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As long as there are carpenters, lifeguards, and cars, there’s gonna be radio.

Even if the day comes when the internet gets wired directly into our brains, anybody who can write a great radio spot will probably have a job somewhere in this business.

I love radio. And starting today, I’ll be featuring some of my favorite radio campaigns here on heywhipple. com. Let’s start with the famous campaign that London’s Leagas Delaney did for Phillips Electronics (TVs and VCRs).  The work is now some 25 years old, but the spots still kill me to this day. I have included a few of them here for your review. (Go to the tabs at top or side, labeled Radio Campaign of the Week.)

Listen first to the spot called “Phirrips.” (And if you’re wondering, my answer is no, I don’t care that it’s politically incorrect. It’s funny.) Back in ’99, London’s Campaign magazine named ”Phirrips” the Best Radio Spot of All Time.

In this spot, an idiot walks into a store insisting on Japanese technology and the salesperson makes fun of him. (Would any client anywhere do this today? I hope you’re out there.) From there, the campaign marches off in all directions.

• Two idiots talk about Phillips in fake and fractured French.

• Two idiots accuse Phillips of being a faceless corporation pushing their products on a helpless public.

• A salesperson beats around the bush about how expensive a Phillips TV is.

• Two burglars announce they’re stealing Phillips TVs exclusively.

• Two Phillips spokesmen peal with evil laughter at their competitors’ sinking sales.

• Two guys talk about Phillips products for sixty seconds, never once mentioning what the brand is or the product is.

• An idiot tells a customer not to buy a Phillips VCR because all electronics will be obsolete within 2 weeks.

• And in the spot called “You’re So Clever,” the two idiots go on and on about … God, I can’t begin to explain how stupid and cool this last spot is.

If there’s a concept behind the spots listed here, well, I don’t see it. Listen to them and you may agree there’s no campaign superstructure; no “big idea” such as, say, Bud’s “Real American Heroes.” Still if you listen to the spots one after another, their common lineage is apparent.

If they have any “platform,” I guess I’d call it the ol’ Two Guys Being Funny gig. Yes, there’s a common sign-off treatment; and the voiceovers are similar. Other than that, all that’s going on here is two guys being funny; not so much a concept as it is an executional architecture, right? Yet because of the consistent brilliance of the writing and the extraordinary comic timing of the actors (Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith), these one-off’s are indeed very much a campaign.

I have this theory about radio, one I’m pretty sure no one will buy. Because the idea runs counter to everything I’ve learned about how advertising works in every other medium. It’s the idea that radio may be the only medium where one-shots aren’t such a bad idea. I know, I know, branding heresy. I mean, who’d suggest stringing together a bunch of one-off print ads and calling it a campaign?

Yet in radio, I have no problem simply doing the funniest or most interesting damn thing I can, “campaign structure” be damned. Yes, when you’re brilliant enough to create a campaign with a portable reusable structure like “Real American Heroes,” by all means go for it. But to insist that every radio campaign have this same sort of repeatable campaign structure, I could argue that’s a case of good getting in the way of great.

I’m probably wrong about this but I have to tell you, not only do I love this Phillips stuff, the best radio campaign I think I ever wrote worked pretty much the same way — a bunch of one shots that all hammered home the same one or two key points. I’ll post that campaign soon. When I do, you may think I’m kidding myself about this or you may just think they suck.

Yet in spite of my misgivings about this heresy, I stand by this thought.

Radio is just … different.

26 Responses to “Get Great At Writing Radio And You’ll Probably Always Have A Job.”

  1. Sam Comer says:

    One of my favorite bits from “Hey, Whipple” is how radio is the redheaded stepchild of advertising. Few like to write for it, even fewer do it well. (Listen to an hour of any local sports talk station and that becomes painfully evident.) So, when I got my foot in the door at an agency, I decided that my goal would be to screw that stepchild (I do have a thing for redheads) and become damn good at radio … almost out of spite.In my brief (4 year) career, I’m still getting there, but I think I may be one of the few copywriters who sees a job ticket for a radio spot and immediately turns into Napoleon Dynamite – “YESSSSS!”

