There are several species of good radio ads, but most creatives are
too busy chasing television briefs to pay any attention to them.
Andrew Ingram, the account planning director at the Radio Advertising
Bureau, hopes to remedy the creative community's indifference to radio
with a new book of "top tips" for the medium, ranging from the
elementary ("respect the difference in media - there are no long car
chases in books") to the practical ("use a stopwatch").
These gems of wisdom - collected from the select band of creatives who
take a keen interest in radio as a medium - are aimed at raising the
standards of radio advertising.
And standards can sink pretty low. Ingram cites a doomed script he once
saw where a key direction was: "Bus screeches to a halt but no-one gets
off." How do you convey that on radio?
Such thoughtlessness is exactly what gives radio advertising a bad name.
Ralph Van Dijk, a director of radio at the specialist Eardrum, says:
"Agencies need to invest more time and money in radio and to have higher
expectations of radio advertising. Part of the problem is that it's
cheap to make, so it doesn't get the same care and attention as TV."
The starting point is, obviously, a good script and the right
As in any advertising discipline, this is easier said than done, but
when writing for radio, creatives can be liable to forget even basic
The Marks & Spencer spot (see script) is a classic case in point. The
characters seem to be merely reiterating the brief, using stilted and
unnatural dialogue, while the sound effects used - particularly the car
horn - have to have been recorded back in the 60s.
Paul Burke, a copywriter at BMP DDB, points out that writing skills have
diminished as advertising has be-come more visual over the years.
He insists: "You must have natural dialogue - no-one talks about
'class-beating luggage space'."
Van Dijk's best advice is to think visually. "Radio works best when you
create pictures in the mind. In the studio, too, you have to think where
the voices are. A sense of place helps the listener create a mental
picture. We mic up the actors like in a rad-io play so that they can
move around, pick up an item, or point."
Digital recording techniques, introduced about eight years ago, allow
you to blend together the best bits from any number of takes - meaning
that there is less excuse than ever for bad radio advertising.
The practice of giving radio scripts to junior teams doesn't help
matters in the studio or anywhere else. Tim Craig, the creative director
of the radio specialist Radioville, says: "Agencies put juniors on
because they think they can't do too much damage on radio. Too many
creative directors use it as a training ground."
In-house radio station creative outfits - a cheap option for clients -
are also blamed for bad radio ads. Neil Fairburn, the creative services
director at Chrysalis, admits: "When I started in 1983, you got a job
based on whether you could use the equipment. But now we look for
creative people and I'd defy anyone to say 'in-house bad, agency good' -
we run some appalling agency ads."
Radio specialists can also find themselves at loggerheads with ad
agencies, who accuse them of living in radioland rather than adland.
Craig counters: "I take the comment that we're not proper advertising
people as a bit of a compliment. Especially when proper advertising
people can't do radio."
But a bad ad is not always the creative's fault. Clients are often
blamed for using radio as a dumping ground for all the information they
can't fit into any other media.
A retailer may have 15 branches, seven phone numbers and a web address
and insist that all are included in the commercial, which doesn't leave
a lot of time to engage the listener or build a brand message.
Media buying patterns contribute to the overcrowding problem. Many
creatives complain that radio airtime is too inflexible. UK radio
follows the television precedent of being sold in blocks of 30 seconds,
whereas US radio - where advertising is generally perceived to be of a
higher standard - works on the principle of the number of ads per
"You need to let a commercial breathe," Burke says. And as he points
out, the incremental costs of an extra ten seconds are negligible.
So those are the basics: get the language and casting right; don't
neglect production values and don't try to cram too much in.
But, as Malcolm Duffy, the joint creative director of Miles Calcraft
Briginshaw Duffy and chairman of this year's Aerial Awards, points out:
"The principles are not that different to other media. There is a
shortage of great ideas everywhere - even with lots of talented people
in the industry, no-one cracks it that often."
Radio specialists, who create about 25 per cent of the ads on air, have
the benefit of being immersed in radio full-time, so they know all the
cliches and pitfalls to avoid. They help out with scripts, find the
right voiceover artists and guide you through the production
Even for those with talent and experience, however, the only sure-fire
way to create a good radio ad is to be enthusiastic about it.
Joe de Souza, who was a judge at the Aerial Awards and who co-wrote
Mother's "Jimi Hendrix" ad for Q magazine with Sam Edwards, explains the
creative process: "We approached it as we would television. I don't
think radio is a shitty medium. There's a lot of craft in the writing
and the script made us laugh; that's the only criteria we use."
As de Souza is the first to admit, the choice of actor was crucial. The
team had spotted Rob Bryden on BBC2's Marion and Geoff and approached
him about the script. "Rob makes it such an enjoyable performance, he
got into the spirit of things and brought it to life. It's in the
delivery and timing - it doesn't feel like he's reading from a script,"
de Souza says.
Of course, there is no foolproof answer to the question of what makes a
good radio ad, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from the experts.
And those teams who don't take radio seriously might perk up in response
to Duffy's words: "On radio, you have more creative freedom. And you
don't get bollocked for taking risks."
HOW TO GET THE MESSAGE ACROSS SUCCINCTLY AND HUMOUROUSLY
Q magazine: 'Jimi Hendrix'
SFX: Jaunty supermarket musak
BRIAN: Alright? It's me. Bonkers Brian Day and my rock 'n' roll
car showroom where musical and motoring dreams collide.
Just in, Jimi Hendrix's Datsun Cherry.It's a smashing car -
I'm not being funny. He wrote Crosstown Traffic in this
while trying to master the Hangar Lane Gyratory system in
1972.That's in London.
MVO: For a real rock 'n' roll driving deal, get Essential Drive.
21 great tracks by Hendrix, REM, Oasis and more.
Free CD with Q magazine.
BRIAN: Buy now and get 10 per cent off my Marc Bolan car insurance
plan. (Eyes on the road, Marc!)
Creative by Joe de Souza and Sam Edwards at Mother; Producer: Kirsty
Norton; Sound: Emap.
HOW NOT TO DO IT
Marks & Spencer: 'pregnant' (1997)
SFX: Traffic noises in background
Dad to be: Everything OK?
Mum to be: Yes. Doctor says everything's fine.
Dad: So. A month from now, you'll be a mum and I'll be a dad.
Mum: Yes. There is just one thing. We need Marks & Spencer.
Dad: Another craving?
Mum: No. For life assurance. We'll need security now we're a
Dad: Drivers like that, you can see why we want life assurance.
But ... I don't know where to begin.
Mum: Men! It's simple. Just call Marks & Spencer on
0500 14 14 14. They've cut out the long forms and the
salesman. You don't even need to go into the store.
Dad: Mother knows best. But what's it all going to cost?
Mum: You know what they're like for value. And there's a
three-month, money-back promise with some plans.
Dad: Trust M&S.
MVO: For a free information pack from Marks & Spencer life
assurance call 0500 14 14 14 free, 8am to 8pm weekdays, 8am
to 5pm Saturdays. That's 0500 14 14 14. Regulated by the
Personal Investment Authority.
WWAV Rapp Collins.