There’s been a great deal of debate over the years about the way in which ad breaks are structured and the optimum volume of commercial activity. Recently in Seattle, 107.7 The End announced their '2-Minute Promise'. The details of that promise are that the station, which, at times, was running two six-minute breaks will now only run three two-minute commercial blocks every hour. GM Jack Hutchison said: “We are proud to be the first station in the United States to offer this bold, innovative approach to radio. We know our listeners will be more than excited about this change and we are just as excited we can provide our clients an incredibly unique platform to showcase their message to our End listeners.”
'Incredibly' unique, eh, Jack? Yawn. This is nothing new. Back in 2004, Clear Channel introduced their short-lived ‘Less is More’ policy: “Clutter is a major issue in our industry and our decision to limit the amount of commercial time and length of breaks, while reducing promotional interruptions, will benefit listeners, advertisers and the industry as a whole,” said John Hogan, Chief Executive Officer of Clear Channel Radio at the time.
In the face of scepticism from the advertising industry Clear Channel and others have devised all manner of new options for advertisers, including the chance to buy an 'island' – that’s a solus ad message sandwiched between two songs. Clients can also 'dominate a pod', (I think we still call them ‘breaks’ here in the UK), using 'bookends', (that’s a top and tail ad), 'first in pods', etc. The US Media Economy Newsletter confirmed that after an initial expected downturn in revenue there was evidence that Clear Channel’s lead worked – with 'islands', for example, selling at a massive premium.
Meanwhile, in Australia, DMG Radio introduced a 'two ad focus' across their Nova network. Here the selling point for advertisers was based around the premise that the first ad in a break has the most impact on listeners. The next most impactful ad is the second in the break, and so on. So, the argument goes, with only two ads in any break no advertiser gets lost in a multiple ad environment. Compelling stuff.
And here in 2005, Gcap introduced a similar policy for their flagship London station, Capital FM. Audiences collapsed spectacularly. But was that related to commercial content or, as seems more plausible, a radical new programming strategy?
Well, unlike our American and Australian counterparts, we British programmers have a clear choice:
"IF YOU DON'T LIKE COMMERCIALS GO AND WORK FOR THE BBC!"
Programmers are are often accused of "meddling" with things that 'shouldn't concern us', i.e. the volume, placing and quality of the commercial output. I have always stood my ground on this because, clearly, the ads are a key part of the product. My own personal thoughts on commercials have remained fairly constant over the years:
The UK is Unique
British commercial radio cannot be directly compared with the US and Australian models. Doing so is dangerous and can lead to some drastic mistakes. Fundamentally the existence of the BBC changes everything. In the US the idea of a ‘Commercial Free 60 minute music sweep’ is very appealing to listeners and is a strategy that can work well. Here, though, what’s the big deal? When the two most popular national music stations (BBC Radio 2 and Radio 1) never have – and never will – run a single advertisement!
Long Breaks V Short Breaks
This is a debate that has taken place between programmers and our sharp-suited colleagues in sales since the dawn of commercial radio. I would concede that long breaks containing multiple messages are not necessarily in the best interest of the advertiser. However, purely from an audience standpoint I strongly believe that fewer – but longer – breaks are better. Perception IS reality and I have gathered extensive evidence over the years, some of it through trial and error, that shows it is the number of ad breaks and not the duration of breaks that causes harm. I once ran a policy of 9 minutes of ads in 3 X 2-minute breaks and 1 X 3-minute break per hour. Research showed a high ‘ad-irritation’ factor. When I moved to an experimental 9 minutes of ads in two X four and a half minute breaks the jocks complained but the level of listener irritation fell like a stone.
Ads before the news?
In an ideal world you’d keep ads away from the top of the hour. However, if you HAVE to get a third – or fourth – set of ads away I believe that a (short) break before news is better than an additional break within the hour. Why?