    • heywhipple says:

      Good for you, Sam. And remember, the pencils they give out at the One Show for radio look every bit as cool as the the ones they give out for the other categories.

    • Tom Ritchie says:

      Lol, I love it! I just finished an internship that gave me the opportunity to write two Radio spots that were chosen over the paid copywiter’s concepts and published.

  2. Tobi says:

    radio. hurts so good. lllllllooooove it. you just made my must read list.

  3. Chuck Abrams says:

    I would have to agree with you on the campaign thing. Breaking the existing notion of brand and what all that means, the Phillips spots DO build the Phillips brand. I now have an idea of what Phillips is and the way they go about selling me their product. They are treating me like I have a brain. And make me laugh in the meantime. Of course, these were done way before branding ever became such a business….

  4. heywhipple says:

    Hey Tobi. In my book, i have a whole chapter devoted to radio. I love love love radio. It is my fave medium.

  5. anne mccoll says:

    Agree, I just love love radio. So much fun to write for! And budgets be damned, the only limit is your imagination.

  6. Claudia Caplan says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s how I built a career and how I have a career over three decades. Not to mention significant awards hardware. What writer wouldn’t want to write, cast, direct and manage an edit with almost zero interference. No one understands it. No one wants to do it. And that’s just the way I like it.

  7. Brent Walker says:

    Hey Luke, I don’t hear these as one-offs!

    The common thread running through these spots is what Dick Orkin used to refer to as creating a sense of eavesdropping. They’re voiced quietly enough, and with a stereo microphone (not just panning) that the listener feels as if they’re being let in on a private conversation.

    There’s also the thread of not sounding “written”. The actors appear to have been given a large amount of space in which to actually act! With beats…of silence. Rarely done anymore in these days of cram-everything-in scriptwriting.

    Thanks so much for focusing on Radio. Producing it is my whole life and it’s good to have someone else on board who believes that Radio is unique.

    • Sam Comer says:

      Oh, sweet merciful crap with the cramming!

      From whence came the model of the :60 (yes :60!) of ” … and they also have … don’t forget the …. and with … … … you’ll never have to …. (breath) Remember … is the place where (borrowed interest of local sports team) … all you have to do is … just take the first left off … right next to the … they’re open late on weekends and … they’re YOUR place …. convenient and affordable …. dot COM!” ?

      Can’t even tell which is the spot for the furniture store, the Mexican restaurant or the laundromat.

      (Suppose this is what happens when you let station managers write and produce commercials).

      But perhaps this is a misplaced rant. (with apologies)

  8. Wes says:

    60 second spots are all well and good, but the real skill is doing amazing 30 second spots.

    • heywhipple says:

      Agreed. Thirties are extremely hard. A totally different animal. In Canada, that is the only kind of radio you can buy. Those poor bastards.

      • Mario Parise says:

        I appreciate the sympathy, seeing as how I’m from Sudbury. Which is in Ontario. Which is in Canada.

        Also, I think my favourite aspect of those Phillips spots is how simple they are. Every time we do radio a battle ensues where people want to fill it with background music and sound effects. Which probably suggests the written spots aren’t interesting enough as they are, but damn it, background music will not improve it.

        /end mini rant

        • Wes says:

          I’m a Copywriter from Canada and I had no idea you could only buy 30 second spots here, I always just assumed the media department was lazy :D

  9. Attn young writers: if you want to make an impact, grab every available radio assignment with both hands. While your contemporaries will be leg-wrestling one another in hopes of scoring a table scrap of newspaper, trade magazine or (in their wildest dreams) the legal copy that accompanies that erectile dysfunction TV spot, you’ll have the opportunity to do more with a radio budget than the senior creatives could ever hope to accomplish on TV. And people (including the client) will LEAVE YOU ALONE. Oh, and an aside: the reason senior creatives “look down” on radio is that, secretly, it scares the s*#t out of them. Radio is raw creativity. No excuses for “we couldn’t get the director we wanted” or “we couldn’t afford the CGI work.” If it sucks, it’s all you. But then again, every radio project has the potential to be the next BEST OF SHOW.

