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Radio And The Creative Abyss

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By The Drum, Editorial

October 19, 2011 | 6 min read

John Mountford managing director of JMS Group offers his damning verdict on the quality of radio advertising creative at the moment and why.

I can’t hold this in any longer. Radio’s creative standards have been sabotaged … by radio itself.

Some time ago I was lectured by a snotty-nosed young chap about the value of ‘great creative’ in radio. Totally oblivious to the fact that I had been creating radio commercials whilst he was still creating nappy-fillings, he expounded the ability of effective commercials to stimulate repeat business, the contribution great ads make to the overall sound of a station, and how essential it was to him, and his sales team, (for yes, he was a ‘Sales Manager’) to have “brilliant-sounding, Award-winning productions”.

I could have no quibble with any of this – I might have told it to him myself, if he’d allowed me to say anything. But he steamrollered-on, and reached, dear reader, the crux of the matter. He would purchase commercial productions from JMS provided we could give him this cutting-edge, exciting, loyalty-provoking, award-winning originality, ‘for no more than thirty quid an ad’. I left swiftly, with his final words (for that was what he said they would be) ringing in my ears. ‘And if you won’t do it at that price I know loads of producers who will’. It is to radio’s eternal shame that he did indeed find someone who would. I believe this nurk is still in the radio industry. I may give you his name later.

When the judges at Cannes and other major radio festivals bemoan the ‘declining standards of radio creativity’ and refuse (as they did this year and last) to make an award, my thoughts return to this clown. Because (and this is the ‘Emperor’s clothes’ moment), I believe the progressive devaluation of radio creativity is in great part down to the radio industry itself. Whereas it should be actively encouraging creativity, its own systems run directly counter to this. As a result most stations run achingly dull, formulaic and uninspired commercials, not good for the advertiser or the listener. And which major advertiser would welcome his commercial, however good, sitting alongside such a barrage of ham-acting, feeble gags and shouted telephone numbers? And in the light of this, which top advertising agency would demoralise its highest-flying talent in their formative years by condemning them to specialise only in radio commercials?

In today’s cash-strapped, fragmented advertising market, many radio group financial directors must surely assess their commercial breaks not on their effectiveness and quality but on their cheapness to produce. A felony compounded by the increasing tendency to allow salespeople to ‘throw-in commercial production for free’ as a final salesman’s sweetener.

When JMS opened for business our arrangement with radio stations was as follows. We would write and produce the commercial, pay everybody involved, add a small profit, and deliver it to the station. The price the station then sold it for would include a small commission for the Station and the Sales Executive (typically 15% as I recall). TV’s ‘Agency rate’ for airtime still operates in a comparable way.

At some point, radio stations overturned this workable, equitable model which respected the creators of the recorded work as much as it recognised the efforts of the salespeople and, in the manner in which supermarkets allegedly crucify their milk producers, stations opted to add enormous profit margins instead. Not only that, but most decided to incentivise Sales Executives not on the commercial productions they sold, but solely on the airtime. So the cost of each additional voice or sound effect in a production took away budget which could have been spent on airtime – reducing the Execs commission. Where this persists, it’s common to hear loads of uninspired single voice commercials on air. No, really?

But it didn’t stop there. Even though there are now enlightened stations which pay Execs a commission on the entire package, production included, the margins they’re adding to production have risen inexorably higher. In these cases it’s often the client who opts to invest less in production, because in tough times, a client will prefer greater exposure rather than a slicker production. And as it no longer makes a difference to the Salesperson’s commission one way or the other, once again it leads to a greater preponderance of the simple ‘classified-ad’ style of delivery. In fear of losing a client the Salesperson wants to seal the deal now, pronto, no time for development or creative ideas, just get something on air right away! Forgive me Sale Teams, this isn’t a rant about you, it’s a statement of today’s reality.

There are now radio operators (OK I’ve decided not to give names, even though I’m burning to do so) who are charging not twice, not three times, but four, five, even SIX or more times the rate we are supplying commercials to them. So the client who spends many hundreds of pounds on his production is perfectly justified in wondering why he’s getting something so mundane in return. It would come as quite a revelation to learn that whilst he’s spending hundreds of pounds on a production, the ad he hears may have cost only tens of pounds to create. And the sound of the production inevitably reflects that. To compound the problem, having spent so much he doesn’t want/can’t afford to spend more on improving the creative – and who would blame him?

But it is one final twist which has prompted me to write this. A well established radio client recently announced to JMS it wants commercial productions supplied at 25% below our lowest rate. (Our lowest rate, by the way, is actively subsidised by the rest of the business – at this rate every commercial loses us money).

The message concluded with a phrase I dimly recall having heard somewhere before…. If we’re not able to do this, they already know someone else who will.

Radio Creative Awards at Cannes? Don’t make me laugh.

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