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Sun 27 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Has mediocrity killed the radio star?

Radio advertising in the Middle East comes under fire for its lack of creativity, but are copywriters or clients to blame? Iain Akerman asks how the medium can improve its share of marketing budgets

Has mediocrity killed the radio star?|~|mohandas200.jpg|~|‘In this part of the world you can’t be naughty either and being naughty often works’
Kamal Ani Mohandas, sales and marketing manager for Emirates Media’s Radio 1 and
Radio 2|~|Stuck in a traffic jam? Feeling suicidal? The chances are that if you turn on the radio at the wrong time you’ll make
matters worse. There’s nothing quite like a string of advertising jingles and mock conversations to push you over the edge.

The level of creativity in radio advertising in the Middle East can be described as poor at best and the medium is being hard pressed to justify its meagre slice of advertising spend.

According to estimates from the World Advertising Research Centre, in 2003 only 4.8% of total ad spend went on radio advertising in Lebanon. That figure falls to just 1% for the UAE and Kuwait, to 0.7% for Saudi Arabia and 0.3% for Jordan. With television taking 67.4% of ad spend in Lebanon and newspapers taking 59.3% in the UAE, it’s easy to see that radio is struggling against the tide, even if it has moved forward a little since WARC’s figures were compiled.

And radio advertising isn’t doing itself any favours.
Michael Fillon, a radio specialist and copywriter for Leo Burnett in Dubai, says: “If you listen to radio ads in this region it’s pretty much a good indication of the state of the industry. They are quite appalling.

“I’m not sure if that’s something you can blame on either the agency that made it or the client, but rather the whole mindset of everybody involved in communication. They think that for radio you don’t have to be creative, you have to be very simple or you just have to be very brochure-like and list every single word you want to say and maybe put a nice jingle at the end.

“I might be mistaken, but there may be one little secret studio or secret agency out there that is responsible for churning out the typical conversation between father and son, or wife and husband that are all about ‘hey, have you heard about the new service that this person is providing?’ ‘Oh, no, I haven’t but you will tell me about it won’t you.’ ‘Yes, I will’.”

Abraham Varughese, senior copywriter for TBWARaad in Dubai, agrees: “Radio advertising isn’t quite there yet,” he says. “I don’t think radio ads have creatively evolved as much as, let’s say, print or TV to a certain extent are doing now. There’s still a long way to go and most radio ads are promotion driven and seem to serve a purpose of selling something quickly. There’s nothing really memorable out there.”

For Najy Cherabieh, station director at Radio One Lebanon, creativity varies. “You’ve got, I would say, two kinds of standards,” he says.

“The problem is you have ads which are produced for a slightly lower budget and ads which are of international standard — ads which actually win awards and competitions.”

But the core of the problem may lie in the choice of radio as an advertising medium. Shehzad Yunus, creative director at TBWARaad, believes radio advertising is being used for the wrong reasons.

“All the boring information you don’t want to put in your press ad, such as 15 phone numbers, you put in radio advertising, and in the last five seconds of the ad you’ll have the voiceover going breathless trying to fit in as many numbers, offers or promotions as he can,” he says.

“That’s not the way that radio should be used. Humans don’t remember anything they hear in the last five seconds of an ad and it’s not as if the listener’s got a pen ready to take down the numbers.”

However, British radio DJ Johnny Vaughan, who was stranded in Dubai earlier this month when his child got chicken pox, couldn’t disagree more. He was forced to broadcast his show for London’s Capital FM — the UK’s most listened to commercial breakfast programme — from the Dubai Radio Network studios.
He accepts that radio advertising can be ‘cheesy’, but argues that this does not particularly matter.
“The thing about radio advertising is that even though it is sometimes cheesy and rubbish, it is so much more effective than television at getting basic messages across,” he told Campaign.

“People don’t flick around quite so much on radio. You’ll bear with a radio advertising break and you’ve got the ability to get information to people quicker, about something that is just happening that week.

“What is the function of an advert? To entertain? A bit. But it’s not really. It is a shop window for something. In a place like Dubai, where it is run on sales, this is a vital thing.”

For markets where independent radio is relatively new, the creative situation can be even worse. Not only is creativity virtually non-existent, media owners have the added challenge of having to introduce advertisers to a whole new medium. Such is the situation in Bahrain, where Sawt Al Ghad has just become the country’s first private radio station.

In Jordan, where the private radio sector is just 18 months old, Nadim Attieh, station director of Beat FM, is facing the challenges thrown up by a fledgling industry.

Attieh, who founded Jordan’s first independent radio station, Mood FM (a sister station to Beat FM) in June 2004, says: “The whole private radio sector is new in Jordan. Before there was only one radio station operated by the government and there was no radio advertising on it.

“So if you want to talk creativity, clients are not used to what’s creative in the market because there was no radio advertising. They are not used to hearing radio advertising on any radio station. So we are trying to bring in creativity and are introducing commercials on air.

“But we’re not seeing acceptance from clients. They are just asking for straight-to-the point announcements. They are not yet ready to accept creative commercials, like funky ones or funny ones.”

So why the general malaise in radio advertising?

“I think it’s just a mental block,” says Varughese. “Either people have not woken up to the opportunities of radio, or people are too focused on TV and print. They are not realising how much of an opportunity radio provides.