  10. My ad agency conducts an annual, unscientific consumer survey of Superbowl ads, and the common denominator among the most memorable spots: humor.
    So there are two things at work in the radio medium. You’re right, it’s a completely different way of communicating. But the other factor is as true about TV, print, outdoor and new media: Funny gets remembered.
    I love writing radio and I’ve created a lot of it over the years. The spots my colleagues and listeners always come back to are the humorous ones. Maybe it’s Brand Heresy because brand gatekeepers are more reluctant to try funny these days. It does require some risk. It has to be executed flawlessly. And irreverence is often one of the best tools you have in the box. But when it works? Just wow.
    Looking forward to your weekly series. I assume there will be a range of moods represented, from humorous to nostalgic to impassioned? It would be interesting to survey your readers after a period of time and ask which spots resonated with them the most. And which ones they can’t remember hearing.
    Good post.

  11. David Esrati says:

    Luke- I’ve never understood the bias against radio- and why so many writers avoid it- have we become so joined at the hip with those art directors- that we can’t do it by ourselves? Is the fear of solo responsibility for getting it right- immobilizing?
    As a kid- I used to listen to CBS Radio Mystery Theater- 30 minute radio dramas that did so much on a budget of less than what the typical agency produced national TV spot costs. Radio can travel to exotic locations, do all kinds of death defying stunts- and all- without the big budget. It’s so much easier to shoot someone on radio than on TV if you think about it.
    What I love about the Phillips spots is there is no music- just two guys talking- it’s all about the copy- and the delivery- pure as can be.
    Sure- we’re a bit enamored with British accents- but- it’s good, clean, funny copy- and they even got to say the clients name wrong. Imagine that.
    Thanks for sounding the trumpet for radio- unfortunately- our need to listen to radio has been killed off by the corporate conglomerates- who believed in centralized formats and programming-
    but- if you want to test yourself- write the copy.
    Now- this makes me think- I should have written my response as a :60 second spot… damn, back to work.

    • heywhipple says:

      Agreed. Radio doesn’t come with what we usually think of as budget restraints. If you can think it. Cuou can do it. I also agree I am an Anglophile regarding Brittish accents. They make for deliciously funny dads. Reminds me of monty python. Everything they said was funny.

  12. Dale Bochon says:

    Great article and topic. I used to dread writing radio and then one day I said “Fuck it, I’m gonna go for it.” And for the most part, I guess I did. Radio is now my first love. Especially humorous radio. I truly appreciate listening to great spots from other markets and countries. And when I sit at my computer and begin to laugh out loud (and look like a lunatic to those around me) I know that the script is either there or almost there.

  13. chris says:

    Okay, so I’ve read your book (an re-read the radio chapter several times). I’ve read a couple other books, too. Writing it isn’t the hard part for me. Directing talent and producing it is the trouble. I’ve learned some by doing and watching others here and there, but no one has bothered to mentor. Maybe they don’t really know themselves. Are there any good workshops you know of? Or any other suggestions for getting better at that?

  14. Paul says:

    Great post.

    Luke, and others, if you’d like to hear more from Smith and Jones (the guys from the Phillips ads), check out these YouTube clips. Very similar style and equally brilliant.

    On smoking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aszMI5YSYNY&feature=related
    On piercings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRN3BhOEOR0&feature=related

    @adwatcher

  15. Kenny Tan says:

    Probably a little late to jump on the bandwagon, but I’d have to agree with your opinion. :)

    Somehow, radio has never really got along with the other advertising mediums. More often than not, I find myself writing great radio that has NO RELEVANCE to the campaign idea. Unfortunately, those get shot down for ‘good’ radio that IS RELEVANT.

    • heywhipple says:

      The other thing I’ve discovered about radio is that this is the poor medium that many creatives and account people use to dump all the things they managed to keep out of the print, online, and TV. But radio needs the same breathing room the other media do.

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