Media Forum: Are bad ads restricting radio?

Is poor creativity radio's only serious barrier to growth? Alasdair Reid investigates.

Sometimes, the whole question of creativity seems to be the radio industry's favourite form of self-mortification - and what better time to come over all anxious than in the days following radio advertising's annual creative bash, the Aerial Awards?

As always, the gongs were picked up by seriously impressive work. The Campaign Gold Award went to Ben Tollett and Emer Stamp of Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy for Travelocity, and Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners' Robert Clayman won the award for best overall campaign for Batchelors Super Noodles.

But, in radio, the gulf between the best and the rest is huge - certainly larger than you'll find in any other medium. And the medium's inability to close the quality gap, despite the best efforts of individual radio groups and their joint marketing outfit, the Radio Advertising Bureau, has to be worrying.

Despite this, radio has a 7 per cent share of UK display advertising and has legitimate aspirations of pushing on to 10 per cent by 2010.

So, obviously, poor creative work isn't exactly holding the medium back now is it? Oh yes, it is, John McGeough, the group sales director at Capital Radio, says. He states: "Of course, we recognise creative standards are not all they could be and I'd certainly argue that it's still the single biggest thing stopping the medium growing as it should. There's this attitude - and the industry has been talking about this again recently - where three weeks before the radio campaign is due to go out, someone notices there's radio on the media plan and they go: 'Shit, we'll have to produce something.'"

The suspicion remains, of course, that creatives still tend to turn their noses up at radio briefs. Paul Briginshaw, the creative director at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, says radio continues to have something of a positioning problem. The bottom line is that it is the medium often used for a hard sell within a media mix, not brand building.

He comments: "It finds itself in this situation because a large part of its audience comes at times of the day when people might be listening just before going out shopping. But having said that, it is now a 7 per cent medium and it is taken far more seriously by clients and creative departments - and fantastic briefs do come along. It's not as if the potential isn't there: it's a really intimate medium where it's possible to have conversations with people in places like the kitchen or the bedroom that you can't with other media."

However, Jonathan Gillespie, the director responsible for radio at OPera, says radio sometimes comes under unfair scrutiny - if you look at some national newspapers and watch a bit of daytime television, you might easily reach the conclusion that, outside of high-profile or peaktime slots, a lot of ads can seem less than inspiring. "It doesn't make them bad ads, of course, because a lot of them have a simple sales message to impart," he says.

But, he concedes, poor radio ads can be more irritating than poor executions in other media. It's easy to skim over bad ads in a newspaper, for example.

Gillespie adds: "Of course, this is not an excuse for creatives or clients, who may not be getting the cut-through they want. But the responsibility for better radio advertising doesn't just lie with those who sign off the budgets and those who write the scripts. Good radio is usually about producing entertaining creative with high production values, then giving it a good environmental fit in ad breaks that don't go on forever."

Some advertisers are willing to own up to their part in all of this.

Oliver Cleaver, the European media director of Kimberly-Clark, reveals that the company has doubled its UK radio spend over the past 12 months.

But he says packaged goods companies often use radio for tactical promotions and for reaching a daytime audience in an appropriate environment.

He also agrees that some agencies really relish getting stuck in and others don't have the same willingness or aptitude. But again, he says that is probably also the fault of advertisers.

He concludes: "We've let that situation continue. We don't insist on the same rigour when it comes to pre-testing and getting feedback on creative ideas. There's not the same attention to detail when it comes to casting. The truth is we just don't fund it. We might spend £400,000 producing a TV ad. If we spent a tenth of that on a radio spot, people would say we were mad."

YES - John McGeough, group sales director, Capital Radio

"We realise that we are some way down the agency agenda compared with a shoot that just has to take place in LA because the light's just right there. In radio, the light's not so important, we've found."

MAYBE - Paul Briginshaw, creative director, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

"Radio is often used for a hard sell, not brand building. If there were more brand campaigns rather than calls to action, then its creative might improve. It's hard to be creative with a hurry-on-down ad."

MAYBE - Jonathan Gillespie, director responsible for radio, OPera

"Whether we will ever get to Nirvana on radio is unlikely. The medium's strengths of frequency, quick turnaround, flexibility and cheapness preclude it from demanding the attention high creativity requires."

NO - Oliver Cleaver, European media director, Kimberly-Clark

"We've done a lot of radio for Huggies recently and insisted that the people who voiced the TV campaign were brought in to do the radio. But that doesn't always happen. The temptation is to cut corners."

Got a view? - E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com.