Wednesday 8 March 2017

How Many Ads Are Too Many?

As a jock, pressing the button to start a long commercial break is a depressing moment. You suspect that listeners are unlikely to enjoy the next few moments quite as much as the rest of the stuff you are doing. At the back of your mind, you fear you may never see them again. 

There is little point moaning about ad breaks per se, of course. Without the revenue, commercial radio would not exist. It's a presenter's job to make sure what they do is difficult to leave.  And making listeners want to return if they do nip off. Today's best programmers are commercially-canny and must accept the right decision for the business as a whole. 

But what is the right decision? What is the correct ad loading which serves the best long term interest of our medium?

In the days of radio's first regulator, ad minutage was regulated, as it is still on TV. I remember back in the eighties feeling despondent on an Easter Saturday seeing a full ad log of the nine whole minutes. 

I am a fan of commercial freedom, in general terms, so I can quite see the reason for having repealed that rule. After all, turning down revenues at busy times meant your station was unable to make sufficient hay whilst the sun shone to make up for the darker times which inevitably arrive.  

It's interesting to consider whether the retention of a nine minute limit would have done more to retain a sensible yield. We know that, particularly with national revenues, following both the consolidation of media-buying and the arrival of so many alternative advertising media, the price for radio nationally is at a disturbingly low level, when one considers the persuasive value of our great medium.

Now, of course, there's more than just the spots.  There are sponsor credits, sponsored content and other revenue generating content. I had hoped that the new freedoms Ofcom offered would allow us to replace ad spots with engaging commercial content - at a premium price, not simply supplement spots.

I worry when I hear the volume of commercial content on some stations. There must be a stage at which it becomes simply intolerable to listeners. No one would argue that sixty minutes an hour of such material is tolerable. What about 59 minutes? 58? At what stage do we say it becomes tolerable, and by what evidence are we judging?

Long term questions arise. Even if a listener stays with you, are you risking diminution of their love for the medium. And what of a new generation, growing up in a world of entertainment choice? Are they ever going to grow to love us if we soak the assets unduly? In taking short term decisions to boost revenues this financial year so we can draw pretty graphs for Board meetings, are we actually doing long term harm to our businesses? 

What of effectiveness? If my precious car dealership appears in the middle of a four minute break, I suspect listeners would fail to recall my message, no matter how brilliant the creative. I acknowledge that research suggests turn-off diminishes the further one gets into the break, but what of attention levels? Whilst longer, less frequent breaks do minimise the number of turn-off points, a heavy loading means you lose songs - and listeners notice.

Back in my Chrysalis Radio days, there was an 'ad unit' rather than minutage policy.  The theory was that listeners noticed 'yet another ad' more than the overall break duration. For many years, the policy there was twelve units per hour - and category exclusivity within the break - lending a competitive edge to the armoury of our sales force. Rather like collecting a round of drinks at a bar, we'd only be expecting our audience to remember three or four distinct messages.  

I monitored a single ad segment on a station recently and heard eleven different client names. That's a failure to respect the integrity of the spots.

In an Australian study, the proportion of ads recalled by respondents listening to low ad volume was more than double that of the high ad volume listeners. They were also twice as likely to recall the product category, and twice as likely to correctly identify the brand. In addition, the respondents exposed to a low volume of ads showed almost three times greater prompted advertising recognition.

Closer to home, RadioCentre research in 2000 suggested that  ad recall was 42% higher in the solus Newslink spots than standard advertising breaks.

Are today's long, frequent ad breaks, plus other commercially-driven inventory simply asking too much of our audience, and producing campaigns which produce too little return on the advertisers' investment. Again, that's hardly good for our business long-term.

We know too that zapping from station to station is becoming more prevalent in a push button world where stations are much easer to find. Although station repertoires are not growing hugely with increased choice, I've experienced a levelling out of listening between P1 and P2 stations and a driving down of time spent listening. Is ad tune out and the ease of efficient flicking one of the reasons? 

As for proudly boasting those ludicrous 'ad-free' days or hours. That's just conceding you know you're really annoying people at every other time - and implying BBC radio is better. 

If commercial radio were launched today, I believe it would simply fail to build audiences to current levels if stations carried as much interruptive commercial content as it currently does on some stations. 

If one examines how radio works at its persuasive best, it would not be through four minute ad breaks. If we believe, as most music stations do, that a four and a half minute news bulletin is 'too long' to hold the interest of a listener, why do we feel that an ad break of that duration is not too long? 

Radio advertising probably has its DNA in early speech radio and drama - and the TV world - hence little playlets and spots. Were commercial radio launched today with its tight music formats, in a world where the BBC operates competitive mainstream offerings, would it depend on spots to the same extent? I suspect we would have more deeply-embedded, imaginative, entertaining  branded content - presenter endorsement - and maybe short solus 'messages', possibly played over intros. That's it.

The challenge is getting from where we are now to a sensible place before it's too late. Ralph Bernard, ex GCap CEO, shared with me the agony of Capital's 2005 decision in to halve the number of ads, and the particular circumstances which drove it.  It's not an easy call for a Board needing to optimise this year's performance. 

In the UK, whilst a radio operator could set itself apart to advertisers by offering more conspicuity to a client message, it would find itself difficult to do so appreciably to listeners, when they already have a no-ad option with the BBC. How large Radio 1 and 2 audiences would be if they had to carry ads, we can only speculate.

Maybe our clients need to start making their voices heard on the matter of minutage. And be prepared to put their hand deeper in their pockets for a solution which works better for us both.  Sadly, our negotiating position is weak.

Expecting commercial radio to drive audiences forward - and expecting the ads to produce a return on investment for advertisers - without a satisfactory ceiling on commercial loadings is a tough call.  Should PDs really carry the blame for any falling audiences when the amount of control they have over what is broadcast is ever-diminishing?

Is it not time for the best radio companies to establish a sensible ceiling for commercial loading of all kinds - in the long term interests of listeners and advertisers - and be clear on what that policy is. 

Grab a copy of my book 'How to Make Great Radio'.


  1. The problem for me is anything more than 30 seconds or so of adverts and my finger is starting to twitch to go to my own mp3 collection or move to another station. I guess that's why so much of my listening is to the BBC and Radio Caroline. I would find a BBC radio 4 with adverts abhorrent, they irritate me with some of their overlong and oft repeated trailers for their own shows, which are in effect adverts. I recognise that I am probably in the minority and generally people will tolerate more advertising than myself. Commercial radio I guess is not for me.

  2. If ads were the length of a station ident or jingle I probably wouldn't mind so much. One second it's there, the next it's gone. And it doesn't interfere with my listening pleasure much. But some of them seem to go on for so long you have time to think 'I wonder what's happening on another station' and before you know it, I'm gone. You tube has a skip button after so many seconds for its ad breaks. Spotify have short ad breaks (for those who don't pay). Radio needs to rethink its advertising. they way people listen has changed.

  3. Diminution! Brilliant. It always amused me that the argument was about the creative and not about the quantity. The stations were also usually always ruled by managers who'd risen from the sales team rather than programming, not that it mattered......much.

  4. This surely helps me in my work. Lol, thanks for your comment! wink Glad you found it helpful free classified ads


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