Radio: Unsound Methods?

Is radio advertising in crisis? Why are creative teams uninterested in the medium? What's the secret to a great radio ad? Top creatives offer their words of wisdom.


- What state is radio advertising creativity in?

Poor. Very poor. Most ads are heavy-handed, over-acted, unmemorable and just plain embarrassing. There is a middle ground - not all radio ads are shit, but they do tend to lack imagination. So there's no reason to listen. There's no reward. If you can't think of an engaging idea, you're better off keeping it straight, like a newsreader would.

Unlike TV, there hasn't really been much innovation or new creative trends emerging in radio. It's stuck in the 50s. In fact, a lot of radio commercials are simply re-treads of TV commercials. An exception is Honda "grrr".

They basically ran the telly soundtrack on the radio but, bizarrely, it still sounded just as fresh and entertaining - which is the bit that's missing from most radio ads.

- Why are radio ads so difficult to write?

It's the lack of pictures that makes it hard. It means that you've got to be a bloody good writer to convey a sense of emotion or create powerful drama, especially in 30 seconds.

There were some cracking writers in the 70s, but the problem now is that few people who come into the industry want to be writers or art directors.

They are all concept creators, and it seems nobody is particularly passionate about the words or the pictures. Most people can have an idea, but it's how you realise the idea that counts.

But even for a good writer, it's still bloody difficult. You need to grab attention, say something relevant, leave a lasting impression, make somebody laugh or cry and make them really want something in 30 seconds. No wonder people demand high salaries.

- How do you encourage your creative teams to be more enthusiastic about radio?

Radio was always seen as less glamorous than TV. But with reduced ad budgets and the proliferation of TV channels, which means, of course, that not many people see your work, it's a lot easier to shine on radio.

It's a great training ground for young writers and, if you get stuck in and experiment, it will teach you the art of writing and communicating. It's hard to be brilliant day in and day out with radio, but if you sit down and plan as you would a television ad, you'll get something special.

I do think it's hard for creative people, though. One day they're expected to be experts in TV script-writing, the next, photographic experts for a poster campaign.

I encourage creatives to work with the best people in their field. If you're writing a comedy script, get some comedy writers involved. At Leagas Delaney, Tim Delaney assembled the Leagas Delaney repertory company - a group of comedians, actors and writers who got used to our style and vice versa. The mixture of cultures was hugely creative and enjoyable.

It is possible to be brilliant on radio. Radio 4 does it all the time.

Alan Partridge and the Goons created their own worlds on radio.

- What's the secret to making a great radio commercial?

Well, it's bloody hard, isn't it? It's impossible to set out to write an Oscar- winning film but, like all things, whether it's a film or a book, you need a solid idea. Make sure that truth is at the heart of the idea. It will stop it from being crass, which is what at least 98 per cent of all radio ads are.

Surround yourself with the best talent you can muster. If you've got a piss-poor actor, you're fucked.

Most radio stations are entertainment stations, so entertain. It's why comedy works so well on radio.

You're in peoples' homes, you're talking to them in their private place, in their private moments. It's a chance to have a conversation with them.

If it's a good conversation, people will want you to have a conversation with them. Innocent proved that. It has conversations all the time with its audience, on the sides of its packs mainly. People are too often bludgeoned by radio, but you should never do that.

- What's the best radio ad you've ever heard?

The ads for Nynex Yellow Pages about ten to 15 years ago, by Chiat Day. They were superbly written pieces of comedy. Every word counted.

The concept was simple - if it's out there, it's in Nynex Yellow Pages. An idea that could run and run.

They took the form of an interviewer interviewing various people that were listed in the Nynex Yellow Pages.

There was a dentist who had ill-fitting dentures. There was a man who ran an inflatable furniture warehouse, the man who could trace your family and discovered the interviewer came from a long line of cowards ... and on they went. It was a very rich idea that allowed funny people to be funny.

- How would you sell radio to advertisers?

Radio is cheap, tactical, reactive, quick-turnaround, of the moment, easy to test. It's easy to get a brand's personality across, you can afford to do lots of executions on the theme. But if I were selling radio, I'd tell people that, for the first time since the 60s, more people listen to radio than watch TV. It's time to get good at it.


- What state is radio advertising creativity in?

I think it has improved dramatically in the past five years or so. (Eardrum has been going for 16 years.) Partly because radio advertising is taken more seriously by clients, so there is now more riding on it financially.

To some extent, using a director has become more common, which helps.

The Radio Advertising Bureau found that two-thirds of all finalists at the Aerial Awards use a director. Clients have obviously been asking for them to be used. They give an overview and help to polish commercials.

- Why are radio ads so difficult to write?

The real question is, why is a good radio commercial so difficult to write? They are deceptively easy to write, that's the problem. It's partly because audio doesn't figure at media college . Universities need to respect the fact that radio is not what it was 15 years ago. Radio is not just sound, it's about the spoken word. It's a different way of writing.

- How should creative teams be encouraged to be more enthusiastic about radio?

We do a lot of talks at creative departments and present the idea of using a director, who will offer a creative treatment, make sure the commercial is to the right length, and use a good actor. Directing famous people can be a bit daunting, but they can offer an extra creative layer. A problem is that radio ads so often need to be written by tomorrow, which is a depressing place to start. You need more time in the studio to make sure that the idea doesn't die there. Maybe it was rushed.

