By: mag. Lenja Faraguna, CEO The Radio Embassy, @the_radio_embassy (IG)
Ralph Van Dijk is the founder of the London-based agency Eardrum, which has been active for 33 years. In 2006, Eardrum expanded its operations to Australia and has since become the most awarded audio agency in the world. Recently, Ralph Van Dijk launched Resonance, an agency specializing in sonic branding that has already achieved significant success. He emphasizes the drive for innovation and exploring new ways in which brands can connect with their audience through audio campaigns as the driving forces behind his work.
Eardrum‘s work is annually recognized at global events, with numerous awards, including multiple Cannes Lions awards, One Show Grand Prix, New York Festival Gold, and three consecutive years of being named Radio & Audio Agency of the Year by the London International Awards. The pinnacle of these recognitions is his role as the jury president at the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Lions Festival, where he was honored as one of the advertising legends.
Lenja: Ralph, you began your career as an agency copywriter, winning a Clio award for one of your early radio ads, and therefore, in 1990, you specialized in audio. As a “new player in the market,” how did you capture the attention of advertisers and agencies? How did you present your concept of radio campaigns to them?
Ralph: You cannot talk about radio ads; you have to demonstrate them to a potential client. This happened with the Batman movie, for which their primary agency created exceptionally dull and predictable radio ads. This is understandable because agencies are not specialized in radio as a medium, so radio ads are likely written by junior copywriters who lack experience with radio and the power of sound. We produced and recorded the ad at our own expense, ensuring it had all the right ingredients suitable for radio and would deliver outstanding results for the client. For a while, there was only silence on their end, and then boom – we heard our demo ad on the radio. The client then called us and said: “From now on, only you will work on our radio ads because your demo was so phenomenal that we even included it in our media plan.” That client became one of the most loyal clients we have.
After that, we placed our ads on the internet, and then a big turnaround happened – listeners were not accustomed to radio ads of such caliber, and the snowball effect began. People started asking, “Who made that radio ad? We want one like that!”
Lenja: Very inspiring! When you get inquiries from new clients nowadays, how much room do they typically give you to flex your creative muscles?
Ralph: The situation is, of course, different today than it was 33 years ago because when clients approach us now, they know we are experts in audio advertising and branding. They listen to our advice and guidance, trusting us. I am extremely happy that we still have such a collaborative starting point even today. We have many clients who have been with us for decades, awards are pouring in, and sometimes, when we have a radical audio idea, the client “grits their teeth” and still gives the green light.
It’s important not to exploit this trust, to respect the brief and target audience. Our mantra is “relevant cleverness,” so it’s crucial that our radio campaigns strike the right balance. The balance between the campaign’s message, i.e., what our client wants to convey to the listeners (which, of course, we take from the brief), and the creative aspect that will grab the listener’s attention and make them listen attentively.
At the beginning of our collaboration, we clearly explain our highly structured working process. Sometimes, they give us a two or three-page long brief, and we return to them with a single sentence, asking, “Is this the key message you want listeners to remember? Will you be satisfied if we achieve this?” Usually, the client says, “Yes, but we would like even more.” We respond that it’s great, but if we start with that one message and then gradually build towards more over the next few months, it’s an excellent starting point.
Lenja: This is a soft spot for a creative person, isn’t it?
Ralph: Absolutely, it’s so relaxing. This way, we can do things the way we believe is best and, at the same time, strive for a collective result. I emphasize again that we never abuse that freedom, but we know that if we create ads in the old way, we won’t capture attention. Our ads must grab the listeners’ attention, and we know how to achieve that.
You know, people don’t listen to ads; they listen to what matters to them. Sometimes, that can even be ads! People don’t care about ads. Our task is to make them care about “our” messages.
If we want our radio campaigns to be effective and achieve results from the brief, we must care about the client and their message and convey that to the listener. Similarly, we have to go beyond the ordinary; we have to intrigue and delight them.
