During Saga Communications’ Q2 earnings call last month, ever-colorful President, CEO & Chairman Ed Christian drove home the importance of creative radio ads: “I’m a big believer in creative. It stimulates the mind and creates a brand and a call to action,” he said, as Inside Radio reported. “I challenge other broadcasters to listen to the quality and observe the quantity of poorly produced and non-productive creative that are running on radio stations. We are actually inviting our audience to leave.”

Fortunately, the industry at large is actively working to innovate effective messaging, with encouragement from the advertising agency side—as “audio” becomes the new catch phrase— alongside enduring support from the Radio Advertising Bureau.

So what defines an effective radio campaign? For one, it means approaching spots with fresh ears: “When I think about good radio advertising creative, it’s about making sure you connect, it’s approaching every project like it’s brand new. Don’t approach it in the same old way of making commercials,” Tony Mennuto, President, of Wordsworth & Booth, the division of ad agency Horizon Media, whose mission is to “rid the world of sucky audio creative,” tells Inside Radio (profiled HERE). “The biggest problem I see is stations approaching advertising from the same point of view they always have: ‘I have to make a spot, I don’t want to piss off the client.’ That’s going down a bad path already because you’re afraid to lose a sale. We’re hypnotized to do same thing over and over again… a radio spot sounds… like this.”

As an agency judge participating in the prestigious Radio Mercury Awards—which celebrates radio’s most creative—and a member of its Advisory Council, he laments with candor, “I’ve been in the business for a long time and it’s always the same… with a proportion of great commercials and awful commercials. It’s hard to do well, because it’s a weird medium. You’re driving your car and you know it’s a commercial block, so you’re listening with half an ear. Advertisers have a tough job. They’ve got to break through and grab that audience.”

But that of course doesn’t mean there aren’t creative solutions at the ready. Chris Smith, Brand Group Creative Head, at ad agency The Richards Group—and a member of the 2019 Radio Mercury Awards Final Round Judging Panel and Advisory Council (profiled HERE)—offers, “Everywhere you look, advertising is starting to look more like content. An ad should be relevant to me. When the song or the sports talk is over, talk to me like you understand why I’m listening to this station, why I’m here. Try to be surprising. Do something I don’t expect.”

Erica Farber, President and CEO of the Radio Advertising Bureau, offers her take on what makes for successful creative over the airwaves: “It sounds so simple, but I would define creativity as anything that works.” That can mean a relatively straightforward ad that accomplishes three things: tells a story, identifies the brand and issues a call to action… “a basic spot that’s clean, resonates creatively and simply, and says something that stays with you.”

On the same page, Rahul Sabnis, Executive VP and Chief Creative Officer of iHeartMedia’s in-house audio media agency TheStudio believes, “Successful creativity in audio is simple: Does it deliver the intended action or emotion? If it does, it works.” He then counts off three things radio can do to improve radio creative: “Just because it was done before, doesn’t mean we should keep doing it. Just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. And remember that today’s audio landscape has never existed. Fill the platform with fresh ideas.”

Sabnis further explains, “In many ways, creativity in audio is being re-invented in the context of advertising today. When you consider how conversational marketing has become and the number of platforms through which we can reach consumers, you have to bring more contextually aware and compelling messaging to breakthrough.” (Regarding TheStudio: “Our role is to ensure that our local stations have a centralized resource they can turn to, to craft professional work no matter where they are.”)

There’s certainly data to back the fact that radio creative matters. A Veritonic study of 164 finalists and award-winning radio ads from the Radio Mercury Awards, Cannes Lions and Clio Awards reveals that “high-quality audio creative significantly outperforms the average audio ad.” In association with Westwood One, the study showed that music, sonic identities and jingles “are major drivers of purchase intent” while also differentiating a brand.

Identifying best practices for successful radio spots is obviously a fundamental concern for the industry—per Saga’s Ed Christian mandate. The RAB, for one, offers members a wealth of tips and tools on its website, under the tab heading “Creative.” And Westwood One provides practical guidelines on its “Everyone’s Listening” blog: For example, use music for branding, which can trigger an emotional response through audible familiarity; create a sonic logo; utilize familiar on-air talent for voiceovers; and experiment with both male and female voices.”

Radio Mercury Awards

Providing the ultimate showcase for how to do it right is the annual Radio Mercury Awards. Mennuto stresses, “Other awards shows might have a radio category—but nobody else is doing this. We are in the midst of a real renaissance in terms of audio consumption, and with the additional role of smart speaker skills and podcasts, we own this.”

He adds, “You write a spot for a carpet company… about carpet fibers and a July 4th sale—and you figure out how to make someone pay attention, and smile and establish an emotional connection. And then you win a Mercury Award and you’re thrilled… about radio. That serves a huge purpose, that there is this carrot out there.”

Farber adds, “This is the one night a year that both the industry and creative sides of the business get together to celebrate great audio. You walk into agencies and their awards are on display in their lobbies; they’re proud of this. It means something to the creative community.”

She notes that the Radio Mercury Awards also serve as an effective testament that audio remains an essential media platform. “It’s one thing to talk about the attributes of why someone should be including radio and audio in their marketing, and at the same time, it’s so important to have a relationship with the people that are creating these audio messages to make sure that it’s top of mind. We know that many times it’s not a senior person doing that spot; it’s incumbent on the radio industry to make sure they recognize how important this is.”

As an RMA judge, Smith agrees that the awards are considered a significant achievement in the ad world. “There’s a nice chunk of money attached to it, which makes it relevant to young creatives—but it’s also still the gold standard. Half of the people in the audience are creatives in their turtlenecks and half are station and network guys in their suits, and they all truly pay attention to the work. I think this is where good creative starts.”

‘Reawakening Of Audio’

Aside from the lure of the awards, Sabnis points to the fact that radio is celebrating a renewed rally cry—igniting creativity within the ad community. “Audio is so hot right now and we’re in the midst of a writing renaissance. I’m seeing young creative minds excited about the opportunity to craft ideas that use the mind as a production engine,” he says. “It’s an intoxicating medium due to its purity and the speed of ideas, connecting author and listener almost one to one.”

Indeed, Smith agrees that there is a “major, real awakening of radio and audio and how effective it is in the advertising world.” One need look no further than Procter & Gamble, which has become a voracious radio user, nearly tripling its radio ad volume from first quarter to fourth quarter last year, according to Media Monitors. This year, it has commandeered as many as eight slots among the top 100 national advertisers in a given week, Inside Radio has reported. “P&G is being credited for rediscovering the wheel,” Smith says, “because they’re back in radio heavy. It’s working like crazy for them—and they know the creative has to be good.”

Mennuto stresses that creative is always going to be subjective. “I think of creative in two different camps. One is mechanical: How is a spot constructed and how does it function? And then there’s general creativity. But the goal of a spot is always going to be the same thing: recall, your attribution and your intent to purchase. We’re not in the business of just creating art and throwing it out there. It has to engage and people have to remember it and want to buy it.”

While “creative” should always be an end goal when concocting a radio spot, “it’s very hard to write a hit radio commercial,” he stresses. “There are things you have to say, parameters you’ve got to get in there somehow, and still get people to pay attention. I caution when people try to get too creative—to be crazy and outlandish.” Agreeing with Farber, he says: “Sometimes a simple hook is best.”

Mennuto refers to a radio spot that Wordsworth & Booth created for Burger King. “We had a great voice, great music and a nice little chunk of copy,” he says. “But it took four hours to make that commercial, to create some drama, work with exactly where to place the music, and improvise with the talent. In the end, it just made you smile and lean in. That was successful creative.”—Chuck Taylor