Hiding on a squash court

The theatre of the mind... painting a picture in the mind's eye... tapping the aural imagination... the sounds of silence... less is more....
When it comes to understanding how to write effective ads for radio, creatives will bandy about such resonant phrases like talismans. They'll tell you that, like any other form of advertising, creating a strong, simple idea is the key to exploiting the power of the radio medium. Beyond that, they agree, there's only one rule: there are no rules. And if there are, they're made to be broken.

The theatre of the mind… painting a picture in the mind’s eye… tapping the aural imagination… the sounds of silence… less is more….

When it comes to understanding how to write effective ads for radio, creatives will bandy about such resonant phrases like talismans. They’ll tell you that, like any other form of advertising, creating a strong, simple idea is the key to exploiting the power of the radio medium. Beyond that, they agree, there’s only one rule: there are no rules. And if there are, they’re made to be broken.

‘Writers tend to be afraid of radio,’ admits Terry O’Reilly, partner, director and writer at Toronto-based Pirate Radio and Television. ‘Radio doesn’t have the arsenal of other media – camera techniques, wardrobe, scenery, fast-editing. In radio, you’re stark naked. To quote my colleague Angus Tucker: ‘It’s like trying to hide on a squash court.”

But in the end, O’Reilly believes radio offers more, not less, to work with creatively.

‘You don’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish sets or traveling to distant locales,’ he says. ‘If you write the ad correctly, the listener becomes your art director. If the ad is about a beautiful ship cruising across a Norwegian fjord, then the listener will imagine the most beautiful ship cruising across the most beautiful Norwegian fjord. The budget is being spent in the listener’s mind. In radio, you can travel anywhere in the world, or even the solar system. For me, as a writer, that’s incredibly freeing.’

O’Reilly likes to limit 30-second spots to 75 words to allow room for ad libbing. ‘The best moments are usually not written. You let the actors bring their own brilliance to the spot. With 85 words, it’s a tight fit, and with 95 you’re in trouble.’

Then again, such rules are made to be broken: witness the well-known FedEx spot where the actor tore through a manic, word-infested monologue.

O’Reilly says many ads fail to be ambitious in the creative use of sound. He cites ‘Fang,’ a 10-year-old spot for Reader’s Digest which used dramatic sounds of a military attack and withdrawal. Then the voice-over: ‘Inside the mind of a rattle snake: this month in Reader’s Digest.’

‘Reader’s Digest was only mentioned once, at the end of the ad, but I’ve never forgotten it,’ he says. ‘It’s true that you may not remember the product after the first listen, but typically you may hear an ad 20 times over six weeks. If the spot is well-written, the product’s name will sink in.’

Humour works well on radio, O’Reilly believes, partly because of the nature of the medium itself. The announcers are up most of the time, riding a steady buzz of optimism.

Pirate recently used humour to create the most successful radio campaign ever for The Toronto Symphony Orchestra – ‘I’m Afraid of the TSO.’

Because of declining subscriptions among its aging audience, the TSO needed to attract a younger crowd to replenish its market. Research showed that young adults loved classical music, but they were leery of seeing it live because of fears of what to wear, when to applaud, etc.

Pirate decided to have fun at the expense of the TSO’s stuffy image. In the spot, one young voice confesses: ‘I once held up my lighter for an encore – that was wrong in hindsight.’ The ad ends: ‘The TSO – you should only be afraid you’ll miss it.’ The response was overwhelming, including a huge bump in ticket sales on-line and the attraction of local TV coverage by CBC and CFTO.

The initial brief was quite conventional. Then the TSO’s director of marketing, Michael Buckland, told O’Reilly: ‘I expect you to scare us.’

‘That really surprised us,’ recalls O’Reilly. ‘The TSO took a calculated risk and it paid off. By going with the spot, they showed they weren’t afraid of being a little unconventional.’

Hayes Steinberg, a copywriter with Toronto-based Ammirati Puris, also believes humour is the best tool to create breakthrough radio ads.

Along with art director Craig Brownrigg, Steinberg inherited the Labatt Breweries ‘Out of the Blue’ campaign, originated by Lorraine Tao and Elspeth Lynn (now both at Toronto’s Zig), in which a regular character, Cameron, a wild and crazy sports superfan, makes a series of prank phone calls ‘Out of the Blue.’ A winner of Marketing and Crystal awards, the campaign has built a cult following among its 18-to-25 demographic.

‘A good idea can go on forever,’ says Steinberg. ‘The true test of a great ad is that a new creative team can pick it up and run with it.’

In general, radio writing has to be compelling, he adds: ‘There’s so much crap out there. Radio is the most background/wallpaper medium there is. You can’t assume your listener is paying attention in a cab or the dentist’s office. You have to grab listeners early so they’ll follow through to the end of the ad. Radio appeals to one sense only, yet at its best it evokes that intangible, theatre-of-the-mind quality.’