Lenja: Excellent mantra and I love the process – it creates a better flow. When you mentioned your mantra “Relevant cleverness,” it reminded me of the exceptional radio creative Chuck Blore, who said: “The goal of a radio ad or campaign is to be a welcome intrusion into the audience’s complacency.”
Ralph: He said it beautifully! Why didn’t I think of something like that? He’s 100% right! Knowing how to make a radio ad a “Welcome intrusion” is indeed the true goal! With every radio campaign, you must “bring a gift” to the listeners through the message. Gifts come in three forms: entertainment, meaningfulness, or intrigue.
Lenja: Do you ever prepare just one radio ad for clients?
Ralph: We start with one, but our radio campaign never ends with it. We never create just one radio ad for anyone; that’s our rule. We always tell them that a radio campaign consists of multiple strategically added ads. We explain to them how the radio campaign will unfold in the future and what it will evolve into. Even though they come to us for one ad, we always know what ad two, three, four, or five will look like.
Sometimes, they are skeptical about it, and that’s okay. For us, it’s important that they see we’ve thought about them, that they matter to us, and that we know how to develop their brand long-term through radio! Usually, clients come to us for radio advertising, and from that, we develop their digital strategy, sometimes outdoor advertising, etc.
Lenja: Do you agree that the image of radio among agencies and advertisers is worse than the reality of radio as an advertising medium?
Ralph: Yes, there are two reasons why this is the case and why people are generally inclined against the radio industry.
a) People who sell radio space are forced to launch the client into the airwaves as soon as possible to earn their commission or meet monthly quotas. Typically, it’s the client who dictates the radio advertising strategy, often writing radio ads despite not understanding the rules of good radio advertising. Alternatively, young copywriters in agencies, who also may not understand radio, might write radio ads. This means that creativity is constantly compromised.
To begin with, people in radio and agencies must understand that they are not selling seconds in the program but rather relationships through good communication suitable for the medium. This needs to be clearly communicated to clients, and then a completely different approach should be taken to give radio ads more weight and effectiveness. Radio ads must be interesting and fulfill their purpose with listeners because the sole goal is not just to sell seconds at a special price and launch poorly crafted radio ads within two days.
That’s why I believe the first crucial shift is for radio stations to educate their salespeople about the importance of creativity so that radio ads achieve exceptional efficiency through long-term advertising. After that, it will be easier for salespeople to achieve results month after month because they won’t constantly sell seconds to new clients but will only upgrade current radio ads, and clients will see exceptional results more easily and quickly.
b) Another way radio can truly take a significant step towards client results and improve the image of radio is to celebrate the creativity of the people preparing the campaigns. Give them much greater significance in the process of preparing a radio campaign.
Radio marketers must have a team of creatives behind them on the radio and present them to clients as geniuses who precisely know how to translate the client’s message into the radio medium. This is the long-term goal of our Eardrum agency, which, as I have already mentioned, has been in the market for a full 33 years. Show clients exceptional examples of radio campaigns to raise understanding of radio and the standards of effective radio campaigns – don’t be afraid, dear radio people! Go beyond the standards and demonstrate to clients what radio can do for them – take the initiative to approach clients with ideas and let them listen to radio ads that you consider truly excellent. Only this way can clients truly feel the power of radio and audio branding.
Lenja: Ralph, this is a mic drop moment (laugh). Your passion for radio is contagious and very much welcomed by everyone in the radio industry across the Adriatic region. Indeed, it’s so beautiful to see radio stations who invest in their sales and creative people, connecting the programming, sales and creative teams into a harmony, yet this is not the standard by far. Most often radios still give clients the creative process of writing radio ads for free or for 50 EUR.
Ralph: I know! Unfortunately, that is the reality, but at the same time, I believe it can be changed. Radio is an extremely effective advertising medium, but, unfortunately, with terrible ads, radio creativity is strongly jeopardized. Unfortunately, we still don’t know how to build true, sincere relationships and brand personalities with radio campaigns and create deep connections with listeners. Here, we still have a tremendous amount of untapped potential.