These might include client-voiced efforts, irritating jingles, inappropriate messages, offensive copy, etc. Bad ads can not only drive listeners away but they can also backfire on the advertiser in the form of bad PR. I’m not saying that clients should NEVER be allowed to voice ads or that all jingles are bad. The skill here is knowing when to pull an ad once it has achieved its objective. The fatal mistake many stations make is to let the same irritating message run for weeks, months or, in the worst cases, years. Just as crazy is running an ad for a product of zero relevance to the station's audience. It happens. A lot. For example, I recently heard an ad for the new Michael Buble album on a heavy rock station. It's a bit like standing up in Church and shouting "Worship Satan!" You won't get many takers.
When a 'Great' Ad becomes a 'Bad' Ad?
I had a very interesting experience several years ago. It all began during a management meeting when our Head of Commercial Production was invited-in to talk about developments within his ‘magical empire’. He was on ‘cloud 9’ because a major client had just commissioned a new jingle. Not just any old jingle, though. The client had been talked into parting with thousands of pounds to re-create a classic 80’s pop song. Great idea. He then played the jingle to us and we were so impressed with the amazing production values that we spontaneously applauded. So far so good. The ad went on air and the initial feedback was excellent. Customers were singing the jingle back to the client and cars were flying out of the showroom. A 60 second version of the ad went to air – a kind of extended re-mix – and, because everyone was so happy with the quality of the production, the station threw-in plenty of bonus spots.
Three months on and alarm bells were ringing loudly in the Programming office. The ad had been coming-up in almost every break day in day out and, because it was a minute long, it was actually receiving more exposure than any song on the high-rotation A-List. Presenters had become “sick and tired” of the ad and listeners were commenting - not in a good way. During subsequent focus group research the moderator – a highly experienced individual – said she had never experienced such negativity towards a single advertisement.
When a song begins to 'burn' we either drop it or lower the rotation. The same thinking should be applied to all other aspects of the output.
Can the Ads Actually Help?
At one struggling small-scale station there were very few commercials on the air when I became responsible for growing the audience. The station Programme Controller was quietly pleased, seizing the opportunity to go music intensive. The station was a slick, uncluttered alternative to the metropolitan, regional and national commercial-heavy competitors. To my ears, though, the station sounded clinical and robotic. Something important was missing.
Some months later, the station in question staged a highly successful ‘Seminar Sales’ initiative and, almost overnight, dozens and dozens of small businesses in the core towns started advertising on radio for the first time. Three important things were achieved:
When analysing your commercial inventory never, ever look at ‘average’ daily or weekly volumes. As Group PD I once had to intervene when made aware of frequent 17 minute hourly ad loads on a station during the critical Breakfast period. The Programme Controller and I knew that it was killing the station and successive Rajars confirmed this. I was making a lot of noise at Group level and the Chairman was listening….until he received a report prepared by a financial colleague of mine that showed only very minor increases in the ‘average’ volume of ads. In defence of my colleague, he was new to radio and only doing his best, but the report was misleading, suggesting that we programmers were ‘crying wolf’ and, as a consequence, things didn’t change. That once mighty station is still in recovery 11 years on.
The ‘average’ weather conditions where I live are very mild but my fence blew down last week in a freak gale. And that’s my point….it’s the ‘spikes’ that do the damage. If your ‘average’ hourly ad load is 9 minutes but the parameters are 2 and 16 – and you’re getting 16’s during Breakfast – you will lose listeners. Especially if your commercial competitors exercise strict inventory control.
As the battle for share of listening grows ever fiercer, there is increasing pressure on management to find the ‘magic solution’. The positioning of breaks is an obsession in other markets with stations constantly looking for ways to out manoeuvre the opposition. Here, though, because of the BBC’s commercial-free heritage I would suggest that it’s less of an issue. Call me old-fashioned, but I remain quite comfortable with 9, even 10 minutes of ads in three breaks at, say 20 past, 40 past and up to the hour.
The PRODUCT has to come first. A station with a flawed music policy, poor production values or bad presenters running no ads will fare worse than a well-programmed station carrying 9 minutes of well-produced and skilfully-scheduled ads.
John Evington is a Partner at The Radio People