Question number one: When was the last time you saw a really brilliant Indian television commercial? Okay, if not brilliant, at least one that was neat?
Second question: When was the last time you saw a good made-in-India print ad?
Final question: When was the last time you heard a really good Indian radio spot? (And if your answer has the phrase 'awards function' anywhere in it, it doesn't count. Award functions are meant to showcase the best work anyway. We're talking about hearing a good radio spot on radio.)
Chances are that while you answered the first two questions without too much effort, the third must have got your gray cells working overtime - unless, of course, you happened to write that 'really good radio spot', or you belong to the agency/team that produced it.
True, it can be argued that one hasn't heard a good radio spot on radio simply because one doesn't listen to much radio these days (which is half the problem with radio advertising). But ask any radio aficionado, and he'll tell you the kind of bilge that gets by in the name of radio advertising. That Indian radio spots are bereft of ideas is beyond contention. Yes, there are those exceptions (thankfully) that routinely win awards at the Abbys and the Ad Club functions, but in their sheer contrast, they only serve in drawing attention to the overall creative bankruptcy.
What is particularly disheartening about radio advertising in India is that the advertising industry, as a whole, appears to have become a trifle apathetic to radio. "The industry is certainly not giving radio its due," laments Prasoon Joshi, sworn radio enthusiast and creative director, O&M. "The quality of radio advertising here is pathetic. Today, when an agency plans spends, the bulk of the money goes to television. Then comes outdoor, print… maybe mailers. Radio comes last."
Blame the post-Ramayan, post-Mahabharat television boom for radio's lot. With audiences switching loyalties to the tube, clients too reallocated budgets. "In the golden days of radio, clients such as Dunlop assigned as much as 15-to-20 per cent of its spends on radio," recalls Tapan Pal, president and CEO, ZenithMedia. "The industry spend was in the vicinity of 7-to-8 per cent. Today, it is down to less that 2 per cent."
Spends are down, but not out. And even today, quite a few big spenders advertise on radio. So why don't our radio spots match up to any standards? And in any case, low spends is a poor excuse for the absence of creativity. "Unfortunately, in India, the big money is on TV, so that's where everybody's attention is," Joshi frets. "Nobody asks for radio and nobody gives a damn. At best, the client wants the TV commercial adapted to radio - 'logon ko commercial yaad aa jaayega' is the attitude. Radio is being treated simply as a reminder medium. And even then, people don't even edit the jingle. So you have meaningless moments in the radio spot that visuals would have filled in the commercial."
K.S. Gopal, creative director, Quadrant Communications, agrees that Indian agencies are not exploiting radio's potential to the fullest. "Today, there are two formulas that apply to radio advertising in India," he says. "One is that of giving the characters affected regional accents to communicate the message, and the other is taking a popular song and giving it a spin. I have my reservations about both. There are very few radio ads with nice dialogues." He believes that the solution could lie in increasing the duration of the spots from 15 or 30 seconds to 40 to 50 seconds. "If you have engaging dialogues, a longer duration can salvage the spot."
One problem with radio is that, through some arcane reasoning, it is perceived to be a poor medium for building a brand. Joshi insists that nothing can be farther from the truth. "In 1998, when Satyam Cineplex (in Delhi) was being relaunched with a strong focus on Hollywood movies, I did 12 spots that showed how agonized Bollywood stars reacted to the relaunch. So you had Dharmendra threatening to commit 'sooside' and Mogambo growling 'dukhi hua'. We changed the image of the theatre. Again, I did five spots for Nokia that talked about the mother-son bond. The spots were so well received, the client asked us to do a film on the ad - the first Indian commercial for Nokia."
Perhaps one reason why India does not produce good radio spots is because writing one calls for a lot of talent. After all, unlike, say, a TV commercial, there's not much help to be had in the form of technology and special effects. The idea has to be strong enough to stand independent of crutches such as lighting, camera angles and cinematography. "It's difficult to do a great radio spot," Gopal admits. "There's no jazz whatsoever. The key to its success is in the writing and the rendition. And the radio producer has to be good."
The strange thing about radio spots is that even in the assorted award ceremonies, where everything is a reason to celebrate, radio merely gets a passing mention (when there is so much of hype built around the commercial and print categories). As Gopal puts it, "The way radio spots get published in the Abby Book - as a black screen - is a pity." It's quite the opposite in global award ceremonies, where radio is as hot as TV and print. In fact, a few years ago, a radio spot for a restaurant won the Best of Show at the One Show.
To be fair, radio, as a medium, should take some of the blame for the sad state it has slumped into. "The problem with radio was that once television boomed, radio did not keep pace with change," points out Pal. "It stayed in government control, muddling along. Its content did not make an effort to become contemporary, and audiences switched off." Also, unlike television, radio had no monitoring service, which didn't appeal to advertisers very much. "For agencies to recommend radio to clients, we need information on monitoring services," Pal explains. "We must also know the reliability of such services. Agencies had no such information, neither were there any procedures about how to go about releasing radio spots. So naturally the medium suffered."
One thing is certain. No one wants to write off radio, especially now that the medium is moving into private hands. "Radio won't die," says a confident Pt. Vinod Sharma, founding member and ex-president, RAPA. "Even today, the reach of radio is more than that of television. In rural India, every individual has a transistor. And you can listen to the radio even when you are tilling the soil. You can't do that with TV."
Pal echoes Pt Sharma's sentiments when he says that radio is a far more intrusive medium compared to television. "There is great future for radio," he adds. "Even worldwide, radio is becoming a very important medium. In the US, some $19 billion are spent on radio advertising (India's entire advertising market is worth $2.2 billion). I am certain that in a few years' time, here too radio will make a comeback. Now you have players like STAR, the Times Group, Mid-Day etc moving into the arena. Things will become more professional, monitoring will get better and advertising will increase."
And one hopes the quality of the advertising too improves. "Things should start looking up once private FM takes off," Joshi is guarded in his optimism. "Then, perhaps, a parallel existence for creativity on radio can be seen." He also looks forward to the day youngsters seeking jobs come to him with radio spots in their portfolios. "Once, everybody who wanted a job in advertising showed you radio spots. Today, people come and meet me with hazaar TV ads. I have not met a single person so far who has come in with a radio spot."
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