- What's the secret to making a great radio ad?

Two things. Understand the medium the ad will appear in, and understand how people listen. Too many people take an idea they've used elsewhere and dump it on air. For listeners, radio is their mate. They don't want some shiny mate who's a bit shallow, like TV. You need to exploit the way people listen and make sure that the product is central to the idea. Creatives too often think "it's for radio, so we need to write a 'radio ad' with lots of different sound effects", without thinking about the listener.

- What's the best radio ad you've ever heard and why?

One of my favourites was a US ad, but I don't think, on the whole, the Americans do radio much better than us. It was for Safeway fresh fruit and veg.

A customer talks to the manager, and says he'd like to make music using the fruit. Pumpkins were blown like trumpets and all sorts. The ad was leftfield but centred on the product. It was a 60-second commercial, and I'm glad to see that fewer people are booking 30 seconds, and more are choosing 40 seconds instead.

- How would you relaunch radio to advertisers?

It doesn't need a relaunch. Just a tweak. That the RAB's ads win awards helps the medium prove itself. Radio is the one that's with you all the time. When you're driving to work, in the office, at the weekend when you're gardening. It's the one that ties all the other media together. The glue is radio. It's a constant. It's everywhere. You forget it's there sometimes, a bit like the wind. But TV? Oh, it's seven o'clock. TV time.

Radio is not going away, it's adapting and moving forward.


- What state is radio advertising creativity in?

It's not in the rudest of health, let's be honest. But I guess it's no different from any other medium in the sense that it is being approached with a little too much caution at the moment. So nobody is taking any risks to produce something special.

Radio has always been seen as the poor cousin of TV. This has a lot to do with young creative teams coming out of art college who aren't interested (you don't get into advertising to do radio, do you?), and won't volunteer to tackle radio briefs. It's not high on a client's priority list either. Radio just doesn't feel sexy any more.

But I love radio. You can do it all, from concept to execution and, as a creative, that's got to be one of the biggest attractions. There's usually no director, and you have direct contact with the person you're recording.

If you're a control freak, as most creatives are, I'd be surprised if radio was not a medium you were drawn to.

- Why are radio ads so difficult to write?

I'm not sure it's more difficult than writing any other sort of ad. It's hard to write a great commercial, full stop. But it's true that there's a lost art in writing, and you have to do more to make a radio ad work: create the scene and paint a picture in people's minds, all that classic stuff.

- How do you encourage your creative teams to be more enthusiastic about radio?

Make the point that they get to do it all, have total creative control.

There's more freedom and, because there's less money involved, clients don't slave over everything like they would a TV ad. Also, you're not up against so many great radio ads, so there's a little bit less pressure.

- What's the secret to making a great radio ad?

To stand out against a wall of other commercials, you have to surprise and engage people who are busy doing something else. If you don't grab them in the first few seconds, they will tune out. But there is no great secret to it - the best radio commercials don't adhere to a formula. I always refer to ads for or the Army as examples of how to create a voice inside someone's head.

- What's the best radio ad you've ever heard?

The first one that comes to mind is the "don't drive and use your mobile" ad by Paul Brazier (the creative director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO), which I first heard while driving. It cleverly shows how difficult it is to do two things at once. There are a couple of decent print ads, too, but I think the campaign works best on the radio. It's perfectly targeted and makes its point with punch and clarity.

- How would you sell radio to advertisers?

First, I'd push the fact that it doesn't cost the earth. And radio is a fantastic testing ground. Some of the most popular TV series of the past few years, such as The League of Gentlemen, were first aired on the radio. But one of the things people forget is that radio - if you'll pardon the soundbite - is a "companion medium". What better way to sell something than by describing it as being like a mate?

SIMMS' FAVOURITE RADIO AD Sfx: Busy supermarket. Customer: Are you the Safeway produce manager? Manager: Yes I am. Can I help you? Customer: You have the finest fruits and vegetables ... Manager: Well, we try. Customer: ... it is a pleasure to play music on them. Manager: (laughs) ... what? Customer: Oh, excuse me. I have an all-produce band. I play lead carrot myself, but I'm proficient on three leafy vegetables and two tropical fruits. Manager: Come on now ... Customer: Alright, just hand me that squash there. Manager: OK, but ... Sfx: Man plays squash like it is a sexy saxophone, ending on a high note. Manager: How did you do that? Customer: Takes talent, practice and Safeway's fresh fruits and vegetables. Manager: You're kidding me. Customer: We also shop here for your quality meats and other groceries. Manager: How big is this band? Customer: Seven rutabagas, five cucumbers and a bass broccoli. Manager: Gee! Customer: For a finale, we play Yes, We Have No Bananas, then we eat our instruments. Manager: Isn't that expensive? Customer: Not if we shop at Safeway. Your overall low prices and great weekly specials give us more buying power. Manager: Could you, um ... teach me? Customer: Oh, sure! ... Here, start with the celery. Sfx: Manager inhales and then blows into celery. Nothing happens. Manager: What did I do wrong? Customer: You don't blow into celery. You strum it. Manager: Oh. Sfx: Manager plays celery like a Spanish guitar. Customer: Huh ... beginners. Jingle: Safeway - America's favourite food store.

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