SBHD: The regional press and local radio have a common enemy – creativity. Restraints of time and money make effectiveness the name of the game.
Regional advertising has had a bad press. It’s boring, say its detractors. The same people who say they enjoy flashy, escapist commercials tend to despise local newspaper ads because their point of reference is their own high street and not the Arizona Desert or a Pacific island.
However, the advertising works. The reg-ional press accounted for 25 per cent (£1.7bn) of all UK advertising revenue last year, despite the catastrophic effect of the recession on small businesses which support it.
“The regional press depends very heavily on advertising because it doesn’t have the massive cover price revenues the national press has,” says Westminster Press group advertisement director Anne Blood. “In the recession, the regions lost the high-yield recruitment and property advertising and had to look elsewhere for business.”
The equation is simple. As profitable advertising becomes scant, call rates increase and eventually something has to suffer, says Blood. Unfortunately, it tends to be the copywriting and production budget, which drives down the already mediocre quality of press ads.
Nobody would dispute that regional campaigns rarely reach the same technical level as high-cost national works. Their focus tends to be on effectiveness rather than award-winning potential.
Regional ads probably come closer than many national ones to Doyle Dane Bernbach founder Bill Bernbach’s celebrated definition of advertising’s aim – “to sell more product”.
The agencies devising the ads for local newspapers and Independent Local Radio (ILR) stations often claim they are closer to their clients. “There is a closer contact with reality in the regions than in London,” says JWT Manchester creative director Cliff Kenyon.
But creativity has to be carefully budgeted for. “There are times when you have to use the fourth-choice photographer instead of the first,” says Kenyon.
Another major constraint is time. “The majority of London agencies do one TV commercial and that’s it, where we have a great quantity of press work and spend very little time with our feet on our desks,” he adds.
Large regional agencies make a distinction between the “London-quality” work they produce and that created by small local competitors. But Kenyon insists that there is no reason why even a message like “We’re cheaper than anybody else” can’t involve creative thought and production. In fact, according to regional media owners, it is feasible to transfer national newspaper ads to local papers with very little alteration.
National retail chains can use the focus of local papers or radio to transform raised awareness into a genuine impulse to buy.
“There needn’t be a division. Regional work can be pseudo-national advertising – used for store supports, launches or giving a message to a local audience,” says Jeremy Morris, chief executive of The Word, the regional newspapers’ sales agency for attracting national advertising.
“We try to point out to London-oriented clients and agencies that print quality and reproduction have improved in the regional press,” says Morris. “Esoteric brand advertising can run in local papers.”
It is a noble ambition. Unfortunately, the majority of regional advertising is not even created by agencies. As any high-street agency with a list of local retail and car dealership clients knows, the main function of the agency is and always has been media buying. For inventiveness, they often rely on the unsung talents of the sales reps.
“If the ad sales department doesn’t design the ads, it has an in-house artist to do it, or the clients do it themselves,” says The Byrne Partnership director Eamon Byrne. Lead times are very short. If one supermarket slashes prices of several key products on Thursday, for example, its rival must have its own promotion in the local paper by Friday.
“In some cases they [the reps] see themselves as rivals of the regional ad agencies – some of whom are people who used to work in newspaper sales departments anyway,” adds Byrne.
“But ad sales people aren’t thick. They quickly work out that the key objective is to generate revenue, not to create brilliantly designed ads. You won’t get sacked for an ugly design,” says Byrne.
Ironically, the same technology that has accelerated the publishing process has drawbacks for the creative standard of a paper’s advertising. Before the printing revolution inaugurated by Eddie Shah, and culminating in the crisis at Rupert Murdoch’s Wapping headquarters, the basic design of newspapers was left largely in the hands of compositors.
According to Blood, the creative skills only really became apparent when they disappeared. “Although I’m glad the old National Graphical Association is gone, the skill of the old fashioned compositor is gone, and newspapers have suffered. They had skills in selecting typefaces and the use of white space that the more recent press – both national and regional – have never replaced,” she adds.
Radio stations, meanwhile, have enjoyed a sharp growth in advertising over the past year. With a claimed revenue rise of 26 per cent a year, radio is easily the fastest growing media sector.
But growth has probably been a Pyrrhic victory for local radio creativity. Radio has seen an increase in the volume of formulaic local ads, but not necessarily an improvement in quality. At last year’s Commercial Radio Convention in Dublin, local station reps claimed the source of this increase was local advertisers, and not, as has often been supposed, new national franchises.
This creates the same problems of high volume and short lead times that have bedevilled local newspapers. However, the ILR network also has problems peculiar to radio, principally the poor recall that is endemic of jingle-prone radio ads.
The Radio Advertising Bureau has put resources into a public campaign to improve the standards of creativity in radio advertising. Among other things, it has already produced a CD of some of the best examples of radio commercials.
But these campaigning efforts have focused almost entirely on the standards of high-profile national campaigns for brand advertisers.
In an ideal world, such values would filter down to the local stations. But, as with ads in print, it is the top ten per cent of executions that attract the publicity and are critically dissected by consumer affairs journalists in the national press. There is not much mystique in the interest-free credit commercial for Acme Motors in Clapton.
What radio needs is some form of creative pattern, says RAB account planner Andrew Ingram. “The philosophy of most creatives in advertising is to take the last guy’s approach and turn it on its head.”
In posters, this amounts to a picture of the product and a double entendre. But radio creatives do not have this luxury.
“There isn’t a tradition for radio advertising,” says Ingram. The nearest thing is Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones soundalikes, who create a comic routine around the idea of the product. Unfortunately, radio is a very exposed medium. An ad that doesn’t work as a script becomes exponentially less convincing the moment it appears on air.
Commercial radio producer Mandy Wheeler had this in mind when she referred to radio as “the media equivalent of stand-up comedy”. Any lack of conviction, or a slip, and the whole thing falls flat. Unfortunately, with hundreds of commercials broadcast every year, even on small stations, such slips are commonplace.
Again, the sheer number of ads means most of the creative input comes from the media owners rather than agencie. Most stations have a commercial production unit, whose main task is to draft and produce material that is functional.
“We’re dealing with direct advertisers who probably haven’t used radio before,” says Capital Radio head of commercial production Gail Smith. “We would normally come up with the creative idea, write the script, get it cleared with our in-house people or the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre and cast it for them.”
Capital’s ComProd unit also works with agencies who have a rough concept, but need the station to make it sound better and come up with music. This is probably the largest such unit in the country, used by all the stations in the Capital Group. It has time to give each commercial its full attention.
Smith says most stations get by with bulk sessions. They book specialist voice-over artists to do 15 or 20 scripts in half a day. She concedes that many radio ads obviously lack any real conviction.
The Capital production de-partment prides itself on trying to raise the standard of creativity at Capital, although Smith realises she has to produce working commercials, under pressurised conditions.
The fastest turnaround Smith can ever remember was a commercial for Currie Motors on the day of the Budget. “I rang Currie Motors to approve the idea, came up with the script, got the BACC to approve it, found the voice of Currie Motors through his agent in London and had the commercial on air before the Chancellor sat down.”