Radio Advertising, using Audible images – Play it again Gav

There he is, same gravely voice, same jokes, same ‘I know what I’m doing, I’m a radio star’, that I’ve been listening to since I was a teenager. Which is a frickin long time, let me tell you. And there I go again, hitting ‘roam/seek’ on the car radio, desperately trying to avoid him. To find something different and interesting.

I’ve just got this new car. A once in a decade experience for me. During the process, which was dragged out more than John Howard’s Prime Ministership, I was given a loan car for a month. Unfortunately the mechanics who provided the loan car, and then the new car, both times felt I needed to listen to the music they listen to. And as it’s got computer everything, I can’t yet work out how to change the settings on the car radio, (which is a screen with orange letters and a ‘menu’) so I’m still stuck with the stations they chose.

For over a month I’ve been listening to stuff I wouldn’t normally listen to. A learning experience you think? Good for my soul? I’ve been to each and every station they programmed in for hours at a time. I’ve learnt only one thing. That as much as the radio industry harps on about being fresh and doing new and exciting things, it’s all the damn same.

The radio man culture has soaked through the radio carpet like spilled cheap red wine, giving everything a tatty brown hue and a sweet, smelly old man alcoholic vibe. This happens when people appoint from within any industry and only swap jobs in that industry, because you need ‘relevant experience’ – much like adland. In adland, when they’ve worked at Clemengers, Patts and Mojo, and all their cohorts have worked at the same places, they are indoctrinated with ‘adland’ culture –  they don’t learn from other industries and the whole business itself becomes dry and lacks innovation.

Now I don’t blame radio technology. I understand you can only have so many stations on the AM and FM bands and each little slice of the airwave pie is worth X millions for its potential audience. It’s what they send down the airwaves that depresses me. I challenge you to define the difference between FOX, MMM, NOVA, MIX and their numerous equivalents across the country. Just as there’s no psychological difference between the letters 4KQ, 4BH, 4BC and 4RN, there’s bugger all difference between their formats and their whole marketing act. And a marketing act is all it is.

Far be it for a writer in the esteemed Marketing Magazine to bag marketing, but as any Jesuit Priest or Tibetan Monk will tell you, marketing is all just bullshit unless you have reasonable differences in other aspects of the product offered. If it’s just spin, it’s just bunkem. The radio stations all do live crosses. They all do cash offers to ring. They all have people who are funny with working class accents on their breakfast shows. They all have reps with deep voices who are paid on commission with last year’s haircut and they all talk abut their ‘market research’ and their ‘stars’ like they believe it.

And they all sound the same. I’d rather listen to one of the public stations jabbering on in Somalian or whatever it is for a minute or so, because when they do play music, it’s bloody sensational.

To put it into a harsher perspective, none of the kids in my office listen to radio unless forced to. (And they buy radio spots, remember.) They and their mates all laugh about Australian radio. They laugh about the people on the stations, the ads and the suburban, goody-two-shoes values of the ‘stars’. They laugh about how bad the music is. They download music from God-knows-where, play it loud in the creative department and it’s nothing like what I’ve been listening to for over a month.

Radio stations are out of touch in many different aspects of their operation. They are followers of culture, not leaders. They are dragging their whole industry down the gurgler. No wonder we and the rest of the marketing community in OZ would rather put money into fridge magnets or web banners in Sweden than give them buys. Their product is shit. Wall to wall clichés with a yawn on top. If an industry does not re-invent itself, it goes the way of the railways – once the world’s key transport industry, now just shunting coal and taking snotty kids to school.

Radio promises several fantastic elements to professional marketers – closeness to retail action. (you hit them in the car – while on the way to shopping). Cheap production (you can do lots of ads for a few thousand) speed of delivery (you can literally get an ad to air in minutes), well-sliced segmentation (you can POTENTIALLY hit different psychological /demographic groups with different messages at different times) you can buy nationally without too much mucking around and you can work in closely with the medium to underscore your relationship with the station they feel loyal to – bonding with the audience, via live crosses, contests, sponsorships, web links etc. And you can get high rates of frequency relatively cost effectively.

But does it deliver? They bleat about variety, about cutting edge, about driving the music industry and they fall short on most of them. They are instead run by the major record companies and the major media houses like Seven or Nine for the benefit of their collective businesses, not the good of our people.

