Private Hear: February 2012

With work from Reckitt Benckiser, the Department of Health, Reserve Forces, Mini, McDonald's and the Department for Work and Pensions

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Nils Leonard, executive creative director, Grey London

Martin Sims, creative director, Eardrum

Radio in the UK hasn’t moved on in a decade. It isn’t radio that’s the problem. It’s us. We are missing one important weapon in our arsenal when it comes to radio in this country: humour.
In the US, the best radio ads are funny, provocative and irreverent. They are entertaining. Check out the Dos Equis campaign if you don’t believe me.
This is also true in South America. They push at language. Tell stories. Are funny. Try to change the role of the medium. Basically, they’re still trying.

In the UK, agencies are guilty of leaving radio to the people we value least. Maybe it’s the brief you give to the placements (the ones you won’t hire). Or the old, weird blokes who handle the account you wish you didn’t have. We’ve given up on it. Unfairly. Naïvely?

It’s a messed-up equation when you think that most people in the UK still hear their new music on Radio 1, not MTV (which is dying, by the way). It’s even more messed up when you understand it’s a medium that can reach people where most others can’t (driving, eating a sandwich, scratching their nuts as a captive audience on the M4).

Radio is still popular culture. Popular culture that people listen to in their millions. So why do most of our radio ads still sound like something from 1992? Who is pushing the category? Who is changing how we listen to advertising? With that in mind, there’s basically one good ad here.

The Reserve Forces ad has a sound "trick" that lifts you. Engaging. Clever. Simple. You are taken on a journey with this, which works well.

McDonald’s coffee should have been one engaging, emotional conversation with a rug-pull, not lots of average ones. It would have captured you more. And drawn you in. Instead, bad performances sell cheaply what might have been a powerful insight.

The "toothbrush" ad as an aid to stop smoking (for the Department of Health) is a bit lost on me. Humour can take the sting out of charity, but this isn’t funny or relevant. Telling people they might die (I know, not that original) may work better.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ barbershop quartet is a simple idea where voices join to explain combined benefits. It just sounds a bit crap. An idea where group benefits could have been dramatised with more impact? Or with more originality?

Reckitt Benckiser’s "Britain’s greatest clean-up" ad is invisible. Another anonymous 50s parody to tell us about a discount we would discover in-store anyway.
And surely Mini, with all its unique history and famous tone of voice, could have done better to dramatise a year’s free insurance than an ad that takes three repeat listenings to understand and some bloke blathering about a cappuccino.

We write TV ads for chocolate bars with gorillas, and use coloured balls to sell TVs. We create poster ads for Benetton that push racial equality buttons and we salute pornographic Tom Ford Gucci pubic
hair masterpieces. There are radio ads from the US with a million hits on YouTube. Why are we settling for the same old, same old with our radio work?

Advertising should be about creating original ideas. But radio advertising seems to be the land where old, unoriginal ideas roam free. Saddle them with painfully long T&Cs or punishingly short spots and, sadly, you often end up with tired, lame ideas that should have been humanely disposed of.

Reckitt Benckiser. So, you’ve got three products to mention (none of which I can now remember) in a measly 20 seconds, but, never fear, "keep calm and carry on". That’s right. Because by lifting the audio from your cliché spoof newsreel TV campaign, you can make a radio commercial. Isn’t that right, Fido? "Woof!" So there’s lots of media crossover recognition from Johnny Public, but as Harold Macmillan never said, when it comes to originality: "You’ve never had it so bad."

Mini. There’s a good idea lurking somewhere under the bonnet. We’re in the "land of spoof" again, this time of a charity ad. But this appeal fails its MOT on two counts. First, due to the ridiculously long and insanely fast legals read by Rob Brydon (what a waste) and, second, because a much stronger idea would have been to focus on the depressed salesman character, rather than the fruity witterings of Simon Callow. So, for me, a nice idea not fully realised.

Department for Work and Pensions. Certain briefs inspire me more than others and if a request to write a radio campaign for the DWP had thudded on to my desk, I probably would have felt like retiring (Boom! Boom!). But this is quite a nice idea, illustrating how the Government and employers will contribute to your pension, by expanding a solo singing voice into a barbershop quartet. So, a difficult brief, deftly executed. Brownie points and free bus passes all round.

