Clear Channel cuts: Jury still out on :30s

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Is less more? Despite Clear Channel's much-publicized push to sell marketers on 30-second rather than 60-second spots, advertisers aren't sure. And that's prompted the radio giant to promote two recent surveys for the initiative to shore up support.

`"Less is More' is the thing everybody's focused on-its impact on inventory, price, how we strategize the marketplace," says Matthew Warnecke, VP-director of network and local radio at Grey Global Group's Media- Com, New York. "But it's still early."

The initiative launched in December when Clear Channel slashed commercial inventory at its 1,200 stations. It supposed that condensing commercial pods by filling them with shorter spots would add up to happier listeners, better recall rates for advertisers and greater profit margins for stations. And while Clear Channel didn't abolish radio's traditional 60-second spot length, it has spent considerable time and energy trying to persuade advertisers to convert their creative to more concise 30-second ads.

But not everyone is convinced. Media buyers are eyeing how reduced inventory affects pricing-some report a few Clear Channel stations sold out their inventory in key markets, sending potential advertisers to the competition. From a creative standpoint, Rob Feakins, exec creative director at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York, favors the 60-second spot: "In TV you use visuals and words so you can communicate faster. For me, you need two seconds of radio for every second in TV. I'm loath to convert from 60-second spots to :30s."

A Clear Channel-commissioned study by Burke, a Cincinnati-based independent research firm, hopes to change that mind-set. The study found that listeners do indeed notice and appreciate shorter commercial breaks, which the company hopes will lead to long-term ratings boosts. It also concluded that reducing a spot's length does not have a major impact in overall brand recall, a shot in the arm for Clear Channel's goal of steering advertisers toward 30-second spots. Those results were shored up by results of an unrelated study by Navigauge, an Atlanta-based media and market-intelligence company. That study indicates 30-second spots-at least in the first position of a break-retain more audience than 60-second spots do. The Navigauge study was not paid for by Clear Channel.

Clear Channel has used its four-month-old Creative Services Group, which has been charged with helping advertisers-and in a few cases, agencies-develop higher-quality radio creative, to convince marketers they can accomplish in 30 seconds what used to take them 60.

a single message

"Shorter radio ads are just as, if not more effective than longer spots because they boil the creative down to a single message and force marketers to think about what's the most important thing to say," says Jim Cooke, Clear Channel senior VP-creative.

The group has worked heavily with production staff at Clear Channel stations and often directly with smaller, local advertisers, a segment that accounts for 80% of radio's revenue. For example, The Allman Brothers band, which typically used an imaginative 60-second spot to promote its annual month-long series of spring shows in New York, is now using 30-second spots.

Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, New York, agrees. "Asking advertisers and agencies to switch to 30-second spots is good in my view because it will, in many cases, force agencies to think far more conceptually and not use the medium as a dumping ground for lazy copy" he says.

But even Mr. Verdi, whose agency handles a campaign for the radio industry partly paid for by Clear Channel, insists "the power of a great commercial is more related to its communication values and the strength of its concept than it is to length."

Clear Channel isn't the only radio giant in the "cut the clutter" game. Joel Hollander, president-CEO of Infinity broadcasting, estimates Infinity has quietly chopped commercial inventory at 62 or 63 of its stations, but, unlike Clear Channel isn't necessarily encouraging 30-second spots over 60s.

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