Once dubbed as the Cinderella of media, radio advertising has seen events move in its favour. The challenge now is for radio advertisers to produce decent publicity, says Dominic Mills
Back in the 1980s, a group called The Buggles had a huge hit with a song called Video Killed the Radio Star. But here we are in the 1990s and radio is alive and well, while The Buggles have not been heard of since. Indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of modern media that the more people talk about new media - and they do, waxing lyrical about everything from digital TV to the Internet - the more the old media, particularly posters and radio, prosper.
Over the five years to end-1996, total display revenue on outdoor poster advertising grew by nearly 60%. This is impressive in itself, but nothing compared to the growth in radio advertising. Over the same period, display revenue grew by 140% - a phenomenal achievement (even if from a low base).
Radio has long been dubbed the Cinderella of media. It has been dismissed as a '2% medium' (it was common practice for those advertisers who used it to chuck 2% of their budgets into radio). But now this figure is close on 5%.
Some of the country's most dedicated TV and poster advertisers have switched money into the medium. Led by an award-winning Army recruitment campaign, the Central Office of Information is now radio's biggest advertiser - spending £8.7 million in 1996, an increase of 145% on a year earlier.
Other blue-chip clients like Coca-Cola, Ford, Vauxhall and McDonald's have also switched money out of TV and into radio.
Events have been certainly moving in favour of radio advertising. First, the launch of national stations from Classic through to Virgin and now Talk Radio turned commercial radio from a local medium into a national one. For advertisers, it became an easy buy. At a stroke, an advertiser wishing to reach a national audience could do so with one phone call.
In the bad old days, this could have taken weeks of planning or a dozen phone calls.
Second, the early '90s saw commercial radio invaded by a clutch of talented managers who spoke the same language as media buyers and advertisers.
Richard Eyre, chief executive of Capital Radio, was one of the first.
Eyre was a former TV airtime sales executive and latterly head of media at the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty.
Third, for many clients, radio was pushing at an open door. With budgets squeezed by the recession, at a time of ongoing inflation in the price of TV airtime, they were desperate for a low-cost alternative that could reach large audiences.
The radio industry's decision, in 1992, to set up a generic marketing arm, the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) was another significant move. Led by a former Procter & Gamble marketing director, Douglas McArthur, the evangelical 'Rabbers' grabbed the agency and client communities by the throat and, even today, haven't let go. 'It was - and still is - all about educating people,' says McArthur. 'But our great strength was that we weren't selling one station or another, only the medium itself.'
Time and time again the RAB produced evidence to show that the medium promoted a deeper relationship between advertisers and listeners. In one study, known as the ironing-board test, the RAB hired a group of housewives on the pretext of researching a new starch. The housewives were left on their own with a pile of ironing, a radio and the 'dummy' starch. Thirty minutes later, a researcher, after a few questions about the starch, asked them about the ads they'd heard on the radio. The housewives' answers demonstrated high levels of recall, proving that even as a background medium, radio's intimacy means advertising can penetrate listener inattention.
Nonetheless, as McArthur admits, radio still has more hurdles to climb.
Of these, the highest is the quality of advertising itself. 'To get to the next plateau, we've got to tackle creativity,' says McArthur. 'We've got to make them raise the game. It's a big mountain to climb.' Indeed it is. There is widespread agreement that, with a few exceptions like the Army, Tango and Wella, the standard is awful. Richard Kilgarriff, former producer of the Russ and Jono Breakfast Show on Virgin, characterises it as one posh/camp/ mad voice exchanging a phone number with working class/straight/sane voice. 'You're always left,' he says, 'with one picture painted in the mind: crap'.
Like many, Tim Mellors, creative director of the advertising agency, Mellors Reay, believes that with an intimate and one-to-one medium like radio, writers have to use words to create a picture in the listener's mind. Done well, it is extraordinarily powerful. The answer, Mellors believes, lies in getting creatives to take the medium more seriously - and that means learning the script-writing and timing abilities of stand-up comics, many of whom started in radio with the BBC. This process is already under way through a series of workshops organised by the RAB.
The irony is that it is BBC-trained comics, writers and producers who in the end may do the most to further the ambitions of commercial radio.