People do not listen to radio ads, they listen to what interests them… sometimes it’s a radio ad

In my last column I referred to Julia Raphaely’s comment on how much magazines in South Africa have suffered without an industry body. In the UK, for example, Magnetic extols the benefits of magazines to marketing and communication professionals while on the broadcasting front, Thinkbox promotes the case for commercial TV and RadioCentre champions radio.

In our small market, no medium enjoys the luxury of a dedicated marketing body; individual media owners seldom have the resources to extend themselves beyond the immediate task of promoting their own brands.

Recently commercial radio has enjoyed the benefit of two such initiatives. Primedia Broadcasting brought Steve Taylor of Bauer Media UK to our shores to demonstrate how radio can be used to engage consumers. In a serendipitously complementary initiative, last week Mediamark hosted Ralph van Dijk (below), founder of Eardrum, “the most successful radio and audio agency in the world” to talk about The Sound of Radical Thinking. His main focus was how to get the very best out of spot or commercial advertising, which still represents the lion’s share of radio revenue both locally and internationally.

Van Dijk’s very evident love of audio has made him a passionate hater of bad audio ads and with good reason: if a radio campaign doesn’t work, marketers don’t blame the creative work, they blame the medium. That is a concerning observation, if one thinks about the somewhat lacklustre state of audio creativity locally. For every Cannes Grand Prix winning Carling Black Label Soccer Song for Change (an anti-abuse against women initiative from Ab-InBev Africa), there are a slew of unmemorable commercials. As van Dijk accurately points out, “people do not listen to radio ads, they listen to what interests them… sometimes it’s a radio ad”.

There is a strong body of evidence to prove that improved creativity makes advertising more effective, and van Dijk’s mission was to provide a sense of what is possible in the incredibly elastic medium of radio, and to share some invaluable pointers to achieving audio effectiveness.

Naturally the starting point was the brief because, simply put, “great ideas need a great brief”. He used a series of commercials for Geeks2U to demonstrate how failing to define the brief upfront can lead to unanchored creativity and ineffective advertising. The first commercials he played were produced by an agency before Eardrum took on the business.

Relevant cleverness

In one example, the commercial was essentially a celebration of ‘geekiness’ – mildly amusing perhaps but with no discernible mention of why the consumer might ever need a ‘geek’. Another was a lengthy demonstration of the miserableness of having a slow computer. The Eardrum iteration got memorably to the point that “they might be Geeks2U but a saviour to me”. The difference was that the communication was not focused on the customer, but rather on what the business did, and, moreover, provided the solution, rather than dwelling on the problem.

Van Dijk stressed that the Eardrum mantra is “relevant cleverness”: only if the communication addresses the consumer’s need will it be effective. He pointed out that the typical creative brief is advertiser focused, addressing such questions as: what are you advertising? What do you want to say about it? Who is your target market? How is your product unique? What image are you trying to create? Invariably that leads to bland marketing speak and fails to capture any benefit for the consumer.

He argued that the brief should be turned on its head to be resolutely customer focused. What the Eardrum creative team needs to know are: what is the objective of the campaign: is it branding or a call to action?) Who are we talking to? What’s their problem or need? What’s the one thing you want to tell them? If the objective is branding, then why should they believe you and how should they feel? If the objective is a call to action, then the next question should be why should they act now?

Read more: Branded content across the airwaves

Even then he advised against starting to write the commercial: instead he called for turning the brief into a “one-line radio brief”, distilling the one thing that needs to be conveyed. “The one thing that creatives want from a brief… is one thing” he advised, adding that if you have more than one message, make more than one ad.

He showed how this one-line brief is an effective springboard for creativity. In the case of Ikea, the distillation was “you’ll need a sofa bed. They’re cheap”. That inspired a string of brilliantly engaging and amusing commercials based on the unthinking remarks hapless husbands inadvertently make, which lead to their banishment from the marital bed. For RAC batteries, it was “we’re the only people to call” and again a range of commercials centred on the awkwardness of family and friends being reluctant to come to the aid of people with flat batteries – amusingly resonant.

Achilles heel of local radio

Emotionally devastating commercials spoke to the helplessness of people without first aid knowledge faced with crisis moments with their loved one. “Don’t wait for an emergency to learn first aid” was the one liner for the St John Ambulance campaign that was so effective, it had to be paused to allow the organisation to handle the response. As he clearly showed “vague statements = vague responses”: it is imperative to leave the listener with one single-minded message.

From the scriptwriting perspective his advice was to “underwrite … and then cut back” in order to make room for the actual idea.

On the subject of voice casting his suggestions were indeed radical: “cast actors not voiceover professionals. An accomplished mimic and audio performer Van Dijk treated the audience an impeccable rendition of the smooth and ineffably bland professional radio voice. It was highly recognisable and its inauthenticity a virtual guarantee that listeners would screen it out. His point was that voiceover artists just make words audible, but actors bring words to life. In fact, he even played examples of ordinary folk who gave incredible believable and affecting performances in commercials. The realness was completely arresting!

In line with this he also argued that in voice directing “the power lies between the words”: it is the little hesitation, the half-caught breath that make the moment resonate with the listener.

He had other suggestions for radical disruption outside of the commercial format, but for me the stand-out of the evening was how to get the brief right and to get to that one liner. If all radio advertisers could start there, then the standard of radio work would improve immeasurably. Mediamark should be applauded for addressing this Achille’s heel of local radio.