David Crichton, partner and creative director at Toronto-based agency The Crichton Kim-Kirkland Company, says that because of the absence of visual support on radio, building on a key insight into the product is vital.

For Caffrey’s Irish Ale, Crichton played on the insight that on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone thinks they’re Irish. In three separate spots, a German, Frenchman and a Jamaican, each sporting a thick accent, talk about chasing leprechauns and four-leaf clovers in their beloved Ireland. The humour came directly out of the insight.

‘The tendency in radio is to over-produce with a rich tapestry of sound effects and music,’ notes Crichton. ‘Much of the time, you don’t need it. A single sound effect can often carry a single idea: one drop of water is often preferable to a waterfall. The mind fills in the rest.’

And then there’s the issue of


‘Branding is a worry in any form of advertising,’ says Crichton. ‘In radio, mnemonic devices can be effective, like the signature sound for the Pentium Processor. But I don’t think it’s imperative to mention the product in the first five seconds. The whole spot will draw attention to the product if it’s written well. The listener is pulled in, curious about what it is.’

Steinberg disagrees somewhat. ‘My fellow creatives will hate me for saying this,’ he says, ‘but I believe it’s important to get the branding in within the first few seconds, and then bring it back at the end. It will make it a better branded spot.’

David Chiavegato, associate creative director at the Toronto office of Palmer Jarvis DDB, says that if a radio ad is strategically sound, it doesn’t matter if the product name shows up early. ‘If you draw in the listener and engage them, it will be more powerful than an early mention of the brand name,’ he says. ‘Some of the best branded ads only mention the name of the brand once. Conversely, you can mention the name eight times in 60 seconds and the ad is a bust because the repetition turns off the listener.’

Chiavegato says it’s important to avoid the typical radio brief’s ‘laundry list of executional mandatories.’

‘Radio is often treated like direct marketing or junk mail, listing a number of exclamation points or bullets rather than a strong concept,’ he says. ‘Too many radio ads are jam-packed with copy, creating a wall of noise. You must really cut back hard on unnecessary information in the brief.’

With Rich Pryce-Jones, Chiavegato created a Bud Light spot which spoofed traditional jingles by using ‘Lithuania’s hottest singing sensation.’ The spot played on the idea that although Bud Light is brewed in Ontario, it enjoys a global presence as the world’s number-one-selling light beer; the only recognizable English words in the jingle were Ontario place names.

The agency cast an amateur singer, a Lithuanian school teacher living in Toronto, and the lyrics were translated into Lithuanian by Chiavegato’s mother.

‘Radio jingles were so pervasive in the 1970s and ’80s, yet they completely lacked irony,’ says Chiavegato. ‘We like to take the piss out of whole genres of advertising. So much radio is lackluster and clichéd. A lot of PSA ads can be very melodramatic.’

Pryce-Jones and Chiavegato also wrote 60-second spots for beer.com that used a serious announcer solemnly intoning about the unethical use of technology for cloning and the arms race. Then he suddenly reassures the audience that Bud’s technology would never be used for anything but promoting the joys of beer and babes.

‘We found an announcer who specialized in serious bank ads,’ explains Chiavegato. ‘Because he was a straight actor playing it straight, it heightened the absurdity. There was no ‘wink, wink’ telegraphing by a comedic actor. Sometimes you can be too subtle and inside. If we had used a comedic actor, we would have tipped our hand.’

Woody Allen once said that directing is 90% casting and most radio creatives couldn’t agree more.

Fast food, beer and car clients tend to eat up a large segment of the voice talent pool. Agencies are not allowed to use the same actor for competing products, so finding fresh voices, amateur and professional, is an ongoing challenge.

‘I spend most of my time on casting,’ says O’Reilly. ‘I’m the last guy in the movie theatre reading all the credits, looking for that one actor who read that one line that stood out. We’re always visiting comedy clubs and theatres looking for new talent.’

Pirate also hosts a regular ‘open mike’ night, asking agents to recommend new actors just starting their careers.

Crichton believes in using amateur talent as much as possible; sometimes he even reads the ads himself.

‘The Caffrey’s Irish Ale spot was cast with real people,’ he says. ‘The German guy lived across the street from the production house. We want people who will stand out. When I walk into a party, I’m always aware of ferreting out distinctive voices. Radio appeals to one sense only, so the voice is extremely important. I think there are far too many generic, over-used voices on radio. The announcer for Toronto.com, for example, has been over-exposed. He no longer stands out.’

The beauty of radio is that you can afford to experiment and ad lib because the budgets are low, adds Chiavegato. ‘The client in the studio may not be enthusiastic initially, but if you suggest trying something different, you’ve got nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Unlike TV, there’s a lot more flexibility.’

In the end, radio is the medium of simplicity, driven by good ideas, says O’Reilly.

‘A vapid TV spot can often compete with a great TV spot simply because it uses a lot of lush, eye-candy production values. But in radio, most spots are either great or terrible. There’s no middle ground.’

And if that sounds like a rule, then it’s just waiting to be broken, too.