Why radio is the place for daring ad campaigns

Forget the clichéabout radio being the underdog medium for advertising. With radio, advertisers can take more risks to build a better brand, says Hugh Dennis

Last week I was chairing the Radio Advertising Bureau’s 1999 advertiser conference. Now why, you may well ask, would someone like me be asked to chair a conference for 600 advertisers? There is usually some comedian chairing conferences, but that’s not the point.

As some of you may know, I used to be a Unilever brand manager working for Elida Fabergé – where, having trained on toothpastes and shampoos (Signal, Mentadent and Timotei), I ended up in charge of Denim (rather embarrassing) and Lynx Deodorant Body Spray for men (rather less embarrassing).

So I’ve seen the business from both sides – as the client which commissioned the ads and as the actor asked to make the ad come alive.

When I was a marketer, we didn’t think about using radio (let’s face it, no exotic foreign location shoots, and you can’t boast at dinner parties about your radio campaign the way you can about the big shiny TV campaigns). Radio doesn’t seem to do big and shiny.

I know the facts have changed a lot since I was in marketing. The radio audience has grown, there are lots more stations and listeners (as the Radio Advertising Bureau keeps telling us), and the ad business no longer views 800 TV ratings as a “banker” advertising strategy.

I think radio is better understood these days, too. It used to be shorthand for “cheap TV without the pictures”. Now we realise that the way it speaks to people is very different from TV.

We also know a bit more about how radio works. It is amazing the way your ear zooms in on ads which are involving or surprising. In my marketing days I wish I had known about “sonic brand triggers”, a sound which listeners immediately associate with your brand (please don’t call them jingles). They seem like a truly subliminal form of advertising.

But some sectors, including packaged goods, have still been slow to take up radio, and I think it’s to do with creative confidence. This is partly because writers find radio a challenging medium but it’s also because as clients we find it hard to know what makes a good radio script.

So here’s my ten bob’s worth: I think we should do away with the scripts as far as we can, and insist on listening to the creative proposals. Scripts are made of written words which we find tempting to tinker with as clients. But it’s only when you hear the audio that you begin to understand how the idea makes you respond inside your head.

Radio ads are cheap to make (trust me, I act in them). You can afford to take some risks. And maybe that’s the most important point. Brand management is all about trying to make a difference, but no one wants to expose themselves to huge risks.

I think radio is a great place to take those risks. You can try things on a localised basis. You can go in at a heavyweight level to make things happen, shift some boxes. If it’s not quite right first time, you can change it.

Hugh Dennis is now an actor and writer

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