Which is not to say I don’t like using radio. Radio is a tool like any other in our marketer’s media tool box. It’s just that it’s rusty and smells and I’d like to buy a new one at Bunnings if I could.

I blame old, lazy management, entrenched, out of date selling systems, and a lack of respect for marketing itself. Their marketing departments are only there to serve the sales department. They have absolutely no impact on the product offering, or any training in marketing. Have any of them had experience in the marketing department of major companies? Do any of them have marketing qualifications? Do any of them conduct real, accurate, objective research studies on brand personality or strategic options for growth for their media or heaven forbid, their clients?

Why do I care?

Because it’s one aspect of the media which should reflect Australian society. Because we actually hear our own people talking to us – but it could be done so much better. It could really be a mirror to us as a people – giving hope to those of us who think we’re already just another state of Bushed America.

One stand-out exception is the western suburb late night show on Nova in Melbourne, with the Lebbo live crosses. The accents are almost spot on, the burn-outs sound real. I can smell the souvs and the hair gel.

I also like almost anything on News Radio, and Macca on a Sunday morning, which reminds me there is still out there an Australia, with real Australians in it. Even the sport on 774 is done with better humour and more dignity. What would a Sunday afternoon at the beach be like without Cricket on the ABC? And I’m not alone. The top 10% by influence and income in this country almost exclusively listen to ABC stations, but as we can’t buy spots, it seems pointless dwelling on them, the AB demographic.

Commercial radio can influence our lives, help us understand the world around us and, what we’re here to do, can help good marketers manipulate the hell out of their target markets. But that’s what it could do. Not what it does most of the time. All I see it doing is selling airtime at discounted rates, hoping to make its monthly sales budget, before the accountants pull the pin and put another light-brained, over-tired sales person into the position of manager.

Do we buy it?

Of course. Like we buy bread and water. Given that we do all buy radio airwaves, the question is, how to?

It’s about time

Radio airtime is gone in a jack flash. It’s worth zip after it’s gone, so they will discount to move spots that are not sold. If they know you’re good for a few spots when the chips are down, but only at a price, you’ll get the calls and get cheap spots.

Negotiate Contracts

Radio reps are happier with certainty and will discount to buggery and thus lose profits for their owners, just for some guaranteed sales. This is a beautiful thing to keep in mind. I have clients who consistently buy at levels that are fractions of published prices.

Buy packages

The thinly spread ‘brand-builder’ packages are in themselves, too light to do anybody any good, but if you buy a few of them, knowing you’ll need spots later in the year, they are often very cheap airtime.

Bonuses versus value

Oh please, they don’t discount prices, but just give us bonuses? I ask you, is it just cynical me, or is it a paper thin charade?

Buy across the franchise

The stations all have their little franchise in each city – a red-neck talk-back, a MIX/variety, a GOLDen hits, a geriatric soft music. If you buy across the group, you can get better rates and you don’t have to change your creative to fit the various formats, like you’d probably want to if you had bought into a Talk-Back chain and a couple of 20-30 year old hits stations.

Buy a variety of lengths

The reason you are always being sold 30 second ads is, as I’ve mentioned before, because the radio industry is still living in the dark ages and are as flexible as a steel RSJ. (Which is what you build bridges out of.) So almost all ads are 30 seconds, cause hey, that’s what they sell. If you insist, and I do mean jump up and down, ring the sales manager and call his mother nasty names, they’ll run 45’s or 60’s or even 120 seconders. Given OK creative, because you’ve got the audience for a tad longer, they are extremely effective.

Buy drive

All cars have radios and most people listen to one station or another when they drive, if they don’t have their i-pods on or are on the phone. I have to imagine, dare I, that the main political lobbyists for ‘safety’ on roads by not allowing car phone use, is the radio stations, who see their audience declining and thus see revenue following suit. Fact is, best time to buy radio is when most people are listening (economies of scale) so morning or evening, Drive it is.

Buy lunch

Lunch is drive in the middle of the day. People going to get lunch, drive there. People in factory cafés listen to the radio.