Department of Health. This ad makes me want to take up smoking in the hope that a nicotine-induced haze will make it go away. Welcome to a world where "unfunny comedy set-ups" meet "unrelated ad messages". Both of which have been crudely staple-gunned together with the excruciatingly contrived: "Whatever you’re doing, it’s important to use the right tools." Oh… and the response mechanism is to text a word you can’t remember to a number you can’t remember. Great.

Reserve Forces. Audio morphing in radio ads always makes my heart sink. Years ago, people morphed birdsong into dial-up modem noises and, nowadays, mobile ringtones are morphed into hospital monitors with alarming regularity in radio ads. Here, "sawing wood" is morphed into "helicopter blades" ("saw" into "chopper" – geddit?) as it encourages people to join the Reserve Forces. But, again, as an idea, it’s all a bit "ho-hum", rather than "hey-ho!" Also, after repeated listening, I still can’t understand what the second woman is saying, or why the last bloke is whispering. Don’t our brave boys and girls deserve better than this?

McDonald’s. Ahh… you know how a good cup of coffee can really pick you up? Well, this radio ad hits the spot. A simple idea, well written, nicely executed, with believable performances and good production values. It’s a proposition anyone can understand and there’s no idiotic response mechanism. So, finally, an ad that actually understands how to use radio and has been given the proper amount of time, thought and budget to get it right. I think I’ll have a double-skinny-vanilla-macchiato to celebrate.


Reckitt Benckiser 'Britain's greatest clean-up' by Euro RSCG

Client: Philip Neck, senior brand manager, Dettol HSC & Disinfectants

Brief: Promote special offers on Harpic, Cillit Bang and more

Agency: Euro RSCG

Creative team: Mick French, Henry Rossiter

Producer: Kreepa Laxman

Sound studio: Scramble

Engineer: Dave Cooper

Campaign exposure: National radio

Reserve Forces 'recruitment' by WCRS

Client: Squadron Leader Andy Richards, RAF Recruit Marketing

Brief: Promote recruitment to the Triservices Reserves for the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Army

Agency: WCRS

Creative team: Andy Lee, Jonny Porthouse

Producer/director: Brian Jenkins

Sound studio: 750mph

Engineer: Gary Walker

Campaign exposure: National and local radio, Spotify

Department of Health 'toothbrush' by Partners Andrews Aldridge

Clients: Helen Duggan, Becky Johnson, Department of Health

Brief: Promote the free NHS Quit Kit to help give up smoking

Agency: Partners Andrews Aldridge

Creative team: Simon Nicholls, Chris King

Producer/director: Brian Jenkins

Sound studio: 750mph

Engineer: Gary Walker

Campaign exposure: National and local radio

Mini 'misap' by Lida

Client: Anna Kilmurray, Mini

Brief: Promote Mini free insurance

Agency: Lida

Creative team: Alan Mackie, Michael Poole

Producer/director: Simon Blaxland

Sound studio: Soho Square Studios

Engineer: Adam Smyth

Campaign exposure: National radio, London and Manchester

Department for Work and Pensions 'barbershop quartet' by DDB UK

Client: Deborah Hankins, head of pensions and later life communications group, Department for Work and Pensions

Brief: Inform the public about the impending arrival of the Government’s automatic enrolment scheme and the benefits of a workplace pension

Agency: DDB UK

Creative team: Vix Jagger, Ric Hooley

Producer: Charles Woodall

Sound studio: ClearCut

Engineer: Mark Hellaby

Campaign exposure: Radio

McDonald's 'let's have a coffee' by Leo Burnett

Client: Alistair Macrow, vice-president, marketing, McDonald’s

Brief: Position McDonald’s as a great destination for quality coffee

Agency: Leo Burnett

Creative team: Rob Tenconi, Mark Franklin

Producer: Adam Furman

Sound studio: Wave

Engineer: Tom Rappaccoli

Campaign exposure: Radio