passed to a production company."
But agency critics counter this by throwing questions back to the clients and commercial radio itself. Last year, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO increased its spend on radio by 30 per cent year on year to £37 million, and is now the top creative agency for radio spend. Its executive creative director, Paul Brazier, believes the simplicity of the format means that the limitations of a "straight and informative" brief can hinder creativity. "By the time such a brief reaches the creative department, it can be littered in mandatory points and massive amounts of legal," he says.
Leo Burnett's executive creative director, Jim Thornton, goes further by urging critics to look at the state of commercial radio, which he says is becoming "utterly devoid of any original content or innovation".
This year, the RadioCentre has relaunched with a series of initiatives that it hopes will attract advertisers to a medium that is changing in the digital age. They include the Radio Advertising Effectiveness Tracker, designed to help advertisers understand radio's return on investment and the role creativity plays. But creativity can only play this role when it is allowed to by an open client brief and creatives view radio writing as a challenge rather than a chore.
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CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Paul Brazier, executive creative director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
"If there's a crisis in radio creativity, it will be no bad thing. Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO makes more than 400 radio spots, so as a passionate advocate of radio, I'm constantly reminding people about the strengths of the medium.
"The mistake that people make is in thinking that radio is just sound without any visuals. In truth, radio is one of the most visual mediums that demands discipline and tightness of communication. Radio script writing teaches you about tone of voice and forces creatives to think visually.
"As an industry, we must keep trying to raise the bar for radio. If people treat it as the inferior one of the bunch, there'll be a lot of radio you're not proud of."
RADIO AGENCY CHIEF - Stephen Donovan, managing director, Radioville
"There is a crisis in radio creativity within the world of full-service agencies, where there tends to be an inherent snobbery towards the medium. At the most junior level, everyone thinks they can do radio commercials and, to a large extent, it has become the primary school medium that is given to trainees or juniors. Little wonder then that 90 per cent of radio ads are rubbish.
"Yet many agencies ignore the fact that a radio spot is a beautiful way of advertising that can be more cost-effective, but often needs more care and creative input. Radioville shouldn't exist, but it does, because we do something a lot of agencies don't - carefully consider how to match the client's brief with the medium."
RADIO ADVERTISER - Brian Jenkins, head of radio, COI; judge of the Aerial Awards
"There is a lot of work to be done across sectors of radio creative, and not just nationally, but at a local level as well.
"Advertisers recognise its value, as do the radio stations themselves. But radio is a difficult medium to write for, and it can often be treated as a bit of an afterthought among some agencies.
"COI invests a lot in radio because it is an effective medium that can get difficult messages across to people.
"Commercial radio needs to do a lot of work in order to make it an appealing medium.
"Nothing is more likely to destroy an audience than a spate of radio commercials across stations with an identical offering."
CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Jim Thornton, executive creative director, Leo Burnett London
"The biggest problem with radio commercials is commercial radio. People rightly bemoan the state of creativity in radio advertising, but I can't remember anyone ever bemoaning the lack of creativity in commercial radio itself. When the medium is so format-driven that it's devoid of any original content or innovation, and stations are so homogenous as to be anonymous, is it any wonder people don't get excited about it?
"It's virtually impossible to write intelligently or buy smartly when every programme sounds the same. Radio is great for creatives, but the exciting opportunities, and large audiences, lie in podcasts, online radio, and innovative forms such as Pandora.com."