Media Forum: Does the RAB need to change?

Is it time for a new broom at the Radio Advertising Bureau, Alasdair Reid asks.

You could argue that it's ironic to find sections of the radio industry starting to question aspects of the Radio Advertising Bureau. Because, over the past decade, one medium after another has found itself bowing to the inevitable and setting up its own generic marketing body with the RAB as its model.

But in recent weeks there have been rumblings. The loudest of these have come from GCap Media, whose chief executive, Ralph Bernard, under pressure to cut costs in the light of poor recent performance, has been musing aloud about whether the company is getting value for money from its RAB funding contribution. As the largest radio owner, it makes the largest absolute contribution, but perhaps, from an entirely selfish point of view, gets the smallest pro rata return.

It's all well and good acting up to your market-leader role and putting the good of the medium first - when the medium is growing, at any rate.

When it is in the doldrums, however, such altruism starts to seem more than generous.

Look at the latest Rajar results, for instance. There's no greater indication of the commercial medium's relative torpor than the fact that its audience share against the BBC has been static, at best, for the past few years, despite the much-vaunted growth of digital listening across Freeview, DAB and the internet.

The RAB can hardly be held responsible but, its critics say, it can be taken to task for its strategic direction in the past few years. In particular, the fact that it has used a growing share of resources to target creative agencies rather than the media planning community.

So, is it time for a new broom at the RAB? Jeremy Found, COI's head of media, isn't so sure - he freely admits he's a fan. He comments: "The first thing to say is that the RAB has had a long time as an active trade body and it has been held up as a model for other sectors to follow. As a result, we now have bodies such as the Newspaper Marketing Agency and Thinkbox and they are now demanding a share of advertisers' and agencies' time. But that doesn't mean the RAB should stop doing what it does best, which is continuing to make the case for radio."

Nick Hewat, the sales director of Virgin Radio, is soon to become the company's representative on the RAB. He says he will join with optimism and, he hopes, can contribute ideas about how to take the organisation forward.

He says: "Its remit has been to drive consideration of the medium at advertisers and agencies and you have to say straight away that it has been incredibly successful in the past at doing that. That, however, shouldn't stop us from speculating on what should happen next and my view is that the RAB could have a less research-based role to play in the future. It could, for instance, act as an impartial body in developing the sorts of advertiser promotions that involve several media owners. Everything has to evolve. The RAB can't keep doing what it has been doing for a decade or more."

Karen Stacey, the broadcast sales director at Emap Advertising and an RAB board member, says the radio industry is committed to investing in initiatives that will further the understanding of radio's relevance and effectiveness while continuing to remind people of the desirability of a strong commercial radio sector.

"This commitment remains," she says.

But that doesn't mean that everything about the RAB is set in stone.

Stacey adds: "It is the responsibility of the entire radio industry to ensure that the RAB is addressing the true objectives of radio and, like all businesses, regular reviews of purpose and performance are necessary to ensure that the radio groups (which fund the RAB) are getting the best value possible from their investments."

But Jonathan Barrowman, the head of radio at Initiative, says media owners should weigh this question very carefully. He cautions: "If any media owner wanted to scale back the RAB, for instance, it would have to be confident that it could do its bit in marketing the medium itself. Before the RAB's existence, Capital, for instance, was good at selling the medium first and its product second - but would that now be the case?"

He argues that fingers shouldn't automatically be pointed at the RAB - because the medium might be suffering from cyclical issues beyond its powers or remit. But he concludes: "Having said that, its approach does feel a little old-school sometimes. It's a bit sober."

NO - Jeremy Found, head of media, COI

"It's true that other media have similar bodies that are demanding more of advertisers' time but there's not much that the RAB can do about that. So I believe it should continue to do what it does best. For instance, the (research) work it undertook jointly with the Internet Advertising Bureau was great."

YES - Nick Hewat, sales director of Virgin Radio

"The RAB's successes in the past have been based on making a case for the medium's effectiveness, especially what it can contribute to a mixed media schedule. Perhaps now it should shift its emphasis to selling solutions - for instance in developing promotions that run across two or more media owners."

MAYBE - Karen Stacey, broadcast sales director, Emap Advertising

"The RAB has been doing a fantastic job for radio for 15 years and in this time the world of media has moved on quite considerably. Radio is looking at a new set of challenges as we seek to develop and embed ideas about radio's place in people's lives and within the overall advertising mix."

MAYBE - Jonathan Barrowman, the head of radio at Initiative.

"The RAB should be praised for some of the research initiatives it has made in conjunction with other media - some of that has been clever stuff. And the creative issue is still important. But it's true it might benefit from more modern structures and a contemporary approach. Sometimes it does feel a bit old school."

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