Why Allstate Wants Creatives to Give Radio Another Look

Car Insurer Gathers Its Top Agencies for Lessons on a Medium That Reaches Plenty of Drivers

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Is the next big idea in advertising as close as your radio dial? OK, that might be overstating it, but Lisa Cochrane thinks the long-forgotten medium needs some new attention.

"Radio has been left in the dust," said Ms. Cochrane, Allstate's VP-integrated marketing communications. "While everybody's busy looking for what's the newest new frontier, I thought perhaps we could look at an old frontier in a new way."

Her hope -- that creatives give radio the attention it deserves -- led her to gather Allstate's top agencies at Leo Burnett's Chicago office this week for a nearly three-hour seminar that included some self-reflection, as well as tips from experts on how to make the medium work. After all, radio still reaches 93.5% of Americans ages 18 and older every week, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau.

Allstate's Lisa Cochrane
Allstate's Lisa Cochrane

And the best radio ads still shine. Motel 6's "We'll Leave the Light On For You" and Budweiser's "Real American Heroes" were among the best campaigns cited by experts at this week's event. What usually doesn't work is when marketers simply recycle TV ads for radio.

"It's a terrifying medium. I think a lot of people run from it," said Susan Credle, Leo Burnett's chief creative officer. "It's the catch-all for things. It's kind of the workhorse medium. I think creatives get frustrated when it's asked to do that vs. if we all started respecting the medium a little bit more."

Allstate is finding new ways to spread its message on radio. In a program with CBS Radio and Metro Traffic, the insurer not only sponsors traffic updates, but gets helicopter reporters to pick a smooth-riding "good hands route of the day," playing off the insurer's tagline "You're in good hands." In some cases, reporters will cite a stalled car, saying the driver could use the insurer's "roadside assistance program."

Radio "is something that's really working for us," Ms. Cochrane said. "Radio is very local. Radio can be very intimate and it can allow you to target ."

Drive time remains radio's sweet spot. On weekdays, of listeners age 18 and older, 59% listen in their car, and the percentage jumps to nearly 70% for those making $75,000 or more, according to the RAB.

Allstate is the second-largest auto insurer with 9.96% share, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The company spent $25.9 million on radio advertising for all its business lines in the first 11 months of 2010, up from $16 million for all of 2010, according to Kantar Media. That compares with $264 million on TV advertising for the first 11 months of 2010, up from $202 million in all of 2010.

When making radio ads, details matter. Ad Age was at the event and scribbled down some production tips, mostly offered by RadioFace in New York, which writes and produces radio ads. Here are a few:

Think in sound. "We're very sophisticated listeners. We've been alive for awhile listening to things," said Tony Mennuto, RadoFace's creative director. "We know authenticity from not." For instance: If the ad is set in the suburbs, "you should be able to hear the little sound of lawnmower going by."

Use improv actors. They will go off-script to create funnier ads. "When you're using improv people and you're not reading a script, you come up with all those little nuances and sounds and great comedy," Mr. Mennuto said.

Record on location. RadioFace cited a spot plugging a Nike-sponsored running race that was recorded in Central Park. Multiple microphones captured the sound of the actors breath and feet, plus picked up natural background sounds.

Warning: Things sound differently on the radio. For instance, if you slap someone, it sounds like a "click," while running water sounds like white noise, Mr. Mennuto said.

Write shorter copy. This will give you extra time to play, adding sound effects or ad libs, for instance.

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