Will Spotify's Popularity Herald the Rebirth of the Radio Ad?

11/29/2011 12:47 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

At the New Music Seminar in Los Angeles back in 2010, Spotify CEO and Co-Founder Daniel Ek took to the stage and dished out a few interesting statistics: There were at the time over 7 million Spotify users throughout Europe - and its rollout has continued with aplomb. Those users had created 100 million playlists from a bank of 8 million cleared and licensed tracks.

Add this to the stats from the previous year and there is reason to believe that Spotify can expect exponential growth: Out of a population of 9 million people, Sweden had 1 million Spotify subscribers accounting for 35% of all digital music revenue, and 80% of Spotify users say they have stopped file-sharing. Now it's here in the US.

While these figures may speak outwardly of the application's ability to 'counter' piracy and to initiate an alternative entryway into the world of digital music, they speak little of the opportunity for a renewed specialty in advertising.

In an age where digital advertising budgets are soaring, where Apple is embedding messaging in apps and where 'integrated' is the buzzword on every agency's lips, could it be that one of the most traditional forms of advertising could quietly make a comeback?

The radio ad was once heralded in the same way as digital is today - and as TV was 50 years ago - that is, as a new platform that needed to be understood in order to reach the same, yet rapidly swelling audience of potential customers.

Short, snappy scripts, jingles and stirring voiceovers were combined to foist products into people's consciousnesses, plugging directly from the speakers into their minds.

Of course, the radio ad started to become somewhat redundant as TV took over. The fracturing of core stations that followed the introduction of Digital Audio Broadcasting also ensured that what little budget existed for radio placement became even more thinly spread.

Up until recently, with the exception of musically-oriented messaging, radio ads had become lean and somewhat devoid of creativity.

And then Spotify came along.

Swapping and sharing playlists, inviting friends, commenting and sending individual tracks are some of the social tools Spotify leverages to ensure that its audience stays ever interested in its offerings. Indeed, Twitter is one of its most important traffic sources. Music is one of those things that can be enjoyed equally alone or in a group - and it is precisely the ability to select music to suit every scenario (without paying for it) that has rocketed Spotify into the worldwide consciousness.

Of course, this does not, contrary to popular belief, come for free. With the advent of a source of music that plugs directly into social media, radio ads have suddenly become relevant again.

The interruption every few tracks or so by a short, sharp sales pitch is what allows people to blast out their favorite tunes without having to reach into their pockets. Turning down the volume does not help either; the ad simply pauses until you turn it up again. Frustrating? Yes. Effective? Absolutely.

There are pages and blogs spitting bitter vehemence at this aspect of Spotify, but, one must ask, would people be quite so annoyed if the ads that punctuated the playlists were actually any good?

The ads currently running, from charities to corporate giants, do not seem to know how to approach this age-old channel of communication. Indeed the majority of them simply repurpose TV ads or the like, believing that the script itself will suffice to portray the message. Is it any wonder that people get pissed off?

Imagine, however, if instead of a YouTube clip, people instead raved about a short audio piece. Then consider if that audio piece was messaging for a brand or a product. Therein would lay its very Point of Difference.

The brief, 10 or 20 second blurb of which classic radio ads are comprised seems to be a lost art. Whilst we are now used to building executions around the Big Idea that translate into the visual landscape in all its forms, radio ads are the last bastion of pure copywriting that exist. They do not require designers or art directors. They are scripted by writers and then brought to life by directors and actors.

The problem here is that so many young creatives function as part of a team, honing their skills in harmony with another whose own excellence is in a complementary field. Whilst I do not discount the value of such a partnership - indeed, I would feel weird without my creative other-half propping me up - perhaps it is just this dynamic, when partnered with the lack of experience and radio's acknowledged low-glamour quotient, that has left us bereft of good radio ad talent.

Whilst it may seem premature to call for an all-out return to radio advertising in schools and colleges - and especially in agencies themselves - it is worth noting that the statistics outlined here pertain to just seven countries. Yes, only seven countries had access to Spotify in 2010. The behemoth that is America has only just been given a taste, and I think it's fair to assume that it may respond in a way not seen since the introduction of Napster.

With listeners currently scattered all over the digital radio spectrum thanks to the likes of Sirius, the notion of re-consolidating these listeners into a singular, captive audience is something that must surely have planners salivating in anticipation. The carrot to get these listeners to do so is the invitation to select, enjoy and - importantly - share the music of their choice with their friends. What we as marketing professionals must ensure is that we speak to them in a manner to which they will respond. This means that we must take our modern sensibilities and package them up using an established expertise that we have hitherto banished into the basements of our agencies.

In a time where all things retro seem to be celebrated, it seems highly ironic that as the technological frontier is bounding forward, there could suddenly be demand for comparatively prehistoric skills.

Carl Rogers is a Creative Director at Grey New York who has worked on integrated campaigns for clients that include P&G, Diageo, Canon, Gucci, Rolex, and Adidas. He has contributed to publications including Dazed & Confused, Lodown, Sleazenation, and more. His debut novel, The Skater, is out now on Amazon. Carl was named an artist to watch in the Value Arts Annual 2010.