Buy off-peak

But only if it is incredibly cheap. Say if prime drive is normally worth $500 a spot, off peak on the same station’s probably worth about $50, if you’re getting a good deal.

Avoid Loyalty

Radio stations enjoy loyalty from listeners. You are a MMM girl (God help you) or a JJJ girl (you’ve got some taste, all be it for the strange). Each station might only get 8% of the total listeners in that demographic. By definition this means if your buy is only one or two stations, you only hit a tiny percentage of your potential market, the 8%, possibly too often. You’re better to spread your buy across several stations fairly regularly to really work a market. For women, 30-50, say 2-3 weeks on Mix, 2-3 weeks on Gold, 2-3 weeks on MMM, 2-3 weeks on MP, same on AW, back to Mix etc.

Buy less frequency/more frequency

Than what they want to sell you. Radio stations will often over-sell a bunny client (lots of off-peak time – the few who do listen at that time will be bored to death). Conversely, they will also sell a client a hopelessly weak campaign laughingly referred to as a ‘brand builder’ because that’s exactly what it doesn’t do (as the Dromana Council re-named Shark Bay as Safety Beach in the 1930’s). An ad once every few days will do absolutely nothing for any brand.

Buy tops and tails

Like with TV, the most effective ads are at the start and end of breaks. It’s best to buy both, guaranteeing a much more powerful frequency effect. But best with a ten second tail that just repeats the main message and the phone number or locations etc. – especially after the news bulletin.

How many ads a week?

A good balance is the classic 30 x 30 seconders a week, if you’re running across a wide range of time slots. If you’re just buying drive, say 20 spots a week, two in the morning and two in the afternoon 5 days a week, will usually work very well.

For retail, know when your customers are more likely to buy then buy in those and the previous two to three days only.

What should those ads be like? – Creative

Radio ads work in the theatre of the mind. If you can paint a picture of a situation or have them see your spokesperson, in their mind’s eye, chatting to them like a friend, then you have their attention.

Never use ‘radio’ voices

You must have your ads sound unlike other ads. If you are sound wallpaper, you’re wasting much of your media dollar because the punters won’t take it in.

Don’t have them write/produce stuff

I’m not saying they do a bad job on purpose, that would be assuming they knew the difference. Their writers and producers try to do an OK job, but if you make 50 ads a day, how good can the 47th be? Radio ads made by the stations are thus like a production line of brown cardboard boxes, one after the other is made exactly the same, and it often goes out of the factory never to be heard from again.

Be funny

Radio is a media that you turn on for two reasons, you need information – ie. the weather. Or you need entertainment/company. Be the amusement and they’ll love you. Be serious and they’ll hate you. Unless you’re very serious and it’s bloody important and you’re doing something about it.

Innuendos and metaphors are great way to be different; a nice play on words will go a long way. Make it sexy, make it funny, make it nasty, but please…most of all…make it different.

Build a brand

Be consistent with your voices and your music bed, if you can. Or at least your scenarios should be of the same ilk. Ensure your key messages are maintained. If you’re unsure they’re getting it, do some research on the messages – almost no-one does focus groups on radio, which is plain weird. Shopping centre studies are good too. You can get them to sit down, have a cup of tea and listen to 2-3 ads in a couple of minutes and get 00’s of people’s comments in a day or so. Adding statistical certainty for similar time/money, compared to a couple of focus groups.

Build up a story

The best brands grow like trees with branches of personality not all going in the same direction. A series of ads should create a depth of brand personality. Telstra is doing this very well at the moment with Bigpond’s ‘Dad and Kid about the Great China Wall’ story. But I’m not sure if they’re carrying that TV campaign through to radio.

The boring bits

Always work out a plan in advance and keep to it. (Radio reps smell a dollar and think it’s 50.) Always mention the phone number more than once. Always use your tagline or a twist on it. Always buy drive or lunch. Work with the stations on connected promos.

I’ve been a bit nasty above, and I’m sure there’s lots of good people in radio land, but after 20 years of buying radio regularly for clients, from commercial stations and public broadcasters, having conducted hundreds of campaigns on radio, I’m left with an overwhelming sense of depression about the lack of movement in the industry and a distrust of management except with Andrew Baxter of SEN, and Kylie Sarrinsen of AW.

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