“Yet, at the same time, if anyone opens an award book, a similar amount of pages are devoted to radio. Everything gets the same importance, so I don’t know why this region has not turned as much attention to radio as to other mediums.”

Fillon, who has worked on radio ads for clients such as Chevrolet, the National Bank of Dubai, and Oasis, believes many agencies think of radio as the last resort in terms of getting a certain creative message across.

“The first option is always TV or print,” he says. “You know, let’s get our message across, do something creative, let’s be funky — and that never happens on radio. It’s very rare
that you actually have a campaign that is based on a radio idea, which is a shame.”

So who is to blame for radio advertising’s woes?

“It starts with clients,” says Fillon. “They seem to think that radio is only good when it acts as an accessory to support the other media in a campaign — which is wrong.”

Kamal Ani Mohandas, sales and marketing manager for Emirates Media’s Radio 1 and Radio 2 in Dubai, agrees: “There isn’t a client with balls, a client who wants to do something extraordinary. In this part of the world you can’t be naughty either and being naughty often works.”

One client was willing to take a gamble, but it never made the airwaves.

“Durex were willing to do it and then they were so scared and so were we. We said we’ll put you on air but we can’t say condoms. And they agreed but at the end of it nobody wanted to take that first step.
||**||Has mediocrity killed the radio star?|~|Vaughan,-Johnny200.jpg|~|Radio calling... British radio DJ Johnny Vaughan during a recent stay in Dubai|~|“It would have been interesting to have seen what happened.”
However, Yunus believes that, although clients should shoulder some of the blame, it is creatives who should be hanging their heads in shame.

“Look at print advertising,” he says. “A few years ago we didn’t win so many awards. We didn’t have a Cannes coming in or a Pencil coming into the UAE. But someone decided to make a difference. So if we can do it to print, surely we can do it to radio. The onus is on the creative teams. They should decide to do entertaining ads, they should get turned on by radio.”

Varughese adds: “Radio, for writers, is the most challenging medium. It’s like a one-on-one conversation. It’s not like print or TV where you have time to ponder over it and understand it. But people are not making a real effort to put ideas into radio spots. They are putting information out there using a couple of special effects and a little bit of music, but there’s no idea in the radio spot. I think you’ve got to work really hard to get an idea into it.”

Compounding the issue is a distinct lack of decent actors to take part in advertising campaigns. While ISDN is available to producers who wish to use actors from countries abroad, it is not widely used.

“In other parts of the world you use actors, not voiceovers or announcers,” says Yunus. “There is the common option where you use ISDN and get some decent actors, but here not many people do that.”

The radio advertising industry also needs inspiration if it is to emerge from the doldrums. “It’s just frustrating that a lot of the stuff you hear on the radio is probably very discouraging for other people because advertising is an industry that runs on inspiration,” says Fillon. “Unless you’re challenged by what’s out there, you’re probably going to settle for
the mediocre.”

Some media owners and creatives are attempting to change the current state of affairs but many private radio stations are not in a position where — although it is in their interests to help raise the standards of radio advertising — they are financially able to refuse ads they deem as being of poor quality.

Cherabieh says: “Can we refuse an ad because it is done in a voiceover which is not to a certain standard, or because it’s in Arabic and not in English? No, we are not yet at a point where we can refuse those ads because the station’s income would suffer.

“We have to keep a close relationship with the advertising agencies. We have to keep them happy, and at the same time try and keep the minimum standard on the radio.”

But Attieh says media owners are trying to raise the bar. “It is improving slightly and we’re trying to convince them by comparing our commercials to commercials from overseas in places like London and the States,” he says. “And we’re trying to reach the point advertisers want to reach in the commercials in another way, instead of just announcing what they have with music in the background. We’re trying to take it to another level and trying to convince them. It’s pretty hard, but we’re doing our best to do that.”

On the creative side, some agencies are slowly raising the standards. Yunus cites the campaign for bargain clothes shop Brands (which was done by another creative agency), which utilises Mafia-style voices and Godfather music to create a brand identity that listeners instantly recognise.

“I’m not saying it’s the greatest campaign ever,” says Yunus. “But it has a certain tone of voice, a certain style. The moment you hear the Godfather music and the guy’s voice you know it’s a Brans commercial. It’s very important to have a campaign feel to radio ads and a lot of advertisers don’t realise that.”

The same is true of Leo Burnett, especially for its Oasis radio spots, which have made the most of excellent production quality, music and sound.

“A lot of the stuff we’ve been doing over the past few years has managed to break the clutter that’s out there on the radio right now,” says Fillon. “And by that I mean things that are not just silly dialogue, not monotonous dribble — something that is really different, specifically something that focuses on sound.”

So is the future positive?

“If you look at how print has evolved, it’s slowly improving. Ads are becoming cleaner, there are more ideas coming up from a few places. The same thing could happen to radio,” says Varughese.

“It could also evolve, it could become more idea centric, it could be more entertaining, it could be going where we want it to go. It’s just a matter of someone taking the initiative to push it forward and making it better.”

Yunus adds: “If someone has a great campaign idea for a newspaper or for TV or a new magazine, make sure that the same idea is carried forward into radio. The day people do that, the day people take radio more seriously and see it as a challenge to do something creative, half the battle will be won.”||**||

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