Sound barrier

Agencies have traditionally valued radio far less than TV. But a new breed of creatives is focusing its expertise on radio and calling attention to its unique potential as a medium, says Stephanie Bentley.

A new breed of creative agency is gaining ground in the advertising industry – the radio specialist. As the name implies, these are companies with expertise only in making radio ads – from writing the scripts and selecting the cast to directing the recording of the ad in the studio.

Some radio specialists do all these things, working directly for a client, while others are hired by an advertising agency mainly for their directing expertise.

At the moment there are only about half a dozen radio specialists, but they work for some of the biggest radio advertisers in the country, including Vodaphone, Carphone Warehouse and Coca-Cola. As radio grows as an advertising medium and is taken more seriously by clients, the number of radio specialists is expected to grow. Already they have their own trade body, the Association of Radio Specialists.

That radio specialists exist at all says a great deal both about the nature of radio as a medium and its traditionally low ranking in the hierarchy of many advertising agencies. The specialists have seen a gap in the market, presumably because not enough agencies are prepared or are able to provide specialist radio services.

Because radio used to comprise such a small slice of the advertising cake – it is relatively new as a commercial medium, with the first commercial station launching in 1972 – advertising agencies were accused of failing to take it seriously. Radio advertising has never been seen as the way for creatives to build their careers because it goes largely unnoticed and unwritten about. Radio specialists also claim that because this is a difficult medium to handle – it cannot rely on images – their experience and focus on radio alone means they can create better ads.

Tim Craig, creative director of radio specialist Radioville, says: “Advertising agencies have often put radio in the basement. It’s not glamorous enough. Junior creatives are assigned to it because agency staff would much rather be working on television.”

Radioville produces about 12 per cent of the UK’s national radio ads. It works directly with clients such as Carphone Warehouse, which is famous for being one of the few advertisers to build its brand using radio.

Craig claims that radio specialists have the edge on advertising agencies because communication between client and creative director is better. He says: “We talk to the clients directly. We don’t have account handlers keeping the creatives away from the client. We cut out the irrelevant stuff that makes agencies look good and allows them to charge more money. We have been told we are cheaper than advertising agencies.”

Clients may decide to work with a radio specialist if they are not happy with the radio advertising produced by their agency. But agencies may also recommend to clients that they work directly with a specialist if they recognise that they do not have the resources or depth of expertise to get the best possible results.

Ralph Van Dijk, director and one of the founders of radio specialist Eardrum, takes a different approach to Radioville and works with agencies as well as directly with clients. He believes that agencies should not see radio specialists as a threat to their business; rather, the two should work together on the ads.

He says: “It works best when the agency is involved in the whole process, even if we are only writing the script. The agency ends up looking good and the clients are happy because they receive excellent radio advertising.”

Van Dijk admits that if a client or agency hasn’t used a radio specialist before, they may see the service as another layer in the creative process – and an additional expense.

He says: “We have to justify our service to the client. We offer added value before going into the studio, which saves time and money in the long run.”

Van Dijk previously worked as head of the now-defunct LBC’s internal advertising production unit for companies too small to hire their own agency. He set his sights on working for much bigger advertisers, and now numbers American Express, Barclays Bank and Coca-Cola among his biggest direct clients.

Van Dijk and Craig agree that because they concentrate solely on radio, and have done throughout their careers, they can offer clients the best service.

Craig says: “Don’t think of radio as lacking a dimension print and TV have. Radio is a lot closer to the people it talks to. It’s a one-to-one medium, it’s more personal. There should be an emotional connection with listeners. Too many radio ads are just silly sound effects and silly cartoon voices.

“We know how to direct actors and write scripts. If you want the assurance of working with someone who knows the medium of radio, go to a specialist.”

Agencies’ objections

Some in the agency world disagree sharply. “Rubbish,” responds Amanda Walsh, managing partner of advertising agency Walsh Trott Chick Smith, which has written some highly-praised radio ads for Channel 5. “I don’t think writing for radio is more of a creative challenge than writing for any other medium. Look at posters – they don’t have any sound. What you do need for radio, though, is good writers.”

She maintains that it is impossible to tell the difference between ads made by a specialist radio director and those made by an agency, and that the crucial factor in the studio is to have the right voices.

“In some big agencies there has traditionally been a hierarchy in which radio is seen as a third-class citizen. But it is down to the individual agency attitude,” she says.

A lack of strategic planning?

Another source suggests that compared with advertising agencies, radio specialists have their limitations. He says: “They are great at project work but they do not think strategically like agency planners or clients would. They won’t come up with the right advertising strategy.”

However, there have been concerns raised that advertising agencies are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit good writers suited to radio work because we live in such a TV-dominated culture, where everything is concentrated on the visual.

Walsh says that clients can achieve quite a large share of voice in radio. With Channel 5, which has a significantly lower marketing budget than Sky, ITV or the BBC, radio work was a clever way of dominating a single medium. It suited Channel 5’s image as the challenger brand that must get noticed.

She says: “The quality of radio ads has been quite poor. A good radio ad stands out because so many grate with the listener.”

Channel 5 marketing director Jim Hytner says: “Most radio advertising is incredibly formulaic. We have tried to break out of this approach by treating every subject or programme completely differently.”

He gives the example of a Channel 5 radio ad through Walsh Trott for a documentary on the Moors Murders, which featured the voice of one of the victims’ mothers. “It was not scripted, just incredibly emotional,” says Hytner. “It doesn’t make any difference whether you use an agency or a specialist, as long as you avoid the usual formula for radio ads.”

The rise of radio

The other boon for radio specialists in recent years has been the medium’s growing size and the increased interest shown in using it by advertisers and agencies.

Universal McCann head of radio Jason Gonsalves says: “Radio was stuck in a vicious circle – clients couldn’t think of any good advertising on the radio, so they were reluctant to use the medium. Economics dictates the creative agenda. As bigger advertisers spend more on radio, so they will put more effort into their creative product.”

According to the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), radio is the fastest-growing medium and its share of the advertising cake is nearing six per cent, compared with two per cent in 1990.

It has undergone major reorganisation, including the setting up of the RAB in 1992 as a focal point for marketing the effectiveness and creative opportunities of the medium.

Radio is now easier for media agencies to buy, particularly with more radio station owners taking their sales inhouse. Most importantly, there is more airtime because of the boom in the number of stations, thanks to the creation of new licences.

RAB press officer Lesley Tapper says that radio has benefited from a virtuous circle. “People are now more interested in radio because of the investment in researching radio advertising. There is more proof that it works, so advertisers are more confident in using it.” She also points out that with digital radio on its way, and innovations such as radio broadcasts over the Internet, the medium has a very positive future.

This can only mean that the future looks bright for the radio specialists too.

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