Radio: Air quality

Ian Darby finds this year's Aerial Award winners showing commitment to improve the quality of radio advertising.

The Aerial Awards is one of the livelier creative shindigs around. That's not to say that it descends into a bunfight you understand, but sticking 400 creatives in a room and asking them to vote for their favourite ads can somehow always be relied on to make the sparks fly.

This year's annual Aerials ceremony, held last week in London, was given an extra boost by the comedian and Xfm presenter Jimmy Carr, who acted as the host for the evening.

A lively show featured jokes with a slightly offensive edge (sample gag: "J. Lo's arse has been insured for $10 million. I don't know if that includes contents."). Near the end, Carr dragged up the Aerials judging chairman, Malcolm Poynton, for an untraditional style of interview (Poynton was made to interview Carr).

In between Carr's expletives, some awards were given out. The Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy team of Ben Tollett and Emer Stamp took the Campaign Gold Award for best radio ad for their Travelocity spot "inside your radio", which featured the globe-trotting TV journalist Alan Whicker. The ad had already triumphed in the leisure category.

Winners of individual categories included Radioville's Nationwide work in the retail and finance category, Saatchi & Saatchi's NSPCC campaign in the craft section for best use of casting, and GWR Creative in the charity and public service category for its Somerset Drug Action Team work.

The landmark campaign of the year was for Super Noodles, created by Robert Clayman of Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners. However, due to the vagaries of the voting system none of the Super Noodles ads was eligible to go forward for the big vote on the Gold award. The vote involved only the winners of the individual categories and Clayman's Super Noodles ads were beaten in the FMCG category by McCann Erickson's work for Nesquik.

Clayman cried foul, accusing McCann of rigging the vote on Nesquik by packing the Bloomsbury UCL Theatre full of McCann staff from its nearby office. Nevertheless, the reality is that a good ad was the winner in a strong category.

The strength of the FMCG category reflects well on the agencies involved and on the Radio Advertising Bureau, which organised the awards, and has spent the past couple of years persuading FMCG advertisers that radio ads could work for their brands.

On the night, there were murmurs that the overall quality might have been down on previous years. But what did the organisers think?

Andrew Ingram, the director of the Aerials Foundation, said on the night: "There was a disproportionate number of finalists from the new wave of agencies, the likes of DLKW and Clemmow Hornby Inge. It would be nice to see some of the big agencies working harder."

Poynton, the executive creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, appeared to concur. "There were no bloodbaths when we were judging so there was probably not enough rivalry between agencies," he said. "It would be good to see a bit more depth of quality."

However, Poynton was fulsome in his praise for some of the winning entries, saying that the cream of the entries were possibly as good as any year.

Chris O'Shea, the chairman of the Aerials Foundation and a founding partner of HOW, believes that there has been improvement across the board this year. "I think the standard is getting better and better, with both the production and the ideas, but especially the production," he says.

There are clear signs that radio is being taking more seriously by advertisers and agencies. Production values have improved and two-thirds of nominated entries for this year's awards had a director.

This is leading to greater overall quality in the medium, claims Ralph van Dijk, a founder of the specialist agency Eardrum, which won a best direction award (alongside McCann) for its work on Nesquik. He says: "Production values are now higher. This is owing to the now-accepted practice of agencies using a specialist radio director. More thought and attention is going into casting, more time is allowed in the studio, and pre-production is more thorough."

Good-quality radio advertising has often relied on humour to convey its message. However, this year the ads nominated were arguably more varied than in recent years. The heavy tone of the brilliantly cast ads from the NSPCC and The Somerset Drug Action Team contrasted with the light humour of ads from the likes of Travelocity and Super Noodles.

Van Dijk says: "Comedy still represents about 70 per cent of all radio scripts, but now it's more straight- faced, earnest comedy, realistic actors in natural situations rather than larger-than-life comedy characters."

"Longer-length commercials are now becoming more common. Clients now realise the benefit in being flexible with time lengths and 40 seconds is now the average," he adds.

O'Shea was pleased with the variety of work this year. He says: "The interesting thing was the non-emergence of trends ... there seemed to be no flavour of the month. Things being pretty varied is interesting in itself."

There may be more variety at the top levels of radio creativity, but critics of the medium argue that there is still too much dross out there.

The RAB is attempting to tackle this problem with the Aerials Foundation, which, as well as the awards, also runs a range of courses and seminars aimed at improving radio's standards of creativity across the board and helping the medium to win recognition within creative departments.

O'Shea, who has helped to steer the Aerials Foundation through its first 16 months, argues things are moving in the right direction and that improvements will see increased enjoyment of radio ads by the general public.

"There is this general rise in production techniques and direction and people are taking a little more time and effort in casting," he says.

"If you get the basics right this pays off. Radio is now not just a chore knocked off in an hour - people realise there is kudos in making a good radio ad."