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Louie the Lizard, Mercedes Benz, Hollywood Video and Yahoo. What's the common thread? Memorable campaigns created by senior writers at some of the country's best ad agencies for radio.

Radio? Isn't that the medium for kids fresh out of ad school? The kind of work you shun as soon as you've achieved any seniority at all?

Not so. "The smart ones love doing it," insists Jeff Goodby, co-chairman and co-creative director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. "It teaches you how to think clearly. You can develop a style, learn how to cast and direct properly, and how to work with actors and actresses. Smart writers always welcome radio work."

Can it be true that radio, that two-lane road long bypassed by the superhighway of television, has lured some of the fast-track creative talent? Steve Dildarian, the pen behind the adventures of Louie and Frank, the Budweiser lizards, finds that translating the TV campaign to radio gives him even more opportunities for zany scenarios. "We try to stay true to life with the lizards' anatomy and what they can and can't do on TV," remarks Dildarian, "but with radio we can be more over-the-top."

With all the ad dollars and sexy technology of TV, why would a senior creative take time out for radio? "It's fun because it's the least structured medium that we have in this business," Dildarian says. "Certainly the control you have as a writer is great. I know I was excited when I got my first radio assignments, and I still am now."

What's not to like when your radio work bags you $100,000? Dildarian and his agency took home the top prize at the Mercury Radio Awards this year for his "Selling Out" spot.

The unfettered creativity radio offers can be very seductive in contrast to the 'advertising by committee' of television. When the creative team at Lowe & Partners/SMS set out to rebrand staid Mercedes Benz as a hipper driving machine, Eddie Van Bloem wrote much of the TV and radio copy that propelled its new image. "I did a lot of radio for Mercedes for the past two years, about 10 or 15 spots," says the ebullient Van Bloem. "I really liked working on it because radio was open and a lot of fun to do. You get to do things you can't do in other mediums."

Arthur Appleseed

Condensing a movie into 55 seconds with no visuals is equally challenging. The radio spots for Hollywood Video not only nailed it; they are original ideas that create an experience that would be hard to reproduce on TV. The concept is a product of the fertile imagination of Adam Chasnow at Cliff Freeman & Partners. "A lot of people try to apply principles that might work in TV to radio, and the ads end up becoming what we call 'blind,' where you're halfway through a radio spot and you still don't know what they're trying to sell," explains Chasnow. "If you make someone work too hard they're going to tune it out."

But for all the fun and freedom of radio, it still remains a poor sister to TV in many ways. Chasnow notes with regret that "at bigger agencies, radio projects are viewed as less desirable because there aren't as many TV assignments, and most of the senior people try to do those themselves. Radio is not an easy medium to write for. It becomes easier either with experience or a boss who really knows how to do it and can help."

Chasnow has the good fortune to work for one of the best in the business -- Arthur Bijur, president and executive creative director at Freeman. Bijur is the Johnny Appleseed of radio. He has influenced, trained and planted the roots of radio in the psyches of writers for over 10 years.

"I think it all comes from the top," Bijur believes. "If you encourage people to do radio and can get them charged up about doing it well, and if the clients are into it, the creative people will be enthused, too." On the other hand, "People who do radio early on and get frustrated -- they hate radio. Bad radio is painful," groans Bijur. "It lies there like a dead rat. Clients hate it and agencies push it aside."

Love-Hate affair

Playing to the strength of each medium, of course, yields the best results. Unfortunately, in the case of radio, a large percentage of the advertising is produced either by the local stations or inexperienced writers who rely on hackneyed formulas.

Bob Kerstetter, creative director, copywriter and partner at San Francisco's Black Rocket, creators of the Yahoo campaign, shares the love-hate affair with radio common to so many ad people. "There's nothing like a great radio campaign, but so much radio advertising is so bad, people tune it out quickly. And yet, if you do something that's fun, it will pop out of that 98 percent of crap."

Casting is universally acknowledged as the Holy Grail of advertising, perhaps even more so for radio than for television. "I wish there were more voices -- literally," laments Kerstetter. "I heard a spot with a woman who must have been 75 years old. God, it just sounded so wonderful hearing a different tone and demeanor."

John Crawford, whose many roles include talent, writer and producer, echoes the call for new and different voices. "In many ways it's much harder to cast radio than TV," he says, giving an example: "In TV, you could cast for a goofy husband and fill the corridors of buildings in Santa Monica with them. But if you're looking for that same thing in radio, there are only a few people who really work."

"It's the whole thing in many ways," agrees Jeff Goodby. "We casted hundreds of people for Louie and Frank. They were originally going to be kind of like small-time hoods because their job was to bump off the frogs. But these guys' actual voices were like comedians from the Catskills and they were really funny. So that's what we ended up having them do."

Happy accidents

Once you've found the talent, getting the best performance from it requires finesse and flexibility. "If you've got good voiceover talent, the more you can respect them and let them do their thing -- have fun with it -- the better the [spot] will be," says Dildarian.

Serendipity is a key ingredient in executing a concept, according to Van Bloem. "Even though I write an exact script, after it's sold I try to convince them that, really, it's a rough script and I want to leave room for any happy accidents."

"Find the best engineers, find the best producers and learn as much as you can from them," advises Bijur. "Pick everybody's brains as you go along. The difference between working with good people and people who don't get it is the difference between a good spot and a bad spot."

Good spot, bad spot, the conventional wisdom is that ad agencies are not going to hire you on the basis of your radio reel.

"Are you kidding?" hoots Jeff Goodby. "We have! We hired David Fowler because he did the Motel 6 campaign."

"I remember when Hal Riney called to ask if I knew anyone who was good in radio," reflects John Crawford. "I said, 'Well, there's this guy Goodby at J. Walter Thompson and I think he's pretty good. I've heard a couple of spots he wrote, and they're really funny.' "

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