Video: Roundtable

How to Make Better Radio Ads

Creatives Dissect What's Wrong and Offer Solutions

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NEW YORK ( -- For the past five years, national radio has done what few traditional media have been able to manage: gain audience. Radio added 3 million listeners in 2008, amassing a weekly audience of 235 million people, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau's annual RADAR report. Yet the original ad-supported broadcasting medium lost ad revenue year over year, declining 9% in 2008 to $19.5 billion, according to the RAB.

Where's the disconnect? Look no further than the creative agencies, who rarely make radio the focal point of national campaigns these days. Seeking to shed some light on that disparity, the Radio Advertising Bureau and the VCU Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University held a 90-minute roundtable discussion on April 30 in New York with 11 of the ad world's top creative directors. The conversation was preceded by a judging panel for this year's Radio Mercury Awards, the industry's premier creative advertising awards, which will be held June 17 at New York's Chelsea Piers. The panel posed lots of questions about the problems with radio and the role it plays (or doesn't) in clients' media mixes, the perception of radio as a medium, and the value of the Radio Mercury Award itself.

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Mercury Awards Radio Summit

The panelists were:

  • Jeff Haley, president-CEO, RAB
  • Rick Boyko, director, VCU Brandcenter
  • Kelly O'Keefe, managing director, VCU Brandcenter
  • Elizabeth Talerman, managing partner, Talerman & Partners
  • Jose Molla, creative director, La Communidad
  • Bill Bruce, co-chief creative officer, BBDO, New York
  • Pete Favat, chief creative officer, Arnold
  • David Fowler, worldwide creative director, Ogilvy & Mather
  • Ronny Northrop, creative director, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners
  • Mark Gross, group creative director, DDB, Chicago
  • Mike Hughes, president-creative director, the Martin Agency
  • Joyce King Thomas, chief creative officer, McCann Erickson
  • Mark Nardi, creative director, Hill Holliday
  • Bob Scarpelli, chief creative officer, DDB Worldwide
  • Mike Shine, creative director, Butler, Shine & Stern Partners
  • Bill Wright, creative director, Crispin Porter & Bogusky

Problem No. 1:
"I wonder how radio sells itself to marketers, because if the campaign's about immediacy, it ends up being about tactics a lot of times," McCann Erickson's Joyce King Thomas said. "A lot of radio assignments, at least the ones we see, are very tactical. It's about being close to the purchase, all the things that have not been conceptualized at a branding level. So I wonder whether the radio business needs to sell itself as a brand tool, because by the time it gets to my desk, it's very tactical."

Look to the past. Ogilvy's David Fowler built his career through radio-based branding campaigns for clients such as Motel 6, which began advertising exclusively through radio. One of the main reasons that worked, he said, was "because the agency and the client were committed to radio as do or die. That was the medium we were going to use because it was just a no-brainer to them. You drive along the road, and you see the motel."

Since then, many advertisers have lost sight of how to fit radio into their larger marketing plans. But to honor the clients who still use radio smartly as part of their integrated marketing strategies, the Mercury Awards will include its first Marketer of the Year award this year, the RAB's Jeff Haley said. The inaugural finalists are the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign, Coca-Cola, Geico, Hershey, McDonald's, Mercedes-Benz and Walmart.

Butler Shine's Mike Shine also pointed to a new campaign for Mexican chain restaurant Chipotle as an example of how radio can be the leading platform for a branding campaign. "We wanted to brand Chipotle as a local restaurant with high-quality ingredients," he said. "Our thinking was to do something very unchain-like, and a big TV campaign is a very chain-like thing to do. Chipotle has a crazy fan base, so we wanted it to keep it feeling uncorporate."

Problem No. 2:
"I don't know what the face of radio is," said Mike Hughes of the Martin Agency. "Paul Harvey's dead, Rush Limbaugh has been around forever and I guess there's that 'American Idol' guy. But the programming that sustains radio is difficult to impossible to build a plan around, and the large part of the landscape is off-limits to major brands. Everything else is jammed into whatever else is available."

Elizabeth Talerman, of Talerman & Partners, proposed reviving the old trend of "live reads," in which popular radio personalities give brands on-air shout-outs for sponsoring contests and other promotional efforts. VCU Brandcenter's Rick Boyko suggested limiting the number of ads during premium programming to boost engagement. "I think radio stations should charge more for the spots that work," he said.

Problem No. 3:
"Radio needs to get better before radio ads can get better," said Crispin's Bill Wright. "When I read a magazine, all the ads don't annoy me. When I watch TV, all the ads don't annoy me. Even when you do a good radio spot, it's still the best-looking house in a bad neighborhood."

Offer incentives. Ms. Talerman cited an example from her days at WPP's Soho Square, which helped shape Yahoo's status as one of the web's biggest portals in 2003. "Yahoo went pretty far when we started recognizing our clients who were doing the best stuff," Ms. Talerman said. "We started seeing really good Doritos stuff, and Yahoo was seeing really good work for Crispin. Soon we had five chunks of $5 million to hand to some agencies."

Problem No. 4:
"A lot of people are internet, internet, internet," said DDB's Bob Scarpelli of his agency's younger creatives' media preferences. "I want to hear these guys saying, 'This is what I'm listening to, these are some of the spots I'm hearing,' and no one's talking like that."

Preach radio's reach on the web. Mr. Haley said online radio receives 33 million weekly streams. "That's 10% of the overall audience, but it's still big." CBS has also become the second-largest provider of content on the web, next to YouTube, thanks in large part to the recent addition of Yahoo and AOL to CBS Radio's online radio network. Ms. King Thomas said she would also like to see more radio companies spend more time visiting the agencies to hear their needs. "Make a presentation, show a little film. Google's coming in like crazy. What can radio show us?" she said.

Problem No. 5:
"The perception is that radio is not as popular as it once was," said Crispin's Mr. Wright. Hill Holliday's Mark Nardi added, "The fact that it's not on AdCritic also doesn't help." Goodby's Ronny Northrop wanted to know more about the reputation of the Radio Mercury Awards themselves. "What kind of clout does the trophy actually carry? As a writer that says it all."

Mr. Boyko said the criteria for this year's Radio Mercury winners are the strictest yet, with more weight given to campaigns that did a lot of heavy lifting for the brand's media strategy in addition to cool spots. Mr. Haley also seemed open to the prospect of showcasing the honor's history at this year's awards. "Maybe it's a good idea to go back to some of the guys who've won and say, 'What did it mean to you?'" And with this year's trophy the first to incorporate an actual radio, the prize is 15.5 inches tall, making its literal size that much bigger as well.

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