Two decades of tuning in to commercial radio

As it celebrates 20 years, the RAB is stepping up its mission to inject creativity into radio advertising.

When people are asked to name their favourite ad, the most common response is a TV spot. Posters or press ads pop up too, and Old Spice might have helped to put digital into the conversation. But radio rarely gets a mention.

Since the fondly remembered old Hamlet cigar ads by Collett Dickenson Pearce, there has been some decent work for charities (such as Publicis London's prostate cancer ad with Ricky Gervais) and the public sector (including Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's ads for the Metropolitan Police), but British advertisers have not consistently created world-class radio spots in recent years. In 2011 no UK radio ads were shortlisted at Cannes.

Radio spots are hard to pull off, but the Hamlet ads are widely regarded as brilliantly written and funny. In its 2000 take on the classic "does my bum look big?" conundrum, a man tells his wife he can see her underwear "folded and creased up" under her trousers. She replies that she is not wearing any.

"The music would kick in and you hear the man lighting up his cigar and drawing a deep breath," Chris Macdonald, the chief executive of McCann London, says.

"It's the equivalent of 'I'm fucked.' It's these hilariously observed moments of failure where the only thing that's going to make you feel better is to light your cigar that became the architecture for the campaign."

Radio ads such as these work because they take advantage of the listener's imagination. Appealing to the non-visual gives radio a unique connection to emotions and humour is often the key to a successful ad.

But to achieve all this, writers need proper training, Paul Burke, a creative director and copywriter on Heinz and Monster at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says.

"Most copywriters whose job it is to write radio commercials are recruited from art college," Burke explains.

"They are writing radio commercials because they were good at drawing at school. They don't want to do it; why should they do it? They are visually trained. We need to develop radio copywriters separately."

Luckily, the Radio Advertising Bureau, which turned 20 last Friday, is on the case as part of its mission to promote radio advertising.

Simon Redican, the RAB's managing director, says he is "encouraged" by the fact that John Lewis is now exploring radio.

Over the past fortnight, the RAB has worked with three creative teams at John Lewis' ad agency Adam & Eve on live briefs that will be taken all the way to production.

Craig Inglis, the retailer's marketing director, praised the RAB team who helped them with creative challenges such as what John Lewis, a normally "mute brand", should sound like.

Redican dismisses the idea that radio is the reserve of regional double-glazing advertisers and not for premium brands, citing ASOS, Xbox and Southern Comfort as recent spenders. "Any brand can use radio," Redican says.

"Great radio ads are as powerful as any other medium's, but we have a structural challenge in getting creatives to take it seriously."

Working with agencies is part of a £350,000 investment in radio creativity, led by Redican and the RAB executive chairman, Linda Smith.

Through a partnership with D&AD, there are audio resources online and briefing sessions to help agencies with awards entries, while the RAB is sponsoring the radio prize at the D&AD Awards.

This investment extends to people. Peter Buchanan, a former deputy chief executive at COI, is working with the RAB as a consultant to help promote creativity in radio, and Clare Bowen, formerly an account director at HMDG, joined the body in the new role of head of creative development in January.

"The RAB is effectively positioning radio back on the map," James Murphy, a founding partner at Adam & Eve, says.

The RAB is also pushing its message to the public through its "Britain loves radio" ad campaign by Radioville. Although the ads do not necessarily stand up to Hamlet's, they won a bronze at this month's Sony Radio Academy Awards. Next, the RAB's LovesRadioAds app, created by Propeller Mobile, will provide a searchable bank of ads for planners and creatives on the move or in client meetings.

The RAB works hard to get radio on the plan. The radio station-funded research tool RadioGauge has offered free research on radio advertising since 2008.

Now its findings are going to be aggregated to provide a planning tool called RadioGauge Predict, to help show how radio could help briefs.

Since its launch in 1992, the RAB has been there to help advertisers and their agencies use radio better. In the 80s, commercial radio audiences doubled but the medium's share of ad revenue remained constant at 2.8 per cent.

The radio companies wanted more and created the RAB to help prove radio advertising's effectiveness.

Douglas McArthur, who was its chief executive from 1992 until 2006, says the RAB was the first media trade marketing body not to act as an additional sales force for media owners. "We positioned ourselves on the side of the customers," he explains. "They trusted we were there to help them."

Although it seems hard to imagine today in the light of Thinkbox and Newsworks (formerly the Newspaper Marketing Agency), at the time the RAB was doing something new.

When it launched, McArthur and his two colleagues had just three desks and a phone between them, but the organisation grew to 25 employees at its height.

"The RAB has managed to retain its importance to the industry and has developed with the times as the landscape has changed," Howard Bareham, the head of radio at Mindshare, says.

Despite the RAB having set a target of radio gaining a 10 per cent share of advertisers' media spend by 2010, the medium has fallen back since then (in 2011, it was 5.5 per cent).

That said, Redican says it is "amazing it didn't fall back more" with the rise of the internet, mobile advertising and the recession.

Nevertheless, industry estimates suggest radio ad revenue rose 1.4 per cent in 2010. It grew again in 2011, up 1.8 per cent despite government cuts obliterating radio's biggest advertiser, COI.

Under Redican's guidance, the RAB continues to produce award-winning research. A likeable man from Runcorn with an intelligence that should not be underestimated, Redican is slavishly devoted to radio.

He was, after all, the planner on Abbey National when it became the first-ever advertiser on Classic FM. Redican says the key to radio's success is its ability to influence emotions and the fact that people can do other things while tuning in.

With his commitment to banging the radio drum, there is every chance that the UK will return to the Cannes shortlist before long.


1992: The Radio Advertising Bureau is founded under Douglas McArthur

1995: The RAB Aerial Awards for radio advertising launch

2004: Derek Morris, the chief strategic officer at Publicis, joins the RAB as a non-executive chair

2006: The Commercial Radio Companies Association and the RAB merge to form RadioCentre, but the RAB retains its name. Andrew Harrison joins as the chief executive of RadioCentre

2007: Simon Redican joins the RAB as its managing director

2008: The RAB launches RadioGauge, a radio campaign effectiveness measurement tool. Harrison is appointed the chairman of the RAB

2009: RadioGauge Regional launches

2010: Linda Smith joins the RAB as its executive chairman. "Radio: The Online Multiplier" wins gold and RadioGauge wins silver at the Media Week Awards

2011: The RAB partners with D&AD to launch a "creativity in radio" programme to help improve standards in advertising

2012: The RAB and RadioCentre receive three nominations in the Marketing Society Awards. The RAB's "Britain loves radio" campaign wins bronze at the Sony Radio Academy Awards for best promotional/ad campaign. The RAB launches the LovesRadioAds app and RadioGauge Predict to promote radio advertising